Finalist for the 2011 St. Lawrence Book Award
Finalist for the 2011 Flannery O’Connor Book Award
Finalist for the 2009 Bread Loaf Bakeless Literary Prize
Finalist for the 2009 Iowa Prize in Fiction
That’s the list of finalist-lists that my collection, Some Kinds of Love: Stories racked up before it broke its maiden and finally won the 2012 Juniper Prize from the University of Massachusetts Press last week.
And actually I’m pretty sure that I am missing one finalist declaration from Dzanc Books. I did not keep super accurate track of this finalist phenomenon. Here’s some of why:
Finalist lists remind me of place horse syndrome. Reading a racing form of thoroughbreds’ past performances, the handicapper may have her interest aroused by a horse recently finishing second. Then, unwinding more previous race data, she discovers the horse is GREAT at finishing second, in fact does so reliably. Horses are herd animals, and some have “place horse syndrome,” in that it feels intensely fulfilling and natural to run directly behind the fastest, dominant horse in the herd. To human perspective, the horse finishes second, a lot. Now to more seasoned gamblers, that sounds like another sure bet, not a win wager, but a place.
Sure, sure it does. Optimism reigns supreme when among punters at the track, publishers at the pub, and prospective fiction contest entrants at the post office!
That’s a little what the above felt like marketing Some Kinds of Love to the many fiction contests running in America. Second, second, second; a place horse if ever there was one. And short story contests rarely have publishing slots available for win and place and show. Some publish finalists, but not many.
Understandable why… If 257 manuscripts enter a contest at $25.00, that’s $6,425.00 in the win pool. That’s enough to pay out the winning wager at roughly 60-1 odds (in this case the $25.00 bet pays $1,500.00, and yes there is a kind of IRS window at this track). That leaves the house $4,925.00. Okay, enough parimutuel take for a paperback printing of a book, just the print costs.
I will admit to being a regular at the track for Some Kinds of Love. Scanning tickets for all my losing bets I see 38 to claim against this year’s winning. That’s right, since November of 2008, Some Kinds of Love (born and bred in Missouri; trained in Arkansas and Mississippi) entered 38 separate races all across America, often anually at some of the same tracks. It had even entered the Juniper Prize race before with no discernible result. (Tired, Lacked Finish? Outrun? Best of the rest? Stumbled at start?)
But the horse seemed a natural. Why not bet the copying, postage, and entry fee? (Punters, let’s say a cheer and encourage ALL tracks to adopt submishmash.com, which eliminates both the postage and the dead tree copy fees!) Why not gamble on Some Kinds of Love: Stories? Every story, all twelve in the collection had been published in a solid if not major American literary journal; one story had won a national fiction contest; one story was nominated for the Pushcart; and another had been shortlisted in Best American Short Stories 2010.
Of course, even the most rational gambler, after a long, strange race card, is susceptible to irrational superstitions and suspicions. Some contests name a HUGE field of finalists, with the natural and hopeful result that it sows optimism. After all, if the horse was a finalist last year, enter again! You are so close to winning with this nag! And there is no way to avoid the drunken gambler’s suspicion that it’s all rigged. Though now contests really have gone to great pains to make judges blind judges, both to the entrants submitting in that the judge may not be publicized in the contest’s call for entries, and in the judging in that judges have just the stories in front of them, all of which Juniper did, double blind so to speak.
After all these place horse finishes, here’s an odd joy to admit. I found on several of the above finalist-lists, writers with horses in the same races, placing as finalists again and again. Through the happy miracle of facebook, I reached out to a few of them, found kindred gamblers with horses in the same predicament.
In fact, if I were marketing at Press 53, or Dzanc Books, or Black Lawrence Press—three literary presses that stun me all the time with their innovations, their community building, their savvy—and since all these finalists are announced out loud in public on websites, I would have the race secretary design an invitational only allowance race. Sweep up two or three years worth of great short story manuscript finalists, and run them in an ultra-publicized contest of their own; get all the ink you could off this match race. After all, in crowd source speak, every finalist in one of these races has made it through a huge pack of runners, exploded from the final quarter pole having been read and judged, approved and at the last passed to a final judge, who at the wire deemed some other horse winner by a nose. I’ll bet there’s some serious overlay, literary value in every one of the horses finishing second this year.