A Mountain of Many Treasures
I hate judging literary contests. But even the most painstaking short story writers must live. Eight meticulously crafted (and highly enthusiastically reviewed) anthology collections in twenty years do not guarantee a steady income. Far from it. Any fledgling sanitation technician or trainee pest exterminator could easily match my total royalties in half-an-hour.
But imagine my dismay when I found myself coupled with Gibber Noakes at the Pilgala Show! (Pilgala’s a fair-sized rural community, right at the top of Michigan near Harbor Springs). It’s true that old Noakes comes across as an amusingly colorful person off the literary bench. But when he dons his judge’s mantle, he transforms himself like Superman into a wearisome, bullying pedant.
“Nearly three ’undred entries this year,” bragged the Chief Steward. “That’s twice the usual. Twice the usual.”
“Good to hear,” I said. Arithmetic’s not my holy grail, but even I could calculate three hundred times three. Nine hundred dollars would solve at least three pressing problems. Maybe five or six.
“Time’s the enemy, Merry,” continued the Chief Steward. “Time’s the villain. Twelve days, deadline. The Committee’s asked old Professor Noakes to help youse out.”
“In what capacity?” I asked, my heart sinking in the south.
He looked at me in surprise. “Co-flamin’-judge, what else? We’d ’ardly ’ire ’im as adviser. Or sassy assistant. You and ’im’ll share the fee, equal ’alves.”
I sighed. But it’s no use arguing with Chief Stewards. “When does Old Gibber arrive,” I asked.
“Good. That’ll give me time for some preliminary sorting.”
The Chief Steward hesitated. “Dunno, Merry. P’r’aps the prof won’t take – ”
“Thought time was your problem. Want me to spend the whole day kicking my heels? I’ve worked with Gibber before. He won’t mind in the least. He’ll be glad!”
“No stories to be taken outta the Judges’ Room!”
“Believe me, after a day’s work, I’ll be glad to shut the door on the whole hedonistic lot of them.”
First up was to divide the entries into two piles: Worth Further Reading and Just Plain Hopeless. I’ve a simple method. Opening paragraph. No way in the world would I award a prize or commendation to a story that failed to grip my attention right from the start. Right from its very opening sentence.
So my tastes are highly subjective? The same goes for every other judge. It’s a fact of contest life.
Here’s a story that begins, Twelve of us Burma Tigers were in the Club last Memorial Day, gathered around the jostling bar, downing blacks and browns. I can’t second-guess other readers, but I don’t give a semicolon how skillfully written this story or how true to life. I’m simply not interested in tales dealing with clubs—civic, country or hand-held—period, let alone accounts of Burma Tigers (whoever they may be) downing blacks and browns (whatever they are). As for Memorial Day as a literary subject, it’s been done to death. Gibber Noakes shares my opinion, so Goodbye Black, Hello Brown (an attention-grabbing title anyway!) achieves first place in our reject pile.
Next up’s an opus called The Butterfly Jane, beginning: Jane was a lonely child. Sitting by herself in the school playground, she watched the other children at their games. Ah! It’s about a crippled kid. Very politically correct. Don’t really care a chalk-stick about kids or schools, and I absolutely loathe stories with puns for titles; but political correctness is definitely in, so this one goes into my Further Reading.
A sloppy-looking manuscript, obviously written by a computer illiterate, heads straight into Hopeless.
Now here’s what I call a light brigade story. A yarn in which all the characters are male machos engaged in some form of caper involving crime, war, sport or gymnastics. A prime candidate for Thanks but no thanks.
At the other end of the scale, here’s some sob stuff about a gutsy working mother who takes on the skirt-chasing boss of a peanut butter factory. Thirty years ago, this cliché would have collided with the wastepaper basket. But not any more. It’s now so politically correct, it makes the grade into Further Reading.
Another entry from a female writer. Or at least a writer with a female pseudonym. (She’s not an authoress any more. That’s an insulting term, good only for the likes of George Eliot and Dorothy L. Sayers). Unfortunately, this one hits the instant reject button. Graphic sex. Most unsuitable for the honest farmers and Howdy, ma-am cowhands of Pilgala Shire who grow all their kids under cabbage leaves.
