What If There Were No Winners?

This year, the Pulitzer Foundation decided that there was no single book worthy of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction. This is not uncommon: nine times the Pulitzer Prize Board has decided that no work of fiction is worthy of this honor. The expected response from the public came forth. Gawker said that Pulitzer Prizes are worthless. Writers everywhere linked to Ann Patchett’s commentary in the New York Times. Publisher’s Weekly detailed the numbers on what kind of boost a Pulitzer Award is for book sales: small press publishers salivated at those figures while insiders at the Big Six publishing houses considered those exact same numbers as relatively small. Many writers took a public “Who cares about a Pulitzer?” stance while privately wishing they had been the winner.

So, that got me thinking: What if a literary magazine pulled a Pulitzer and refused to declare a winner in its prize?

It isn’t uncommon for a book prize to not award a winner . This oldie but goodie from Poets & Writers details a specific decision made in 2006 by Winnow Press, but it also touches on the Yale Series in Poetry and others. Those are book prizes, however, which are  just a little bit different from the literary magazine world. You should check out the newest Poets & Writers as they dive a bit more into this subject.

Literary magazines run contests all the time. Almost every magazine, regardless of size, has a contest. Usually for a prize of around $1000, an award is given in one specific category (and often more than one, say fiction and poetry), a writer pays an entry fee (anywhere from $10 to $25) which will often get the writer a one-year subscription to the magazine. A few months later, the winner is announced, and the prize-winning manuscript is published in a forthcoming issue of the journal.

Has a literary journal ever refused to award a contest prize? I’m sure it has happened, but I couldn’t think of one. I asked Travis Kurowski, a founding editor of Luna Park Review and author of a forthcoming book on the literary magazine, and he pointed to only one example: when Zadie Smith refused to award a winner in the Willesden Herald Short Story Prize in 2008. Beyond that, I couldn’t come up with any examples of this happening with a literary magazine. Why is that?

Let’s use The Missouri Review as an example. Our 22nd Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize is now open for submissions. Our deadline is October 1st, and we have already received entries. This is the time of year when we start advertising for the contest. Our first mailing goes out this week. We review the various promotional venues, both in print and online, and decide on a budget. We consider where previous entrants said they heard of our contest (if they gave us this information) and decide if we need to find new venues, stick with the old ones, or try new ones.

During the summer, our promotional push is a little bit lighter: we don’t wish to be a nudge! But when the fall semester starts in late August, the deadline is six weeks away. Our contest editor gets cracking. Postal mailings, emails, blog post, tweets. We dedicate three of our interns to the contest. Everything that rolls in needs to be processed: all payments verified, addresses logged, type of subscription (print or digital), whether this is a newer subscriber or old. All the entries need to be recorded, marked, and set in the right location (print goes in one mail bin; online submissions get routed to reading folders). As the deadline nears, we do everything we can to contact as many people as we can to make sure that we get all those entries: we don’t want to miss out on any great writing simply because someone didn’t know about it.

Once the deadline is over, we need to read all the entries. How many do we receive? A low-end figure is 2500. We have roughly eight weeks to read all 2500 entries. We cull that down to a list of “semi-finalists” in each category: call it 50 in each of three genres.  Then we read them again. And again. And again. And argue, debate, implore, pontificate, beg, reconsider, and thoughtfully “hmmm” our way to the final choices, which then go to Speer Morgan, our editor-in-chief.

Winners are selected, notified, and then we have more work to do. There’s a tight deadline for us to proof, edit, and layout each piece, which goes along with the other pieces in our issue, and we don’t know in advance how many that will be (in the last three years, the quality of entries means we typically are publishing several finalists in each category … which means we really don’t know the content of our spring issue until early January). We also need to make travel and venue arrangements because we bring our winners into Columbia for a reading and a reception, which is one of our showcase events for our community each spring.

Our contest is really a continuous all-year event. This isn’t necessarily true of all literary magazines, of course, but the amount of administrative, marketing, and editorial time is probably at least six months for any other journal … and often they have a much smaller staff and smaller financial resources.

Now: what if went through that entire process and in early January declared there was no winner? Or, if we said there was only a winner in two categories but not a third?

A few years ago, our Audio Competition had a video category. We didn’t receive a ton of submissions for the video category, and after reviewing everything and discussing it internally, we made the hard decision to not award a winner. We wrote a letter to each entrant, explaining our decision, and that while each entrant would still receive the one-year subscription to our magazine, we would return the entry fee. Still, we received some very nasty, threatening emails and phone calls about this decision.

Imagine if we did that in poetry. Poets might have the smallest audience in the world of writers when compared to Famous Authors on the large presses. But, boy, are they fierce and pushy about their work! (The good folks at Barrelhouse say it pretty succinctly with this t-shirt) The blowback would be tremendous. One of the benefits of being in the (comparitively) small world of literary magazines and journals is that it’s a supportive community, where the connections are not casual. Telling our writers that collectively their work isn’t good enough could have some nasty consequences.

The amount of time, labor, and financial investment that goes into running a good contest gives a literary magazine a strong incentive to declare a winner, which is not necessarily true of a small press or the Pulitzer Foundation. We’re very fortunate that this isn’t really an issue. The quality of the work TMR receives is always quite high; we never look at the finalists and think “Ugh.” One can credit the Program Era for this one—MFA programs have produced terrific writers over the last thirty years, and as far as magazines go, particularly in the last decade, entries to our contest have been terrific.

Another problem with saying “No winner!” is administrative. We’re at the University of Missouri, and when it comes to mailing out checks (we are not permitted to use PayPal or similar services), there is a lot of paperwork. A lot of paperwork. We would need to collect every social security number from every entrant. We would need a permanent mailing address. We would need to type all this up, send it off to one of the, oh, seventeen departments that verifies all this information, and then it all needs to be processed, mailed, received, cashed.

On the purest level, we always have good work from which we can select a winner. But there are clearly other considerations, too: public relations, administration, human resources, time and labor, all of that good stuff. On our end, this type of decision isn’t made lightly. And incentives will always shape the planning, development, and execution of every organization.

Back to Patchett and the Pulitzer Foundation. What incentive does the Pulitzer Board have to awarding a winner? I’d say almost none. They didn’t write the books. Nominees pay $50 to submit the work. Publicity? They probably get more by saying “there is no winner” and getting a response from a Famous Author like Ann Patchett written in the New York Times about it rather than awarding the prize to a posthumous book by an author who died four years ago. Patchett wrote, “With book coverage in the media split evenly between “Fifty Shades of Grey” and “The Hunger Games,” wouldn’t it have been something to have people talking about “The Pale King,” David Foster Wallace’s posthumous masterwork about a toiling tax collector (and this year’s third Pulitzer finalist)?”

Really? Isn’t the public talking about Suzanne Collins and E.L. James for, well, every reason other than the quality of the book? Sure, all three are books, but in many ways, the comparison of James and Collins to Wallace is almost apples to oranges.

It’s one of the reasons that literary magazines thrive: we respect the audience and the work, the writer and the reader. We have an incentive to do so, and we want to do so. What  incentive does the Pulitzer Board have to declare a winner? What do they want from a reading public?

I have no idea. I’m not sure they do either.

Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye