Hamilton Alumni Review
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'Typing fast and telling lots of lies'

Commentary on the contest and notes on the writing life

By John Nichols '62

I'm a lousy person to judge a writing contest. I'm no fan of 10-best lists, nor of Oscar nominations, nor of the 100 "best" novels ever written. People have often asked me what writers or books have influenced me most, and I've always replied: "I never met a writer (or a book) I didn't like." I have pedestrian, goofy, elitist, maudlin tastes all rolled into one. I like People magazine as much as, if not (much) more than, The New York Review of Books. I like Robert Service poems way better than T. S. Eliot's. And I prefer Breakfast at Tiffany's to War and Peace. Give me William Burroughs, Carson McCullers, Demetria Martinez, Toni Morrison and David Foster Wallace, but don't bug me with Thomas Pynchon or William Faulkner. Go figure. As you can see, I also contradict myself very well.

It's always good to remember that opinions about all art are subjective. If you picked five different people to judge this contest, you'd probably come up with five different winners. Whenever I myself have published a book, half the reviewers called me a genius, whereas the other half thought I should be thrown in jail for cutting down trees to promote such tripe.

They're both correct.

If I had to be a professor (which thank god I'm not!), I would tell every student on Day 1 that they would get an automatic A, and with that out of the way we could get on with the business of learning. I think ranking people with grades is for the birds. Obviously, I would last about 30 seconds in academia. And nobody will ever again ask me to judge a writing contest!

For this writing contest I read 20 submissions and was intrigued by almost all of them. None of the writing was bad, and most of it was pretty interesting. Hamiltonians travel a lot, and I appreciated very much two insightful pieces about Peace Corps experiences in Togo. I enjoyed a travel essay set in Istanbul; and I was moved by a quiet reflection on a trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau. There was a fascinating riff about gambling in a St. Petersburg (Russia) casino by an author who has scads more chutzpah than I possess. I particularly enjoyed an essay about a famous art forger from the Netherlands. And I had fun with another essay that discussed famous American hoaxes.

Other submissions ran a gamut from sci-fi, to the death of a true "rocket scientist," to memories of a school bully, to a father's fatal heart attack (which was quite powerful), to a portrait of a lush, to a very interesting story predicated on a runaway horse and the birth of a very premature baby: pretty wild but nice. There was also a cool piece about justice, or the lack of same, narrated
by an assistant D.A.

Sometimes I felt that the best writing did not translate into the most interesting stories. A couple of more awkwardly written pieces had much power because they contained lots of feeling.

My instructions were to select as winners the two "best" entries (according to my all-knowing critical insights, intuition and deep-seated prejudices). And if I needed to mention a third candidate, that was OK to boot.

So, with apologies to all the other entries, here are ones that stood out extra for me:

First Place: A story titled, simply, "O.," by John McKay '04 and Jon Bellona '03. I think it's beautiful, written perfectly, and it broke my heart.

Second Place: "Wrecked," by Rachel Richardson '09.This is a cleanly written story, rich in small details, and it also moved me deeply.

Honorable Mention (tie): "Doing Justice" by Joseph Verga '87 and "Art Forgery and the Master Forger"by William Fleming '55. I liked the tone, attitude and subject matter of "Doing Justice," along with its clarity in describing a complex situation. Not fancy, no tricks, but good. I would say the same for the "Art Forgery" essay, which I simply found to be a cogent and interesting piece of work.

While I was at Hamilton, I published in the Spectator a series of grotesque, pun-filled, puerile and obscene humor columns called Just No, Stories. They had no redeeming social value, and, if resurrected today, would probably destroy what little literary reputation I've managed to accumulate in the past 45 years. While at Hamilton I also submitted to a creative writing class (during my senior year) a short story that my professor, Jascha Kessler, said was so mawkish he wouldn't embarrass me by allowing my peers to rip it to shreds in class. He told me simply to throw the story away and forget I ever wrote it. Which I did.

Despite these setbacks, I went on to a checkered literary career, actually earning a living by typing fast and telling lots of lies.

The submissions to this Hamilton Alumni Review contest were all much better than anything I produced while I was on the Hill. I was encouraged greatly by their range, depth and excellent writing.