Literature is art. And art is, to some degree, subjective. What’s good and what isn’t is very much a matter of taste.
That’s why I am always surprised when asked to judge a writing contest. To think someone, somewhere, thinks my literary palate is refined enough to pass judgment on a passel of poems or collection of fiction always astonishes me.
But they ask. I’ve been asked over the years by organizations as various as a cowboy cultural society from Canada, the outfit that runs the National Finals Rodeo, statewide writers’ groups from at least three states and a double handful of smaller groups from various localities, an international society of professional writers, and more than a few poetry performance competitions. What’s more surprising is that many of them ask me back.
It isn’t always easy trying to be objective about something so subjective. But there are certain standards that ought to apply—basic things like spelling, syntax, structure, grammar, form, composition, communication, and such. Poorly proofed and edited works are easily discarded.
After that, it can get tough. A story that grabs and won’t let go. Clever use of language. Word choice. Originality. Rhythm. Pace. Use of literary technique. And on and on, into demonstrations of skill that are hard to define—but you know them when you read them. It’s a pleasure to reward creativity, skill, effort, and accomplishment.
And while it is never pleasant to quickly cast aside an entry that doesn’t measure up—sometimes mere pages past the cover—you do what you have to do. As my friend Dusty Richards says, which he says the late, great Elmer Kelton said: “You don’t have to drink a whole bottle of whiskey to know it’s bad.”