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Students Jockey for Literary Prize

May 4, 1998

CHESTERTOWN, Md. (AP) _ Novelist Sophie Kerr’s gift to student writers 33 years ago is now the stuff of high drama.

The prize she endowed at tiny Washington College has become the largest undergraduate writing award in the world and grows bigger every year. Perhaps too big.

On May 17, a check for $35,000 will be handed to that student singled out as the most promising writer in the 205-member graduating class. Next year, the award may be close to $40,000.

Faculty and students are both wrestling with the behavior inspired by so hefty a prize. Some students feel the need to lobby for it. Writers snipe at each other. Rumors and speculation abound.

The reputation of this 1,000-student liberal arts college as a writers’ oasis has been built, in part, on the quality of students attracted by Kerr’s largess.

Kerr gained her fortune, though not much fame, in the 1930s and 40s writing some two dozen novels and penning short stories for the Saturday Evening Post.

A native of Denton, Md., she lived in New York but mentioned the Eastern Shore prominently in her books. Kerr died in 1965, just shy of her 85th birthday.

In her will, Kerr asked that half of the yearly interest from her original $573,000 bequest be awarded to a graduating senior who shows ``the best ability and promise for future fulfillment in the field of literary endeavor.″

The other half of the interest on the Kerr bequest goes to fund the Literary House _ a 24-hour-a-day retreat for writers to work, sleep and talk _ and bring notable writers to the campus to speak.

But it’s the Sophie Kerr Prize that arouses the most interest.

Jef Frank, a 21-year-old student from Towson, Md., says that although he might not be among the front-runners for the prize, he still attends all of the school’s literary gatherings to get in some valuable face-time with professors.

``At this time of year, it becomes, `Who’s the favorite?‴ said Richard Gillin, head of the school’s English Department and chairman of the committee that judges the submissions.

``The more blatant students are obvious. They will try to cozy up with a professor. In a more subtle way, it’s just being around,″ he said.

The jockeying begins almost immediately. ``There’s definitely a few writers, from Day 1, who have a shot,″ said Kevin Hoffman, a senior from Newark, Del. ``It’s like racehorses.″

And having writers of poetry, fiction, journalism or critical essays all compete for the same prize makes handicapping extremely difficult.

``I would much rather be able to make five or six talented students happy instead of having one overwhelmed,″ said Bob Mooney, who runs the Literary House and advises students on their writing endeavors.

Gillin says the committee is brutally honest when judging the student entries and that neither the student’s personality nor their efforts to schmooze ever influence the competition.

There have been surprises and even some upsets. There’s also that so-called curse. According to campus superstition, award winners never reach the level of success the prize seems to promise.

Since the award was first handed out in 1968, no winner has gone on to produce a critically acclaimed version of the Great American Novel. Some aren’t even writing anymore.

``I think when you’re a 22-year-old and you’re getting this huge award, it’s a burden to carry,″ Gillin said. ``They really feel a big responsibility to do something spectacular and that doesn’t happen right away. In some cases, it doesn’t happen at all.″

For Frank, the odds are still good enough: ``Any curse that comes with $35,000, bring it on.″

Mooney said the award teaches an important lesson _ the long odds against any writer gaining literary fame. After all, only a small percentage of fiction writers, poets and playwrights manage to make a living doing what they love.

``Losing can be, in a healthy mind, a valuable preparation,″ he said.

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