Eyes on the Prize

by | November 26, 2013 | General | 7 comments

by Jean Roberta

When I was in my last year of high school, I won a major award in a national contest for student writers, and then lost my boyfriend. This was not a coincidence. He accused me of being on the “bad trip” of focusing too much on my writing and not enough on Life, then he promptly found a new girlfriend. (Boyfriend had taken a few “bad trips” that were more chemically-induced.)

He and I had met in a special two-year Fine Arts program, and he had told me that he planned to launch a writing career after graduation. During our two-year relationship, I revised and typed his essays for our English classes; I hoped that he would love me better if I helped him get better grades. (His grammar was shaky, and he implied that this was because he was all about big ideas rather than trivial details).

Soon after our English teacher announced the contest, Boyfriend and I both mailed in our short stories. This time, he didn’t ask for my editorial help, and I didn’t offer it. Weeks later, I won $500 (worth approximately a year of university tuition) and a three-day trip to Toronto, headquarters of the financial company that had sponsored the contest. Boyfriend got nothing. He complained bitterly that the judging had been unfairly biased, and he expected me to agree with him. Even before I learned that he had replaced me, I knew our romance was over.

Why am I recounting this historical episode? Because the race is on. Several major writing contests are still open for a short time, and award-winners will be announced at annual conferences in the spring and summer of 2014. The results remain to be seen.

Let’s start with (arguably) the biggest awards for writers of romance fiction (including erotic romance): the Ritas, sponsored by Romance Writers of America and named after its first president, Rita Clay Estrada. There is an entry fee for members of the organization, and a higher fee for non-members, but the prizes are substantial, not to mention the fame involved. The categories have been controversial, especially when “romance” was defined as a genre that excluded same-gender relationships. That restriction has been lifted, but “romance” as a genre definition is still sufficiently arbitrary to trigger debate. For more contest details, go here: www.rwa.org/p/cm/ld/fid=528 before the deadline: January 2, 2014.

The annual writing awards that especially interest me are the “Lammies,” given by the Lambda Literary Foundation for the best works of the year (fiction, non-fiction, poetry, drama) featuring lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender content. The deadline for nominations is December 1, 2013, so if you are interested, you have a week to decide. Find “awards” here: http://www.lambdaliterary.org

The categories for the “Lammies” are debatable and overlapping, and I am always somewhat surprised to find work I consider erotic entered as “fiction” or “romance.” Of course, the fewer entries in a given category, the more likely it is that a particular title will win.

Then there are the “Eppies” and the “Arianas” (given by EPIC, the organization for e-published writers, for e-books and e-book covers). These annual awards have a summer deadline.

I looked in vain for information about the Rauxa Prize for erotic fiction and poetry, awarded by a Rauxa Foundation (apparently based in Englewood, Colorado) up to 2007. This prize seems to be a thing of the past.

Penthouse magazine used to give annual awards for the kind of sexually-explicit fiction published in its pages. The name of the award, the “Baudelaire,” was hotly debated in the Writers list of ERWA (possibly also in Parlor) on grounds that Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867), an innovative French poet, would be appalled to have his name associated with the formulaic stories for which Penthouse was known. Even still, any writing contest which provides cash prizes for writers seems better than nothing to me.

If I have neglected to mention a currently-open contest that will accept sexually-explicit writing, I hope someone will fill in the gap.

Why do writers enter contests? The shocking, immediate side-effect of winning is that other writers (especially contestants who didn’t win) are likely to sneer. (If my ex-boyfriend is still alive and if he ever mentions my name, he probably remembers our art-student romance as one of the disillusioning experiences of his youth.) Before contest results are even announced, the guidelines, the restrictions and the judges can all be accused of bias. The problem here is that literature (published writing) must be subjectively judged, based on criteria which are specific to a certain value system. I can’t imagine how writing contests could be run otherwise.

Do writing awards result in increased sales? I don’t know of any wide-ranging surveys which show a correlation (or not). Common sense tells me that an award is likely to raise interest in a particular title–and to a lesser extent, in everything else the author has written. Experience tells me that winning a writing contest is literally its own reward, since nothing further can be expected. (The award that lost me a boyfriend did not gain me a single publication.)

It has been argued that because the judging of writing contests, like the evaluation of story submissions, is necessarily subjective, winning or acceptance doesn’t prove the merits of the chosen work. We’ve all heard this.

Yet winning, like acceptance for publication (or both combined) feels downright orgasmic. It shows that at least one person (outside the writer’s circle of intimates) read, understood and chose to honour the work. May everyone here whose work is nominated for an award be prepared for the outcome, whatever it is—and may hope and determination never fade.


