What We’re Looking For: Michael Steinberg Essay Prizes

January 24, 2022 § Leave a comment

Mary Cappello, Steinberg Essay Prize Judge

From Patrick Madden and Joey Franklin

This winter marks the third Michael Steinberg Memorial Essay Prize , since it was named in honor of Fourth Genre’s founding editor, who died at the end of 2019. It’s also our third year as editors, and the second year we’re also holding a Multimedia Essay Contest. All this has us taking stock of the curious responsibility that falls every year, not only to our guest judges, but also to us as editors. Looking back through the archives, we see two decades of preoccupation with similar questions: What constitutes creative nonfiction? What makes up a memoir? What passes as a personal essay? Since the journal’s first issue, whether it be in roundtable discussions, craft essays, or editorial notes, the directors and contributors of Fourth Genre have attempted to describe, define, and delimit the boundaries of the personal essay. 

We thought it might be useful to any of Brevity’s readers who are working toward their own understanding of the genre for us to briefly highlight some of those ideas from the past 20 years. And we hope it might also give interested readers a glimpse of “what we’re looking for” as we accept submissions for our two contests. 

First, a little wisdom from our personal essay contest namesake, Michael Steinberg:

  • “Most of my memoirs grow out of a need to interrogate my own thoughts and feelings in the hope of discovering something about myself that I couldn’t have found out any other way.”
  • “I also write memoirs because the form suits my temperament and disposition . . . I have a predilection for self-scrutiny and rumination, as well as for self-disclosure.”
  • “I believe that the artfully crafted personal essay or memoir is uniquely suited for our times. I say this because today our need to pay attention to the singular, idiosyncratic human voice is perhaps more urgent than ever before.”
  • “A lot of nonfiction writers are narrating only the literal story of their experience, and leaving out the ‘inner story’; that is, the story of their thinking.”
  • “The mind never stops searching for connections and asking questions. And that’s the thinking/feeling self I’d like to see more of in the personal narratives I read, both as a teacher and as an editor.”
  • “When we’re reading manuscripts, we’re always hoping to encounter a fully present narrator and a curious, idiosyncratic mind and imagination in the act of thinking things out on the page.”

And here are a few gems from this year’s Steinberg Memorial Essay Prize judge, Mary Cappello, author most recently of Lecture (Transit Books, 2020):“In order to write or make art one must be in love, not with an individual per se, but with life itself.”  

  • “Have you noticed that literary nonfiction is getting more and more wisp-like these days? I’m happy for an alternative robustness. The license for a work to morph, to exceed its placement, forgetful of itself, for a spell, even if, in the end, words insist on returning to the airy nothing from whence they spring.”
  • “It’s a problem that I have with finding pretty much everything interesting. It might be pathological. Or it might be what makes me an essayist.”

And finally, from Wayne Koestenbaum , this year’s judge for the Multimedia Essay Contest and author, recently, of Figure It Out (Soft Skull Press, 2020).

  • “What no one taught me is that to write I must sink away from one form of conscious navigation and surrender to what language decrees. I must dwell firmly enough within the language-net to feel that my experiences in the moment of writing are a consequence of the words and not simply their catalyst.”
  • “I believe in the persistence of play. All my writing is grounded in the practice of reckless verbal improvisation. I think it’s Winnicott who says somewhere that health is the ability to play.”
  • “I listen to what language tells me; I instigate the process, but once the language commences its relentless hum, punctuated by doldrum and silence and distraction and Instagram and anxiety, then I occupy the position of the cook who has been given the lamb and the milk and the lettuce but didn’t create them. … I can’t make myself known to you without this rule-governed armature, whose wendings and reprisals must take precedence over my ideas, even if language’s caparisoned marauders need the mulch of my ideation in order to have a ground to trample.”

“What we’re looking for” has never had a straightforward answer at Fourth Genre (nor likely at any other literary journal). We are all looking for good writing, and for those of us on the hunt for the best of the personal essay, we’re also looking for good thinking, expressed artfully.

We hope you find these few quotes to be helpful and inspiring, and if you’ve got a project in your files that you think might fit, we hope you’ll consider sending it to one of our contests by the March 15 deadline.

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