Looming Sophie Kerr Prize Raises Debate and Anxiety
By Natalie Butz, News Editor
As classes wind down, theses are turned in, and the campus prepares for final exams, members of the senior class are faced with an additional challenge: compiling and submitting a portfolio for the chance to win the Sophie Kerr Prize.
According to The Baltimore Sun, the Sophie Kerr Prize is the largest undergraduate literary prize in the country. Sophie Kerr was a prolific writer and a native of the Eastern Shore. When she died in 1965, her will stipulated that half of the annual earnings from the estate she left the college be given to the graduating senior who shows the most literary promise.
Anywhere from 25 to 45 hopeful writers submit portfolios each year. All portfolios submitted are read by every member of the Sophie Kerr Committee, which is comprised of the members of the English department, as well as the president of the college, according to Associate Professor of English Robert Mooney.
“The guiding principle of the committee’s judgment, as stated in Sophie Kerr’s Will, is that the Prize be given to the graduating senior demonstrating, through his or her work, the greatest possibility of achieving success in the literary endeavor,” Mooney said.
Vague, yes. But perhaps intentionally so. President Baird Tipson said he hopes this open-endedness will encourage writers of all different styles and disciplines to apply.
“I’d love to see someone who’s say, a psychology major or a biology major who can write very well about science. I don’t see why that kind of person shouldn’t win the Prize once in a while,” he said.
As much as Tipson encouraged diversity in the applicants, he also said there are some submissions he is tired of seeing.
“There’s an awful lot of fantasy and it’s rarely successful. I think people have grown up with Harry Potter and they want to write that kind of thing. But I think it’s a truism in writing that the farther you get from the world in which you live and the experiences that you’ve had, the harder it is to be an effective writer,” said Tipson.
Students can also err on the side of being inappropriate in attempt to be ‘edgy.’
“I’m sometimes surprised at what people will submit. I know more about the sexual habits of our submitters. Particularly in their poetry, [students] are very graphic sometimes. I’m not sure that that’s bad but I’m also not sure they share this stuff with their parents. I think they should realize there are these old guys reading this,” said Tipson.
Any other suggestions?
“I’m very old fashioned when it comes to writing. I have an immediate bias against someone who does not have a control of grammar and syntax. If I see the verb ‘to be’ in the first five sentences, I say, ‘here’s someone who doesn’t really know how to write.’ I pay much more attention to that,” said Tipson.
But Tipson also stresses that there are no absolute rules for Sophie Kerr Submissions.
“If it’s good writing, it doesn’t matter the subject matter, it’s worth paying attention to,” said Tipson.
That careful attention to good writing is what seniors submitting a portfolio are hoping to appeal to.
In her portfolio, senior Lauren Davenport is submitting a few scenes from a new play she has been writing, a couple academic papers and a few chapters from a novel.
“What it’s about is not so much the American dream, but what it means to be American,” Davenport said.
Davenport has wanted to apply for the Sophie Kerr Prize since her freshman year and became a creative writing minor to help hone her writing skills.
Like Davenport, senior Laura Walter has known she wanted to submit a Sophie Kerr portfolio since her freshman year. In fact, it was the reason she came to Washington College in the first place.
“I call it the lure of the Sophie Kerr,” Walter said.
Almost everyone agrees that the lure of the Prize is not so much the media attention or the title but the money and the opportunities it would present.
“My friends and I are planning to go to Europe after graduation. If any of us win [the Prize], I think we’ve decided that person is paying for drinks for the rest of the trip,” senior Valerie Wexler said.
Other students suggested different uses for the money.
“I would use [the Prize] to pay off my undergrad debt as well as make sure that I’m financially secure throughout my graduate school,” senior Alyse Bensel said.
But even with the thought of what the Prize money could provide, many students cannot help but feel disheartened at the competition.
“It just seems so futile. Most of the people I talk to, regardless of how good they are at writing, feel they have absolutely no chance of getting it. So it’s kind of like this hopeless endeavor,” senior Mary DiAngelo said.
