Monday, December 6, 2010

A Case for Contests

In January 2009, I read an article in Poets &Writers titled "A Case for Contests." And Jacob M. Appel's succinct points and optimistic attitude have stuck with me.

In the article Appel makes his stand for literary contests.  Pointing out rightly that contests are a great equalizer.  Any above board contest is reviewed anonymously, and gives "each contestant an assessment of the work by a judge who does not know the author’s identity." No publishing credits? No problem. At Third Coast, a staff member removes all cover letters along with any other identifying information that may arrive with the submission. (I should know; I sorted out several hundred submissions last year while I was Managing Editor.) From there the submission is given a number and sent along to editorial readers. "In the submissions pool at a literary contest," Appel writes, "nobody knows you’re not Alice Munro or Joyce Carol Oates. Contest participants can’t hide behind a laundry list of previous publishing credits, or an MFA from Iowa, or their good fortune in having once escorted one of the journal’s senior editors to the high school prom."

Appel also points out that the pool is smaller in the contest--dropping from competing with several thousand entries to several hundred in the case of a modestly sized magazine--and the best writing quickly rises to the top. "The other significant benefit of entering writing contests, if you are fortunate enough to win or even to rank highly, is that a strong performance often provides far more exposure than publication through the traditional submission channels."

In the full article, Appel lays out some math for when a contest reading fee is reasonable and when it's too much: as long as the fee is 20% of the offered prize or less, then the fee is reasonable. (At least I'm attributing it to Appel though it might have been another P&W article.) What he doesn't say is that many contests offer single issue or year-long subscriptions when you pay the fee. As a writer, these are the only contests I enter because I always know I'll get something for my money. (BTW I make a lousy gambler, I'm never willing to go for the risky bet.)

Appel reasons:
While a single contest fee is not going to drive even the poorest writer into bankruptcy, once one starts sending out ten- and twenty-dollar checks by the handful, the sacrifices entailed may seem prohibitive. Yet I urge my students to submit their fees anyway. Find a way! If they were studying to be physicians or attorneys, I remind them, they would pay far greater sums for multiple years of schooling—banking on a future payoff. To my mind, creative writing is as much a career as medicine or law, even if the odds of meaningful financial payoff are considerably lower (especially if you’re a poet). I also remind my students that many of them have already spent small fortunes in pursuit of graduate education in writing. Now that they are ready to tackle the literary marketplace, contests are not the place to begin nickel-and-diming. If one is willing to expend months or even years polishing a manuscript, one should be willing to spend a reasonable sum to give it a fair shake in the world. (I also point out that it takes only one contest win of five hundred or a thousand dollars to earn back their outlay and then some.)
Appel ends his article with the notion that the contest's greatest appeal is that somebody has to win. As last year's winner of the fiction contest John Matthew Fox told can attest, it only takes one submission: the Third Coast fiction and poetry contest was the the first place he submitted his story "Fatu Ma Futi" to.

Eileen Wiedbrauk is currently Third Coast's creative nonfiction editor. 2010 fiction contest winner "Fatu Ma Futi" by John Matthew Fox and the poetry contest winner "Before Knowing Remembers" by Jake Adam York, can be found in the Fall 2010 issue, out now! Look for an interview with contest winner Fox on the blog in the near future.  Contest guidelines for the 2011 Third Coast Fiction & Poetry Contest can be found here.  Appel's article can be found in the January 2009 print issue of Poets & Writers or online elsewhere.

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