The Case for Contests

by Jacob M. Appel

I CONFESS: I enjoy paying fees to enter writing contests.

One of the decadent pleasures of my week is cuddling up with my checkbook on a Friday afternoon and doling out my meager earnings to literary journals in ten and fifteen dollar increments. I have been entering fiction contests relentlessly, if not compulsively, for the better part of two decades—and over that time, I have garnered my modest share of first place finishes and an even greater number of honorable mentions. These victories range from the moderately prestigious—the Missouri Review Prize in 2006—to the utterly obscure—the Blackberry Hill Creative Arts Award for Short Fiction. I have managed to win the same award in multiple years—the New Millennium Writings Fiction Prize in 2004, 2007, and 2008—and in multiple categories—Briar Cliff Review’s fiction prize in 2000 and creative nonfiction prize in 2008. And I have also lost my share of contests—hundreds of them, possibly thousands—including many to which I have submitted my work, year after year, since my college days. So as a battle-scarred veteran of the contest circuit, nothing disturbs me more than those naysayers who chronically deride participation in these literary competitions, which I continue to believe present one of the most rewarding and fair opportunities available to emerging writers.

The critique often goes something like this: In no other creative enterprise are aspiring artists expected to fork over money for an opportunity to have their work considered by a self-perpetuating band of aesthetic gatekeepers. Up-and-coming composers don’t send their original scores to the Boston Pops with entry fees enclosed. Including a money order or a certified check will not convince the New Yorker to publish your political cartoons. So what right do literary journals have in asking young writers—many of whom can hardly pay their rents or feed their pets—to dish out hard cash for the mere chance of publication? The anti-fees crowd has largely won the day in the field of playwriting, where solicitation of contest fees on such popular dramatic writing Listservs as and playsandplaywrights are met with cries for blood. In recent years, the anti-fee movement has also gained traction among poets and literary prose writers. Each semester, several of my students tell me that they have been warned against participation in these contests, often by my fellow creative writing instructors. Yet at the risk of sounding Pollyannaish—I confess I am also one of those saps who enjoys paying federal income tax, who sees in his small contribution to Uncle Sam a thousand interstate bridges gleaming in the sunlight—there are definite benefits that come along with submitting work to literary contests.

The greatest selling point for contests is that they level the playing field in two distinct ways. First, in all but a few competitions, they offer each contestant an assessment of the work by a judge who does not know the author’s identity. To paraphrase the caption of the celebrated Peter Steiner cartoon, “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog,” and in the submissions pool at a literary contest, 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. Blind judging—and preferably “double-blind” judging, an increasingly common safeguard in which the submitters do not know the identity of the final judge prior to the contest deadline—ensures that what matters is the quality of the writing, not the reputation of the author. Moreover, the odds that Alice Munro or Joyce Carol Oates has entered a contest run by the same literary magazine to which you have sent your work are extremely small. An established author does occasionally win such a contest. One notable example is the brilliant Kate Braverman, author of Lithium for Medea, whose short story “Vanishing Acts” won the 2005 Mississippi Review Prize. However, the vast majority of prominent literary figures do not have the time—or the motive—to enter writing competitions at mid-tier literary journals. So while a submission to the slush pile may end up competing with a solicited work by a Pulitzer Prize winner, a contest entry is usually facing off against the work of other writers laboring below the radar. That is not to say that the competition in the more esteemed contests isn’t first rate. Some of the young writers submitting to these competitions may go on to fame and fortune, but if I am given the choice between having my writing compete page to page against a pool that contains the work of National Book Award recipients and members of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, or against the original stories of graduate students and talented novices, I will take the latter any day.

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. As an avid reader of literary journals myself, I will readily admit that the first stories I turn to are the contest winners. I suspect others do the same, including the editors who select stories for major anthologies like the O. Henry Prize Stories and the Best American series, which may explain why the works of unknown writers that do break into these volumes are often the winners of journal competitions. Some of these wins have clearly led to book deals. For example, Jason Brown’s ingenious story about organ delivery, “Driving the Heart,” won the Mississippi Review Prize before it was anthologized in The Best American Short Stories 1996 and went on to anchor the author’s widely praised debut collection, published by Norton in 1999.

First-book awards have long been a staple of the poetry scene, where the leading prizes offer exposure in the form of invited readings and are a key tool in the marketing of collections. As major publishing houses have shied away from short fiction over the past decade, similar prizes have arisen to promote full-length fiction manuscripts. Winning the University of Georgia’s Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction or the University of Iowa’s prize for a first collection is a good way to ensure that your book is distributed and reviewed widely.

For beginning fiction writers searching for representation, winning a well-respected contest can also draw inquiries from literary agents. When I won the North American Review’s Kurt Vonnegut Prize in 2006, I received more than a dozen such inquiries, several from prominent New York firms. Even winning a fraudulent competition can have its merits. Several years ago, I entered the St. Louis Short Story Competition, a contest with a five-dollar entry fee and a five-thousand-dollar grand prize. To my delight, my story “Counting” was declared the grand prize winner on the competition’s Web site. Alas, the swindlers administering the contest never paid up. (I do not take such matters lightly, as bad actors of this sort tarnish the reputation of contests more generally. In fact I pursued the matter with law enforcement authorities in Missouri—up to and including that state’s attorney general—and the FBI. The investigation is ongoing; the mills of justice grind finely, but slowly.) Even under these exasperating circumstances, a contest victory succeeded in garnering me multiple inquiries from reputable agents who had read my “winning” story on the Internet.

Occasionally, I am asked—usually by a student—if there is a trick to winning writing contests. After all, the names of the same emerging writers appear frequently on the lists of winners of various contests, suggesting that these individuals must be doing something right. Most likely, I imagine, they are writing good poems and stories that deserve to receive accolades and inquiries from agents. At the same time, I do believe there are a few rules of thumb that increase ones odds of taking a bow in the winner’s circle. My best advice is that one should submit to contests early and often. The benefit of submitting early is that many competitions read and evaluate the work as it arrives, yet most of the submissions show up within days of the final deadline. For these competitions, the advantage of submitting at the first opportunity is a well-considered and thorough read by a judge who is not yet drowning in slush. The reason for submitting often is that tastes differ widely, and a story or poem that appeals to one judge may not suit the appetite of another. Of course, multiple submissions can be costly. 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.)

What appeals to me most about writing contests, on a personal level, is that somebody has to win. Well, I should qualify that. Occasionally, a final judge declines to declare a victor and the sponsor pockets the entry fees anyway. But for the most part, somebody walks away with a garland and a large check and an entrée into the literary limelight. At a time when more and more structural barriers and layers of protection prevent obscure and emerging writers from having their work considered by major publishing houses, or published in glossy magazines—and ultimately landing on bookstore and library shelves—the literary competition is the unknown author’s best friend. A good contest opens doors to anybody with a tenor fifteen-dollar check and a brilliant work of original literature. And somehow, knowing that there are contests out there that will guarantee my writing a fair read makes it easier for me to keep plugging away at the task of writing itself, hoping that this time around I will produce a story truly worthy of reward.

This article originally appeared in Poets & Writers magazine.