I know, most people could care less about writing “contests” and what we writers are doing to get our creative wares into the public’s EYE, but I had to share this tidbit about a little contest that was held in New York City that I believe was a cooked-up farce that had no business selling itself as a non-partisan contest. I’m referring to the 2008 Selected Shorts Stella Kupferberg Memorial Award held at Symphony 30 Space.
I want to conduct a little experiment here. I am going to let you download and read the winning entry, and then I’m going to let you read one of my stories (not the story I entered in this contest) or a “classic” story and you be the judge. What is my hypothesis? I believe this contest was a set-up, and the judge, writer Amy Hempel, chose the winner either 1. because of who the winning author was, or 2. because the story was the most “politically correct” and/or the “least offensive” to a listening audience.
You see, my theory is that no longer are there writers who can write out of the depths of the vast unknown to become brief, literary stars in the audience’s ears, kind of an American Idol of creative writing hopefuls, if you will. The “Selected Shorts” radio program, for example, was a show where American classic short stories used to be read and enjoyed (by people like me!) when they were presented over KPBS radio. However, these stories were always “classics” and never did the show feature any new writers out of the socio-political slush pile. At least with a show like American Idol, even the least talented people get a shot at fame once in awhile. Not so with these so-called “literary” contests like the one at Symphony Space.
Do me a favor. Read this winning story here. (Note: you must have Adobe Acrobat Reader installed on your computer.) This supposed “fair and impartial” contest did not require that names and identities be taken off the short story’s title page. In any contest I have ever heard of, the judging was done “blind,” which means the judge or judges did not see the identity of the writer. Unlike American Idol, writing contests are not about image or who the writer is (or even does). They should be, ideally, all about the story and what it does for/to the reader. Believe me, there are established “rules” about what makes a story work. It is my hypothesis that the winning story in this contest was nothing more than what literary types classify as a “vignette,” a little “slice of life” that has no meaning other than what it shows.
In contrast, please read the short story by Shirley Jackson, “The Lottery,” or my story “The President’s Parasite” (title story in my independently published collection). These are stories that say a lot to the reader. In fact, Jackson’s story, first published out of the “slush pile” in the New Yorker, during the 1950s, caused the most letters to be written to the magazine about a fiction story that the magazine had ever received (I think this is still the case, even after all these years).
My point is this: why don’t the “powers that be” have the equivalent of an American Idol for creative writing hopefuls? However, instead of having it all about image and who the writer is, why not focus on the content of the story? The identities of the authors should not be known, and you could have a panel of professional short story writers who comment upon and actors who present (read) the stories for a national audience. The authors should only be called out on the “stage” when he or she is chosen as the winner. In creative story writing, I belive the identity of the writer should be secondary (or not important at all) to the work itself. As noble Shakespeare said, “The play is the thing!”
So, let me know which story you would have chosen to be read at “Selected Shorts.” It can even be your story (let me have the link and I’ll publish it here). Explain why you believe the story is better than “Best Western” and why you think your selected story can stand the test of time.
Power to the People! Right on.