Narrative Magazine has recently begun offering a “Story of the Week” and “Poem of the Week.” As a fiction writer myself, I’ll admit to being more partial to the “Story of the Week,” and I’ve been impressed with the range and talent of the offerings, everything from classics such as Edith Wharton’s “The Rembrandt” and Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour” (in case someone out there has missed it at this point) to contemporary works by writers including Stuart Dybek, Dennis McFarland, Joyce Carol Oates and more. This week’s story is “The Crime of the Brigadier” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle — one of the tales that doesn’t feature Sherlock Holmes, I should point out — and given some of my own recent reading/rereading of Conan Doyle, I was glad to see his handsome mug on the email blast.
Just prior to getting the email with Conan Doyle’s story, I also got an announcement from Narrative about the winners of their Fall Fiction Contest, and the second prize in the contest went to “Reverend Thornhill’s Wife” by Richard Bausch, a former professor of mine back when I was in the MFA program at George Mason. Bausch undoubtedly stands as one of the great short story writers of our time — already canonized as early as 1996 when Modern Library published his Selected Stories, then commemorated again with the mammoth Stories of Richard Bausch just a few years back, and even more recently honored with the PEN/Malamud Award for lifetime achievement in the form. “Reverend Thornhill’s Wife” won’t be published by Narrative until late February or early March, but many other stories are easy to find and certainly worth seeking out.
Still, as pleased as I was to see Bausch’s name in that second place category, his appearance there later prompted some discussion amongst some writer friends of mine about such contests and their purpose — the gist of which seemed to be an underlying, tacit assumption that literary magazine contests were generally intended for up-and-coming writers or at least writers less well-established or less well-known.
I’ve had writer friends who’ve seen their careers boosted by such contests: Rob Drummond, for example — a classmate from my MFA program — won the 2007 Arts & Letters Fiction Prize for his short story, “The Unnecessary Man” and then found that story chosen by ZZ Packer for the esteemed anthology New Stories from the South: The Year’s Best, 2008. Here, a contest helped give some attention to a young and very serious writer who’s still building his career, and I can’t help but think that Arts & Letters is already proud to have helped “discover” this great new talent.
But the assumption that such contests were exclusively for fresh talents or up-and-coming writers… well, that couldn’t entirely be supported, of course. Certainly, it’s easy to point to contests that explicitly court previously unpublished writers (Glimmer Train hosts one of these), but other contests don’t specify parameters of prior success — and how exactly would they do that? “You’re eligible if you’ve published less than ten stories in university-based literary magazines, but ineligible if more than 10 stories have been published or if any short fiction bearing your name has appeared in The Atlantic Monthly or The New Yorker“? Somehow, that doesn’t quite work, and neither does the idea that contests are intended for “amateur” writers, leaving the “professionals” to find other venues. At the same time, the writers who enter these contests month after month (and sometimes year after year) might feel a little out of their league if they were losing to, say, Alice Munro or John Updike, or if they entered the “great unpublished novel” contest and heard that their manuscripts got passed over because Stephen King or Toni Morrison won instead.
None of this is meant to undermine Bausch’s honor here; he is, as I’ve emphasized, a great writer, and a new story by him — or a new novel, like Peace, published earlier this year — is generally a cause for celebration. But the appearance of his name amongst the other writers on the list of winners and finalists for this contest — less well-known names in comparison to his — prompted some discussion, and I was interested to open up that discussion further here.