February 7, 2013
Competition in the Arts

I have mixed feelings about arts competitions, especially in literature. I’ve judged enough of them to understand how subjective they are. The good stuff floats to the top, but fairly often, the book or author that wins is nobody’s first choice. Instead, it’s a book or author that everybody on the judging committee could finally agree on.

And as for blind judging: a cautionary tale. I once met a young writer, the former student of a very famous writer, who’d just published a highly touted collection of short stories and was struggling to complete a novel. About a year later, I saw his name on a very prestigious list of “Best Novelists Under Forty.” Good for him, I thought. I congratulated him when I ran into him at a conference not long afterward. “It’s so great that you finished your novel,” I said. He looked stricken. “I haven’t, actually…” he said. I had the good grace to not ask how he ended up on the list; he had the good grace to be embarrassed. It was an excellent lesson for me. I felt less bitter than relieved to know that those lists and prizes, which are usually deserved, sometimes aren’t. Politics are everywhere. Be advised.

Another thing that concerns me about competitions is that I’ve seen many writers, from beginners to pros, react to what winning or losing means in ways that affect their ability to do their best work. Winning an award can ramp up your ego and make you feel entitled to more and more and more attention; winning an award can also paralyze you because you feel you won’t be able to live up to it. Losing can make you question…everything. It can paralyze you, too, or make you stop writing all together. I know. Endurance is a big, big piece in the picture of being a writer. You go on. That’s part of the deal. But sometimes the aftermath of competition makes that a lot harder.

As for rivalry, the very idea of it feels toxic to me. We’re all different, of course, and I know that some writers find rivalry inspiring or motivating. But I gain strength from a community of writers who celebrate each other’s achievements and honors. Which doesn’t mean I don’t feel envious sometimes. I do feel envious. Sometimes even a good friend’s success pitches me into a serious funk. But in my heart I know that recognition for a writer who’s doing good work is good for all writers doing good work. It’s good for the universe, in fact, which needs every shred of truth, beauty and insight it can get.

Barbara Shoup is the author of seven novels, among other works, and the executive director of the Indiana Writers Center. Her young adult novels, Wish You Were Here and Stranded in Harmony were selected as American Library Association Best Books for Young Adults. Last year she won the Eugene & Marilyn Glick Indiana Authors Award in the regional category.

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