The Denton Award

The Denton Award

The night air nipped at Denton’s skin as he walked down a desolate sidewalk; his damp, warm breath billowed forth as it clashed with his frigid surroundings. The sidewalk was illuminated by the bustling traffic of vehicles on 52nd street - it had just turned dark only moments ago and every exhausted worker was anxious to return home. Upon seeing a café labeled “McGinty’s” with cursive, neon-green fluorescents, Denton veered from the street and entered the storefront. A rush of warm air engulfed him as he opened the heavy wooden door and stepped inside the cafe.

Noticing the intrusion of the frigid air that marked Denton’s entrance, the hostess stepped forward and greeted him. “Good evening sir, table for one?” she asked as she picked up a single menu from the stack next to her.

“No actually, a table for two. And, I would like to be seated outside on the back patio if you please,” said Denton. Even though he had been inside for a few moments, his chilled ears and nose began to burn and turn red due to the warmth of the café.

“Sir, it’s awfully cold outside, wouldn’t you prefer a booth by the window?”

“No, no. Outside if you please.” The hostess quickly picked up a second menu and began to walk deeper into the café. Denton followed her as they navigated through a collection of tables and booths filled with baggy-eyed workers – the café’s management often ignored maximum capacity in exchange for maximum profit.

An inrush of cold air assaulted Denton’s face once again as the hostess opened the door to the back patio. The outdoor portion of the café was merely a tiled porch surrounded by a tall rock wall fence. Beyond the fence were the shingled rooftops of the neighboring businesses. Denton chose a table with two metal chairs and promptly sat down. Despite his layers of winter clothing, he could still feel the frigid iron seat beneath him.

“I’ll take two orders of your gingerbread coffee please.” The hostess shivered and nodded as she turned to go back inside. Denton sighed, leaned against the cold metal back of the seat and stared into the night sky. The bright lights of the city overpowered the weak starlight; the sky was just an amorphous canvas of midnight blue. It had been years since he had seen a mere twinkle amidst the artificial glow that dominated the night sky.

A few minutes lulled by as Denton fidgeted with the café menu and rearranged the order of the napkin dispenser and sugar packets. All of the while the second menu lied across the table in front of the vacant seat. He knew some of the café’s patrons were gawking at him from behind the thick glass windows of the café; much like they were gazing at an attraction in the local aquarium.

The backdoor to the café opened as two women came out: one was a waitress balancing two steaming cups of coffee on a platter, the other a red haired woman bundled tightly in a thick black coat. The waitress hurriedly set the cups down upon the table and then scurried back into the warmth of the cafe.

Gently setting her leather Armani briefcase on the ground, the red haired woman sat down across from Denton. Her cold hands quickly grasped onto the hot cup of coffee as she raised the brew to her nose. The warm vapor gently grazed her face as the heavenly scent of gingerbread and African coffee beans drifted into her nostrils. “I’m sorry that I’m a wee bit late Denton,” she said before taking a hasty sip from her cup.

“It’s not a problem Tanner; I just got out of the office a few minutes ago. Your message said that you had some literary works to show me? I already told you that I have considered every entry for this year’s award” said Denton as he stirred his coffee in a display of boredom.

Tanner wagged her index finger at him as she reached down and pulled out a stack of paper from her briefcase. “You must have missed these stories; they are the cream of this year’s crop. Did you read this romantic poem? The nobility and heroism portrayed by the main character is unmatched,” she said as she handed him a bundle of paper.

            Denton glanced at the cover page then replied. “Yes, I remember this submission; it was quite good. However, Clara has deemed it a re-hash of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight from the late thirteenth century. This manuscript is several centuries too late to be considered original, I’m afraid.”

            “Well then, how about this poem, what a delightful work; it’s a theme I have not encountered before,” said Tanner as she handed him the next bundle of paper.

            “You may not have encountered it before, but Clara has. Virgil penned the root of this story in the first century,” he said as he tossed both of the paper manuscripts onto the table.

            “Surely you have overlooked this novella” said Tanner as she desperately shuffled through her briefcase. She retrieved one of the many stacks of paper bound by an office clip and gave it to Denton.

            “Ah yes,” said Denton as he glanced through the reading classes at the tip of his nose “The Motley Tribunal. This novella almost had me fooled as well. Yet, Clara revealed that it was just a spin on Out of the Silent Planet.”

            “I am not familiar with that title. Is it a novella? Surely it does not have the same plot as this story.”

            “Tanner, it was by C.S Lewis; he created many originals but I think that some of them have been forgotten after all of this time. Fortunately, Clara never forgets a piece of literature.”

