I attended a private Catholic high school for girls, across the street from a private Catholic high school for boys. Students were allowed to take classes at both schools. My mother taught on the girl side, my dad on the boy side.
The boy side’s English department ran an annual writing contest. Winners got award and publication in the school literary magazine. It was a project of the boy side teachers, therefore only boys could submit work for consideration. The girl side had no such thing going on. I thought this was bullshit.
I wrote a story called “Pretty Red Lights” told partially in flashback where a boy attends the funeral of his friend who it turns out was killed in an accident when the main character was driving drunk. It was a pretty melancholy story. I was reading a lot of Joyce Carol Oates at the time.
I typed it up, wrote the name Jacob Martin on top, turned it in. I felt like a badass.
A few weeks later at the dinner table over Shake n Bake chicken my dad said that a boy named Jacob Martin had won a prize in the writing contest but they couldn’t find him. They had been announcing his name for a week over the P.A. system and he didn’t seem to exist. It was a good story, he said. Too bad they couldn’t find the author.
“I’m Jacob Martin,” I said.
My dad was very quiet about my revelation. I did not get the prize, but his colleague wanted to run the story in the magazine under my name. I wasn’t the only girl to be published. Just the only one to have been named for a prize, though it was revoked when they found out my identity.
Lying was a jerk move. It was unfair to my dad. I taught at my daughter’s high school for two years and she never once put me in a position like that.
The subjectivity of contest judges and other gatekeepers of publishing is an age old problem for authors. I’m thinking of recent stories in the publishing world of a woman subbing as a man, a white man subbing as an Asian woman, and the rallying cry for diverse literature to reflect our diverse world.
My opinion? It’s bad to lie. Integrity must be the ideal in art or else there is no point. What I did was wrong because I lied in order to cut through an obstacle that was vexing me. You can’t discover truth through deception. Deception just leads to cross feelings and more questions, and unfairly tarnishes the whole endeavor for everyone.
It’s not just in our artmakers that we crave diversity. The more diverse the gatekeepers, the better it will be overall for literature, art and discourse.
Jacob Martin won the prize because he was a boy who wrote a story that resonated with one of the judges (not my dad, who said afterward that he never liked the story). I had no idea what would have happened if they’d known who I was from the beginning. The only thing I learned from my lie was that lying was manipulative and felt terrible.
If we are going to move integrity in publishing and literature forward, we must go forth in truth and truth alone.