Monday, February 18, 2008

What Ruined Willesden Herald Writing Contest

Entering writing contests – with or without fees – have some attractions over standard submissions. One of those, believe or not, is it gives a good writer better odds of actually getting somewhere.

That is one of the reasons that many of us enter writing competitions. Or, if not just the hope of winning, or being recognized, at least to be certain we actually get read, which is not always true in standard submissions. When we pay our entry fees, we expect at least that. We also expect some amount of professionalism and, dare I say it, integrity, in the way the contest is run. Most fee-charging contests meet such expectations. I myself have happily won a few of them, and only once submitted to a contest that was clearly done wrong.

What happens, though, when there is no entry fee? Does that relieve those running the contest of the responsibility to see it through? Curiously, when I ask the question in this stark manner, the answer is obvious. But apparently when it gets to a specific case, things become murkier.

In the recently upended Willesden Herald International Short Story Prize, the £5,000 first prize was given to charity and the promised anthology canceled (details here). In the explanation by the adjudicator, Zadie Smith, she says, among other things: “There is no entry fee, there are no criteria of age, race, gender or nation.” Apparently they were looking for good work, what they found didn’t satisfy her, case closed.

For most the people who submitted to the contest, Zadie Smith is probably right. However, like any major contest, there were other judges who put their heads together to create a short list. This list was not published, but the ten people on it were notified. Looking at the winner as a random draw, that means ten people were told they had a 10% chance at £5,000. Most certainly, looking at the contest descriptions, their work was going to be published in a prestigious anthology. Or so they thought.

Now comes the joy of withdrawing from other contests. Sometimes that is heartrending – Oh God, I would really rather it be published in …, but they probably won’t accept it, or will they? ­– But not in this case (or so I would assume). The promised anthology was a great place to be published so those withdrawal letters were probably pretty jubilant, perhaps with a sneer thrown in, perhaps with a sigh over the fees paid and wasted.

Then Zadie Smith decided that not one of the ten short-listed was good enough, and none of the other judges was willing to contradict "someone of her stature." Well, not surprisingly, those in the top ten were not too happy. When the judges offered to split the prize evenly among all ten, some apparently resorted to profanity. As a result, everything was simply given up. No publication here, already withdrawn from other hopeful places, nothing for the honored top ten except the unhappy prospect of placing a story elsewhere.

Not good enough, not meeting a standard, not a cure for cancer. While an absolute standard for quality is a nice fiction, it seems some realism may be more appropriate. There is a point where trying to hold oneself to an ideal threatens integrity and it was reached in this case. It is absolutely tragic that such good intentioned people put so much effort into something that has done no good for anyone except the charity that was given the £5,000.

They should have at least published the anthology.


Donald Capone said...

It's too bad Zadie Smith had to take her ball and go home, so no one else could play. I think the 10 finalists should ride the publicity from this and band together and publish on

Xujun said...

Not a bad idea!

Anonymous said...

Maybe she should have looked at some of the other entries. It seems to me that a contest is to find the winner of that particular batch, and therefore it would be hard to say none of them was good enough to win, but maybe none of the ten that were sent to her were good enough to win. She should have looked at some of the others.

And why do you have to withdraw from a contest BEFORE you know if you won? Was that part of the rules? Top ten must withdraw from other contests? Not having ever won a contest, or been a finalist, I wouldn't know, but I do know that a friend is usually not even notified when she IS a semifinalist, so how could she withdraw? If there is only one winner, you have a 90% chance of NOT winning, so it seems unnecessary to withdraw from other contests until the winner is selected, unless, I guess, all ten were going to be published.

Xujun said...

To answer your question, the finalists were emailed and told that, for inclusion on the shortlist, they had to reply in the negative to the questions: has your story been published, is your story under consideration elsewhere, and in the affirmative to: do you agree to be published in the anthology.

But that is pretty standard for a contest. And that was not the problem.