On a few occasions, I’ve had the opportunity to act as a judge for other people’s writing. One of them is for the Tampa Tribune RF “Red” Pittman Scholars Program, which awards scholarships to high school seniors from Hillsborough county through an essay contest on a topic chosen by the Tampa Bay Times. I have volunteered to be a judge for this contest for the last handful of years, and it has become something I look forward to every spring. The essay prompts usually ask students to tackle some of the most significant issues of the previous year, and it is such a pleasure to read about the ways young people think about those problems. I’m very heartened when I read these because the students are very confident about their ability to solve the world’s problems and their optimism for the future.
I’m also a fiction editor for the Tampa Review, a literary journal with a long tradition. The pleasure I derive from this activity is different from that of judging the Scholars contest, in that this one allows me to have direct access to the writing that my peers are doing on a regular basis, at a point where most people don’t have access to literature: pre-publication. As a fiction writer myself, I find this access invaluable because it allows me to be aware of so many different aesthetics, tendencies, forms, etc. It helps me to situate my own writing with respect to that of my contemporaries, and it shows me work at various stages of refinement, which gives me some sense of where I want my own writing to be.
Finally, this year I’m judging a fiction contest for Cow Creek Review, out of Pittsburg State University in Kansas. This one is slightly different from what I’ve done with Tampa Review, in that I’m judging fiction from undergraduate and graduate students in separate categories. One of the best surprises so far during this process has been the great quality of the undergraduate writing, which rivals and even surpasses some of the submissions I’ve received for Tampa Review.
These kinds of experiences help me to keep grounded in my own writing, and give me a lot of hope for the future of writing in general. When I hear people say that literature isn’t how it used to be, that novels and stories keep getting worse, I think they’re not really paying attention.