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John Howard Reid

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Ever wondered why your entry, which was far, far, far superior to anything else in a certain Literary Contest, was awarded only a Commended certificate? This little story, based on the author's actual experiences as a Contest judge, reveals a little of what really happens behind the scenes. (This story is included in my latest anthology, "A PACKET OF DREAMS").


Contest Blues

“I’m sick of fobbing off hordes of borrowers, all asking for the same six or seven books over and over,” I complained to the Chief Librarian. “We’ve got to do something to broaden our readers’ interests.”

    Mrs Winthrop scowled up at me as if I’d suggested entering Jacobs County Library in the Annual Scrabble Championships. An eccentric old bird, Mrs Winthrop tended to react positively to negative or plain stupid suggestions. Anything sensible, on the other hand, was subjected to a dubious scrutiny. At least she was close to retiring age. Next year her position would be up for grabs.

    “Stocks running low, Arthur?”

    “Stocks of six or seven current, rubbishy bestsellers, yes. I’m saying the library should do something to let borrowers know there are other authors besides the fresh-faced half-dozen promoted on the idiot box.”

    I wanted to say more. Declare, for instance, it was about time the library stopped regarding itself as an adjunct to the town’s two rival chain bookshops, and pursued a separate agenda. But I was saving this for the job selection committee.


  “Numerous things we could do, like putting out little pamphlets promoting various authors.”

    “Tried that in the past, Arthur. Didn’t work. People weren’t interested. Borrowers have their favorites. And they tend to stick to them. They don’t like experimenting.”

    “I don’t mean the great lists we put out year before last: Mystery Authors, Science Fiction Authors, Romance Authors, Kentucky Authors… Too many, too much, as you say. I’m suggesting three or four folders, each devoted to one of our local writers, right here in Jacobs County. Just a simple letter-sized sheet, folded and printed on both sides, with a photo and brief biography, and a listing of their books – with a few reviews if there’s space enough.”

    “Who, for instance?”

    “George J. Grimshaw.”

    “Grimshaw? That pretentious old parvenu! All he can write about are hideous elves and hobgoblins and equally boring young girls.”

    “Fantasy’s flavor of the month at the moment.”         

    “Not in this library, Arthur!”

    “Amanda Sturtevant Skinner,” I replied, manfully resisting the obvious response.

    “Never heard of her.”

    “Romance novelist.”

   “I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: What the world needs is less escapism, Arthur, more serious thinking. Facing facts.”

   The library’s holdings were testimony enough of Mrs Winthrop’s fact-facing philosophy: Shelves groaning under the collected weight of Threats from the East, Zen and Zion, Decibels of Power, Neo-Fascist Trends, Dormant Monetary Policy and of course Honeywell’s Guideposts to a New Magna Carta – six autographed copies of that one, all in pristine, if dusty condition.

    “Letitia Lang. Homer Honeywell. Perhaps one or two others we could add later.”

    It took her a few minutes to digest Homer Honeywell. Finally, hero-worship won the day. “Yes. It does seem to have possibilities, Arthur. Yes, Homer Honeywell. I’ll ring Homer tonight, and see what he thinks. Thank you.”

    Dismissed, but I stood my ground. “California’s libraries run competitions,” I said. “Writing contests.”

    “Californian libraries have lots of money to throw around, Arthur. Government money.”

    “I wasn’t suggesting we try to compete on a national or even a stateside scale. But how about a competition just for residents of Jacobs County?”

       “Hmmm. You mean essays, guides, political philosophy?”

    I counted the categories off on my fingers: “Poetry, short stories, essays, political philosophy, true -life pieces, anything-you-like.”

      “Too ambitious, Arthur. I like the idea, but too ambitious. Besides, we don’t have the money.”

   “We charge a small entry fee to cover expenses – including honorariums for the judges. We could perhaps ask Homer Honeywell to judge the philosophy; yourself, the political essays; George Grimshaw, the short stories; Letitia Lang, the poetry; and Amanda Skinner, the true -life pieces.”

    The Chief Librarian actually permitted herself a thin smile. “I’m surprised at you, Arthur. Two suggestions worth considering, both in one day.”

    “I’ve been thinking about it a lot, Mrs Winthrop.”

  No use holding back. Success would increase my chances of promotion. Failure would precipitate Mrs Winthrop’s retirement.

    Cunning is the head that aspires to wear a crown. 


