An interview of a famous writer runs at a website with high visibility, the famous writer generous and personable, the interview conducted by a young writer with small press books. It feels good to see: the two writers reaching across generations to talk about literature. Then, a few weeks later, a small press announces the winner of their book-length writing contest on their Facebook page, and the small press writer from the interview has won, the contest judged by the famous writer. What had been good is sullied. The writers on Facebook quickly chime in with congratulations, and, in what isn’t exactly my proudest moment, I type: “Was it inappropriate for the winner to publish an interview with the judge while entered in the contest?” I know how I feel about it, but I am honestly curious about what others think. The writer hasn’t broken any rules, and the contest was read “blind,” where readers review anonymous submissions, so the judge couldn’t have known the manuscript was from the interviewer. Yet, this interview will be at the top of the Google search for anyone curious about the winner of the contest, and it is evidence of repeated personal contact.
We don’t have a measure for this kind of situation. We live at a time when writers are more easily connected to each other through social media, and there’s such a thing for emerging writers as “Internet famous.” Many writers on Facebook and Twitter who may not know each other at least know of each other, and we call the annual get together of 6,000 writers at the AWP Conference “the Internet in real life.”
At the same time, writers are desperate for book-length publication, while small presses, with small staffs, often without university affiliation and with budgets that dip into the red, have taken up the important work of publishing debut poetry and short fiction collections. These editors who put in their own money and time—they can publish whomever they want. Yet, they bear the onus of fairness when they advertise a contest. While it’s much easier for writers to network today, it’s also easier for personal connections to be revealed via Google searches. The atmosphere around writing contests has changed, and the online writing community is past due for an open public discussion about ethics and responsibility.
Nepotism and the Jorie Graham Rule
The disqualification of contest manuscripts from writers of close personal affiliation to readers and/or contest judges is unofficially known as “The Jorie Graham rule,” as the result of a scandal that went public when Foetry.com revealed that Jorie Graham selected a winner for a book contest who was her student, who hadn’t even entered the contest, and who she would be married to a year later (the site has not been active since 2007, but archives are available at foetry.com). Letters between the judges were obtained through the Freedom of Information Act and there were whispers of mail fraud, a felony offense, since money was collected through the U.S. Postal Service.
In an interview at We Who Are About to Die, Alan Cordle, the creator of Foetry.com, was asked about the impact of the whistleblower website, and he said:
Poetry publishing post-Foetry is a mixed bag. Countless competitions adopted the Jorie Graham Rule and/or the CLMP [Council of Literary Magazines and Presses] code of ethics. Few would credit those changes to Foetry.com. The CLMP code was a huge disappointment. I asked to be included in the roundtable discussion and Jeffrey Lependorf declined. The people who participated in the creation were some of the worst offenders…. The ethics code is a wishy-washy non-position–so as not to offend anyone, I imagine. Any press can claim to adhere to it and then do whatever the hell they want.
As someone who has entered book-length writing contests for years (including the infamous Zoo Press contest, where the publisher misspent the money and cancelled the prize), I have to say that CLMP’s Code of Ethics is vague. Inappropriate relationships are never defined, nor are contest models, nor what might be done when close relationships are identified, while the word ethic/ethically appears six times:
CLMP’s community of independent literary publishers believes that ethical contests serve our shared goal: to connect writers and readers by publishing exceptional writing. We believe that intent to act ethically, clarity of guidelines, and transparency of process form the foundation of an ethical contest. To that end, we agree to 1) conduct our contests as ethically as possible and to address any unethical behavior on the part of our readers, judges, or editors; 2) to provide clear and specific contest guidelines—defining conflict of interest for all parties involved; and 3) to make the mechanics of our selection process available to the public. This Code recognizes that different contest models produce different results, but that each model can be run ethically. We have adopted this Code to reinforce our integrity and dedication as a publishing community and to ensure that our contests contribute to a vibrant literary heritage.