Like most students applying for the Prize, senior philosophy major Allie Borden does not think she will win it either.
“But I know I’ll be angry with myself and always wonder if I don’t enter,” she said.
Even though she is not an English major and that puts her in the minority of applicants, Borden thinks her area of study offers its own unique advantages.
“Being a philosophy major has taught me to tighten my writing and to stay focused and relevant,” said Borden.
Tipson said he hopes that in the future, more students from different disciplines will provide more diverse portfolios.
“If I had my druthers, it wouldn’t be seen quite so much as a prize for the person who’s succeeded best as a creative writer. I think we tend to forget that there’s a lot of good writing that isn’t quote, creative,” Tipson said.
It seems like an encouraging idea: no matter what major a student is, he or she has a chance at winning a legendary prize and all the acclaim that comes with it. But the Prize is seen by the majority of students as being strictly for ‘creative writers’ and accessible to only a small portion of the college population.
“There is a tendency for people who think they are potential Sophie Kerr winners to form a clique and that can be off-putting to people who don’t think of themselves as competitors for the Prize,” Tipson said.
Also, actually winning the Prize may not be all that great.
“Sometimes I think the winner inherits a disadvantage–that pressure to succeed can feel to some like obligation, and God knows there’s enough pressure on a young writer as it is,” Mooney said.
It is a tongue-in-cheek observation on campus, better known as the ‘Sophie Curse,’ that past Prize winners do not go on to do much else.
“The fact is, there hasn’t been any Pulitzer Prize winning novelist to come out of any of the Sophie Kerr winners. That’s something we all talk about and say, ‘Well, if we don’t win, then we don’t have to worry about the Sophie Curse.’ If you don’t win the $70,000 literary prize that you wanted to for the last four years, then I think it’s a mild comfort,” said senior Allison Nowak.
Davenport cited WC alum Stephen Spotswood, now a successful playwright.
“[Spotswood] has so much renown as a playwright. He won a Kennedy Honor. He’s written some new plays, he’s been so involved and I’m thinking, ‘well, wait a minute, I don’t think he was a Sophie Kerr winner.’ That just shows you don’t have to win this stupid prize to be an author who’s taken seriously in the world,” Davenport said.
Still, one would be hard pressed to find a recipient of the Sophie Kerr Prize who would say it is in any way a curse.
Last year, 31 students submitted a portfolio and the Prize, then valued at $68,814, was awarded to English major William Bruce, `09.
Since winning the Prize, Bruce has moved to San Francisco and works as a tech writer.
“The majority of [the Prize] went to student loans to be honest because Washington College is not cheap. It also allowed me to move to California without a job and look for a job, which was a huge blessing,” Bruce said.
Bruce said he does not feel any pressure since winning the prize, nor does he feel that he reached the peak of his literary success at twenty-two.
“It doesn’t define anything. It doesn’t tell me what I need to do and it certainly, I hope, doesn’t represent my best work,” said Bruce.
Drama major Liam Daly, the 2007 winner, said he used part of the Prize to go to graduate school at the University of St. Andrew’s in Scotland.
“I got my Masters degree and now I’m teaching college English. I couldn’t be happier,” said Daly.
There are those who argue that the Sophie Kerr Prize creates unnecessary competition and stress within the graduating class because it only recognizes one person. In the weeks leading up to commencement, it is not uncommon for people to offer their prediction about who will be the next Sophie Kerr winner.
“Everyone wants to guess. It’s like ‘Survivor’ or ‘American Idol.’ Everyone’s like, ‘oh, I think I know who’s gonna win.’ Of course it’s almost never who people think because writing can be so private and people tend to judge based on someone’s personality,” senior Ricky Davis said.
With all the buzz surrounding it, most students are still trying to keep the Prize in perspective.
“It’s such a fickle thing. I mean, some people win it. Some people go on to do great things, some people don’t and all that means is, you don’t really need it to be successful,” Davenport said.