Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Our Short Story Competition

As the fifth year of the Warren Adler Short Story Competition draws to a close I thought it would interesting to share some of my observations about what I have learned about these so-called “contests” and the nature and motivation of those who submit and those who judge.

Before such competition proliferated on the internet I was involved in two short story competitions as both motivator and judge sponsored by the State of Wyoming Arts Council, a state in which I happily resided for nearly two decades.

First, my own motivation in helping to initiate and sponsor such a contest. I have always loved the short story as a literary device. In my opinion it is a literary art form of great purity, requiring discipline, a sense of craft, the skillful use of condensation and the challenge of narrative drive to swiftly engage the reader’s interest. Slightly exaggerating the imagery, I look upon the form as creating a vast world on the head of a pin.

While the short story no longer has the earning potential or popularity of years past when one could actually earn a living as a short story writer, the method and the idea of short fiction will, as a consequence of the growing brevity of attention spans, return once again to its rightful place on the mantle of literary acceptance. The thirst for storytelling is locked into our DNA, both as teller and “listener.”

My motivation for involving myself in such a competition is quite simply the preservation, encouragement and dissemination of the short story form. There is no shortage of people who want to write short stories and there is no shortage of people who want to read them. Both recognition and a cash prize are, of course, lures for submissions, but I have found that the former, being cited for talent and skill, has a lot more meaning for the writer than the cash.

In fact, I have discovered that the passion to become a full time writer both in fiction and non-fiction is growing exponentially in intensity and the competition for publication and recognition is as fierce and combative as anything I have seen in my lifetime. As paying markets shrink and words proliferate unfettered on the internet, a serious writer is faced with the frustrating, daunting and, often impossible task, of gaining traction in the marketplace for a full time career.

Because of this, the so-called short story contest has proliferated. There are so many being promoted and advertised that I sometimes think it a miracle that our contest has been able to sustain itself for half a decade. In the last two contests we have been forced to charge a modest fee of fifteen dollars to cover the expense of administration. It hardly pays for the cash prizes, which are largely my own contribution, offered happily and satisfying my own compulsion to advance the cause of the short story.

Of course, the key to the competition lies in the integrity of the judges, their point of view, their dedication to the process and the assurance that each submission will be read and evaluated in a fair and equitable manner. That is the standard that motivates our contest. Nothing matters than the story itself.

By its nature, the process is subjective and each judge brings to it a point of view that, like judges everywhere, requires a fierce inner debate and a sense of emotional connection with the author’s artistry. An experience in judging a Wyoming short story contest in which I was one of three judges taught me a severe and painful lesson in integrity and the necessity of maintaining standards.

One year, I nor the other two judges, both creative writing academics, could find in the submissions any short story that was worthy of being chosen for a grand prize. We were torn between fulfilling our mandate or simply not awarding a prize for that year. We chose not to award a prize. The decision was unanimous. The Wyoming Arts Council was furious. We had challenged the bureaucracy, sin of sins. The following year I was asked to leave the turf. So much for standards. Were we right or wrong?

As an aside, I must confess that I am wary of most awards for literature, from the Pulitzer, the Booker and on and on. Perhaps even the Nobel. Do the judges actually read all those books submitted or are they subject to panels of “screeners” who get to screen only the most hyped books by publishers and critics then toss them over to the high powered names to make the final selections. I guess I must be cynical to the core if I dare question whether even those prestigious judges actually read every book of those authors who are chosen. This is not to say I disagree with the choices. But I do get depressed when I discover that many of those authors chosen have not stood the test of time and are mostly forgotten.

Our present competition has three judges, Thane Rosenberg, a serious writer of novels and non-fiction, Kirsten Neuhaus, an agent who understands the marketplace, and yours truly. We make our choices and will undoubtedly fiercely debate the so-called winners, an agonizing decision, since so many of the submissions display the skill and talent of dedicated writers.

We are all presently deep in the process of reading submissions and will announce the winners in a few weeks and then we will post the winners on our website www.warrenadler.com. Our previous winners are posted on the site as well. We are proud of our choices and we hope that their skill and talent will engage their readers as they engaged us.

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