The pain of rejection never entirely vanishes. But for practising writers, disappointment can be instructive, even inspiring. If a longlist you’d hoped to appear on is populated with other, better writers, then the result at least makes sense. With more work, it might be you next year.
What should entrants in the 2019 Australian/Vogel’s Literary Award take from their experience? This year, the judges have declined to award the prize to anyone, the third time this has occurred in the competition’s history. Last time, in 2013, then-judge Geordie Williamson explained that the panel could not find ‘…that special quality that a winning entry has’, despite the fact that the judges found ‘many entries we admired, many we thought had real promise, and many we returned to again and again.’
Entering a writing competition involves time and sometimes money. The rules of the competition may prevent entrants from submitting their work elsewhere during the competition, creating opportunity costs. And every submission requires an emotional investment that is not trivial. Entrants need to summon a belief in the value of their own work, or else why bother? To enter, you draw from a limited reservoir of bravery. Then you hit send, or deposit an envelope in a mailbox, and settle in to wait. You wait for months, and the hope and want inside is a drumbeat you wish you couldn’t hear: maybe this time, maybe this time, maybe this time.
The Vogel judges were formally within their rights not to pick a winner. The competition terms provide that, ‘If, in [the judges’] opinion, no entry is worthy of the prize, no winner shall be chosen.’ In a statement, Allen & Unwin Publisher Annette Barlow said:
‘In 2019, there is no winner and although we’re disappointed, of course, I feel the judges’ decision speaks to their respect for the award and their desire to maintain the excellent standards of previous winning manuscripts.’
It’s important to maintain excellent standards. The literary establishment is a club, and like any good club, you can’t let just anyone in. Thankfully, the clubhouse has walls, high barriers to entry. To strain the metaphor, the Vogel is a ladder—a good one—but this year it’s been kicked away. Some of the club leaders poked their heads out the window, surveyed those milling below, and didn’t like what they saw.
Stephen Romei, a judge of the 2019 award, said:
‘The Vogel award is the benchmark Australian book prize for unpublished authors, with recipients including Tim Winton, Brian Castro, Kate Grenville, Gillian Mears, Andrew McGahan, Mandy Sayer, Danielle Wood and Rohan Wilson.
With this in mind it is important that the prize be awarded to a writer and a manuscript that will continue this tradition. Some years, and they are rare, no manuscript quite makes the grade…’
If we leave aside the fact that the names dropped by Romei aren’t necessarily representative of the broader cohort of Vogel winners, this suggests an almost impossible standard. Should I only enter the Vogel if I think my writing is up to the ‘benchmark’ of a Winton or a Grenville? How can any unpublished writer hope to demonstrate, in their first manuscript, that they will go on to achieve that kind of success?
The Vogel is not unusual in how it operates: competitions run in conjunction with other Australian publishers adopt similar rules. And it’s good that these competitions exist since, in the absence of meaningful arts funding, at least for those who meet the eligibility criteria and who can afford to invest the time, they can be opportunities for practice, self-appraisal, and a chance of wider recognition. Competitions are particularly important for writers based outside of Sydney and Melbourne, who have a harder time connecting with publishers and agents. But if a competition:
- prohibits entered manuscripts from being submitted anywhere else for the duration of the competition,
- costs money to enter,
- reserves the right not to award a prize, and
- claims for a publisher non time-limited ‘exclusive worldwide publishing rights to [the winning entry], and to any other entry they feel is of sufficient merit’ regardless of whether a prize is awarded,
then entrants are relying on the judges and organisers to act in good faith, or else risk being exploited.
Because no detailed reasons have been given, it’s natural to wonder how the decision about this year’s prize was reached. Was there really no entry of sufficient merit? The winner receives a book deal with a $20,000 advance, representing a big bet on a debut author. What if the most compelling entries this year also happened to be challenging from a sales perspective, and were deemed unlikely to earn out the advance? Without an understanding of who was in contention, we can’t guess at the interplay between artistic and commercial considerations.
Writers enter these competitions because—maybe, maybe—we might be longlisted, or even shortlisted, and—maybe, maybe—that could lead to something tangible. But a group of aspiring writers has just been informed that in the eyes of leading industry figures, they and their peers have produced nothing worthy of publication this year.
If the competition organisers are confident in the judges’ decision, and care about fostering new writers, they should publish a shortlist. If nothing else, it would send a message: these entrants didn’t meet our benchmark, but they got closest. They should keep going.
In a month I will turn 35, so this is the last year I can enter the Vogel. I have a manuscript burning a hole in my hard drive, and at the time of writing, I have sixteen days left to send in an entry. But like many other writers I admire, I think I can get comfortable with the fact that I’ll never be a Vogel winner.
Andrew Roff was the winner of the 2018 Margaret River Press Short Story Competition. His work has appeared in Griffith Review, Overland, Southerly and Going Down Swinging, among others, and he was shortlisted for the Wakefield Press Unpublished Manuscript Award at the 2016 Adelaide Festival Awards for Literature.