by Robyn Parnell
Calling all non-award-winning writers (you know who you are)--it's time to add a trophy title to your nom de plume. It imparts that certain je ne sais quoi, literary cachet; besides, with all the opportunities out there, what's your excuse for not having one?
Admit it, you've had an experience similar to the following. Scanning the bio notes of an article in a writer's magazine, you discovered that the article's author had received a literary award, the title of which you had to practice saying several times before you could utter it in one breath: "The Barbara Kingsolver's Bellwether Prize For Fiction in Support of a Literature For Social Change." Pulitzer, schmulitzer; there's an award you don't see every day. Although if present trends continue, you probably will.
No disrespect intended towards the esteemed (and multiple award-winning) Ms. Kingsolver, whose once-eponymous award now goes by the more succinct, "The Bellwether Prize." As awkwardly extensive as I found the earlier title, it was nice to come across any award named after a living woman instead of a member of the Dead Literary Guys Club. Still, I can't get that erstwhile très specific award title out of my mind. It reminds me of, well, other très specific or obscure literary award titles I've seen in the classifieds ads, the Grants and Awards announcements, and Member News sections of writer's publications.
Computer-literate literati are just a Google away from discovering the astounding number of writing awards, contests, grants, and fellowships available to actual or aspiring authors. Award titles and descriptions can be quite entertaining, so once upon a keyboard I decided to keep a file of literary awards' names, categories and sponsors. In a few months this decision was followed by another: to delete the file, whose page count had surpassed that of the draft of my first novel. I feared for the storage space on my hard disk; I feared for my attitude even more.
I hold a hopeful snobbery about writing, and am ambivalent about the proliferation of literary prizes. I want writers to eschew the self-celebration and celebriti-zation that infests popular culture. Moreover, the proliferation of Something, even Something with good intentions, can ultimately demean its significance or value. There's the Oscars, Cannes, Sundance . . . and then there's the Toledo People's Choice Film Festival.
At the risk of sounding like the Sean Penn or George C. Scott of authordom, I'm leery of prizes for art in general and literature in specific. I reject the notion that, intentionally or otherwise, writers should compete with one another, or that there are universally accepted or objective criteria for judging the "best" of works that are written--and read--by gloriously subjective beings.
Then again, I can understand the motivations for award-giving in any field of endeavor, including writing ("Our work must be important--see how many awards we have?!"). And who wouldn't enjoy having "Pulitzer Prize-winning author" attached to their byline?
An award, any award, can bestow a certain distinction. Thousands of novels and poetry collections are published each year, most fading quickly into obscurity. But maybe, just maybe, you'll give the impression you're Someone To Watch if your backlisted-so-fast-it-left-skidmarks chapbook receives The Award for Southwestern Pan-gendered Speculative Flash Prose-Poems.
Relax, take a cleansing breath, and stop composing your bio notes for the entry form. There's no such award. Yet.
To get an idea of the number and variety of literary prizes, flip through the classified ads section of any writer's magazine, or check out their online versions. One prominent writer's website has over nine hundred Awards & Contests listings, a number added to weekly if not daily. Whatever your personal traits or writing genre, there's a prize or contest--and, of course, an entry fee--waiting for you.
Anything in particular for which you'd like recognition? If it's for religion or spirituality, among the hundreds of awards are the Helen and Stan Vine Canadian Jewish Book Awards, the American Academy of Religion's Best First Book in the History of Religions, and the Utmost Christian Poetry Contest. If you're inspired by regional affiliation, try the Saskatchewan Book Of The Year Award or The Boardman Tasker Prize For Mountain Literature.
You might impress potential publishers (or failing that, the crowned heads of Europe) with a majestic title: The Royal Society Of Literature Award Under The W.H. Heinemann Bequest. If you'd like to woo corporate America, seek General Mills' Cheerios® New Author Contest. Are you between the ages of eleven and 111? Go for the Geoffrey Bilson Award For Historical Fiction For Young People or the The Solas Awards Elder Travel: the best story from a traveler 65 years of age or older.
And there's no lack of prizes vis-à-vis gender, ethnic, and sexual identity, including the Women's Empowerment Awards Writing Competition, the Association Of Italian-Canadian Writers Literary Contest, and the Emerging Lesbian Writers Fund Award.
Perhaps you'd rather be esteemed for subject matter. If you cover the timeless concerns of war and peace, the Michael Shaara Award For Excellence In Civil War Fiction or Japan's Goi Peace Foundation International Essay Contest may be for you. And let us wave our olive branches in tribute to one of the more interestingly named awards in this or any category, in hopes that, with perhaps a little nudging, the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation will reinstate their now-retired Swackhamer Peace Essay Contest (it took a serious peacenik to wield a Swackhamer). Don't worry if your themes are comparatively prosaic; writing awards are not limited to life's essentials. From sailors (the U.S. Maritime Literature Awards) to horses (the Thoroughbred Times Fiction Contest) to zombies (Dark Moon Anthology Short Story Writing Contests for Horror Writers), if there's a topic, there's a prize.
Awards even pay tribute to literary length. Writers in it for the long haul have the Reva Shiner Full-Length Play Award, while those pressed for time may try the Short Prose Competition for Developing Writers. Not to be out-shorted is Glimmer Train's Very Short Fiction Award; covering the remaining short bases is the Fineline Competition For Prose Poems, Short Shorts, And Anything In Between. And for literature with a discernable shelf life, behold the Perishable Theatre's Women's Playwriting Festival prize.
My excuse for not having even one measly award title escorting my nom de plume is likely related to the fact that I don't enter contests (perhaps one day I'll discover that I've won the Chinook Prize for the Pacific Northwest's Un-entered Fiction Contests). My nonparticipation notwithstanding, the number of literary awards continues to expand, and they've got to be conferred upon somebody. Chances are greater than ever that almost all writers will have their fifteen minutes to don some sort of authorial laurel wreath. Yes, dear writer, you could be an award-winning author. There's probably something wrong with you if you're not.
My favorite prize title ostensibly defies literary classification, yet is listed as a writing award. And so, fellow writer, considering the abundance of awards, in your quest for recognition and cool author's bio notes, please save this one for me: the Wergle Flomp Poetry Contest. If my entry prevails I will receive a monetary prize and publication of my poem, plus that accolade for which no value can be calculated: the right to henceforth refer to myself, in author's credits and future contest entry forms, as a Wergle Flomp award-winning writer.
A long, long time ago a sixth grader named Robyn Parnell won some kind of "Isn't America Groovy?!" essay contest. Since 1975, when she acquired a trophy resembling a garden trowel (High School Journalism Day, Orange County, CA), Parnell has remained an award-free writer. She hopes to one day be the deserving recipient of the Robyn Parnell Prize in Support of Imaginative and Distinguished Prose in Support of Robyn Parnell.
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