In a world where everyone thinks they can write and quite a few can, the only way to build up a CV (prior to that getting-a-book-deal moment) is to either get published in magazines or to get noticed in writing competitions. And with literary magazines few and far between, writing competitions (often linked to publication) are the usual way to go for more literary writers. This of course requires a certain outlay, but not compared to most hobbies. (Is writing a hobby? Okay, don’t lets go there right now.) So when I tot up last year’s spreadsheet and see that I forked out £158 in entry fees it’s still a lot, lot less than a golf subscription.
But something about this bothers me, I think because it’s a system that is somehow self-serving. I’m not sure how to explain except by saying most of these ‘outlets’ only exist because of the entry fees. Well that’s fine, because we want to support literary fiction, but looking at it from the other point of view, there must also be a feeling that these arbiters of taste are kept in business by aspiring writers, of whom a few will rise to the top of the deep and murky pond, while others remain bottom-feeders, hovering up occasional scraps. Or if you feel it’s a more altruistic scenario, you could say we are financing a system that rewards merit and on that basis we are financing the most worthy (based on the judges’ decision) of our peers, something that might motivate us to improve and eventually succeed. I just sometimes feel that writers could be their own worst enemies in this respect. After all, if the ten members of my writing group, most of whom have pretty good writing credentials, pooled £200 each, could we use that money to back one of our own writing projects and get it out there in the market place, by-passing the ‘Q-school’ of short-lists and honourable mentions? Of course in the current publishing maelstrom, maybe it’s not money that oils the wheels … still, it’s a thought, isn’t it?
But what sparked this reverie/rant is not so much the price of short story comps as the thought of entering my novel for a prize. I have nothing against novel competitions, and have even seen some modest success (no money or publishing prize of course, just another line to add to the CV). Being thinner on the ground than short fiction comps, for a novelist they have big pulling power. Most offer at least lunch with an agent and occasionally a publishing package for the winner. They also have bigger entry fees, and earlier this year I forked out £30 for two entries into one competition. But when a well-known literary magazine announced their own novel comp, I decided to think it over. And I thought it over for so long that the entry date has come and gone without any action being taken.
It’s an excellent magazine, a win would bring huge kudos as well as £5000. And what’s £25 against being a future writing star? Maybe I’ve got more realistic. Or maybe I’m thinking that the slush pile this comp generates will be considerably bigger than those on the desk of any publisher or agent. And I can join any of those for the cost of a stamp, or the time it takes to compose a letter and click ‘send’. Maybe I’m also thinking that whatever the costs, the fees of the country’s (actually it might be the English speaking world’s) aspiring writers will present said magazine with a fabulous windfall, likely to keep them in business for some time to come. Which is no bad thing. But then if I do want to support them I can always use the traditional method of taking out a subscription, which I have done for several years in the past.
So am I being exploited? Not really, in the sense that what happens to the money is usually transparent and judges I’m sure all act in good faith. And what’s the point in bucking a system that gives all of us the occasional fillip, if not the kind of success that registers on the writerly Richter scale?
But sometimes it just feels like too much of a lottery. And no, I don’t have a ticket for that either!