It’s surprising how far some presses are willing to go to ensure contest integrity. The University of Georgia Press’s Flannery O’Connor Prize and The University of Nebraska Press’s Prairie Schooner Prize spell out every step of the selection process. It should be noted that these are blind contests, where the manuscripts are submitted anonymously, which is the norm, but for the Nebraska or University of Georgia Press’s book contests, if a reader even so much as recognizes the work submitted, they are supposed to inform the contest administrator so that the manuscript can be reassigned.
The reasons for these presses going out of their way to avoid any appearance of favoritism should be obvious: because careers can be made, because nepotism is a regular part of publishing, and because writers have paid contest fees. There are very few opportunities to publish poetry or short fiction collections and the small presses have mostly taken over this work. Since contests are self-funded, there’s little financial risk and the press will very likely come out ahead (even a lesser known contest will likely receive more than 400 entries, and with each entry bringing in twenty dollars or more, that’s $8000 to cover the $1000 prize and the publishing costs). What is normally a risky endeavor for a press, to publish a book of poetry or short fiction from an emerging writer, is paid for up front regardless of sales. For the writer, winning a book-length contest can give them the line in the vita that lands a teaching job. It can be the thing that gets a literary agent to take notice of their work. It can lead to more publishing opportunities down the road.
I don’t believe that nepotism in publishing is necessarily a bad thing. Anyone who has ever gone through a slush pile knows that there are times when nothing excites enough to be selected, and solicitation isn’t exactly a dirty secret. Editors I knew personally have published my work. As a guest editor, I’ve also published friends. I can align my choices by what the CLMP Code of Ethics proclaims: I connected readers and writers by publishing exceptional writing. Nepotism in publishing can be defended since friendships often develop out of a mutual respect for each other as writers.
When it comes to contests, however, close personal relationships between writers and editors, or writers and judges, should come under scrutiny. Writers should know better than to enter contests when they are friends with the people making the selections. Conversely, the people making the selections should disqualify without hesitation once they discover the entries of friends.
The Appearance of Nepotism in Book-Length Writing Contests in Recent Years
When a writer receives that dreaded email or letter from the press that announces the winner of the contest they’d entered many months ago, there tends to be a sinking in the gut. The writer had been hopeful about the contest, and here was confirmation that they hadn’t won. To rub in the salt, in these letters presses tend to be overwhelmingly excited about the fact that someone else had won. It’s common for the language in these letters to declare that “one manuscript stood out above the rest” and/or that there was “a clear winner.” Writers pick themselves back up because they knew when they entered that the odds of winning were slim, and the selection of one manuscript over another always involves subjective taste no matter how objectively the contest administrators try to frame it.
In the Jorie Graham / Foetry era, people who knew about personal connections in contests outed the writers and judges via the Foetry website. We all kind of knew each other, even then, and there was hesitation by some presses to forbid friends of the judges from entering contests because they saw the poetry community as a small tightly knit group. Today, writers’ websites are mostly interested in pop culture and there’s tremendous pressure for writers to be supportive of each other online. With no forum for these kinds of discussions, there’s no reason to believe that the small universe of editors and authors would behave any differently from any other professional network, where the whistleblowers are punished.
I’ll use concrete examples to illustrate the problem, but I won’t name any presses or writers. I’m not out to smear these writers or editors. They made different decisions than other writers and editors would have, but there’s a lack of definition and no clear right way. As a community we need to strive toward an ideal, since “close personal relationships” will become increasingly more difficult to define when we’re all already Facebook friends and we engage with each other daily on Twitter, though we also can’t collectively throw up our hands and simply give up. The editors who run contests, and the writers who enter them, should approach contests with a greater sense of ethical responsibility.