            “Bloody Clara,” Tanner muttered. “Listen to me Denton. It’s been five years since any piece of literature has received the Denton Award for Unique Literature. You have rejected every poem, short story, movie script, and novel that has been submitted. Hell, if someone sent in a bloody stone tablet in hieroglyphics Clara would deem it as a copy of an earlier work.”

            “That’s her job,” he curtly said as he sipped his coffee.

            “It’s a 'she' now is it?”

            “Merely a figure of speech. Now look here, people submit tens of thousands of manuscripts because of the Denton Award’s reputation. It is the only prize which deems a work as truly unique and original. I am sure as hell not going to tarnish it by choosing a work that is a copy of an earlier work,” said Denton. With the flick of his wrist he tossed the rejected stack of paper back onto the table with the other two submissions. “Look, I do not blindly accept Clara’s judgment on every matter. I always read, or at least skim the work to see if it is indeed a copy. And you know what I find? Tell me what I find, come on,” said Denton as he motioned with his hand for Tanner to speak up.

            Tanner heaved a sigh of frustration, sending a small cloud of breath into the frigid air. She replied in a grudgingly rehearsed fashion, “You find that the work in question does indeed reflect an earlier work and,” at this point Denton joined in as they both spoke together, “is not original.”

            “See there? I could not have said it better myself,” said Denton as he folded his hands on his chest and once again looked at the blank sky above. “Humans have penned their ideas, experiences, and visions from their imagination for centuries. But that’s all over now. We are on the last stretch off an asymptotic slope – the seemingly eternal well of original stores will soon run dry.”

            “Well surely that cannot be. You’re just too restrictive on what you consider to be original,” said Tanner as she collected the rejected manuscripts and put them back in her leather briefcase.

            “You’re accusing me of being too exclusive? There are only a finite amount of places on this earth, right? Similarly, only a finite amount of places in our region of space, a finite number of cultures, and a limit to how many ideas mankind can conjure. There simply is not an infinite supply of unique stories – everything is finite.”

            “You never answered my question about being too restrictive on what you consider to be original. If you say ‘well the story has a nemesis, damsel in distress, and a hero, bah that has already been done’ well of course nothing will be new in your view” said Tanner as she folded her arms against her chest and shivered from a chilling breeze.

            “Do not oversimplify Clara’s ability to identify an original work. She was developed for decades. Her algorithms have been finely tuned by a fleet of experts. And most importantly she has every piece of literature produced by mankind in her database. Students cannot even write a term paper without submitting their work to her.” Denton said in a flustered tone of voice.

            “There you go again referring to it as a ‘she’. Clara is a database, Denton, not a woman. And it is only as smart as they have made it to be.”

            “Him, her, it, let’s not split hairs. The point is that she knows when an author reuses a plot but changes the characters, or when they mix plots from several different sources. Clara is the only thing in existence that knows every work produced by mankind, thus, she is the only one who can know when something is original.”

            “I loved the idea of Clara when I first leaned of it. At long last, every bit of literature would be translated, compiled and centralized. But I never thought it would become a vice to constrict new authors out of their livelihood.” Said Tanner as she removed a scarf from her briefcase and began to wrap it around her goosebump covered neck.

            “Oh pshaw! You know very well there are hundreds of awards out there waiting to be claimed. No, these authors want my award because it has become the most prestigious literary prize in modern history. When a writer wins the Denton Award it signifies that their work is of pure beauty: a new story for people to experience, a true gateway into another world. Why do you think the last author who won it five years ago has sold one billion copies of his book since then? Because the story was new, unique!”

            “It’s almost as if you enjoy torturing me,” said Tanner. “I am the one who has to answer thousands of inquiry letters about why no one has received the award in five years. Some of these submissions are truly noteworthy if you could take the time to absorb them.”

            “Do you think I enjoy denying all of these works? Do not be daft! My very soul yearns to grant my distinguished prize to a pair of deserving hands. For I, nay, the whole world is benefitted by a new piece of literature. Oh how I wish I could be transported back to the Renaissance or the twenty-first century – they were eras filled with bold, fresh literary works. People could literally bury themselves in unique manuscripts back then.”

            The back door to the cafe opened once again as a different waitress timidly walked to their table. “Are you Sir Denton the author? The person responsible for the Denton Award for Literature?” she asked.

            Denton ran his hand through his hair in frustration at being recognized and turned to the waitress. “Yes, very astute young lady. But please, don't cause a fuss; if I am able to leave without a crowd, I will autograph something for you. Otherwise, I’ll opt for a hasty and permanent departure.”

            “Oh, I would never cause a scene, sir. But I actually have a favor and a question for you. Have you...” she gulped nervously and ran her fingers across a creased paper in her hand. “…found a new winner for your award yet? I have been waiting for something new to read for ever so long.”

            “Regrettably, none of this year’s submissions have met the standards. Trust me, I long to immerse myself in a unique work as much as you do.”

