The new issue of Poets & Writers magazine features an article on writing contests in which four directors of four prominent annual writing contests — the Colorado Review‘s Colorado Prize for Poetry, the Bakeless Literary Publication Prizes from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Walt Whitman Award from the Academy of American Poets, and the Cave Canem Foundation’s Cave Canem Poetry Prize — are interviewed about their selection process. While most of the questions received answers I’d expected, there was one that surprised me. When the group was asked what happens after someone submits a piece (either online or through regular mail), Beth Harrison, founding editor of Spinning Jenny and associate director of the Academy of American Poets, replied:
“The Academy has on staff three part-timers who are MFA candidates at Columbia University; they do a first screening of manuscripts. Each one reads every manuscript, so we have more than one set of eyes on a manuscript. If none of the screeners is particularly moved by a manuscript, but the person who’s submitting has a ton of publication credits, it moves along to the judge anyway… [our] readers can see publication credits, and that’s important because maybe that manuscript doesn’t speak to anybody on staff at that moment, but it certainly spoke to a number of editors, so we move that manuscript along.”
This means that, regarding the Walt Whitman Award, the length of one’s publishing credits counts almost as much as the quality of one’ s submitted work. However, when Larimer asked the other directors if publication credits were a part of their selection process as well, Stephanie G’schwind (of the Colorado Review) replied: “We strip them, because I feel like it becomes a kind of shortcut for a screener. Some of the winners of the Colorado Prize…had very few credits. They’re all in [the contest] no matter how many credits they have.” The other two directors, Camille Rankine from Cave Canem and Michael Collier from Bread Loaf, also replied that they strip the publication credits from the submissions that the screeners and/or judges receive.
While I appreciate Harrison’s (and the rest of the interviewees’) honesty — especially considering the controversy in the recent past surrounding writing contests and a lack of transparency — I have to say it unsettles me that the Academy (and, I’m assuming, other institutions that run contests as well) includes publishing credits in the review process. I’m also having a hard time accepting her rationale. Just because someone has a long list of publishing credits does not mean that their work is worthier of careful consideration than other writers’, and it doesn’t mean that they should be given a pass to the final judge while other, comparable work by unpublished writers is automatically cast aside. I think this not only shows a lack of confidence in the screeners’ judgment (which raises questions about the institutions’ selection of screeners), but also a lemming-like value system.
I realize that just because a work moves on to the final judge doesn’t mean that it will win, and that it’s not unheard-of for previously unpublished (or infrequently published) writers to win a prize over more established writers. Still, it seems like one more obstacle keeping talented new writers and poets from emerging onto the literary scene.
But I’m open to hearing other opinions. Do you think contests should show preference for oft-published writers’ work, or should publishing credits be stripped from submissions before they’re given to screeners and judges?
1. Beth Harrison, interview by Kevin Larimer, “Writing Contests: An Interview with the Dedicated People Who Run Them and a Closer Look at the Talented Writers Who Win Them.” Poets & Writers, May/June 2011, 54.
2. Stephanie G’schwind, ibid.