I don’t want to give the impression with the following examples that a prize was awarded to a friend of the judge because of a friendship. I think it’s always more complicated than that. What I do believe, however, is that the contest result was ethically compromised, and that’s enough to matter. In order for a friend of the judge to win a contest, a failure of ethics had to occur on the part of at least two people, the writer who entered despite knowing the judge, and the judge who awarded the prize despite the friendship—each of whom could have individually put a stop to the submission. In that spirit, the instances that follow are not intended to be taken as accusations of nepotism, but to illustrate the appearance of nepotism, which in itself demonstrates a failure on the part of at least two people to strive toward an ideal and suggests that the processes or the people involved at that particular press during that particular contest were measurably ethically compromised.
In order to have a meaningful discussion, I’m presenting these examples anonymously. The press names that follow are made up, since small presses, by definition are noble entities and I really don’t want to take anyone down after they’ve done so much good work. These are presses I respect and the writers, editors, and judges were kind enough to allow me to quote anonymously from our email correspondence in the spirit of open dialogue, though they were understandably hesitant.
The “’Blind’ Reading Defense.”
The winner of a recent Edible Crayon Prize (not the name of the press) was selected by a judge who went to the same graduate writing program, at the same time, as the winner. The judge and winner also remained in contact after graduate school as members of an online writing group. Edible Crayon is a small press with a small readership, but their prize has authority. When Edible Crayon was contacted about the contest result for this article, press founders Periwinkle and Burnt Sienna (not their names) said that they “were not, and are not aware” of the relationship, which would mean that neither the winner nor the contest judge ever disclosed it. Periwinkle and Burnt Sienna also said:
…one of the reasons we founded Edible Crayon Press was in response to our suspicion of cronyism in presses both big and small and how that determined what and who those presses published, and our desire to create a press free of that where we could bring to light new voices and genres, and promote that work. We’re proud that all of our books—aside from one anthology—have been by authors who were new to us and chosen out of a reading period or because of a query letter rather than solicited. We’re also proud that the majority of our books are the authors’ first or second book, and we’ve enjoyed seeing our authors’ careers take off as they gain a larger audience.
The Edible Crayon Prize was read blind, with the finalists sent to the judge anonymously, as is common for contests of this type. The press did what they could to keep the contest fair, yet this contest result carries the appearance of nepotism, despite the good intentions and practices of the press editors.
Burnt Sienna and Periwinkle asked me to contact the judge and the winner to let them know about this article. The contest judge didn’t deny a friendship with the winner, did not tell the editors of the press about that relationship, but instead used the common safeguard of the blind reading as a dodge of personal responsibility while possibly damaging the reputation of the press. The contest judge should have let the editors at Edible Crayon know about the friendship and left it up to them whether or not to move forward with the winner, a situation that the writer put them in, since the writer should not have entered. In a follow-up email, editors Periwinkle and Burnt Sienna informed me that, as a direct result of this contest result, “…we have made what we thought was a clear understanding with the judges more formal by including a note with the anonymous finalist manuscripts we send to the judge that asks them to immediately let us know if they recognize the work of any of the finalists as a friend, family member, former or current student or colleague, and any other close personal relationship. Once the judge selects a winning manuscript, we tell the judge the winner’s name and ask again if they know the writer.” While I have criticized the CLMP code of ethics for being vague, as this quote from the editors makes clear, all the relationships that might be suspect can lead to a long and growing list. CLMP has made available the roundtable discussion, “Creating a Code of Ethics for Competitions,” a discussion of ethical models and practices that can be used to govern the selection process of competitions, so that there are maps for this kind of detail-oriented approach. Except that the landscape has already changed and online relationships will elude definition.
Unfortunately, writers will very likely continue to enter contests where they know a judge, because they feel they can enter so long as their own relationship hasn’t been explicitly forbidden in the contest rules. They are eyeing book-length publication and everything is seen through that lens. After I rudely commented on the Facebook post where the small press had announced the contest winner who interviewed the famous writer / judge, this contest winner emailed me, upset that I would use the press’s Facebook page to smear. However, there is no public forum for this kind of discussion, and the facts were already out there for anyone to see. My mention of what the writer had done was seen by the writer as worse than what the writer had done. The writer had had a choice: enter the contest or publish the interview. The writer’s ambition, however, wouldn’t allow the writer to see the two options as exclusive, and the writer had to do whatever it took to advance. We went back and forth about this in emails, with neither of us conceding a point. The winner of the contest hadn’t broken any rules by publishing an interview with the judge – there’s no explicit rule against that. But decorum should dictate, and this writer should have held off with the interview until after the contest winner had been announced.
