What Place Literary Contests?
As in recent years, we are pleased to launch the new volume year by presenting here the winner and runners-up of the 2016 Kenyon Review Short Fiction Contest. Our final judge in 2016 was Jaimy Gordon, a writer and teacher of extraordinary merit. Rarely have I been as dazzled by the energy and inventiveness and vibrancy of language as when I first read her novel Lord of Misrule, so I was especially delighted when she agreed to serve. (In January we will begin accepting entries for the 2017 contest, with Lee K. Abbott as the distinguished final judge.)
As a matter of fact, Jaimy’s novel received the National Book Award in 2010, and deservedly so. Such awards, of course, have been a feature of the literary landscape for decades. Editors or publishers nominate favored books, which typically have been published in the preceding year, to the sponsors of an award or committees of judges. Often the authors themselves may be entirely unaware that their work is even under consideration, and that’s probably for the best.
Contests such as KR’s, however, are of more recent vintage. They have become widely popular and serve a variety of purposes. Authors submit their own work in hope both of glory and publication. This has become especially true of smaller and independent presses, who publish winning collections of poems or short stories.
The impetus behind our own version was very simple: to create a buzz among younger writers, especially those in their twenties and thirties. We sought talented people in the early stages of their careers, so-called emerging authors, often while they were still in or had recently finished MFA programs. We hoped they’d come to view KR and KRO as vibrant and exciting, featuring literature they wanted to read and on pages they themselves wanted to appear. So in 2008 we announced our new short fiction contest, welcoming writers under thirty. Entry was free.
The response was certainly enthusiastic. And, among not-so-young writers, it was also annoyed. Why should an arbitrary age limit be placed on who could participate? Many people, we were informed in no uncertain terms, only came to discover their vocation later in life. They might start the process of “emerging” well beyond thirty. Why exclude them?
Startled initially, the more I thought about it the more their protest struck me as entirely reasonable. In truth, we never intended to exclude—it had simply seemed a mechanism to limit the numbers of entries demanding attention, so in 2012 the criterion was changed. Henceforth, anyone who hadn’t yet published a book of fiction was welcome to enter, no matter the age.
Dealing with the enthusiasm was a bit more challenging. What publisher doesn’t yearn for a healthy dose of zeal? In the first year we received some seven hundred entries—a healthy stack, to be sure, but essentially manageable. Remember, however: these short stories were all to be evaluated on top of the thousands of regular submissions received through our electronic transom.
Lovely though life in Gambier, Ohio, may be, our resources—our readers—are limited. By the second year the number of entries to the short fiction contest soared to one thousand and within another couple of years it went to seventeen hundred. Zeal is all well and good, but in practical terms we were overwhelmed. Something had to give.
Although charging authors a fee to submit their work is increasingly common, it went against the grain with us. And that remains—and will remain—the case: regular submissions to both the Kenyon Review and KROnline are open to everyone and without charge. Yet increasingly imposing a cost seemed the only way we might hold down the sheer number of entries. (It’s also true that, because entry was both easy and free, not a few had been frivolous.)
After much discussion and debate, in 2014 we developed a solution that still seems reasonable to me. Contestants pay for a one-year KR subscription, which allows them to enter a story, and they receive six issues of the magazine.
Having misjudged the initial response to our fledgling contest, I confess I was truly wary that requiring a fee might rebound in the opposite direction, with no authors, or very few, continuing to offer their work. A bigger fear still: what if the stories no longer offered such stunning quality?
Neither has come about, I’m relieved to say. The number of entrants has leveled at a little under five hundred, just about where we’d hope. And the literary merit of what is on offer has, remarkably, only climbed. Turn a page and you will find three terrifically potent short stories. “Butter” by Eve Gleichman, the winner of our 2016 contest, is vivid, powerful, disturbing—as Jaimy writes, it resonates with a “gutsy integrity.” “Butter” deserves publication and celebration by any standard, and I am proud to offer it and the two runners-up here.
On the Cover
Melinda Tidwell is a collage artist with an interest in discarded books. Her love of books and vintage materials lured her from the world of graphic design and into her current work in book collage. Tidwell’s collages are shown in yearly gallery exhibitions, international art fairs, and are included in numerous private and corporate collections in the United States. Her work is currently represented by galleries in San Francisco, Seattle, Sun Valley, and Santa Fe. Melinda also teaches from her studio in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and at other venues around the country. To see more of her work, visit www.melindatidwell.com.