Eyes (not so much) on the Prize

by Elizabeth Lutyens, Editor in Chief

From left, prose writer Nina Baxley Rogers and poet Jane Curran were the Spring 2016 Editor’s Choice winners, selected by Guest Editor Jeanne Howe, right. To see the two authors selected for spring 2019, go here.

“Asking a writer to choose a favorite piece is like asking a grandmother which grandbaby she loves the most. Unless the work is a real stinker, we like them all, and usually for different reasons.” So wrote Marie Hefley for our first Editor’s Choice column, spring 2013.

The Editor’s Choice feature was the brainchild of Judi Goldenberg, our Assistant Editor at the time. The column appeared in our ninth issue,  only after the editorial team debated the merits and demerits of literary prizes. Why single a writer out when she or he had already been selected to publish by the teacher of their Great Smokies Writing Program class? What about the worth of prizes in general? Worthy according to whom—the panel of judges, or the reader?

We might consider Johnny Depp’s thought on the subject: “Awards are not as important to me as when I meet a ten-year-old kid who says he loves Captain Jack Sparrow.” But then, the Depps of this world already have fistfuls of awards. They may keep their Emmys and Oscars in the garage or the bathroom, but how did they feel about the first award? Was that the encouragement that turned a creative spark to flame?

We did arrive at a solution, at least one that satisfied the chief goal of this publication: to highlight craft excellence, as nurtured by the Great Smokies Writing Program. Our Editor’s Choice, then, should be not only the naming of a “winner,” but an essay describing the reason behind the selection. The topic would come first; the selected piece would be its best illustration. Visit our archives, and you’ll see a craft issue either announced or implied in the title of each essay. To name a few: The Relevance of Story, Authorial Authority (voice), Writing with Empathy: Understanding the Mind of a Stranger, Haunted Beauty (memorable imagery), Yearning—Story’s Efficient Engine, Setting Inward (setting and interiority).

We approached our first Editor’s Choice column (spring 2013) gingerly, with only one piece selected, with a member of our editorial staff—Managing Editor Marie Hefley—as the judge. Make that the non-judge. She set the bar high for keeping the emphasis on admiration of a point of craft. Marie lauded the story’s particular narrative voice, one that presented a “skewed view of the world…a story of unlikely events that allows the teenaged main character to be both sympathetic and likable.” Another voice, she added, perhaps an adult character with the same worldview, “would, in all honesty, annoy me no end.”

After the first column, we grew bolder and upped the choices to two. We went beyond staff and decided to invite, for each issue, an experienced writer from the Great Smokies Writing Program community to be Guest Editor. In total, we have tapped twelve Guest Editors, all of whom have written essays following Marie’s example, choosing the “winning” pieces as those that exemplified the premise of their essay.

To tempt you to visit the archives, I will pluck just one fruit from that lusciously laden tree: Jeanne Howe’s “Come to the Table” (Jeanne and her selected authors pictured above). She serves choice tidbits from the full menu of that spring 2016 issue—commenting on every piece of nonfiction, fiction and poetry—and getting down to her “prize” duty only after that.

“Now,” Jeanne wrote, “about my selection of a favorite prose piece and a favorite poem: Here be thin ice, if not exactly dragons. I’m not one for competitions, and I truly found real merit in each of the works collected here. It’s been hard for me to say two of them are more pleasing than all the other sixteen. But—and this is not just an excuse to justify my reluctance to rank the several artists’ work—aesthetic preferences, as you know so well, are, after all, entirely subjective. You might choose a painting because it says Monet on the bottom corner, while I could (let’s hope not, though) prefer another painting instead because it goes better with my living room curtains. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, as we’ve been told—and literary art preferences are in the sensory organs and brainwaves, even the abdomen of the reader, if you allow me to carry on with the tropes I started with before I stepped onto this thin ice. With those disclaimers, here goes…”

Back to the present. Our Guest Editor for spring 2019 is Margaret (Sam) Faeth. While reading the submissions for this issue, she was on the lookout for examples of writers who “exemplify the art and craft of inviting attentiveness” and after presenting two that “skillfully point us toward that which is worth noticing,” she continues… “but they are not alone. This issue is filled with the work of gifted, hospitable, evocative authors.” To see Sam’s two Editor’s Choice selections and to read her essay “Inviting Attentiveness,” click here.

The Great Smokies Review spring 2019 issue is our twentieth, marking our tenth anniversary of publication. Our archives list 99 works of fiction, 55 of nonfiction, and 70 of poetry, all creations of one community of writers. All winning.

Elizabeth Lutyens teaches the Prose Master Class in the Great Smokies Writing Program. For more about her, go to www.elizabethlutyenseditor.com