We live at a time when relationships are slippery and it seems that if we don’t have specific contest rules that define every possible relationship, writers will feel justified pushing the limits of what might be appropriate. The winner of the Edible Crayon Prize responded in kind, though more defensively. I’m quoting the email to me from the winner of the Edible Crayon Prize in full, in order to represent this issue from the point of view of an ambitious writer:
I’m sorry, but do you not like my book? Do you think it didn’t deserve to win? It’s my understanding that it is the most popular title to date. Isn’t it a little late to worry about this?
I submitted my book because I had entered two previous Edible Crayon contests. As I’m sure you know, there are not a lot of contests, but the first time I entered I was a semi-finalist. I received positive feedback on the other manuscript as well. Also, Edible Crayon Press is known for genres that best describe my work. I prepared three separate manuscripts for the contest, before I knew who was going to be judge. When I found out who it was going to be, I considered not entering, but I had made a pact with myself to enter several contests. I realized I would be taking myself out of the running for a lot of contests if I didn’t submit to those where I knew the judge. Regarding the Edible Crayon contest, in the end, there was not a monetary prize, just publication, so it did not seem to be blurring any ethical lines. I felt that if anyone had a problem with my entry I would just be out the entry fee. I’d like to note here, that my BA is in philosophy, and I am a VERY ethical person who has actually gone to a great deal of trouble to actually STUDY ethics. The Edible Crayon contest was a blind reading. I decided to let my work stand for itself.
Everyone seems to know everyone. You and I are Facebook friends. In a world as connected as this one has become, where should one draw the line? It would be almost impossible to enter any contests or have any work published if one became too hung up on relationships.
Your first book was published by Atticus. Your wife is an editor at Atticus Review, right? Do you consider that nepotism? Just wondering.
As writers and editors we all tend to think of ourselves as ethical human beings, since writing and publishing are not entered into lightly. Yet, the defense that “we all know each other” is becoming common, and I feel like we need to strive toward a greater ideal, especially since it is likely that online networking will make it more difficult for presses to run ethical contests from here on.
For my own part, I’ll address this writer’s counter-accusation. Yes, I have a novel with Atticus Books and my wife was an editor at Atticus Review, but my wife became the editor at Atticus Review after my book was already published. My relationship with the press’s founder made it possible for me to recommend my wife to him when he was looking for an editor. You’re supposed to have a close personal relationship with the people you recommend for jobs. Nor was my Atticus Press novel selected as the result of a contest where fees were collected, but my book was sent via open submission. Writers behave publicly with effervescing positivity online, but there’s nastiness simmering under the surface. The winner of the Edible Crayon Prize uses the question, “Where should one draw the line?” as a way of dodging responsibility for entering a contest that many writers would have chosen not to enter.
Another Contest, Another Instance of the “We All Know Each Other” Defense.
Chemical Press (not the real name of the press) has been a springboard-to-success for fiction writers and their contests are important. Chemical Press has three editors (not their real names): Hydrogen, Helium, and Nitrogen. Each read and selected manuscripts for a contest where the winner was a writer Nitrogen went to graduate school with and whose work Nitrogen endorsed on a personal blog. Press founder, Hydrogen, had this to say about the contest result:
Chemical Press has rejected countless submissions by friends, colleagues and peers. For Chemical Press all that matters is the writing. We have rejected famous writers whose work would have made us money but what they sent to us was substandard. We have rejected good friends and people we work closely with. We’ve rejected students and people we admire. Nothing matters to us but the writing. It is clear in our guidelines to the contest that we won’t turn our back on people somehow connected to Chemical Press, tangentially or otherwise. The winner’s manuscript was by far the best.
