I have mixed feelings about competitions. The affirmation of winning can have a huge positive effect on a person, but of course most of the people who compete cannot, by definition win. Some will benefit from the experience of getting their creativity in front of others, some may well be noticed in ways that help them. Others will be demoralised and set back. As a bard, my preference has long been for the eisteddfod that does not choose a winner.
Last year I entered Stroud Short Story competition and was wholly surprised to be one of the ten people picked to read on the night. It was a huge morale boost for me, and brought me into contact with an array of fabulous local writers. This led to putting together an anthology of all the winning stories from previous years, which was a project I was very proud to pull together.
This year I am a judge for the same competition, alongside the lovely John Holland, who has been running the event for a while now. I’m conscious that my subjective judgement, my personal preferences are about to impact on some people. Am I good enough to judge anyone? Do I know enough to properly shoulder that responsibility? All I have is a degree in English literature, there are plenty of people round here working on the literature side at higher academic levels than that. I have some writing experience, some experience at the publishing side, but by no means am I the best qualified person for the job. I had the time, and I offered, and so often that’s what it comes down to. Not merit, but availability and willingness.
I’ve read all the stories, and some of them are so stand-out brilliant that I think anyone picking ten would pick them. Those are easy choices to make. Other choices to make up the ten will be trickier, and more to do with personal preferences. At the end, some people will be elated, and some will feel let down, and some will feel that the entire process was rather unfair and that a better judge would have made a better judgement. Such is the nature of competition.
But of course creativity is competitive. At the very least, you are competing with all the other creative people for a space to show your work – stage time, wall space, a publisher, or whatever it may be. You’re competing for the time and attention, and probably also the money of your potential audience. There are invariably winners and losers, and it isn’t always about who’s the best. Luck, marketing, and who you know will all play a part. And at every level of the business, there are people making judgements that move some forward and hold others back. The reasons for those judgements aren’t about the best art, they’re about the most sellable art, the most commercial. Many fantastic, original and inspired creative people in all fields will never get anywhere because the gatekeepers who check them out do not think they will sell enough to be worth the bother.
However uneasy I may feel about contests, I do have the comfort of knowing that I’m involved with a process to try and decide which are the ten best stories to read out-loud to an audience this November. Which ten in combination will create the best possible night. Which are the most unusual, the most original, the most interestingly written… all of my considerations are creative, and not at all about selling the work. I wonder how different our creative industries would be, if how to sell it wasn’t most usually the first question to be asked.