Most of us believe we'll be sure to love a book for time-tested reasons: it's a best-seller, we love the author, our best friend/brother/neighbor/tennis partner recommended it, or it's on the tablefront display at the chain bookstore. And don't forget the least-admitted, but most insidious reason of all: it's got a really cool cover.
None of these explanations really tell us what makes for a good novel — the kind you remember long after you've pitched every hokey mystery and fad adventure series. What will you keep at home when it's the last printed book on your shelf and everyone else is using e-readers? Well, I'm deep in the process of finding out as I and two other people are judging the adult fiction contest for the Society of Midland Authors, a venerable old group that once boasted members such as Carl Sandburg and Clarence Darrow. These days we can still say we have associates such as Sara Paretsky, Scott Turow, and Roger Ebert, but none of them entered the contest, much less come to meetings.
No, we are judging a good group of novels that tend to come from the area's university presses, although we do have plenty sent to us from the New York publishers as well. All that it takes to be considered is a connection to the Midland states (which is not so squarely Midwest as I thought — it ranges out to the Plains states also). Our headquarters is in Chicago, however, and that's the postmark on the bulk of our submissions.
When I began this bewildering process, I figured I'd sort the volumes into categories I was fascinated by, then ones I had a vague curiosity about, and finally the ones that would be lucky to pique my interest. Bad idea. Too much reading. A former judge told me that my problem would be similar to that of a literary agent or publisher.