Monday 13 April 2015

The Myth of "Prestige"

Prestige. Exposure. They're good things, right? The kind of thing writers hanker after, whether they're just scrabbling onto the foot of the career ladder or balancing way up on some lofty rung? Getting a story - or perhaps even just your name - into the right place at the right time might unlock doors to untold fame and riches.

Or not. Because, it turns out, ninety-nine times out of a hundred, getting a story somewhere prestigious doesn't automatically have agents beating a path to your door, or publishers fighting over your half-finished manuscripts. You can drop as big a rock as you like into the literary pond but the ripples you make will quickly be drowned out by the constant rain of pebbles everybody else is chucking in.

Jonathan Pinnock illustrated this nicely in his thoughtful and well-researched blog post regarding what happened after one of his stories was broadcast as part of the BBC Radio 4 'Opening Lines' series. Most people (and I counted myself among them) would probably assume that if you get your foot in the door at the Beeb, that's it, you're set for life. But it appears that's not the case. Hardly any of the writers who've been picked for Opening Lines have ever been asked to follow-up their appearance. (The same, incidentally, can also be said for getting a story into The Guardian). Such achievements help, but for almost everyone it'll be more a case of adding weight to a portfolio than any kind of magic shortcut to success.

So, with this in mind, what are we to make of the 'award' recently launched by Pin Drop Studios? On the face of it, Pin Drop seems like an excellent idea - an organisation celebrating and promoting short fiction read aloud, with a collection of big names onboard in terms of both voice and writing talent. I'm definitely going to have a listen to some of their recorded short stories. But that award bothers me. There's a ten pound entry fee, for a start, which is on the high side. I don't know how many entries they're anticipating, but they seem to expect enough to justify not acknowledging receipt of emailed entries. I don't know what happens to the entry fees because there's no monetary prize. All that's on offer is the chance to have your story read aloud at one of their events and added to their archive.

That may be enough for some people. It would certainly be good exposure, and who knows who might hear it and where that might lead? (Um... see above.) And I'm not suggesting you shouldn't enter if you can afford the fee and feel like one of your stories might be the perfect fit.

But, ask yourself this: if your story is good enough to be ranked alongside those by Sebastian Faulks, Lionel Shriver, William Boyd, and Jon McGregor, why should you have to pay to have your work considered? Did those authors send in a tenner with their stories? Do the actors who bring the stories to life pay a fee for such prestigious exposure? In fairness, I don't know; Pin Drop don't say. But it seems unlikely, doesn't it?

There are too many examples of writers being expected to write or contribute or perform for free - or worse, to have to pay to take part. Prestige is no bad thing, but you can't eat it and it won't keep a roof over your head. Competitions like the Pin Drop one contribute to the erosion of the perceived value of the writer - the one person without whom the story would not exist. I'd urge anybody thinking of taking part to consider the implications of what happens when the only people left writing are the ones who can afford to pay to have their stories heard.