Here’s another that falls foul of rural censors. Coarse language. Oddly, except for the common rural adjectival abbreviation of By Our Lady!, swearing’s out too. Rural communities don’t give a damn about offending Roman Catholics, but no way would they affront to adherents of the Bible belt. So bloody is okay, but , but by God is not. And of course, like most of America’s law-abiding citizenry, they fail to understand there’s an enormous difference between swearing and coarse language. [Swearing: Crikey! Damn! Strike me (pink, blue, magenta, indigo, etc.)! Coarse language: ****, ****, ****, etc.].
As a matter of fact, I’m bored silly by stories centered on priests, ministers, parsons or church workers, but fortunately they’re a threatened species. Most Americans who enter competition stories are atheists or agnostics. For the simple reason that writing’s a proscribed profession in Protestant churches where it’s regarded as one of the black arts, along with horse-racing and bar-tendering. Hence yarns about tract distributors, Are-you-saved busybodies and other authorized Bible-bashers are contest-rare.
Sorting manuscripts into two piles rapidly becomes a depressing task, especially if you don’t find anything worth reading in the first four hours or so. I mean, reading right through. Mind you, that long a run of bad luck’s unusual. Normally, I averaged at least two possible short-list contenders an hour.
At the end of the day, a man sure needed to get away from this slush for a while and where else but at Pilgala Country Club?
I’d just ordered a welcome whisky-and-soda at the bar when I felt a heavy hand on my shoulder.
“Thought ya’d turn up ’ere, sooner or later, Merry. Prof’s not comin’. That’s the latest gen. Fell off his ’orse.”
I put on my bravest face. “I'll just have to soldier on by myself then? Luckily I’ve sorted out a third already.”
“Ya don’t get me, Merry. The Committee don’t expect ya to read three ’undred all on yer lonesome. So we’s got Carol Somersby comin’ in t’elp y’out.”
“Who in hell’s Carol Somersby? Never heard of her.”
“Local schoolma’am.” The Chief Steward gave me a nudge with his elbow. “Bit of all right, if you get me. Jeez, I envy you, Merry.”
If Carol Somersby rated as Pilgala’s idea of “all right”, I was glad I lived in Box Hill, Connecticut. Stand on Box Hill railroad depot overpass any weekday morning between seven and nine and you’ll see a hundred prettier all rights trip through the ticket barriers every five minutes. Not only was Carol Somersby short and dumpy, she exuded an aggressively flirtatious air that seemingly promised everything but undoubtedly delivered nothing.
While she bustled herself into a chair and waved goodbye to the Chief Steward and his acolytes, I thumped the Hopeless pile right down in front of her. “This lot I’ve already rejected. Absolute junk. No redeeming merits whatever. You want to look through them?”
As luck would have it, a thick manuscript lay on top of the pile. The Dance of Five Faces. She picked it up. “What’s wrong with this one, Merryll? It looks spot on to me. Great opening. Worth considering, I’d say. But def.”
“So would I — if the word limit was five or six thousand. But three’s the lucky number. I like to give a bit of leeway — some judges won’t give a word — but two or three hundred’s my outside limit, not two or three thousand.”
“It’s not fair to the other contestants. Any other complaints?”
“You got me wrong, Mr Manning. No complaints. Just asking.”
I waved graciously towards the Hopeless collection. “Help yourself to another.”
She flicked through another ten or twelve rejects, then stopped again. “Always he remembered her as he saw her first: the little spiritual face, the little brown shoes pointed downwards, their toes just touching the ground; the little fawn gloves folded upon her lap. That’s beautiful!”
“I heartily agree. A beautiful story. And you’ll find that story’s even blatantly titled The Fawn Gloves, right?”
“Yet even here in provincial Pilgala, Miss Somersby—it is ‘Miss’, I presume?—the stewards frown upon plagiarism. What you’re reading is a very famous story by Jerome K. Jerome.”
“When I went to school, Miss Somersby we studied short classics of English literature, not the rubbish you feed to children nowadays. Classics by Nathaniel Hawthorne and Washington Irving and Jerome K. Jerome like The Minister’s Black Veil, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and The Fawn Gloves, for instance.”
