Contesting the norm

It’s one of my favorite times of the year: The submission period for the Southern New Hampshire Fall Fiction Contest has closed and I get to read several of the outstanding semi-final entries.

This year we had 560 submissions. The forty that I’ve read this week are among the best I’ve read in my three years of judging, and I just finished reading a story about a clever high schooler who comes up with a unique way to ask out a girl he likes. This may sound like an age-old story, and of course, it is. But the boy’s tactic, the girl’s motivations for being the way she is and catching his attention: all crisp and unique.

Another writer submitted a piece of metafiction in which the narrator/protagonist is vying for an appointment to speak with the omniscient narrator. Fun idea, and the setting was so sharp that I felt like a fly on the wall in the waiting room.

There have been other good submissions–anthropomorphism cast in a new and fun way, coming-of-age pieces that speak to what today’s youth are experiencing, and a few explorations of addiction, depression and despair. And wow, perhaps the best part is that there have been a BUNCH of stories featuring LGBTQ+ characters, as well as more POC–that’s Protagonist of Color in this context–than I’ve read in the past three years.

I don’t know how many of my submissions come from students and how many come from the general public, but seeing these demographics represented in a noticeable and strong way is amazing. I don’t know if literature as a whole is changing (this is just one small drop in the pond, right?), but this is exciting.

What’s also been totally delightful and yet downright harrowing is the way Covid and politics have shown up across these texts. I know many people are writing about these things right now, and I see many calls for submission on both topics. They are important, but I have not been all that interested in writing about them–or reading about them.

When I read fiction for pleasure, I want to forget about what I’m living, not see how well it’s mirrored or torn down in a story. But I know that writing about what we experience is part of processing it, and through the stories I’ve read this week, I get a sense of joy in seeing how students are tackling these topics, all of them. I love seeing the black character who’s going to Harvard or the queer character whose gender we never learn because it doesn’t matter. I love the trans character whose grandma stands up for her. These characters and plots and conclusions give me a sense of hope about the future. They help me see how these writers are taking what we’re dealing with it and processing it from their own perspectives.

They are crafting more than just a fictionalized future for our country in a post-Covid and post-Trump world, but a literary future that breaks genres and tropes while exploring what it means to be part of something. No matter what it’s about, who writes it and who is featured in it, that’s what the best fiction does.

What new writers are you finding? How are they helping you through these times?

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