With the exception of Thomas Pynchon and J.D. Salinger, few writers knock back a chance to promote themselves. In no time at all, we formed a committee of six to manage Jacobs County’s First Annual Literary Competition. Our first problem was to rein in the categories which had blown out from my five to fifteen, thanks to tripling for schoolkids and seniors. After a short debate, we decided to ditch the seniors altogether and confine the kids to 20-line (max.) poems and 500-word (max.) stories. Oddly, the only person who raised much objection to this condensation was Mrs Winthrop herself.

    “Original, unpublished,” George Grimshaw wheezed out from a brochure he’d obtained from the Contest Committee at Louisville Writers’ Guild.

    “Original, I can understand, but why unpublished?” Still smarting from her defeat, Mrs Winthrop was determined to be difficult.

    “The whole idea’s to find new stories, encourage new writing, not throw money at past successes,” croaked George.

    “I agree,” said Homer Honeywell – to Mrs Winthrop’s surprise. But not mine. As smarmy as they come, Honeywell could always guess the winning side.

    “Three thousand words, maximum, for a story,” George continued. “Seems reasonable.”

    “Ah! But what is a story?” asked Honeywell.

    “You heard the man,” I cut in. “Three thousand words.”

    “Three thousand words of anecdotage; three thousand words of reminiscence; three thousand words of autobiography; or three thousand carefully crafted words of fiction, leading readers inexorably from incident ‘A’ to incident ‘D’, via ‘B’ and ‘C’, and not ‘E’, ‘F’ or ‘G’?” 

    “Doesn’t matter,” I suggested. “Three thousand words of prose. Prose as distinct from poetry, philosophy, true -life or essays.”

    Honeywell wagged his massive head. Like it or not, a lecture was coming our way. “A short story, my friend, has a distinctive form. Neither anecdote nor personal reminiscence, it is a polished exposition of its central character’s dilemma, predicament or situation.”

    “Not for me,” rasped George. “Too formal, Homer. For me, a story is writing that keeps my eyes glued, hands turning, heart pounding. Sorrow, smiles, suspense, surprise. Whether it’s true or false, I don’t give a hang. Techniques are for the birds. I can tell you right now I’ll be looking for frolicking plots, flamboyant characters and flavorsome writing. Full stop.”

    “I think we’ve got to describe what we want in loose terms that most writers and would-be entrants would understand,” said Amanda, making her only contribution of the evening. “I’ve always felt there’s too much academic influence on what counts as good writing. The professors will have it that novels of social significance are in, genre writing is out. A romance novel, for instance, no matter how beautifully written or wondrously crafted, is thumbed down. No matter how believable its incidents or exciting its characters, no matter how true to life its background and settings. Not academically acceptable. We don’t want to impose that sort of elitism on our contestants.”

    “Hear, hear!” I clapped.

    George ignored Amanda. “Open theme,” he continued. “What’s an open theme?”

    “Means you can write about anything,” I suggested.

    “Anything?” cried Mrs Winthrop. “Anything? The Library intends to publish the winners in a suitable anthology. The children and their parents don’t want to find their Day at the Beach juxtaposed with A Night in the Cathouse.”

    “I think we all agree on that,” smarmed Honeywell.

    “Just how far do we allow?” asked George. “What’s the limit?”

    “Movie classifications are a good guide,” I suggested. “We could agree that anything over an ‘M’ rating, we can’t use.”

    “I saw a picture – part of a picture – on TV the other night. It was ‘M’, according to the paper. The characters were swearing. I turned it off. Horrible people. It’s wrong that children should hear such words. No wonder standards deteriorate. I had a child the other day. Banned from the library, because he kept swearing all the time in front of the other children. And some of them were starting to swear back at him. His mother came in to see me. Would you believe, her mouth was as foul as his?”

    “That’s my very point,” said George. “Put this incident you describe into a novel, how would you – ”

 “You can’t! No swearing. No coarse language. Under any circumstances.”

    “Moving along. Must not have won a prize in another competition.”

    “We haven’t finished with open theme yet,” I protested. “Virtually all we’ve done is agree we won’t award prizes to any stories higher than a ‘PG’ rating for language. What about subject matter? Lots of ‘M’s are adult themes.”

    “Out too!”

    George was surprisingly gentle: “Mrs Winthrop, just about all the children’s literature you can think of has adult themes: Little Women, Gulliver’s Travels, Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, Treasure Island, Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Robinson Crusoe. The only book I can remember reading as a kid that had no adult themes at all was an idiotic picture book called Custard Caterpillar and Wilfred Wasp.”

