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Bewildering Stories

Call Your Apple, Raise You a Pineapple

by Carmen Ruggero & Don Webb

[Carmen] I’ve been following contest information in a magazine I subscribe to. The prizes amount to $2,000 with $1,000 as the first prize. I’ve just read the announcement for their next contest, and it distinguishes between genre fiction and literary fiction.

Now, “genre” means mystery, murder mystery, romance, drama, comedy, etc. But... “literary fiction”? Is it what I’ve always called classic literature?

And last night I read the current winning entry. I don’t think it’s worth $1,000 !

[Don] Heh... good question about “literary” fiction, Carmen! Aren’t mysteries and romances literature? I rather think they are.

Personally, I prefer Bewildering Stories’ term “speculative writing.” I admit it’s almost as much a catch-call term as “literary fiction.” But it does have a history: it means that our first love is science fiction, but we publish anything we consider interesting. What we accept may or may not be a prize-winner, but at least we find it entertaining and, very often, thought-provoking.

Now, about that contest: I don’t know how it’s funded. I have trouble imagining it as resembling a professional golf tournament, where prizes are funded by sponsors because ticket sales couldn’t possibly cover the costs. Presumably entry fees fund the contest prizes.

At $17 an entry, prizes totaling $2,000 would require about 118 entries. That’s quite a few. Now, since you’ve also reported that the last contest attracted over 400 entries, that would put the total prize money — at least in theory — at close to $7,000. Let’s round it off at that figure for the sake of discussion.

First prize gets $1,000; that leaves $6,000 to be distributed among the runners-up. And it can be parceled out in any number of ways.

If we allow only first, second, and third places, entrants would have one chance in 400 at the big prize and six chances in seven at even money. Third place, tough luck. But as I say, that’s not the only way to do it: the larger the prizes, the fewer the winners.

Let’s return to the figure 118. That’s close to the number of titles Bewildering Stories publishes in all genres in a typical quarter. Fifty short stories in a quarter would be quite exceptional. How can anyone determine the single “best” of 50, let alone 118?

You’ve reported that first prize is $1,000; second prize is $500; third prize is $250; and two fourth prizes are $125 each. That’s a total of $2,000 in prize money. The contest received more than 400 entries at $17 each. Okay, where’s the remaining $5,000 ? My conclusion is that the “contest” is one in name only; it’s really little more than a high-priced lottery and a cash cow for the organizers.

At Bewildering Stories we pick what we think is the best of each quarter, but what if we said that one single title is the “best” choice? “This apple is better than all the other oranges, tomatoes and pineapples!” How could anyone take us seriously? Everybody would react as you did to that contest “winner.” That’s why the introduction to our Quarterly Reviews says “We’ll match our Quarterly Reviews with any contest in terms of fairness.”

That’s also why I’m skeptical of things like the Preditors & Editors straw poll, which is held for a brief time in January. It’s organized about as well it can be, but as a single poll it’s a monsterpiece: it surveys practically everything in sight, and it’s hard to navigate.

A “winner” in the P&E poll earns bragging rights, but for what? The poll can’t prevent ballot-box stuffing. In fact, I don’t see it as a literary poll at all; rather it succeeds quite well as an exercise in social networking. The authors with the most friends and family put their titles over the top.

In the end, the members of the Bewildering Stories Review Board hold a responsible position in the world of on-line literature. Any title selected for a Quarterly Review has been very carefully considered and is, as we like to say, in good company.

Prestige does have its place. At the end of the year our Annual Review will take on a new look. Rather than recapitulate the Quarterly Reviews of 2010, it will list the titles that received an overall vote of “very good” or “excellent” in each genre. Now I would agree that’s an event worth looking forward to.

Copyright © 2010 by Carmen Ruggero
and Don Webb

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