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.


Patsy said...

Prestige? How much prestige is there in having people see you value your work so highly that you either give it away or pay people to read it?

Exposure is a ittle more valuable, I think. No one can buy our work if they've never heard of us and reading something we've done for free just might prompt them to look out for more.

Dan Purdue said...

Context is obviously important, Patsy. I doubt most of the people (readers/listeners at least) who'd look on the Pin Drop site aren't likely to know the winner of this contest had to pay to get their story considered, so the fact that it's a good looking site with some famous names on it means the story will gain prestige.

Exposure is important - as you say, obscurity is the main obstacle for most writers trying to make a living. But it's not a reward in itself and I'd advise any writer to think very carefully about what the net benefit will be before paying for such exposure.

Liz Brownlee said...

I am absolutely of the opinion that if you appear anywhere you should be paid.

Ad if you write for a commercial venture, that you should be paid.

But for instance if there was an open mic group in your local city and you decided to go to read out (probably not among those who are going to pounce upon your work and publish it), but for the enjoyment, the chance to judge reactions to your work,the camaraderie, the celebration of the word, then you would be paying about £10 in petrol to get here.

Playing the Devil's Advocate, the chance to have one's work read alongside the above would be a pull, i think. Particularly as short works of fiction have been mostly ignored by publishers and this is an initiative to bring them into focus.

I agree there needs to be a balance. On the whole I think you must be paid, don't devalue yourself and everyone else who is trying to write for a living, but in this sort of case, I'm not so sure.

Dan Purdue said...

I understand where you're coming from, Liz, but I'd say there's a big difference between the cost of driving or taking a bus to an open mic evening, and paying the organiser to take part. I'm sure there can't be many open mic nights where the performers have to pay for the privilege of reading to an audience (who may also have had to pay to be there, or at least buy some drinks). It would take a pretty unscrupulous organiser to make money from both the talent and the audience!

But it's not the paying to take part that I disagree with in this case (I'm a fan of writing competitions, and I've paid many an entry fee). In this case the organisers are working like one of those dodgy literary magazines that does not pay for publication rights, but also charges a submission fee. That's a principle I find highly objectionable.

I think they're relying on this idea some of us writers have that if you get your work alongside the big names then their success will rub off on you. People will pay for the chance of this happening to them. But experience has taught me, and lots of other writers I know, that more often than not, this just isn't the case.