    “As I see it, we have a more serious problem with open theme,” Honeywell interrupted. “You wish to appoint George to judge the contest’s fiction, yet his specialty is fantasy. We don’t want all our prizewinners hailing from fantasy and science fiction.”

    “Are you assuming – ”

    “I am. We all have our limitations. As stories and poetry are likely to be our most popular entries, we shouldn’t allow just one judge to decide these winners, but appoint a panel of three.”

    “I protest.”

    “I lead a double life,” Honeywell declared. “Let me give you all a bit of background, and then I’ll ask you a question. A double life. The political philosopher, you all know. But I’m also a duly elected Director of Jacobstown Little Leaguers.  Used to umpire major games twenty years ago. Political philosophy’s a profession. Baseball’s my passion. If I were to write the greatest baseball story of all time, how would it rate with you, George? Your honest answer.”

    George hung his head. “Wouldn’t rate at all,” he grunted. “Know nothing about baseball, and care less. In fact, I despise the game.”

    “Its players, its officials and its followers. How about scouts, George? The greatest cubs story ever written?”

    “Same answer.”

    “Ever been inside a jamboree, George?”

    “Twice. And no desire to indulge further. Despite the glossy ads in our local rags. Spiels aimed at idiots, stupid enough to put all their money into some soulless machine – even when told their chances of winning are less than zero.”

    “Not less than zero, George. Almost zero.”

    “I stand corrected. Next to zero.”

    “Like most writers, I admit I’m interested in fiction,” Honeywell swept on, at his expansive best. “Once started to write a book about clubs. Know their workings inside and out, plus a lifetime’s accumulation of funny and fascinating and off-beat incidents. Wonderfully colorful Aussie characters that would do a Henry Lawson proud. Had the book half-finished. Showed it to my publisher. He runs a strong fiction section, very strong. Wasn’t interested in my Ace of Clubs at any price. I said I’d publish it myself. ‘Publish and go broke!’ he answered. ‘Can’t you see that visible gulf, that uncrossable chasm between the club scene and literary purlieus? People who read books don’t frequent clubs, and people who live in clubs, don’t read books.’ – ‘What about Thackeray?’ I asked. – ‘Who reads Thackeray?’ he shot back. – ‘In his day,” I reminded him, ‘Thackeray sold more books than Dickens.’ – ‘Ah! But Thackeray’s clubs were the hang-outs of the literate and the well-to-do. The social set. The fashionable. The leaders of society. The same people who read books. But it’s not the same today. Clubs cater for the illiterate, the dregs even. No book-lover would be seen dead in a club.’ I hate to admit he was right. In all my twenty years as a Director of Manorholme Leagues, not a single one of our forty thousand plus members has ever asked me to autograph a copy of Signposts or anything else I’ve written – even though my full biography appears in our Annual Report, posted out to all our members every year.”   

    “You’re forcing me to agree, Bill. Sports stories and clubs are instant candidates for my reject pile.”

    “Right. We need another two judges to assist George. Gladys, how about you?”

    “I accept, of course” announced Mrs Winthrop. “And I’m sure, Bill, you  will take on the added responsibility as well.”

    “Love to, Gladys. But I’m too busy. Putting out a revised edition of Signposts. Don’t mind handling one category, but I couldn’t take on two. How about Charles?”

Honeywell knew exactly what he was getting me into. Four hundred and sixty-eight short stories. Eleven essays on political philosophy – I’m surprised there were even that many.

    We three decided to read all the stories through once, marking them “A”, “Q” and “Z”. “A”, certain candidates for the short list; “Q” indicated the entry had quality, but subject to reservations or  questions; while “Z”, of course, was reserved for the absolutely hopeless.

    We then got together ostensibly to separate the “A” stories into three piles: Three “A” marks; two; and those with only one. Surprise! Surprise! None at all with three, one hundred and twelve with two. From this lot, I wanted to eliminate the forty-six with a “Z” mark. At first, George, who had appointed himself chairman of our selection committee, agreed but then suddenly changed his mind as he sorted through.

    “This story, Welcome to Runnymede,” he snarled, “one of the best of the batch in my opinion, who gave it a ‘Z’?”

    “The author,” I answered.

    “What the hell are you talking about?”

    Mrs Winthrop winced.

    “The word limit was three thousand. He or she lists the wordage as approx. three thousand, eight hundred.”

