02 April 2001

"Write as often as possible, not with the idea of
getting into print, but as if you were learning
an instrument."
    - J.B. Priestly

P.T. Barnum was right. There is a sucker born every minute. Worse, all the people who recognize this is true are also likely to follow W.C. Fields' advice, which is to never give a sucker an even break. 

The result is always the same: the gullible and the greedy, joined in an unholy knot.

I have been thinking about the various writing contests sprouting up all over the place. I'm thinking I should start one myself. I will sponsor a contest for essays and stories up to 1,500 words. I can offer cash prizes of $500, $250, and $100 for the top three entries, no promise of publication of any sort, charge $20 per entry, and then just wait for money and manuscripts to roll in until the contest deadline is reached. I can decline to name the "judges," and I can tell people if they expect to get the winners' list, including the "top ten finalists," they must send a self-addressed, stamped envelope.

This little enterprise would probably net me a considerable profit, if only 600 people entered. The winners would walk away with bragging rights, and I would have about $11,000 in my pocket.

Lest anyone think this is extreme or greedy, let me point out this is precisely what one man is currently doing online. He's set up a contest with himself as the sole judge. Entries are to be stories no greater than 500 words, and the writer's intent must be to "please" him. His decision is final. Anyone may submit entries, at a cost of $25/entry. He will pay out $5,000 to the winner, $2,500 to the second place, and $1,000 to the third place. In the event he receives fewer than 1,000 entries, he will scale down the prize money based on percentage.

He also says people shouldn't worry about how he can make money offering such a wonderful prize. 

No wonder. He's going to keep two-thirds of the money he collects for himself, regardless of the number of entries. If 1,000 people submit entries, the total payout is $8,500. This means $16,500 stays in his pocket. His effort for about three weeks' worth of reading (at 100 words per minute) calculates out to about $150/hour of his time. Not a bad billable rate.

Who is this generous soul? A man who claims to have written a few books, and offered "countless" writers encouragement and advice in their careers. I searched for his books, but couldn't find any, either in print or out. Why should anyone trust his judgment? Why, because it's his contest, you big silly.

And who will send this man money, you ask? People who fancy themselves something they're not, farther along and better than they actually are, people who are interested in having their little egos stroked by those who are determined to milk them out of hard-earned cash. The contestants hand over cash, in the hopes of competing and winning against somebody really good -- while entries might come from the blue-haired lady who dispenses lottery tickets at the corner convenience store, they might also come from Joyce Carol Oates, Barbara Kingsolver, or Dean Koontz.

The proliferation of contests has been so great in recent years, it is now possible to submit the same 2,000 word story or 50-line poem to ten places at once with perfect assurances no conflict over who owns rights to what will ever arise. Nobody will ever know, and the one-man operation is unlikely to ever check. Witness what happened with Amazon/PEN's Short Story Contest in 2000.

The winning writer did not actually qualify for the $10,000 prize, having been published already in a large-circulation journal or press. Some thoughtful journalist pointed our the error a few days after the awards were announced. Apologies were made, a new winner was selected, and $10,000 more was thrown into the pot. The contest organizers decided they could not in good conscience take away the money from the disqualified writer, as it would be "too cruel." Yeah, right.

Many contests also shield themselves from criticism or litigation by calling the entry fee a "reading fee." This term sounds somehow more dignified, doesn't it? It also makes the contestant feel good, because there is an implied contract--for a fee, there is an assurance the entry will actually be read, no matter how lacking in craft or imagination or talent.

I'm sure there are legitimate contests, but I believe they are few and far between. It's kind of sad, too, thinking about how the proliferation of contests actually ensures a lowering of literary standards. Most contests aren't "impartial," and the "judges" are often as not drawn from last year's creative writing classes. Baby editors, cutting their critical teeth on the soft mash of mediocre fiction and housewifely hopes.

I believe if these would-be writers used the money they regularly spend on contest fees for enrollment in writing classes and the purchase of instructive texts about the craft of fiction and poetry, they would find themselves enriched beyond pizza and beer.

Excuse me. I have to go plan my contest.


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