She turned to the last page. “The end’s the same as the beginning.”
“A romance. But def, a romance. Hardly, like suitable for children.”
“Carol Somersby would rather teach kids about war and violence, about permissiveness and sexuality, about disrespect for all authority, and the character-building advantages of antisocial behaviour.”
To my surprise, she laughed. “You’re having me on.”
“I’m serious. But go ahead, what else have we found worth saving?”
“The Life and Death of Johnson’s Umbrella.”
“Very hard to submit a humorous story that’ll pass muster in a literary contest. An author’s either forced to write down to his Abbott and Costello audience or write up to his Thomas Love Peacock judges. That particular story falls between two stools. Admittedly, I only glanced at the first page. I didn’t laugh once, though I did smile once or twice — but that’s not enough to reach Commended in my book.”
“Stories that inspire us; that stand out like sentinels and guide posts; that make such an impact on our minds and memories that we admire their perfection, envy their fame and recall them in our dreams. Like The Fawn Gloves.”
“Here’s Murder at Applegate Manor.”
“Genre fiction — that’s detective and mystery stories, for instance, plus any yarn centered on crime, science fiction, fantasy, or romance — that little lot generally don’t make the grade in contests. Most judges feel they’re too artificial, too formularized. I, however, enjoy the rare, well-crafted mystery story. But that particular one’s even worse than average. It aspires to echo Agatha Christie, complete with lords and dukes, butlers and serving maids, and the ancestral Applegate Maze.”
“I read the rules. They do say Open theme, but def,” Carol objected.
“So if we find a little thriller that’s out of the rut, we give it a Commended. But def. But we won’t! No way. I’ve been judging stories for twenty years and I’ve never found a winning genre tale yet. Though two or three have come close.”
“So what are you looking for, Merryll? Another Pearl Buck or John Steinbeck?”
“Right! Or another Somerset Maugham or Dorothy Parker. Or even another Jerome K. Jerome. That’s what I’m looking for. I seek him here, I seek him there! An American Fawn Gloves. A story so lucidly written, the author immediately makes contact with his or her reader. A story that doesn’t simply repeat some familiar old tale in some half-baked new guise, but has something really original to say. A story where you admire the author’s powers of observation. His/her insight into character. Most of all, a story that makes the deepest impression because of its intriguingly off-beat yet totally believable situation, in which these realistic yet captivating characters find themselves. And I use the word find advisedly.”
“Like you sure know what you’re looking for.”
At first I thought she was asking a question. Then I saw her eyes. She was gazing at me admiringly. I tried to deflect that gaze. “I’ve had plenty of practise.” But she failed to notice the sting in my words. Despite myself, I was beginning to like the wretched girl. Mr Stupid, who is all eyes and no brains, told me in no uncertain terms how much he concurred with the Chief Steward’s opinion. Carol rated high in the all-right stakes.
“What happens with the rejects? Sent back to their authors?” she asked, suddenly breaking her spell.
I shook my head. “Shredded into paper dolls.”
She looked at the pile. “All that work. All those hopes and dreams. How many hours? Sleepless nights? Like writing and re-writing, crossing out! Delete!” With her left hand, she swept the whole lot to the floor.
“The rubbish tin is over there,” I pointed. Then, to my amazement, I found myself kneeling down on the floor beside her. I heard myself saying, “I’ll help you pick them up.”
“It’s a funny thing, I know, Merry,” she smiled. “I like it here on the floor. So much less formal. And I don’t feel so — you know — about putting on my glasses. I can see all right without them. But much better with them on. Jane was a lonely child. Sitting by herself in the school playground, she watched the other children at their games. I’m with you. I just can’t stand to read anything about schools. I hate it!”
“Hold it! That one doesn’t belong on the floor. I put it aside for further reading. It must have got mixed up.”
“I wish I was.”
“Picked a winner yet?” asked the Chief Steward, poking his nose around the door a week later.
“We have, as a matter of fact,” I proudly announced.
“Thanks to Carol’s help,” I declared. A man in love can afford magnanimity.
“Ya jokin’? ’Avin’ me on?”
“It’s called The Mountain of Many Treasures,” said Carol, holding it up. “A wonderful story about a man who finds himself, like, when he goes up this mountain to find a treasure.”
