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Confessions of an OAC Juror

Dickens did not take critique very well either.

The e-mail appeared in my inbox along with the usual make-money-from- home spam. It seemed I had been chosen to be a juror for the Ontario Arts Council. All I had to do was read a few manuscripts and give my opinion about the relative literary merits of each application. For this simple task I would be financially compensated.

Naturally, I did not believe the legitimacy of this e-mail. Why me? I was hardly a famous author, just someone who had published in a few literary magazines. I goggled googled the name of the e-mail’s sender, John Degen, and he was indeed the Literature Officer at the Ontario Arts Council. Perhaps this really was a genuine request to adjudicate this year’s grant applicants.

I eagerly accepted the assignment, and soon two boxes of manuscripts were delivered to my door, each box stuffed with the aspirations and sweat of some one- hundred- thirty-five struggling writers. Just how many hours of collective gazing-into-a- monitor did these stacks represent? How many agonizing rewrites and how much head banging for just the correct word? Each deadline the OAC Works in Progress program only ever has enough money to dispense less than two-dozen grants. Thus the statistical reality is that the majority of these submissions would receive a rejection letter, and although we writers are accustomed to rejection, no one finds it painless. I was beginning to regret having accepted this responsibility.

There were four jurors assigned to adjudicate the literature category, which consisted of short-fiction, novels, non-fiction, young adult (both fiction and non-fiction) and graphic novels. The competition is anonymous; each entry is marked only with its title. Each juror was asked to read every word of all the manuscripts, making notes on each entry on a special form sent to us, along with our vote of either, a yes, a no, or a maybe. A meeting had been set up at the end of September where all four jurors, along with the Literature Officer, would gather to reach a consensus upon which few would receive a grant this year.

The manuscripts had arrived in late July (delayed by a postal strike) and that meant there was less than two months to read all the manuscripts and still do them justice. And as luck would have it, I was flying to the UK for three weeks smack in the middle of this intense reading period. This is where a writer’s discipline is useful. I worked out that if I could read six manuscripts a day, I should be in good shape before the scheduled meeting with the other jurors. Submissions are allowed to be forty pages, plus up to three pages of bridging material and a one page summary. However, the majority of submissions seemed to be over forty pages. A few even attempted to pack in more pages by shrinking the font (most were disqualified by OAC but a couple did slip through). The jurors, just like publishers and literary mags, are inundated with submissions they need to read before a deadline. Any writer who adds stress to that process does do himself any favors. Personally, I made a conscious decision to not read anything past page forty of any manuscript sample: there is nothing in the remaining four pages that is going to alter my opinion about the writer’s clarity with structure, the prose, the dialogue, the plot and characters that he has not demonstrated in the previous forty.

The OAC also allows writers to include a summary of the book they are attempting. Although this page is not mandatory, I discovered that many of the entries included two or three pages of summary, much of it full of hyperbole, as though these pages were a pitch meant to make me want to read the sample. Jurors are obliged to read all samples. A hyped up summary, to me at least, served as a wish list for what the writer hoped to achieve in this book. The attached sample then, spoke of the writer’s ability (or inability) to reach that goal. I later found out that some of the jurors did not read the summaries at all. My advice would be to not include a summary of the book. I know from picking up books at libraries and book stores that by reading the first page I have a pretty clear idea of what the theme of this book is and whether or not I will find it engaging. Your sample writing is there to speak to the juror about the themes and conflicts in your book, as well your style.

The adjudication meeting itself turned out to be the most enjoyable part of the whole process. The OAC has been doing this a long time and they have honed it to an art. As the title of each submission was called out, the jurors gave their vote of either yes, no, or maybe. Any manuscript with four yeses (about 10%) needed no further discussion. These entries were brilliantly skillful. They had rhythmic sentences, which flowed effortlessly into concise paragraphs. Such manuscripts were notably free of grammatical and spelling errors (perhaps proofed by a professional editor?). Similarly, any manuscript that garnered four nos was destined for a rejection letter (about 40% in our batch). A few of these were clearly amateur, more a demonstration of vanity than talent. Others were bizarre derivatives of au courant fiction (think teen vampire superhero who attends wizard school), or they were so experimental as to be abstract and indecipherable. It was the remaining 50% that we the jury spent the day discussing. Each of these entries had potential that was cluttered by clumsy writing. Some manuscripts had passionate champions among the jurors (both for and against) attempting to persuade the other jurors to change their votes. The debates were lively, but respectful to both the writers and to the fellow jurors. It was interesting to hear the different viewpoints and all the jurors benefited from having his or her biases and justifications challenged. Often the writers were very close to having a winning manuscript but were making one or two fatal mistakes in the writing process. It is unfortunate that at present the OAC does not have a mechanism for submitters to benefit from that discussion (they are working to rectify that).

After listening to this insightful discussion, we were given a chance to review our votes for the remaining undecided entries. By 5 o’clock we had narrowed down the 50% into a consensus of yeses small enough to match the available funds from the OAC.

John Degen mentioned at the end our session that in his time at the OAC he had not encountered a jury which had discussed the manuscripts with such depth as we had and he felt we had given each writer his just due. I believe he meant it. I too was impressed by my fellow jurors. Despite the sometimes arduous reading schedule, all the jurors agreed that we would accept to adjudicate should we be asked again.

Pradeep Solanki

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