Sunday, March 09, 2008


Four years ago a reader from North Carolina had written a book and was trying to get it published. Over the Internet he met an older woman who generously offered him advice on the publishing process.

That exchange blossomed into a friendship that included lunches with one another and their respective spouses whenever either happened to pass through the other's hometown. She even included a short story that he had written in an e-zine she publishes.

They have maintained a healthy friendship, mostly through e-mail, ever since.

Now, however, she has asked my reader to vote for a short story of hers that is vying with 20 others in an annual online writing contest. She adds to her request, "if you think it merits your vote." It turns out that he's not sure it does.

"I read the story and found it too weird for my tastes," he writes. "While the other stories weren't very good, I thought they were more entertaining than hers."

Nonetheless, he's assuming that friends and family of each of the authors will vote for the person they know, rather than for the quality of that person's story.

"There's no money involved in winning," he writes, "just bragging rights."

He's inclined to vote for his friend's story, but he wants to know what I think.

"Should honesty be valued over friendship," he asks, "especially when the stakes aren't very high?"

People cast votes for many reasons, only one of which is that a given candidate is the best choice for a job or honor. In a mayoral election the question is "Who do you want to be mayor?," for example, not "Who would be the best mayor?" It's possible for someone to think that a qualified woman, who would be the first-ever female mayor, is a better choice for symbolic reasons, even if her opponent is even more experienced. And, yes, you might vote for a friend or relative, even if you thought he or she would not be the best mayor, out of loyalty.

My reader is in a trickier position, though, because this contest specifically wants people to vote for the best of the nominated stories. "Best" is subjective, of course, but the implied question is not, "Which story do you want to win this contest?" It's "Which story is, in your opinion, the best?"

In a perfect world, the organizers of the contest wouldn't have placed my reader in such a position. They would have withheld the authors' names and given the voters only the stories themselves to consider. My reader's friend could have written to tell him that she had an entry in the contest and asked him to vote -- but not told him what story to vote for. That would have removed the "vote for your friends" impulse and forced voters to focus on the literary merits as they saw them.

As it is, my reader is faced with competing values: loyalty to his friend vs. honesty about his literary taste. His inclination to vote for his friend's story, in spite of its dubious literary merits, suggests that his loyalty takes a higher priority, but his discomfort with the situation suggests that he knows it's not the best decision.

The right thing for my reader to do, under the circumstances, is not to vote. That way he won't cast a vote for a competing story, but won't compromise his integrity by voting for a story that he doesn't really believe deserves recognition. In a public election there is a civic duty to vote, but that's not true of a short-story contest. He's uncomfortable with either choice, so he should decline to get involved.

And no, the fact that many others may be casting their votes for extraneous reasons doesn't change the basic ethics of the situation. The right thing is the right thing, even if you're the only one doing it.

c.2008 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)


Anonymous said...

Integral aspects of friendships, honesty, and loyalty, often frustrate us; we are constantly seeking to sustain relationships that could potentially disintegrate regarding the “honesty is the best policy” adage. However, the best friendships are those in which both parties freely and honestly express given opinions without prejudice even if “the truth hurts.”

Otherwise, it is not a healthy friendship when one has to compromise his or her beliefs in order to coexist with others.

In this case, “If you think it merits your vote,” indicates that the writer realizes that her work may not appeal to everyone, a matter of personal taste. If the work does not warrant his vote, he should not vote for it and should not feel sorry consequently electing not to do so.

Madilyn B. Salt Lake, UT said...

I was under the impression this was the sort of circumstance which created the scenario for people to vote anonymously. He could not vote and then not bring up the subject. Or, if she brings it up, don't talk of the voting but still tell the truth. "I thought the writing was better than anyone else's. Where did you come up with that subject?"

Anonymous said...


Your correspondent says, "I read the story and found it too wierd for my tastes." So what is he supposed to be voting on? Writing style or content?

I like some of Stephen King's writings. "The Stand" and "Christine" in particular. But "It," "Cujo" and "Carrie" suck in my opinion. They just didn't interest me at all.

But as far as liking or disliking the author, all of the above novels were written by that rotten SOB Boston red Sox fan whose team swept my beloved Anaheim Angels in the playoffs last year. They have a great writing style and I'd pick Stephen King over any novelist whose novel started out with, "It was a dark and stormy night ..."

Stephen King probably got his start by stealing his mother's Social Security checks. And with them he developed a great writing style which I like even if I prefer "dark and stormy night" themed novels more than ones about family pets that tear people apart.

So I can't answer your correspondent's question until I know what the writing competetion is all about.

But if he's an attorney, he can tell his friend he voted for her story, secretly vote for another one and do it with a clear conscience. We learned that skill in law school along with sincerity. Once we learned how to fake that we had it made.

Burl Estes

Marcia James said...

Mr. Seglin: At first glance, your response seems like sound advice. But there is much more to this. You address the fact that literary tastes are subjective, but then you use the phrase “dubious literary merits” to describe the author’s story. Her story could be brilliant, but just not your reader’s cup of tea.

Here’s my problem with this whole situation: the author who wrote the short story has generously given of her time and experience to this man who admits he’s a newbie writer. Did the published author look at his work and deem it of “dubious literary merit” and refuse to offer her help? His writing might not be up to her personal standards, but that didn’t stop her from giving a hand-up to a beginner.

Now, he has an opportunity to do something kind for the author who has helped him. If he is in the publishing arena, he has to know that there are many publishing contests that are popularity contests, no matter how they are phrased. There is no difference between these contests and TV shows like American Idol or Dancing With the Stars. People vote for their favorites; not for the best entrants.

As a newly published author myself, I look for ways to support established authors who have generously given of their time to me. I attend their booksignings, I comment on their blogs, and I vote for them when they enter contests for Best First Chapter, Best Book Cover, Best Book Video, whatever. It’s the least I can do to pay them back, whether I like the genre they write in, whether I dislike their choice of first-person POV, whether I prefer books with different types of protagonists or less violence or more love scenes, etc. It would be highly arrogant to believe that my personal tastes translate into what entry has the most literary merit.

I think your reader is that arrogant and is using semantics to keep from supporting a generous friend. As a beginning author, why does he believe he understands literary talent more than the people who nominated his friend’s story for the contest? It’s like a guy who frequents fast food joints thinking he’s more qualified than a food critic to distinguish which gourmet restaurant deserves the highest rating. And to take this food analogy a step further, what if your reader likes Krispy Kreme glazed donuts? Does that mean a delicious French pastry has no merit just because his tastebuds are set for sugary chemicals?

Personally, I hope his author friend doesn’t waste any more time helping this ingrate.

Marcia James