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Taste Is A Factor 3 September 2009

Posted by Camille Gooderham Campbell in Editor's Opinion.
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Coincidentally, today I was smacked in the face with not one but two separate bits of proof that personal taste is one of the biggest factors in editorial decisions.

A story is really the mutual creation of the writer and the reader: the writer provides the framework, the ideas, the language; the reader brings his or her personal experiences, taste, and imagination to fill it out and colour it in. The more skilled and powerful the writer is, the closer the reader may come to the writer’s intention, but I believe that no two readers experience a story in exactly the same way. Reading is by its nature a subjective experience, and while technique can (perhaps) be assessed in an objective way, even that might be coloured by taste — say, the reader’s preference for one particular prose style over another, or the degree to which the reader follows trends such as the modern distaste for adverbs and the passive voice.

Today’s story at EDF is “The Old City” by Clinton Lawrence. I personally enjoyed it — the prose is clean and sparse, there’s just enough information to whet my imagination, and the ending is open to interpretation. I would say that it is a good example of a particular kind of flash: the really bare-bones kind, not quite as bare as hint fiction perhaps, but with the story arc very much sketched in and a lot left up to the reader. However, the comments on the piece are nearly entirely negative — the only marginally positive comment was “This has kept me thinking. Thinking is good!” — faint praise indeed. And yet, I liked the story. I still do. Both critically and personally. Apparently I have a taste for connecting the dots where others want the Mona Lisa.

And just when I was starting to wonder about my taste in flash fiction and how I could be so off the mark…

…I got a confidential email about the results of the competition for which I’d been one of the judges. The email included a spreadsheet with the rankings that each judge had given the finalists. I was surprised — still am — at the disparity between our different assessments of the stories we’d read. The winning story stood out quite clearly, placing in the top three for all but one of the judges and with the most first-place rankings of any piece. Beyond that, though, it was really quite astonishing which different pieces had found favour with the different judges. And for the record, all of the judges are either writers whose work I admire or editors whose critical judgement I respect.

In the face of all that glaring evidence, I have to conclude that taste is a major factor in both acceptances/rejections and competition wins. Undoubtedly so.

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