“The writing community at HWS is extraordinarily lucky,” says Assistant Professor of Writing and Rhetoric and English Geoffrey Babbitt. “With the Trias Residency for Writers we have, for an institution of our size, one of the top guest-writer series in the country, and with Seneca Review we have a literary journal of longstanding national repute.”
This fall, these “two wonderful but historically separate entities” were bridged, Babbitt says, as students in his course on small press publishing became acquisition editors for the inaugural Seneca Review Deborah Tall Lyric Essay Book Prize.
Conceived in tandem with the course, the book prize competition drew manuscripts from about 160 writers working in the mercurial genre of the lyric essay, which operates on the borders between poetry and the essay but can encompass projects that blend text and image.
“The wide variety of manuscripts certainly adds to the challenging nature of the process,” says Babbitt, who is a coeditor of Seneca Review. “The advantage of our lyric essay anti-category — which is admittedly a catch-all — is that we don’t rule out strong work by adhering to traditional genre boundaries. Instead, we eschew them, thereby maximizing the stylistic range within our submissions. To us, aesthetic diversity is inherently good.”
Laurel Brown ’18, a double major in anthropology and writing and rhetoric, notes that the sheer variety among the manuscripts made “judging and comparing the essays really challenging, but our whole class was very dedicated to giving each author a fair and thorough chance at getting their book published. I loved dissecting each manuscript to find intensely layered narratives as much as I enjoyed discussing and critiquing the essays with my fellow board members.”
“It was great to feel that as an editorial board, our voices were heard and we were able to learn from each other’s ideas,” says Mandy Wark ’18, a double major in English and anthropology, who studyied abroad in Chile. “Reading these manuscripts was a valuable experience and gave me a taste of what the editing process is like, including the behind-the-scenes decisions.”
Under Babbitt’s guidance, the student editorial board narrowed a field of 16 semifinalists down to five finalists that they pitched to the book prize judge, John D’Agata ’95, the 2017-18 Trias Writer-in-Residence.
“There were a lot of submissions for the contest (far more than I think most book contests receive in their first years), and the fact that the students were able to collectively find five great finalists is a major accomplishment,” says D’Agata, a professor of English and director of the Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa. “As soon as you add more than one opinion into the process of evaluation you’ve doubled the complexity of your job. And the students in Geoff Babbitt’s class had to do this with 15 other opinions. So they not only learned how to evaluate literature (a valuable skill for anyone who cares about literature), but they also learned how to negotiate, which is a skill that anyone who wants to participate in the adult world should know. They were awesome.”
Ultimately, D’Agata selected Erica Trabold’s Five Plots as the winner of the inaugural book prize, for its complex grappling with nostalgia — “both its open celebration of how comforting nostalgia can make us feel as well as its acknowledgement that nostalgia can also mislead us into believing in dangerous fictions. And it does all of this through a discussion of the landscape, which is a unique lens through which to examine nostalgia.”
Five Plots will be published by Hobart and William Smith Colleges Press in the fall of 2018, when Trabold will deliver a reading on campus.