There’s been some stir about this year’s Manchester Fiction Prize run by my old university. A local young author pointed out on Facebook that the entrant fee – a cool £17 – is fairly high considering the average income of a struggling writer in Manchester. Other writers piled into the thread who are students or lone parents or doing entry level jobs in the service sector. All said they couldn’t justify spending £17 on the fee. A novelist associated with the prize responded in the thread but his posts were defensive and didn’t really justify what was happening.
I think it’s fair enough for competition organisers to charge an entrant fee given the huge admin involved in such things and the amount of submissions that will come in, many of which won’t be worth reading to the end. There’s also the probability that MMU set this up with an agenda for the national stage, maybe a few lines in the Bookseller or Guardian Review. However you cannot get past the fact that MMU has effectively priced out its own students, who are already paying substantial fees to attend the university. And don’t give me that ‘£17 is just four or five pints’ bullshit. I know students in Manchester who struggle to feed themselves.
There’s also the point that other competitions – the Bridport, the Bristol Prize, the V S Pritchett – charge around half as much as MMU, and the really prestigious contests, like the BBC National Short Story Prize and the Sunday Times EFG, do not charge at all. (For that matter, no commercial agent in the UK charges people to submit to them.) It is also the case that scam artists set up worthless contests to make money from aspiring writers (for example, if you have an online contest with a £500 purse and £10 entrant fee and you get 100 entries, that’s £500 profit) and you have to be very careful about what you enter, what goes on your CV and who gets your first rights. I’ve seen transparent stuff of this nature even distributed through the MMU alumni mailing list.
MMU is a good university with a strong creative writing programme and I have entered its contest in the past. I will probably do so again – but then, I can afford it. I appreciate that only so much can be done for free but MMU is not a workers’ co-operative. It is an established HE body that gets thousands of pounds per year per student. Its initiative could be more accessible to its own students than it is at present.