I don't believe I have ever won a writing competition. I remember really wanting and even half-expecting to win the Hopwood Poetry award in Ann Arbor, though I never did. I think I knew one of the runners up one year, and I also was good friends with Stephen Adams, who incredibly won the fiction award two or three times, but seems to have vanished off the literary map.
After college, I generally didn't bother with various poetry prizes, since they normally involved some type of fee and at best you got back a chapbook that you (I) invariably didn't like as much as your own work. On top of just the wild variations in taste, many of these prizes are at least somewhat juiced, in the sense that they are not blind submissions to the judges.
At any rate, I was basically floored to find out that there were 1700 entries to the Toronto Star short story competition. In this case, probably a minimal fee should have been instituted to screen out half of these. I can't imagine the judges really did read all the stories, but perhaps the top 100 or 200, but even that is a bit extreme in terms of the time commitment. With this level of competition, it really does become pretty random what makes it and what doesn't. Probably the top 50 all were really good stories, and any of them could be published in a literary magazine if gatekeepers didn't get in the way and primarily publish people who have already been published. It is both a little amazing at how many people long to be heard and how daunting it is to even get a small taste of success -- the odds are just so long. If anything, I think it is harder now because many of the small literary magazines and 'zines that were just hanging on in the early '90s have vanished.* On the other hand, it has never been easier to put up a blog and publish your work, and then bundle it up and go the e-book route. But then good luck finding an audience. It is not just talent and a way with words, but you need to have the talent for self-promotion (which I generally am poor at) and then you still need lightning to strike to get a sizable audience. Otherwise, you just have a bunch of pages sitting there with no hits (and on those lines, the blog as a whole reached 30,000 hits the other day, so many thanks!) At least with the published magazines, you had a hard copy (to share with parents and grandparents) and proof that you convinced at least one other person your poem or short story was worth reading. Which reminds me that I did have some success with White Wall Review in the past, and if my story doesn't exceed their word limit, maybe I should send it to them. (Their review period closes in May, so I had better hustle.)
I think more than anything, getting that little bit of validation from the RedOne folks at Sing-for-your-Supper was thrilling, and I will certainly report back if they take another manuscript (in this case, I sent off the beginning of the reworked Act II of Corporate Codes). It would be quite ironic if I can use the positive energy from getting my work on stage (which is notoriously hard) to finally finish the novel, though that seems to be the way it will go. I just really need to carve out the time to write, though with the move coming up, that will probably not happen until late summer at earliest.
Actually, there are a couple of passages in Stoppard's Travesties that I find quite relevant to this situation. While both Henry Carr and James Joyce oppose Tristan Tzara's branding of Dada as art, primarily because they don't accept there is any skill or artistic talent required for its cut-up and collage techniques, Joyce still holds very strongly to the idea of the artist as someone with elevated senses who should be celebrated and feted. Carr, in contrast, basically feels Art, even when carried out by those with true artistic abilities, is a scam with a handful of artists (and priests, though he doesn't carry the metaphor this far) living on the top of the pyramid as basically unproductive members of society. While I am not sure of the actual Tzara's feelings, Stoppard's Tzara doesn't dispute this, and in fact, doesn't want to truly democratize art, but simply wants to change the definitions of art and artist so that someone (like himself) with the mental acuity to penetrate the surface and then indulge in Dada-esque art can now be considered an artist. He basically wants to keep Art a closed club, but with himself and his friends in charge, rather than those who fit the traditional definition of artist.
Nowadays we are so post-postmodern that there is no generally recognized school of art. Art has basically lost its boundaries and there are no meaningful gatekeepers, aside from museums, though many of those have gone for a real populist approach. I still remember being pretty appalled by the art of rap show or whatever it was called at the Brooklyn Museum. Anyone can call themselves an artist or a writer now, and it truly is just a popularity contest. I wouldn't say this is completely new, but it is an acceleration of trends where highbrow and elite forms of art were generally devalued, basically starting with the Dadaists. Based on my preferences, I think the fact that skill and craft no longer matters very much is unfortunate and often depressing. As far as my own work, I probably would have done better in an earlier era, simply because I am an unabashed follower of highbrow art. But que sera sera. I'll keep plugging away and find a way to an audience, once I can find my way to a better balance so that I can actually finish up these plays and the novel.
* Actually, this is particularly timely as there was a long piece in the weekend Toronto Star about the folding of Descant and the fact that the Capilano Review is on life-support with the editor having to take a huge pay cut. This doesn't seem to be in the archives yet, but a much shorter piece was published back in December.