Chemical Press uses the fact that they regularly reject the work of friends as evidence that the reading process is fair and objective.
Co-editor, Helium, repeats the fallacy:
I am well aware of the fact that the winner attended graduate school with Nitrogen (though will tell you that Hydrogen is horrible with names and until Nitrogen self-recused from the process, Hydrogen probably was not aware). The book was selected by myself and Hydrogen as the winner of the contest after we had moved it into the long list of finalists, as Nitrogen self-recused from the process due to this and many other manuscripts. Chemical Press has stated from the beginning of the book contest many years ago that we would not eliminate any potential entrants due to their knowing us or vice versa, that as years move forward that eliminates an incredible amount of fantastic potential manuscripts. For us, it simply comes down to the best manuscript. Chemical Press doesn’t use guest judges for our contest. The contest is judged by Hydrogen and Helium. Over the years since we began we have turned down (within and not within contests) numerous people that we both consider friends, even close friends. We’ve lost friends over this. We truly simply care about putting the best books out year after year and believe we’ll be doing so when we publish the collection from this year’s winner.
Whatever Hydrogen and Helium claim, I don’t think the writers who entered their contests were made aware that Chemical Press encouraged friends to enter. Should Chemical Press publish the work of a friend, those who entered should simply understand that the selection process was fair.
As Hydrogen explains, how could Chemical Press possibly disqualify when they know just about everyone:
With all due respect, between myself and Helium and Nitrogen we probably know 75% of all the working and writing literary fiction writers going today. If we removed everyone we knew from the contest we’d be down to 6 people and their illiterate cousins. Of the folks who entered our contest we knew many. We rejected all but one.
When writers who know the judges enter a Chemical Press contest, they enter as one of a large, if privileged, crowd of friends.
Nitrogen did not wish to be quoted in this article, but in correspondence Nitrogen explained that there were several entries that couldn’t be judged fairly and Nitrogen left those submissions for the other editors to read. Nitrogen self-recused once the finalist stage was reached without identifying any friends’ manuscripts or revealing the reason for stepping aside. Nitrogen didn’t believe that friends could be judged fairly, even though Hydrogen and Helium claim that friends were always encouraged to enter their contests.
As Hydrogen put it:
We at Chemical Press judge in house. We can’t then step aside or we’d have no one left to judge. The winner won fair and square. I am sorry the perception disturbs you but there is nothing going on that rises to the level of impropriety. I wish I could convince you but I fear I cannot. Perhaps when you read the winner’s work you will see how pleased we are to have our winner.
I want to repeat that I don’t believe anyone won these contests because of who they knew, but that these contests were ethically compromised, and appearances matter.
There’s simply not a blind process or easily definable category of “personal relationship” that is going to fix this. We all need to strive toward a more stringent ethical ideal, yet that clearly means different things to different people. The chance of book-length publication will continue to seduce writers into entering contests where they know the judges. The ambition of these writers allows them to ignore or make light of personal connections with the judges. Meanwhile, judges and editors claim that the “quality of the work” negates any personal contact, amidst an atmosphere were nearly all of us are making at least some contact. It’s almost as if self-regulation and striving toward an ideal are somehow counter to the aims of running a contest. Knowing this, writers should only enter contests by presses they wish to make charitable donations to, with clear eyes, and no expectations. Writers can’t rely on judges or selecting editors or even other writers to change the way contests are run without added pressure. However, the pressure is currently in the opposite direction, with writers encouraged to be more connected and more supportive of everyone, no matter what.
A writer airs a complaint about the personal connections between winners and judges, and the facts of the case are summarily dismissed in private correspondence, with no public forum. Most of the collective moral outrage of the writing community is reserved for the gaffes coming out of the pop culture, whereas the disgruntled writer is effectively silenced by the oppressive positivity of writers cheerleading online.