    “I think we should allow a little leeway. After all, we didn’t say anything about word limits being strictly enforced.”

    “Eight hundred words over!” I protested. “You’re being unfair to all our other contestants. We specified three thousand max. Many of them probably had better stories, but didn’t send them in. Others forced themselves to dilute their work by condensing it down. And some just wasted their time constructing their stories within our word limit. Yet here’s someone who blatantly disregards the rules,” – I knew that phrase would get Mrs Winthrop on side – “and just bungs in their thirty-eight hundred anyway.”

    “I agree with Charles. I’ll change my ‘A’ to ‘Z’.”

    “That’s one of the best stories you’re throwing away,” George rasped.

    “Rules are rules,” I re-iterated piously.

    “This story?” Another explosion! “Is this you again, Charles?”

    “That’s my mark, yes. We said unpublished. Right there on the back page: ‘This story was previously published in a different version in The Weekly’.”

    “A different version!”

    “How different?” I asked. “And what about copyright? You just can’t assume the difference is so great The Weekly won’t sue.”

    “I doubt they’d object,” said Mrs Winthrop. “A very good story, I thought.”

    Seizing upon Mrs Winthrop’s unexpected support, George swiftly declared his intention of contacting the author to ascertain how different the story was; and whether The Weekly might object to republication in our anthology.

    “You can’t do that!” I objected. “No correspondence will be entered into. And think of the time! We promised to announce the winners, week after next. The Weekly will doubtless want the same as us. To see a copy of the ‘different’ story.”

    “No problem! We’ll photocopy it. Next. Here’s one that Charles and I both agree on. I assume this ‘Q’ is yours, Gladys?”

    “I’ve severe reservations about that story. Priests have become society’s scapegoats at the moment. And here’s a story about an Anglican priest – admittedly not very competent about book-keeping or overseeing accounts or sending in receipts – accused of embezzling by a vicious deacon. In fact he’s dipping into his own pocket to support a soup kitchen for the destitute.”

    “Lord knows, I’ve little sympathy for priests, Mrs Winthrop. But putting my own feelings aside, I thought the story timely, relevant, and well-told with powerful imagery. It really made an old agnostic like me feel sorry for the poor prelate. And that’s quite a feat!”

    “I agree,” I said. “Third Prize at least. But I won’t argue with Second.”

    “I think it imperative to stay well clear of controversy, Mr Barnes. I don’t see Manorholme Library as the conscience of the community. I believe the community expects us to show the way we all pull together as a happy, united group of people. I don’t think we need call attention to the small problem of one or two destitute folk living in our joyful community. That’s not the sort of impression Manorholme Shire wants to show the world.”

    “Perhaps you’re right, Mrs Winthrop. But I think we’ll stay with the priest. Still a goodly number of candidates for Third. Here’s a story I liked about a fisherman re-living his days at sea, whilst angling from the rocks.”

    “I wasn’t impressed with that one either, Mr Barnes. There was a story called Sensible Approach I thought a possible prizewinner. About a young girl who couldn’t decide which dress to wear to her first dance. It must be there somewhere.”

    George searched vainly through the pile. No Sensible Approach. I indicated the rejects. As he pulled the manuscript free, I couldn’t help noticing we’d both awarded it the same mark: “U.”

    “Yes, I remember this story, Mrs Winthrop. Remember it well. Third Prize, it is!”

    “Hang on, George!” I shouted, pointing to the double “A” pile of a hundred plus.

    “Charles, I’m not going to spend all night arguing about fifty dollars for Third Prize. Okay. We have our Second and Third. Our only problem now is One. I’ll get on to that first thing tomorrow.”


Despite George’s persistence, the author took forever and a day to retrieve his original draft. Four names and ninety-eight inconsequential words had been changed. Nevertheless, The Weekly graciously assented to re-publication.

    Finally, a small ad appeared in the Jacobs County Countrywide-Courier-Extra, apologizing for the delay (due to the greater-than-anticipated number of entries) in announcing results of the First (and Final) Jacobs County Literary Competition.

    Our promised anthology of winning entries never saw printers’ ink. As Jacobs County’s new Chief Librarian, I’m becoming quite expert at fobbing off occasional inquiries.     

       Web Site: John Howard Reid

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Reviewed by Jim Magwood 9/29/2008
“Rules are rules,” How many of us have been destroyed by that simple phrase, eh? Keep up the good work, John.

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