Thursday, August 28, 2008

Quick word about short story competitions

I have been thinking a lot about what Women Rule Writer wrote on her blog a few weeks ago about short story competitions in her blog post Story Comps: Judging, Entering, Retiring. She said:
After my second book of stories was published, I felt there was no place for me to be entering comps anymore.
A healthy discussion ensued about whether, after a certain level of success has been attained (one book published, two books...), a writer should step back and stop entering competitions. Or, on the other hand, since competitions are excellent ways for short story writers in particular to earn the money that their books are never going to bring in, should it just be Best Writer Wins, regardless of pedigree/level of fame?

I bring this up today because I just received an email from Narrative magazine announcing the winners of their First Person Story Contest: first prize goes to Gina Ochsner. Now, Gina Ochsner, a very fine writer, has published two short story collections and I see her name in many literary magazines, including the New Yorker. I don't doubt that her prize-winning story is worthy of the prize - but my questions would be, Should she still be entering these comps, given that she doesn't need the exposure/fame as much as some of us? The $3000 first prize is, of course, wonderful, and I don't begrudge her at all. But this is an ongoing topic of discussion, I think, and a worthy one. What are these competitions for? Who are they for? To be honest, this puts me off entering Narrative's new competition (details here), I feel like its out of my league and I shouldn't even bother. (This is not me asking for validation that I, too, am worthy... don't worry, my ego is intact!).

Any thoughts?


Frances said...

Hello Tania - this is a very interesting subject to discuss. Personally I feel that very fine writers such as Gina Ochsner and yourself should go on entering competitions, however many books you've had published. As long as the story itself hasn't been published before (if the rules specify this).

I don't think well-published writers necessarily enter competitions just for the money - I'd guess it's more to do with still needing encouragement, recognition and goals to work towards. Also because writing can be a lonely business, even when you've been published, and prizegivings are social events - as Stevie Smith said, "It's not the fame, dear, it's the company."

Gay Degani said...

Provocative discussion, as always, Tania. As a writer with only a small sprinkling of publications, I find it disheartening to hear that those who have achieved what I consider a terrific amount of success--the New Yorker,for goodness sake--should feel inclined to enter competitions, especially if the competitions aren't blind ones. Knowing the identity of a entrant must influence the selection process, even if an editor tries to submerge that urge.It certainly happens in mainstream publishing.

The New Yorker is one of the most difficult mags to get into. The editors seem to go back to the same known ( and admittedly wonderful)authors time and time again. I don't blame them for this. Ellery Queen does the same thing in its field too, making it really difficult for newer writers, lesser known writers particularly to break in. Also there are very few venues for publication at the commercial level. So if one wants to write a story and publish a piece to a larger audience than say THEMA, that person is already competing against many, many already established writers.

Yes, new writers need to pay their dues. One must earn the right by developing strong craft and inspired content to appear in the best publications. I know because it's taken me a long time to learn exactly what all the goes into a great story and I haven't actually gotten there yet. So I look to contests for the exposure to editors, the deadlines they provide, and the occasional feedback that's offered.

Contests have always offered an opportunity to new and emerging writers. They get the juices flowing, the butt in the chair, the close look at craft out of the writer. "Here is my chance!"

But I've always assumed that in a competition I have been competing against writers like myself, not the Joyce Carol Oates of the world.

I suppose it IS fair in the sense that the world isn't supposed to be divided up by anyone's degree of effort, talent, work ethic, and genius. And there are occasional contests specifically designed for the unpublished.

I suppose I need to work on getting to the next level so people can start complaining about ME!

Tania Hershman said...

Frances - you are not allowed to say things like "Gina Ochsner and yourself" unless you put yourself into that crowd too, as the author of a published short story collection, and a very fine one at that. I do take your point that even when published, writers always need a boost, need encouragement and recognition. I can't ever imagine a time or situation when I won't need encouragement as a writer.

Gay - on the other hand, I take your point too! When you said "competiting against..the Joyce Carol Oates of the world" my stomach dropped at the thought that any of my stories might be in any way judged against some of hers. That simply doesn't seem right, that seems in some way to upset the natural order of things. You say "Contests have always offered an opportunity to new and emerging writers," but I doubt that, unless a contest states that it is aimed at those who have never published, or something like that, the judges would say that that is their aim. They would say, I imagine, that the aim is for them to find the best-written story, in their subjective opinions. Which doesn't necessarily mean that it's from the most-published writer, but..

It would be good to hear from some competition judges or organisers here.. if they are willing to put themselves on the line! Women Rule Writer did, which was very refreshing.

Thanks to you both for your comments.

Sara said...

I don't see why any writer should not enter any competition, unless it is labelled as being for unpublished writers. I would have thought that many successful authors would shy away from the potential humiliation of not winning.

It's fair game though isn't it? Presuming the judging is blind a "name" will be treated the same as everyone else, so it is the quality of the writing being judged, not the fame.

I aspire to be the best writer that I can be, and in a way we are always being judged against our betters anyway whenever we submit our work to an editor.

I think that WRW was saying that as she is judging a few big competitions it may be perceived as wrong that she enters others. I understand her point, but personally would be happy for her to continue to enter anything that she wished to. Especially because she is clearly scrupulously open abouther involvement in these comps.

Anonymous said...

Would that Narrative and others might have two contests--one for new, one for established writers. But if it's truly blind, then write your best--Hey, you never know--You might even out-fright Stephen King!

Vanessa Gebbie said...

