Writers know all about subjectivity in judging and critiquing. For me, the impact of that quality hit hard yesterday.
Recently I served as a semifinal judge for a first novel contest run by my MFA program’s alumni association. Our job was to cull the semifinal group down to ten finalists and send them off to the final judge, a much-honored writer of commercial fiction.
My fellow semifinalist judges and I, admittedly all from the same MFA program, all had our favorites to win. So when we got the final judge’s selections yesterday for the top three winners, there was some surprise, as none of our personal faves made it to the top.
More surprising to me was the final judge’s criteria, which were thoughtfully included with the selections. To be completely honest, I was taken aback by some of the judge’s requirements. For example: “too little straightforward explanation of who the character is and what they need or want. Yes, ‘show, don’t tell,’ BUT a little more telling of who these people are, under their skins, would invest the reader more quickly in the story.”
Essentially, the judge is saying readers prefer/need the didactic techniques that my classmates and I were advised to avoid (and which I personally abhor in fiction). The judge implies that readers don’t want to be challenged, they want to be coddled. I cannot argue with this judge’s commercial and critical success. I cannot argue with the logic.
I’ve been reading some commercial fiction lately, mostly to see what makes it successful. Again I was surprised to see how often popular authors got away with tired and clichéd writing techniques that would earn we MFA-ers withering critiques from our peers: mountains of misplaced backstory; long, lecturing paragraphs of explanation that have nothing to do with the plot; lazy, adverb-filled descriptions; and so much more. So this is what the public wants.
So be it. But since I can’t/won’t write like that (at least not yet), where does it leave moi? Well, for starters, that, and the tsunami of agent rejections I’ve received since I started querying my novel tell me it’s time to stop barking up that tree. I’ll concentrate on the independent market, miniscule as it is, for now. More later…