I enter writing competitions. Only a few, just the ones I feel are reputable* and have a focus on Australian literature. I know I won’t win (although I’ve been shortlisted a few times) but I enter anyway. Why is that?
Well, I like to think I’m supporting the cause – helping to validate struggling, predominantly Melbournian writers without having to promote anyone to barista. And, writing competitions help foster Australian literature. I’m interested to see where that ends up. I’m also an avid reader, although this is unrelated to my support of writing competitions, as I never read the type of work typically produced by award-winning writers.
This is because writing competitions foster a particular type of work – writing that is received and appreciated within ‘cultured’ circles, circles that are tightly interwoven with academia.
Literary assessment and criticism exists within a world of its own making, producing and reproducing abstruse, self-referential regimes of value. Occasionally the ramparts are breached, but for the most part ‘literary writing’ is about as didactic as a recipe book. It is faddish and clubbish, embraced by the moderately disappointed middle class, populated by ‘struggling’ writers whose penury stops short of the inability to borrow a washing machine or a cheeky bottle of pinot grigio. ‘Reflexivity’ is limited to feeble attempts at ‘diversity’ – where critics (and competition judges) seek out ‘authentic’ representations of black/poor/’ethnic’ life. If the representation doesn’t confirm their proscribed image it’s ignored, or, in competitions, disqualified*. Similarly, if your work isn’t ‘literary’, or doesn’t fit within the neat cartography of ‘intersectionality’ it’s shitcanned.
This is not my kind of writing. I’m unconcerned with form, semiotics or the politics of self representation. I’ve never set foot in a university English course.
I also write about something rather unpopular. I write about men; poor ones at that. And, as I’ve been told by surprised publishers, I often write like a man (I usually submit under a gender neutral nom de plume). None of these things recommend my work for success.
I should point out that although I’ve published a lot of content online, from books to collections of short essays my creative writing is almost entirely limited to short stories, which aren’t a popular medium by anyone’s measure. You can read a couple of them here.
Of course, there is one easy way to read my carping – ‘Oh, the establishment rejected my work! Are they too tied up in the chattering froth of literary fashion to appreciate a clear work of genius?!”. Well, I’m not actually concerned with rejection but I guess you’ll just have to take my word for that.
I’m also completely open to the possibility that it might be rubbish by anyone’s standards. I can live with both scenarios – I write to tell a story, to evoke a time and a place. My ego isn’t invested in the result. I’m happy when I write and I’m usually satisfied with the result. I’m not beholden to rules, themes or guidelines. My work is a representation of myself, a properly creative practice.
So you might wonder why I bother to submit work at all. Well, sometimes I think there’s room for work that deviates from the unrelenting avalanche of white, middle-aged ruminations about the tepid disappointments of a well-fed life.
Or maybe there isn’t.
*There are numerous guides to help you figure out what’s legit
*Check out the comments section of this article, describing how a competition entry that was written from the perspective of an aboriginal man was disqualified as it didn’t represent the lived experience of another aboriginal man. They asked him.