Saturday, March 31, 2007

The good, the bad, and the ones with bees and vampires.

Today I read dozens of fiction manuscripts. That's because it was the reading party for Writers at Work, where volunteer screeners go through reams of paper trying to identify the very best fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction manuscripts. That also means that we identify the not-so-good ones. Also the awful ones, if you want to be uncharitable about it.

Of course, screening activities such as this one tend to bring out the uncharitable part of a reader's character. The way it works is: the manuscripts are divided by genre, and then into packets of ten. Each packet of ten has a scoring sheet rubber-banded to the packet. Reader #1 writes "yes" or "no" in the far column next to the manuscript number, and when Reader #1 finishes with that packet of ten, s/he folds the scoring sheet over so that her/his column is not visible to the next reader (Reader #2). A disagreement between the first two readers results in a third reading.

So, Hypothetical Reader #1 starts out the session without any grudges, looking at the first pile of manuscripts with anticipation--or at least without hate--in her heart. But she doesn't even have to finish the first set to start making rules, like:

1. Is one of the main characters a vampire? Then no.
2. Is the story set in a historical time period/place, such as pre-Revolutionary colonial America? Probably not. In fact, no.
3. Are there characters named after someone in Arthurian legends? No. Really.

This was just for the fiction. My compatriots reading poetry noted a disturbing predilection across many manuscripts for bee imagery.

4. Does the poem contain bee imagery? Probably not. Although possibly, exceptions can be made for really good bee manuscripts.

The worst thing was that, as I read manuscripts that I knew wouldn't make the cut, I still couldn't stop reading. Just because a story is poorly written doesn't mean you don't want to know what happens.

Note 1: The City Library, where the reading party was held, is a swell place to spend a good chunk of the day. I saw families, little kids, teenagers, oldsters, everyone having what seemed like a great time.

Note 2: I have sent the rage remix version of my manuscript out, having possibly done too much to it and also possibly not enough. Also, I changed my Johnny Cash poem, maybe for the worse. However, I find myself optimistic anyway. I'm currently on the hunt for the file of a poem which I seem to have misplaced, at least the electronic version of it. Luckily, there's still paper. Anyway: Poetry is happening all around you! It is the cruellest month--National Poetry Month!


  1. I must protest the no-vampire rule. And as a fantasy reader I must also protest against the no-Arthurian characters rule. Besides, I'll take a vampire or knight over most literary fiction any day. Maybe the vampire is having an identity crisis. Maybe the knight's father was an alcoholic and the knight has intimacy issues. (He has armor, get it?) Perhaps the vampire tries online dating.

    These are just some ideas off the top of my head, though. I have more.

  2. Um, I 100% uphold your rules. Has MB sat in the City Library on a Saturday eating bagels and having 350 manuscripts to go. If the sentence surrounding the noun "Vampire" is a worthy one, sure we go on. But how often does one find a vampiric sentence that even suggests an identity crisis with a profile. And the knight with intimacy issues? I mean, come on, read that one. One day, you'll get MB in there and we'll discern his rules of expediency. Plus, in the competition, whoever is the second reader always negates one's own rule-system.

    Good luck on your manuscript Lisa B. The Johnny Cash poem should seal the deal.

  3. MB and I were once readers for a poetry contest. He and I and a bunch of other grad students got together to sort out the finalists. He threw one poem into the "no" pile that another grad student retrieved. We all pleaded for its life. It had something about Richard Nixon, and I'm pretty sure it was typed on a typewriter. The judge, I believe, was Heather McHugh. I'm pretty sure the poem MB rejected won. I rest my case.
    side note: I don't miss that day of slogging. I remember some really bad ones. Last year I think it was stories involving western landscapes. But rest easy, the year before it was cancer.

  4. But I'm so vulnerable to the return to the ninteenth century and to ninteenth century literary moments. I've read both of the books by Matthew Pearl (Dante Club on club by Holmes and others in Boston and Poe Shadow on the death of Poe). I'm half way through Benjamin Markovit's Imposture (on Lord Byron and the encounters that lead to Shelley's Frankenstein). I also read Colm Tobin's The Master (on Henry James--probably the best of the bunch, if a bit slow and pretentious, if I must tell the truth). But I can't resist.

    Am I really doomed? Your criteria seem to suggest I am. . . . Maybe you're right. Most of these books are, to be honest, pretty boring.

  5. I think my rule for the poetry contest was no poems about unicorns.



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