Feb 23, 2015
Giotto’s Perfect Circle: On Judging Literary Contests (oh, And Also On Being Judged. . . )
The story goes like this: Back in the early fourteenth century, the Pope (which Pope? you ask? The interwebs are unclear. . . There’s a Boniface-Benedict disagreement out there. . .) needed a painter for an important project, so sent a courier to Florence, that bastion of all things painterly, to collect submission pieces from the hottest artists of the day. When the courier asked Giotto for a painting to take back to Rome, Giotto took his brush and, with vivid red paint, he drew a perfect circle in one elegant stroke, pronouncing that to be his entry. The courier – as legend would have it –suggested that this was some bullshit, but Giotto retorted that the Pope would understand what it meant about his level of giftedness. And the Pope, of course, did understand and gave the commission to Giotto – which, as an aside, is why this is a story. If he hadn’t, I doubt we’d still be talking about that circle some seven hundred years later.
I first heard about Giotto’s bold move and near unique skill when I was fifteen or so, and was – remember, not all teenagers are alike- a little obsessed with Fourteenth Century Christian art. I’m not sure how much I actually knew about it (I suspect, not much) but, as with so many teenage obsessions, I had a lot of posters. And it almost goes without saying that after hearing about Giotto’s circle, I spent the bulk of my math period doodling-time that year trying to draw a perfect circle freehand. I failed. (I also failed math, but that’s a different story.)
Flash forward thirty-seven or so years, and now, much like the Pope, whom I assure you I resemble in zero other respects, I find myself judging competitions from time to time. And, much like Giotto, with whom I at least share a creative bent, I find myself being judged in competitions, as well.
We writers love a good analogy.
Unfortunately, there isn’t an exact one here. There is no abstracted single element of work that a writer might submit to prove overall excellence, even in a hypothetical competition with no rules about word length and so on. Among other reasons, we lack objectivity in our art. We lack a compass with which one might trace the perfection of a sentence, the genius of a single word. Though I admit I enjoy thinking about that scene. The courier, seeking an official short story writer for the Pope, arrives at the garret of a writer who sneers, takes out his pen, and scribbles: Unmoored. The courier suggests that this doesn’t quite fit the bill. “Actually, His Holiness, was looking for something more like a story. Even Flash Fiction. . .” And the writer smiles - a bit smug. “He will understand. He will recognize my genius. It is a perfect word.”
Cut to Pope rolling his eyes. . . “Please don’t waste my time with this idiocy. . .”
Which leads to the obvious question. What are literary judges looking for anyway? First answer: I don’t have a fucking clue. Second answer: I can tell you what I am looking for when I judge one of these things. And in fact the Giotto story isn’t entirely irrelevant to that.
It has nothing to do with perfection, nor with the mastery of a single skill, but perhaps something to do with the qualities of confidence, distinctiveness, and memorability. And also, to an arguably disproportionate degree, first impressions. Because, if you don’t hook me on Page One, I am unlikely to turn to Page Two. I can’t speak for all judges, obviously, but I think it’s pretty commonly true that stories (novels, etc) don’t get their full length to prove their worth. An author’s job is to make a reader want to turn the page – and the very first time that wondrous desire takes hold is the most important time.
But how? (Please know as you read that ponderous question that I am giggling at the idea that I know the answer, like I have figured out how to win writing competitions? Not so. No way. . .Still, onward. . . )
Confidence is a tricky thing. In real life, face-to-face it’s one of those characteristics that can either impress or irritate. It wobbles eternally on the wall separating it from its evil twin, over-confidence. I suspect that the courier who visited Giotto that day muttered some version of cocky bastard as he stepped back out onto the street. But in writing, in fiction, there is a necessary relaxation a reader must experience, the surrender to someone else’s imagination and to their care. And to their authority. When I have discussed the quality that hooks me into a piece I’m reading for a contest, I’ve often falling back on saying, “I could just tell that someone was doing something. Someone was in charge.”
It’s almost fitting to say: Go big, or go home. The problem with that exhortation, though, is that it can be misleading as to what “big” is. Big, when it comes to story openings, is often taken to mean shocking, just as the advice to begin a story in media res is often taken to mean during either a fight or sex or at the very least a heated conversation. But “big” in this context, does not mean shocking, or eventful, or anything except. . . having intent. Not just putting words on a page. Not just getting things rolling. But getting things rolling with authority. Having a confident intelligence waft from the page.
