The Arcane Art of Reading Contest Books

The next VERY heavy shipment of contest books is supposed to get here Wednesday. This year the quality is more competitive than it was last year, but the other change is fewer books. I know that many of the books I read last year were books people wrote because they could; they weren’t going to work every day, but stuck home because of Covid. I think some of the books I’m reading now are also Pandemic books, but the writers have taken more time with them.

Over the weekend I read two that were absolutely stunning. I read another that will have a very small audience, but the audience who reads it will love it. It radiates sincerity and tells a story that people in a rural museum somewhere will treasure. I’m kind of sensitive to that… 🙂

The other day, someone commented on a post that this book judging thing would take the joy out of reading for her. I thought about that, and here’s how it is for me. First of all, this is a job, and I was raised with the idea that work might not be fun — luckily, this is. It’s a lot of fun (unless a book is evil) and, since I believe in the whole Indie publishing thing, I feel like I’m helping a bit.

For so many years I read student papers. Except for two one month summer lit classes, I ONLY taught writing and the people whose writing I was reading were obviously not good writers. My biggest goal was to help them overcome the fear of writing that had been instilled in them from previous English classes. Seriously. Students hated writing and feared it. There were often fine ideas in the papers, and I saw my job as helping my students write so others might understand those fine ideas. I loved my job. I love everything involved with writing which might be why I’m still here 3000+ posts later with my coffee and my dogs.

I taught seven writing classes most semesters. The classes had at least 30 kids in them. That’s 210 papers at least four times a semester, two full-length semesters a year. Usually I taught a class or two in summer. Those classes were shorter, but the paper load didn’t diminish because the class requirements had to be the same as those for a regular semester.

Add to that for several years I was on a committee that evaluated essay exams for seniors, students who hoped to graduate. Every student who hoped to graduate had to take that exam OR take and pass an advanced composition class. If they failed this exam, they had to take that class in order to graduate. I taught that class, and it was very very hard to teach 20+ kids who were furious at the university (and, by proxy, the teacher) because their graduation had been delayed. Shudder. We — about 20 of us — met in a big room and read a stack of papers. The university taught upwards of 30,000 undergraduates so, yeah, we faced a pile of about 7,000 papers twice a year. All of this is a different kind of reading. Normal people never have to read this way.

For a contest — or what I was doing in the classroom — to be fair there needs to be a standard and part of reading is determining how well the work satisfies the standard. For the contest the standard is great — less focused than for the assignments in my classes and for the exit exam at the university, but very appropriate to the motives people have writing a book. It is very helpful to me as I’m working my way through a pile of books.

I read through in a superficial way with the standard and pretty easily find the books that aren’t going to meet it. That leaves me with books that could win. Every year I’ve done this, there has been at least one book that doesn’t meet the standard but which I think should win SOMETHING because it’s just very valuable even if it’s different. The contest has a way for that, too.

It doesn’t take the joy out of reading to do this. It’s another thing completely from sitting down with a book I chose and want to read like the book I’m slowly reading now, The Desert and the Sown by Gertrude Bell which, honestly, might not win a contest today. Writing mores have changed and readers’ expectations are different than they were 100+ years ago. I think it would fall into that category of books that blow me away and for which I have to find a different way to reward.

15 thoughts on “The Arcane Art of Reading Contest Books

  1. And the rubrics and the essays read in the past have made this job much easier for you than if I were attempting it. I almost stopped reading my senior year – the English teacher made reading the classics painful… Fortunately I decided to read on my own and found that I loved some of the other books that weren’t dissected in class! I suppose reading non-fiction would be easier than some of the other genres.

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