“Mount Mylong, to be precise,” I added.
“Too bad,” mused the Chief Steward. “Gibber Noakes is on ’is way. Be ’ere in an ’our or so.”
“We don’t need him now,” I shouted. “We’ve made our short list and we’ve selected our winner. First prize, anyway.”
“Not up to me, Merry. Committee’s ’ired Gibber t’elp y’out. Guess they din’t think ya’d be so flamin’ fast.”
“What do we do now?” asked Carol.
“If yer’ll take advice, ’old still ’till Gibber gets ’ere. Right after lunch.”
A fall from his horse hadn’t improved Gibber’s temper. It took me a whole hour to convince him there wasn’t enough time to start reading from scratch. Even then he insisted on walking over to the rubbish tin and pulling out a random ten from this lucky dip. Nine he quickly threw back into the bin. I was pleased to see him hesitate over The Fawn Gloves. He read it right through in fact before finally tossing it aside.
“Thought that one had a bit of promise, eh, Gibber?” I couldn’t help asking him. “I thought so too. But…” I shrugged my shoulders emphatically.
“Where’s the rest of them?” he snarled. “The rest?”
“All the other runners or just the short list?”
“The lot. I’ll make my own list, Merryll. The lot!”
“You don’t need us, then. When you’ve listed your shorts, we’ll get back together.”
Thank heaven for small mercies. Carol and I drove over the border and spent a great three days in Sault Sainte Marie where nobody knew us and nobody cared. True, school holidays in Canada had filled the town’s accommodation almost to capacity, but there was still room at the Bakery.
Gibber’s list was waiting for us when we arrived back at Pilgala. He’d been reading night and day, but, as I expected, his list bore little comparison with our selections. His First Prize went to The Butterfly Jane, a story that had barely made our Commended. Our own winner, The Mountain of Many Treasures, didn’t figure on Gibber’s pathway at all.
“A cross between Razor’s Edge and The White Tower,” he explained. “Whereas The Butterfly Jane has something to say. Real social comment!”
“About what?” I asked.
“A whole range of things that you wouldn’t know about, Merryll. Disability, lack of social contact, sympathy, understanding, plain help. Here’s a disabled girl that needs help — physical help, emotional help — yet everyone just ignores her. Her peers, teachers, siblings, the lot. A powerful story, Merryll. Moving!”
“Politically correct,” I agreed. “But it’s still two out of three for The Mountain of Many Treasures.”
“Your arithmetic’s lousy as ever, Merryll. I make it a clean split right down the middle. Miss Somersby’s an assistant. Your assistant!”
“So what do we do?” I asked. “Toss a coin? Play cards?”
“You’re in luck, Merry. I’m too tired and too sore to argue. So I’ll make you an offer. Take it or leave it. Butterfly Jane, first; Many Mountains, second; A Spread Too Far, third.”
“What’s spread too far?” I asked.
“This far-sighted employee goes after better working conditions in this rundown processing plant.”
“I remember it now. A middle-aged but super-aggressive female employee. A male-dominated, but efficiently organized peanut butter factory.”
“You got it, Merry.”
Gibber Noakes was always a sucker for the politically correct. But it was no use arguing with him. “And we list all the Highly Commended and Commended from both our lists?” I suggested.
“What about my second and third?” I asked.
“You got a deal,” I said.
Carol was not happy. In fact she acted very disgruntled. Took her disappointment out on me. Started in as soon as we got to the car, and really went to town when we returned to my room at the Pioneer. Why didn’t I put up a decent fight? Why? Why?
“Because I know Gibber Noakes,” I told her over and over. “Gibb doesn’t give up easy. By Gibb’s standards, his offer was super generous.”
She started to gather up her things. I didn’t try to stop her. She’d saved me some trouble. I was leaving tomorrow anyway. When the mayor and assorted nobs officially open-sesamed the 22nd Annual Pilgala Arts and Agricultural Show, Jim and I would announce our winners and take our bows. After which I’d finally be rewarded for my skills and diplomacy with god-knows-what-fraction of an illusory nine hundred dollars. Then, good-bye, Pilgala, good-bye! Until next year.
Or perhaps the year after.