Because if I, as a reader, don’t have the sense that the writer is in charge, I will never fall into the dream. Few of us relax enough to sleep, to dream, when we feel unsure.
Picture the Pope, Benedict or Boniface, take your pick, walking into his den, seeing a dozen or more easels there, and on each one is the face of Christ, or of Christ’s beatific mother, or the cherubic smiles of smiling cherubs, and then, like some emissary from the mid-Twentieth Century, a red circle. Just that.
One of these things is not like the others.
Whatever else happened in that moment, for sure one piece in the room stood out. There’s no way the Pope doesn’t ask what the deal is, no way his curiosity isn’t piqued. And even an attentive papal what the fuck? is better than a dismissive papal same old, same old. And that goes for literary judges too.
But suggesting “difference” as a goal without some explanation is a dangerous thing to do. When I talk about difference or about being distinctive, I am emphatically not talking about jettisoning all familiar, time-honored subject matter.
I have heard editors talk about how sick they are of this kind of story and the other. Cancer stories come in for a lot of abuse as do stories about alcoholism, about grief, about marriages in crisis. I – and not just because I write about those things – am never sick of a particular subject. Nor when I read familiar subjects is the bar set higher for those stories. I have listened to editors say things like, “If you have to write a story about cancer, at least make it something new, like cancer on the moon.” (That’s actually close to an exact quote, God help us all.) That kind of thing makes me crazy. There’s room for Moon cancer stories, sure, but stories about how life is actually lived – and are lost – are not used up.
So, distinctiveness, for me, isn’t about the subject. It might be the language. It might be the structure – and for my money, I’d love to see more stories that play with structure. It might be that intangible: voice. But it needs to feel like something I have never read before.
Every time I’ve judged a contest, after I read through the stories or novels, and make an informal Finalist pile, I take a few days off. And very often a funny thing happens: I find myself remembering one story more than the others. It’s as if it were in color, while the other fade to black & white. It just kind of pops. That doesn’t mean I am remembering the plot or even how I felt at the end, but just that it’s the one that is hanging out, haunting me. And that is the one I end up choosing.
I don’t know how to advise anyone on how to make their work memorable, but I will say that for me anyway, it has absolutely nothing to do with surface perfections, well-turned sentences, expertly handled point of view. That’s a kind of funny thing for me to say, because I work hard at those very elements. But I think that for those of us who do aim for a kind of smooth, well-crafted product, there’s a danger of losing sight of what’s really going to knock a reader off her feet. I’m not saying that craft and memorability are in opposition, just that it can be easy to begin to put all your faith on a kind of proficiency of execution, as if that were the whole task, maybe because as a writer that feels like something over which one can have some control.
And it’s possible that being memorable has to do with the opposite of control, with something more like risk. As I said, here we are, seven centuries after the fact, telling the story of Giotto’s risky move. Would anyone ever cast a thought to that courier’s visit had Giotto’s response been to whip out a canvas of The Annunciation? No. Playing it safe, doing the expected, following the rules, these are not likely to penetrate anyone’s consciousness keenly enough for them to remember the work.
The caveats are obvious. Giotto didn’t just paint any old circle in order to be different from his peers, though establishing that difference may have been on his mind. He painted THE circle. A perfect circle. He backed up the risky act with skill.
But another caveat, a caveat to that caveat: Perfection was Giotto’s game. It isn’t ours. There’s no such thing as perfection in this pursuit. So the lesson isn’t, take risks if you can execute with perfection. The lesson is, take risks – but be aware that risks alone do not great art make.
Though who knows, maybe sometimes they do. Maybe sometimes the risk is the art.
I could go on and on with caveats and caveats to my caveats and so forth ad infinitum. Because that’s how writing advice is: equivocal, balanced always by its opposite, absolutely not absolute.
I couldn’t resist using Giotto as a lesson of a kind, maybe in part because I need to have something come out of that math class during which I obsessed over him, but I understand that this post probably isn’t of much practical value when it comes to submitting work for judgment.
Though. . . a caveat to that: Practical value isn’t the only value there is. And maybe there is some impractical value, some indefinable sort, just to holding that moment of Giotto’s bravado in your head from time to time as you write, the boldness of it, the oddness too. The confidence. The lunacy. The riskiness. The rudeness. The presumption.
And the success.