Some of you may know that I entered Harper Bazaar’s Short Story competition a little while ago. I struggled with my entry linked to the word ‘spring’ but eventually crafted a story that was worthwhile and I thought might have a chance at placing in the competition. Well, I didn’t win, nor did I reach the 11 short-listed stories (although I couldn’t find a list of these so who knows?!). There were, in the end, two winners – Jill Dawson and Fatima Bhutto.
I bought the magazine this month to read the winning entry – though, you don’t need to as they are both online. In the magazine, and online, there is no contextual information about the authors – no bio or one sentence introduction. The most I discovered from Harper’s Bazaar’s website was that Bhutto had a debut novel. So, I did some searching (see links above with their names). Turns out that neither winner is a ‘new’ writer. Both have extensive experience in the craft and have been published before.
Now, when I read this I was disappointed. How do new writers like me have a chance when competing with writers who have published before, who have had the support of professional editors and already been accepted into the world of traditional publishing. What do established writers like these have to gain by entering competitions like this?
You could say I was bitter. I read Dawson’s story in the magazine and I liked it, but didn’t feel it was particularly well tied to the theme that was given. I went online to read Bhutto’s entry and couldn’t even get to the end; the content was too foreign, the characters flat and the tone was altogether too political for my preferences. Thus, I pouted in frustration that my story was pushed aside for these two. Did my writing not have merit; could my storytelling not compare to these two? Or did I just not have the experience that these winners might have – something that I cannot see because I am still too naive in my writing journey.
But then I read this article by Lynn Shepherd requesting that J K Rowling cease and desist her writing career in order for other, less successful authors to have a chance in the market.
I understand her position. I sometimes feel that I am never going to get a chance to prove that my writing is ‘good enough’ when there are more established, experienced writers out there entering the same competitions as I am, pitching to the same agents and publishers. What chance does a new writer with no publishing credits – or even competition wins – have when competing with the megaliths of publishing who have, for example, eight novels under their belt already?
However, it did make me realise that it was my own attitude that needed adjusting. After all, it’s the only one I have any control over. Why shouldn’t established authors have access to the same opportunities as new writers? They are taking the same risk as we are when submitting new material, only they have something to live up to, they have previous expectations to match. Imagine how an established author feels when a piece of writing from someone who has never been published before wins out over their own? I’d like to believe they would think ‘good on them, breaking the mould and making their own path‘. Yet, authors are human, so I’m apt to suggest that they feel just as insecure as the rest of us and question what it was about their own work that didn’t merit the attention, when someone else’s did. After all, writing is a craft that we continue to learn about as we progress. So, doesn’t it ring true that established authors need to continue their practice as much as us newbies?
So yes, I’m rankled by the fact that two established writers – who are making a career out of writing – won the Harper’s Bazaar competition over my little ol’ tale. I thought I’d written something honest with strong links to the theme and insightful characters that would at least get me some recognition. But now I also see that my writing was not what the judges were searching for in their winning stories. They were looking for something more that I am not yet ready to understand, nor may ever want to explore in my own attempts at short story writing. I don’t know quite what it was, but my submission didn’t have it. But that certainly shouldn’t take away the validity I felt when I submitted it: it’s still a good story, it’s just not for this market.
And we may all sympathise with Lynn Shepherd and recognise her feelings in our own – but we don’t necessarily have to agree with her either. As a new writer I wouldn’t want to be judged on standards that eliminate those writers that I admire. I wouldn’t want readers to pick up my novel because there isn’t something else on offer. I want my readers to choose my book over all the others that exist, be they by new or established authors. By removing the writers who do have more experience and publications than us newbies we lower the standards by which we are being judged.
As a result I’m going to dust my story off and send it to an alternative market. But before I do this I’m going to re-read it and be honest with myself about it’s flaws – if there are any. I’m going to keep submitting and hoping for the best. I’m going to carry on writing – because at the heart of it that is what writers do, be they new or established. One day I will be that successful submission and, perhaps, there will be an established author out there who thinks: “Good for her, it’s great to see new writers blossoming. I wonder what her story has that mine didn’t…”
[As an aside, I wonder what the authors who were entered for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction were thinking when the short-list came out with three debut novelists on the list…]
What do you think? How do you feel when a well-known author wins a competition that you entered? Does it make a difference to new writers that they are competing against established authors – or does it just challenge the quality of writing to be higher?
Let me know what you think in comments or via Twitter.