            “Well, if nothing has met your criteria, would you please consider this?” she said as she handed him her folded paper. “I studied medieval writings in college and composed this small fable. After months of pouring over every well known author I could find, I still have not found a match. Would you do me the honor of considering it, please?”

            Denton squinted his eyes shut and rubbed them profusely with one hand as he extended his other hand towards the girl. She quaked slightly as she set the paper gently in his outstretched hand. He hastily unfolded the small note and then looked down his nose through his spectacles to read it.

            “Mmm hmm” he muttered repeatedly as he skimmed over the carefully handwritten font. The fable was only composed of a few stanzas, yet its theme seemed vaguely familiar to Denton. “I have a sneaking suspicion that we have a copy of an earlier work.”

            “Oh that is not possible sir. I have spent months editing and cross referencing my fable so that it will be original.”

            Denton pulled out a small electronic device which resembled the PDAs of the twenty-first century. He feverishly pressed on its screen as he entered data for Clara to run an analysis on the waitress's fable. She nervously wrung her hands together as Denton tapped his fingers on the cold table awaiting a response from his query. The electronic device emitted a light heavenly chime which marked the response from Clara.

            “Well this is something” he said as he adjusted his reading glasses and looked at the small screen. “It’s not the author I was expecting. But, you see, Marie de France already wrote this fable in the eleven hundreds: ‘The rooster and the Gem.’” The waitress’s eyes swelled with tears of disappointment as she turned and quickly returned inside the cafe.

            “What the devil is wrong with you? Are you that calloused? She said she spent months working on that” said Tanner.

            “Oh come now, I meant no offense, she wanted an answer and I gave her one. I knew right away that her work was not original.” Denton paused when he noticed the disapproving scowl on Tanner’s face. “Well perhaps this failure will inspire her to compose the next masterpiece that is worthy of the Denton Award.”

            “It really is quite sad that you cling to your own definition of originality. Just because a plot or character is repeated does not mean that the work is not unique.”

            Denton let forth a hearty chuckle in response, “Why that is nonsense. Of course it means the work is not unique! Something can only be new and unique if it has not existed in the past.”

            “That is the primary flaw in your reasoning,” said Tanner. “Every author brings in their own flavor, tone, and background into a story. Romeo and Juliet may have been re-written hundreds if not thousands of times in other forms, but many of those modified stories reflect the author’s perspective on life. Proficient authors will pour their mentality and very soul into a work, not merely to please a fickle audience or publisher, but to present their ideas to change the world.”

            “That notion is already an adjustable factor in Clara’s algorithms. And besides, I have already stated that there is a finite amount of experiences someone can have. I agree that a duplicated work may add to the pastiche of the genre, but it is not unique.”

            Tanner shook her head and heaved a deep sigh of frustration as Denton continued, “Do not misunderstand; there are still some new stories that have not been told yet. If some new culture was to emerge, a new historical fact is found, or if technology can get over it’s current hurdle, then we will receive some unique works. But without those changes, our current population will only be able to concoct stories that are mere mixtures of literature already in existence. But eventually, in the future, everything that there is to see and every viewpoint will be expressed; the literary world will be filled with mundane regurgitated ideas for the rest of eternity.”

            Tanner shook her head, picked up her briefcase and stood to her feet. “Denton, I'm afraid I'll have to excuse myself; the hour has grown late and it is far too cold out here. Besides, I still have a number of submissions I want to review before tomorrow.” Tanner walked to the back door of the café and pulled open the heavy door. Even from a distance Denton could feel the warm air fleeing from within the building. Tanner paused for a moment and turned to face him again. “Regardless of your pessimistic view, I want to thank you for letting me assist you with screening the submissions this year. The prestige of your award exposed me to writers of all ages across the globe, each with their own voice and world view.”

            “Goodnight Tanner, I'll see you at the office tomorrow morning.” Soon, Denton was left alone in the back patio of the cafe. The trickle of warm air from the cafe was replaced with a frostbitten breeze when the back door closed once again. Leaning back in his chair, he held the portable connection to Clara against his chest. He gazed past the shingles of the neighboring rooftops towards the sky above, desperate to see a single star in the dark, vacant night.


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bbaker
Short Story
Fantasy
writing bbaker
Consider human history in its entirety as a complex and stirring musical piece, written and directed by the most supreme being: God. You, with your life, serve as a small concerto in this musical; your part may have tristezza or allegro, but be strong and maintain the course until the coda
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Synopsis
It has been five years since anyone has won The Denton Award for Unique Literature - the most prestigious literary prize on Earth. On a cold, bleak night in England, the award's creator and judge, Denton, struggles with his protege at the prospect that there is a finite limit to the amount of original stories in existence.
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