This Week’s Column:


by Dennis Loy Johnson

April 8, 2002 — It was every writer's nightmare of what really goes on behind the scenes at a writing contest — the editor secretly threw out the short story chosen by the panel of respected novelists serving as guest judges, and replaced it with a story she liked even though the judges rated it dreadful. But it gets worse: Why did she do that? Because the story the judges chose was written by a black man.

At least, that's how some are explaining the fiasco that recently unfolded when the Portland, Oregon–area newsweekly Willamette Week held a fiction and poetry contest. What's more, the editor isn't denying some of the charges against her are true — such as that she overrode the judges' selection in favor of a story she alone liked.

But was it racism, or just a plain old–fashioned, unethical fix?

It all started when Portland Tribune columnist Phil Stanford noted on March 19 that "local literary types are a–dither over" Willamette Week's February 27 announcement of the fiction contest winners. Of the three guest judges — novelists Myrlin Hermes, Jody Seay, and Kief Hillsbery — one (Hermes) had "e–mailed the editors to express her dismay" at the announced winner; another (Seay) said "she never even saw the winner"; and the third, Hillsbery, was "holed up in a cabin somewhere" writing and hadn't been reached yet.

Willamette Week's editor–in–chief Mark Zusman would only say he was "comfortable" that arts editor Caryn B. Brooks "did a good job of selecting the winners." In other words, he had nothing to do with it if it turned out to be bad.

A few days later, Stanford reported that Kief Hillsbery "has emerged from his cabin in the woods, and, boy, is he hot." Hillsbery said he'd given the story announced as the winner — "Creative Thought 414," by a non–famous beginner who doesn't deserve to have his name dragged through this — the lowest score possible, a 1. Hillsbery said he'd given a 10 to another story, "Floozy," by Jon Carr, who happens to be an African–American, and whose story was written in black dialect.

"According to word leaking out of WW," said Stanford, "and, believe me, the place leaks like a sieve," Brooks had "decided that 'Floozy' — the actual winner, based on a tabulation of the judges' votes — just wasn't suitable for their yuppie target audience."

Stanford couldn't have made the implications clearer, although Carr, in a letter to WW editors, was gracious enough to say, "I am calling this cultural preference and not racism."

Mark Zusman immediately issued yet another ringing non–denial denial, as they called it in the Watergate era, telling Stanford he "adamantly denies having any knowledge of the discussions that led to selecting the eventual winner."

But Brooks wasn't about to take the heat alone. She immediately implicated an underling — her assistant editor — and wrote to the judges in an e–mail, confessing she'd picked a different winner than they had, and saying "The two of us did the best job we could at considering your input while using our best judgment." But if Brooks considered herself the "best judge" of fiction over a panel of fiction writers, what was the point of having guest judges?

A question so obvious that it made Hillsbery all the angrier. "We've been used," he told Stanford.

And when the next WW came out, it included a brief but stinging collective letter–to–the–editor from Hillsbery, Seay and Hermes saying "we would like to publicly distance ourselves from the contest results."

But in the same issue, Brooks responded to the 150–word letter with a deft, 1,100–word polemic that echoed the Nixonian tones of her boss.

The judges' "concern . . . is more than fair," she said, because the paper was so inundated with submissions that she hadn't had the time to "prep them properly."

But then Brooks went on to say that "even calling them judges was inappropriate." They were just supposed to provide comments she could run alongside winners, she said. And she was careful to remind people about that assistant editor, too, naming him this time — Steffen Silvis, one of the paper's most respected staffers.

As for the racism charges, or even Carr's "cultural preference" charges, Brooks neatly sidestepped them by ignoring Carr entirely and wondering aloud "if Stanford even read the issue" announcing the top three winners, because it had included "the third–place piece — black dialect and all." Which seems to miss the point — that it was in third place — but blithely trundling on, she said she gave first place to "the most creative response" and ridiculed the idea that there was a scandal. The whole column, in fact, appears under the header, "Not since the bout between Norman Mailer and a bunch of feminist writers has the literary world gotten so snarky," which I guess is supposed to make readers equate the judges and Stanford and their ilk with either a foul–mouthed chauvinist, or a bunch of hysterical feminists.

Meanwhile, those many anonymous sources on the story Stanford cites? He wasn't kidding. One of them tells me Brooks had to be mightily pressured to include the Carr story at all. And am I the only one to notice that neither Stanford nor anyone else has managed to get a quote out of Steffen Silvis that supports Brooks?

Brooks' boss Mark Zusman, meanwhile, seems to have clammed up entirely.

Last Week’s Column: ALL RISE A survey shows people think chain booksellers have the lowest prices, but they'd rather shop in independents anyway. And another lawsuit accuses the chains of illegal practices. Is there an anti–chain revolt going on?


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All material not otherwise attributed ©2002 Dennis Loy Johnson.