January 16th, 2009


Eroding the Base of One's Own Plinth

While I have of late tried to ensconce myself within the relative purity of speculative fiction and poetry, I come originally from a planet of writing "literary," or mundane, poetry, where, lo these many years, the idea of being paid for having one's poems appear in a publication is an increasingly alien concept. On this world, it has, alas, become the norm to not pay for short stories, either. There are a LOT of literary contests, however; most of them sponsored by educational institutions and frequently offering substantial prize money (something that rarely takes place within sf). I've entered many of these contests over the years (and won several). As a result, I've formed a paradigm for assessing whether a contest is reputable and worth entering: among other criteria, it involves at least a 50:1 prize/entry fee ratio; e.g., a $1,000 prize would have no more than a $20 entry fee.

I now send as much of my poetry as fits the genre (to say nothing of my fiction) to SF publications that pay, but I still frequently enter mainstream contests because I have won them often enough to make it worth the investment. Along with the disappearance of remuneration for standard publication in the mundane world, contests as well seem to be becoming more predatory. I know that many stalwart SF writers think a pay-to-enter contest as an abomination anyway, but there is a distressing tendency in the literary community to accept what would have been considered reprehensible practices in the past—and for ostensibly reputable writers to even endorse these competitions.

I'm outside academia. I have no MFA. I'm not dependent on the world of lit po (which is too large at this point for any individual to effectively "ruin my career"), but it distresses me incredibly to see poetry and short fiction become less and less valued by the general public. I think that this has resulted from the abandonment of marketing—or any real attempt at distribution—by literary journals as it becomes no longer necessary to pay the writers. Indeed, it has become the norm to expect lit journals to be supported by the subscriptions of their contributors or would-be contributors! A number of formerly very reputable poetry presses now charge a reading fee for book manuscripts. This is only the forefront of a further insidious creep toward a universe where all writers will as a matter of course have to pay to see their work in print. And believe you me, these practices will, in time, invade and infect the SF universe.

I feel a certain duty as a writer to do some whistleblowing when confronted with things that Should Not Be. In my estimation, Press 53's contest (http://www.press53.com/OpenAwards_2009.html) would fall into that category. Unlike many bottom-feeder operations, they have acquired moderately known judges to lend a spurious cachet to the operation. I assume these folks are paid; judging fees are de rigeur in literary contests these days—and one has to ask oneself how desperate they must have been to ally themselves to such a scheme. To me, this is participating in the looting of one's own edifice.

Which brings me to the letter below, which I have sent a version of to all the judges of this particular contest for whom I was able to obtain an e-mail address (only three, unfortunately—the remainder do not appear to be sufficiently well-known to have either personal websites or to be associated with any literary journal). Two of the judges I wrote edit literary journals (where I shall no longer be submitting, for obvious reasons); one of which, Vestal Review, actually pays its contributors. Apparently this editor is capable of applying different standard of value-for-work to a competition he is asked to judge. The tragedy is that there are enough desperate beginning writers who are under the impression that this is standard practice—and who are impressed by such qualifications as these individuals possess—to make ventures of this sort very profitable.

Some of you, doubtless, know some of these judges. What the hell were they thinking?

Dear Mr. X,

I note with displeasure that you have chosen to act as a judge for the Press 53 "contest." As the "prize," (other than the "etched-glass award" of dubious value--and even more dubious significance) consists only of publication and the contributor's copies which are a standard perquisite of publication in most journals, this is nothing more than a must-pay-to-be-considered-for-publication anthology--in other words, an egregiously predatory scam that no writer who cared about their reputation or integrity would be caught dead submitting to--or associating themselves with in any capacity.

It would further appear, from the guidelines page, that those published who are not the actual winners do not even get contributor's copies, but must pay to obtain the volume in which they were published. This puts the enterprise at the approximate level of poetry.com.

There are many beginning writers, to say nothing of those driven by the pressures of academia, who are desperate to be published somewhere, anywhere. The imprimatur of a writer they've actually heard of in association with a particular contest will doubtless be seen as reassuring, and an indication of the contest's presumed status.

I have seen you listed on the faculty of various writing workshops. Your willingness to become involved in Press 53 will certainly give me pause when I next see your name associated with any future enterprise in which I might have otherwise considered participating.

F.J. Bergmann