Archive for May, 2012

On the Writing Contest and the Lottery

Come on! Play Powerball! You could be the next winner!

Winning a writing contest, especially a prestigious one, may be the foot in the door for an aspiring writer, that splash in the literary pond that may get the attention of agents and pubishing houses.  More likely it is a flash in the pan, considering the sheer number of such contests offered by small presses, universities and arts organizations.  A perusal of the contest and award section of Poets & Writers Magazine gives an inkling of the extent of this market. Contests are only one part of the burgeoning business to help the unpublished get published.  The lure of getting a book published even if it is less than a thousand copies induces many writers to fork over the cost of the entry fee.  It’s like playing the slot machines. Beware feeding the machine more than you can afford to lose. The odds of your winning are stacked against you.

When I was young and was a dreamer, I thought I could win too. I wrote more than one check for an entry fee.  I do not envy the task of the judge who selects the ostensible “winner” from the group of outstanding finalists, most likely all of equal merit.  When the choice has to be made, the judge will be the first to admit that it probably amounts to a taste for one theme over the others. The very idea of having to deem one the best manuscript is distasteful to me. Clearly, today with the number of creative writing programs and excellent writers trying to break into the publishing world, there is a super-abundance of work worthy of recognition. There just isn’t the publishing dollars or the reading public to support all of them, so to my mind writing contests primarily benefit the organizations sponsoring them. The entry fees fund their activities and do not necessarily promote the interests of the writers. They rely on a legion of gullible writers, many with unpolished manuscripts, whose work is immediately rejected and whose checks are just as speedily deposited into the organization’s bank account. The entry fees are used to cover the cost of printing the magazine and books of the contest’s sponsor. Income from subscriptions to literary magazines is not sufficient to pay for its publication nor do sales of works classified as literary keep a commercial publisher in business, and certainly not a small press. In addition to proceeds from contest fees, the small independent press may have to rely upon grants and gifts from generous donors.

Although I am dubious of contests both because of the odds against winning one and the principle of singling out one work for recognition in a plethora of deserving writing, others will see merit in the proliferation of such contests. The effort of submission to these contests, the time expended, and the money fruitlessly invested in my estimation are better spent in the writing of more stories, novels and poems, merely because the chances are slim of the aspiring writer ever gaining more fame or recognition in the literary world, even if he happens to win,  than the writer who does not spin the roulette wheel in a writing contest.

I wonder how many of those books that make the list of top hundred books of the last fifty years or the last 100 years ever won a pre-publication contest. These lists are interesting because there is quite a bit of congruence among the books chosen by different list-makers. I do see the value of publishers entering their best published works in a contest after the fact. The prize-winning books inevitably receive increased sales.  In any event, the unpublished author should venture into the land of competition with caution.  As anyone who habitually buys lottery tickets recites,”Someone has to win; it just as well could be me as anyone else.” I wish that person Bonne Chance!


Musings on Muses

Probably because the Greeks depicted sources of artistic inspiration as women, male authors throughout the ages often invoked a female muse. In Greek mythology each of the nine daughters of Mnemosyne and Zeus presided over a different art or science.  In twentieth century literary criticism Robert Graves in The White Goddess enthroned the divine origin of poetry in the feminine.  Poets have held in reverence a dark lady to whom they owe their inspiration and to whom they dedicate their literary efforts.  In fact, for much of literary history, outside of the purported Sappho of the Isle of Lesbos, female poets, if they existed, worked in obscurity. In recognition of this, the appearance of Anne Bradstreet in colonial America provided such a surprise that when her poetry was first published in England her work was titled The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America in reference to the female muses of Greek mythology.

It is right that I should muse upon woman as muse for man.  As I muse, interesting derivations of the word muse occur to me. Amusement means something that entertains or amuses, conveying the sense to give delight.  The verb muse means to ponder or reflect at length, to be absorbed in thought. A museum is a place ostensibly where the visitor can browse and muse at length upon the interesting objects collected. Originally, a museum was a place where the muses were worshipped.  An element of worship, adoration even of the virgin,  is present in the male poet’s invocation of his muse. Music is another derivation of the root word muse, and none more conducive in its harmonious aspects to a reflective frame of mind. What more than music can entertain, delight, amuse, and make the mind muse on things unseen.

Nine Greek Muses

Musing further on the subject of the muses, I scratch my head, wondering if women writers have ever invoked a dark male muse, a shadowy perhaps unobtainable lord, whom they identified as the source of their literary outpourings. I can think of no woman writer, but if my readers can think of one, I would be glad to hear about her. I rather think the woman writer has looked to herself to provide her  muse or at least a nebulous feminine mystique.  In other instances, the muse is her mother or her foremothers, maybe her grandmother or some ancient family matriarch.  Traditionally, in the case of the male writer, the muse remained eternally out-of-reach.  With modern women writers who look to the goddess within or a foremother, the muse seems much more accessible and realizable, being a woman also. I don’t see a man providing a muse in the traditional literary sense to a woman writer, although a male muse is possible for a male writer, as for example, with Shakespeare who was thought to have composed his sonnets with a male lover in mind.

Maybe the whole concept of a muse is sexist and dated. Yet writers, both male and female, still use the device to invoke the muse, calling up whatever spirit they wish as the source of their poetic inspiration.