I think that unless a competition specifically says it is for previously unpublished writers, anyone ought to be able to enter.

If it is for writers who may be well published in print or online but do not yet have a book out ... they should say so.

if they do not make any distinctions, then the comp is open, surely!

The writing world is not a level playing field, and we will never make it such. We just have to do our best, dont we? And its not as though a short story comp is a scientific event... the fastest being the winner.

Much of the final decision making is pure subjectivity. if you take it as read that the last ten or so pieces will be technically very good... the final choice is down to 'the judge's preference on that particular day'...and no matter how many pieces you've had in TNY, you cant organise that one!!

(and I speak as the judge of a regular comp... (Cadenza) and as the recent judge of the Fish One Page Comp.

And yes, if I like the look of a comp, and if I need the cash, and don't mind a gamble... I still enter the odd comp myself!)

Tania Hershman said...

Hi all,
Sara - exactly, it is fair game, especially if it's blind judging.
DJ - thanks for stopping by, interesting point.
Vanessa - welcome home! Good points all, it's always an interesting issue to discuss, I feel. I certainly do agree that standards should not be lowered in any way, the best story, in the eyes of the judges, should definitely win.

I was just interested that someone I consider "well-known and successful" in the short story world still feels they want to enter these competitions. I am looking at it as someone who's in the process of existential transit in terms of stage of writing life, and wondering if there will be a time I won't want to enter competitions, and how that might feel!

Vanessa Gebbie said...

Well if you're like me, you might look at the ones you've been successful in, and think 'I'm not going to chance my arm there again!" I certainly felt that this year. I didn't want to spoil the feeling of having done OK, by failing second time round!

But I think it is a mistake for us to say better known writers should not be entering comps. Why ever not! Some beginners might be looking at people at our level and saying 'we' shouldn't be entering either... that's silly innit!!

I reckon writers ought to be taking it as a challenge that the 'well knowns' enter...having fun and entering as well, giving it a go. After all... a writer is only as good as their last story. There's no 'given' that they will be able to write as well every time.

Tania Hershman said...

I would never say someone shouldn't be allowed to enter comps. But yes, I was thinking more about this last night, and I can definitely understand that someone with two or more books published, even if they have been in the New Yorker, might still worry inside that this new story, this one, isn't as good, that they've done their best work. And how to find out if, as Vanessa has put it, it "has legs"? You send it somewhere, to a competition, to a publication. That's how it works, that's how it is to be a writer.

Elizabeth Baines said...

I've hesitated to comment either here or on Nuala's blog as it's all been making me go hot and cold all over, but Vanessa's comments have given me courage. I was starting to wonder if, as someone pretty long in the tooth as far as her short-story career goes, I should not be entering comps and should be feeling that I've recently snatched an opportunity from under someone else's nose in winning a prize (and pretty stupid, since it was a third and felt that Nuala would be feeling 'mortified' for me!) But the fact is it's taken me years to get a collection published - I didn't even try for many years as there were so few possibilities and so I have never felt I have 'made it' in such a way as not to need the boost that competitions provide. And even now that I have a collection I don't feel I've 'made it' - it's very hard to get newspaper reviews of story collections (I didn't get a single one) and I still feel I need all the opportunities I can get to keep myself viable as a short story writer.

Plus: At the beginning of my story career I think I would have found competitions far less attractive, and I think they would have had far less status if we beginners hadn't been competing with well-known writers, and they would have been far less exciting and useful to win - which of course beginners can do since comps are judged anonymously.

Tania Hershman said...

Elizabeth, this what not my intention at all. Never for a moment would I - or anyone who cares about good writing and good writers - begrudge you, or Gina Ochsner, or anyone else, their prize, and neither would we be less than delighted for you! You made exactly the point I was trying clumsily to make - a writer should probably never rest on his or her laurels, thinking they have "made it", because, while it might be less stressful to believe that, it surely couldn't be good for the quality of writing they would produce. The fact that even New Yorker writers feel the need for validation and prizes just demonstrates that this is probably a lifelong process and that is the way it should be.

And your point about beginning writers competing against more experienced ones is exactly right - as in a tennis game, the better player brings the other player to a higher level. May it always be so.

Elizabeth Baines said...

But my point, actually, is that the well-known or experienced writer may not be better than the unknown beginner.

I know people talk a lot about craft and learning how to write, and we're all always learning, but people can produce brilliant stuff early on in their careers, and competitions are one way of acknowledging this, especially if there's 'proper' competition.

Alan said...

well I've had two books of stories published but don't feel I have any real recognition. Certainly no dosh - have had to do 30 years full time work and still no end in sight but retirement. I'd really like to spend some more time writing and winning competitions seems about the only way to earn money/recognition (and therefore time) these days. I felt pissed off when I entered the Sunday Times one to see the top 5, all well known names apart from one. The story I entered was in the same anthology as one of the top 5 (Hilary Mantel's 'Comma'): Best British Short Stories 2011. I didn't make the longlist or anything so I wondered is my story 20 times worse than Mantel's? It probably is but for a minute or two I bristled: she definitely doesn't need the money or attention after winning the Booker. For me it would have been 'life changing' (to talk in TV parlance) to get in that top 5. But then as everyone says, it's all subjective.

Don't know if that's added anything to the discussion. No, it hasn't, but I feel better for having said it and released that bile. I can see that really you give the prize to the best story regardless of any other consideration, and that's how it should be. One day (probably when I'm retired) it's gonna be me.