Writing Contests and the Weight of Publishing Credits

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.”[1]

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.”[2] 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?

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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.

5 Comments

  1. Alana
    May 3, 2011

    I don’t think publishing credits should matter in contests…or ever, really. A beginning write could write an amazing story, and an established writer could write something terrible. What matters is the content.

    • somethinglooseknit
      May 4, 2011

      Thank you for your comment, Alana. I agree with you; publishing credits aren’t a valid measure of worth. The work should speak for itself. Thanks for stopping by!

  2. Hunter
    May 11, 2011

    Read this article too, H. I reread it because I was stunned at the elitism over published credits. Similarly, the New Yorker has been taken to task regarding publishing only “name” writers. Do they publish because it is Stephen King or because the story is good. TNY says it’s the latter. (http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/ask/2008/12/questions-for-treisman.html)

    The matter of contests seems to be a ticket for a lit mag to get exposure, and it is a business. So it is in their best interest to have published writers who can send traffic and an audience their way. But then it should say, must have credits to enter. But not all do this. But there is a transparency involved, as you said.

    Another issue: contest fees are standard at $25, and rarely can you find a free one, which for the starving writer is an expensive lottery ticket. And then there is the ivy league contest vs. the lesser known. Do some mean more than others?

    Skytale Writer

    • somethinglooseknit
      May 11, 2011

      You’ve made lots of great points, Hunter! Thanks so much for contributing to the discussion.

      You’re right — literary mags ARE a business and it’s good business sense to publish established writers that will garner them more exposure. I can’t say that I fully support that way of thinking, but it’s most certainly a part of the business, and of life in general. Still, I agree with you that they should make their preference for publishing credits more explicit.

      I’m glad that, as you mentioned and as was made clear by the other directors’ comments, not all contests have this preference. While a handful of more prominent, big-ticket contests may do this, there are still venues for new (and I use that term loosely) writers to make it onto the scene. And I have a feeling that writers knowing which contests and publications prefer a list of credits will have an effect on the volume of submissions to those venues, which may convince those particular institutions to readjust their perspective. 🙂

      I’ve actually stopped submitting to contests altogether for the reason you’ve mentioned — the cost of the fees. Paired with the volume of submissions they receive, it’s just as you said: a lottery ticket. While I understand that magazines have a lot of overhead costs that aren’t covered by subscriptions, I just can’t afford to shell out that much money over and over again. So I’ve been sticking to regular submissions, which are — by and large — still free, unless I find a particularly exceptional/promising competition to enter.

      As far as particular contests/publications meaning more than others, it’s my opinion that they only matter as far as impressing other people (employers, other contests/publications and publishers) and the greater amount of exposure they offer (as the “ivy leaguers” generally have a larger readership); for me, that’s the extent of their worth. I don’t mind submitting to smaller journals/magazines, as they offer certain things that more prominent magazines don’t, such as a more select (and perhaps more discriminating) readership and the greater likelihood of my work being accepted (an obvious plus). And it’s good to remember that the “smaller” journals of today might very well become the big names of tomorrow. If a journal publishes work that I feel reflects or complements my own writing, I’m glad to submit, regardless of renown. But everyone has their own way of looking at it.

      Also, thanks for the link. I wasn’t aware of TNY taking that stance; good to know!

  3. Rivertrance
    Feb 7, 2012

    Stripped naked! I’m interested in the quality of the kiss…, not the notches in the bedpost!

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