Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Writing Contest Rules

Anyone who has followed my career knows I love writing contests. I love them because they get my name out there. Wins in a world of rejection validates a writer, lets you know that you are doing something right. I've won prizes in all sorts of contests. I've won cash, the biggest prize so far has been R25,000 for one story. I once won a laptop, I even won a diamond necklace, all for my writing. So contests have been good to me and very important to my career. I'm grateful for each and every one.

What's the point of running writing contests for the organisers? They want to set standards by evaluating the writing and saying - "this is the best". What is good writing changes. A short story that might have won a writing contest 50 years ago wouldn't fare so well in a contest today because tastes of readers and writers change. Contests mark out the boundaries of those changes by choosing winners and saying this is the standard we are working for now.

This is why I find certain rules for contests odd. Just now I read on the website for the Golden Baobab Prize, a contest I have won twice, that past winners can no longer enter. This is also the case for our local Bessie Head Literature Award. If you've won in a certain category you cannot enter for five years. In a small country like Botswana with a handful of writers it seems a ludicrous rule that flies in the face of the purpose of a writing contest if indeed it is to award writing excellence.

The Golden Baobab Prize states as its vision: "to identify the African literary giants of the next generation and produce classic African stories that will be appreciated for years to come". Okay, that's a lofty, commendable objective but how do you do that when with each passing year you skim off the cream and throw it in the dustbin? The pool of writers becomes smaller and of poorer quality with each passing year. Your giants shrink.

The first year of this prize I won the junior category and was shortlisted for the senior category, the second year (last year) I won the senior category and was shortlisted in the junior category. It means now with the change in rules, I can no longer enter.

People can think I'm selfish and want to monopolise the prize, but that would be the wrong take on my position. In actual fact, I feel the opposite. If indeed we want the best African children's literature to originate from the Golden Baobab Prize, then everyone must be allowed to enter. I want to be beaten, then we know that the winners are truly the giants.

I was once told that a certain writer was "beyond the Caine Prize". If the Caine Prize is the measure for the best African short story writers, then if all short story writers cannot be considered then it is not a true measure, we are now lowering expectations, calling something excellent but only within a qualified ring.

I have no problem with prizes meant to develop writers. I do not try to enter contests meant for unpublished writers, for example. If the Golden Baobab Prize wants to be a prize to develop up and coming African children's writers, then let it be said, that too is a lofty vision. But if it wants to set the standard for excellence in children's writing on the continent, then I believe the organisers are doing the Prize a disservice.


Sue Guiney said...

Very interesting stuff. I myself hate contests because I never win and the fact that I've never won anything or even shortlisted, or longlisted makes me feel like I'm nothing. But then again, I'm getting my books published, so....
PS Here's a big woo hoo on your latest publication date!!

Lauri said...

Thanks Sue! Of course writing contests can also occasionally be dogmatic trying to push their definition of good writing on others. I often read winning stories and wonder what the judges were looking at, in any case it's subjective just like everything in publishing and writing.

Gutsy Living said...

I like what you said in your comment to Sue that it's subjective. It's the exact same thing with query letters to agents. I've discovered some that want to read 50 pages and others that politely say, "No."

Helen said...

I can see your point, Lauri. Perhaps they'll have to change their entry bar by saying it's only for unpublished writers. I've never entered a contest, but I know I've seen some that specify that previous winners cannot enter. In this case, though, if they're seeking the best, it seems like they'd welcome everyone.