Recent Pulitzer debacle aside, this May's Poets and Writers magazine feature about writing contests got me thinking about the advice I give my own students about literary competitions. Poets and Writers offers a number of valid reasons why a writer might become a "professional writing contest entrant": that doing so is one way, especially for poets (whose prospects with commercial houses are especially limited), to break into publishing through smaller houses when the big houses dominate the market with more commercial fare, and that paying contest fees amounts to a kind of literary citizenship wherein we all pay a sort of "dues" to keep these small houses and literary magazines going. I don't disagree; in fact, I just sent a $30 reading fee for my novel off to a contest today. So yes, even I occasionally succumb to the hope that my novel might get plucked from the contest slush.
But can you really beat the odds? Poets and Writers seemed to imply that simply by submitting to a large number of contests, a writer with a high-quality manuscript would eventually prevail. Based on my experience as a judge for some of these competitions, I'm not so sure.
It was my first experience as a screening judge for the Deep South Writer's Conference that really opened my eyes. Now, let me be clear, this contest and the others I have since been a part of, are fair, ethical competitions, nothing like those that Foetry and Poets and Writers "The Contester" column exposed some years back as heavily weighted toward students and/or friends of the final judges. But contests can be more of the crapshoot than one might think and not always one I'm willing to pay for.
Twenty years ago, in the conference room of the English Department at the University of Louisina-Lafayette, I gathered with nine other graduate student screeners to receive my first stack of fiction entries. Each of us would bring home ten manuscripts and return a few days later with the one manuscript from our pile we believed should go forward to the final "celebrity" judge. This way said judge, who must not have been too much of a celebrity because I can't remember who it was, would only have to choose from among ten of presumably the "best" manuscripts.
I took my job very seriously, as did the other first round judges I'm sure, carefully studying each manuscript and comparing it to the others. More than half of the stories had issues that eliminated them from the race early on but ultimately, it came down to two or three quality manuscripts. As I recall, the final decision was agonizing.
And, it dawned on me, once we reassembled in that conference room, redolent of the department chair's cigarette smoke and the sweat of many a nervous student writer who'd once been on the workshop hot seat, it was highly subjective. I felt pretty good about my choice until I looked around at my fellow grad student judges and realized that, while we all might have narrowed it down to the same two or three, some of them would have made a different selection from my pile.
We were as disparate as a roomful of people could be, with markedly diverse aesthetic tastes. Some of us were in a punk band. Others would never be cool enough to be in a punk band (that would be me). Some were going through a magic realism phase. Others worshipped Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters and had begun to believe the government was tapping their phone. I wondered, "How would a manuscript of mine [at the time I was and still am a fairly mainstream literary realist] fare in this room?"
Since then, I've never been able to enter a writing contest without imagining that motley star chamber. Sure, whenever you submit something, it's going have to pass through one or two graduate students or editorial assistants at the gate. But at least when I submit to a journal, I've researched the publication well enough to know if my work is at least in the ballpark of what they tend to publish.
Sometimes I write the check anyway, deciding that supporting the contest, the press or the journal is more important. But I keep my eye out for free contests. Allison Joseph, who runs the go-to creative writing opportunities listserv, CRWROPPS, makes it easy by putting "no fee contest" in the subject line. When I asked her why, she explained: "Someone was unhappy that I was posting contests that had fees, so I started making it a point to show which ones didn't have fees. I don't mind fees, have entered many contests myself, and since we have both no-fee and fee contests connected with Crab Orchard Review, I think a balance is always good."
Yes, balance is important and so is supporting the arts, which is why our household subscribes to more than our fair share of literary magazines (in part because, between my husband and me, it contains more than its fair share of writers). I recommend my students do the same. If you're going to submit to literary magazines, you owe it to them to subscribe to some, even in your salad days. Besides, it's the only way to truly immerse yourself in the literary culture of your generation. But when it comes to contests, be judicious. If you enter a fee-based contest, do it as much as because you want to support that particular literary endeavor as anything else. And when you find a no-fee contest jump on it. After all, you have nothing to lose.