Jean Roberta

Jean Roberta once promised her parents not to use their unusual family name for her queer and erotic writing, and thus was born her thin-disguise pen name. She teaches English and Creative Writing in a university on the Canadian prairies, where the vastness of land and sky encourage daydreaming. Jean immigrated to Canada from the United States as a teenager with her family. In her last year of high school, she won a major award in a national student writing contest. In 1988, a one-woman publisher in Montreal published a book of Jean’s lesbian stories, Secrets of the Invisible World. When the publisher went out of business, the book went out of print. In the same year, Jean attended the Third International Feminist Book Fair in Montreal, where she read a call-for-submissions for erotic lesbian stories. She wrote three, sent them off, and got a letter saying that all three were accepted. Then the publisher went out of business. In 1998, Jean and her partner acquired their first computer. Jean looked for writers’ groups and found the Erotic Readers & Writers Association, which was then two years old! She began writing erotica in every flavor she could think of (f/f, m/f, m/m, f/f/m, etc) and in various genres (realistic contemporary, fantasy, historical). Her stories have appeared in anthology series such as Best Lesbian Erotica (2000, 2001, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, Volume 1 in new series, 2016), Best Lesbian Romance (2014), and Best Women's Erotica (2000, 2003, 2005, 2006) from Cleis Press, as well as many others. Her single-author books include Obsession (Renaissance, Sizzler Editions), an erotic story collection, The Princess and the Outlaw: Tales of the Torrid Past (Lethe Press), and The Flight of the Black Swan: A Bawdy Novella (Lethe, also in audio). Fantasy stories by Jean include “Lunacy” in Journey to the Center of Desire (erotic stories based on the work of Jules Verne) from Circlet Press 2017, “Green Spectacles and Rosy Cheeks” (steampunk erotica) in Valves & Vixens 3 (House of Erotica, UK, 2016), and “Under the Sign of the Dragon” (story about the conception of King Arthur) in Nights of the Round Table: Arthurian Erotica (Circlet 2015). This story is now available from eXcessica (http://excessica.com). Her horror story, “Roots,” first published in Monsters from Torquere Press, is now in the Treasure Gallery of the Erotic Readers and Writers Association. With Lethe Press publisher Steve Berman, she coedited Heiresses of Russ 2015 (Lethe), an annual anthology of the year’s best lesbian speculative fiction. Her realistic erotic novel, Prairie Gothic: A Tale of the Old Millennium, was published by Lethe in September 2021. Jean has written many reviews and blog posts. Her former columns include “Sex Is All Metaphors” (based on a line in a poem by Dylan Thomas) for the Erotic Readers and Writers Association, July 2008-November 2010. The 25 column pieces can still be found in the on-site archives and in an e-book from Coming Together, www.eroticanthology.com. Jean married her long-term partner, Mirtha Rivera, on October 30, 2010. Links: www.JeanRoberta.com http://eroticaforall.co.uk/category/author-profiles


  1. Rachel Green

    Ah, I had an ex just like that (though it was about painting, not writing)

  2. Remittance Girl

    I'm really glad you dumped the guy. He sounds exactly like my father.

    I have only ever entered two writing contests, and both times I was kind of bullied into them. One was a very minor Clean Sheets seasonal thing, and the other was the annual writing competition at my university. I did fine in both. But I didn't feel the orgasmicness you mention at all.

    I've never been a very competitive person. I wish I were. I think I could do a lot better as a writer, especially financially, if I were, but I can't find it in me.

    Someone once said it is a result of being a child from a thoroughly middle-class family. I'd buy that. No drive to win.

    I do have a tremendous drive to compete against myself, and to produce what I consider better work than before, but to be compared to other writers, and found to be 'better'… nah, does nothing for me.

  3. Lisabet Sarai

    Quite a cautionary tale, Jean!

    I never bother to enter contests, because I know from experience that my fiction just doesn't have the kind of crowd appeal needed to win. In the romance world, there are dozens of competitions that basically just turn out to be popularity contests. Whoever can shout the loudest gets the most votes.

    A couple of books that include my stories *have* won awards, but that's a collective effort, not an individual accolade.

    No, I don't even want to think about this stuff. Too depressing.

  4. Kathleen Bradean

    There's also the Bisexual Book Awards, but the categories may have just closed.

    I'd love to start an erotica writing contest, but unfortunately, my tastes seem far off the commercial basis.

  5. Jean Roberta

    Thanks for your comments, all. Winning a "writing contest" certainly doesn't prove anything, and it is debatable whether the famous writers of the past whose work is taught in public schools and universities would have entered and won any such thing. (I know that Edna St.Vincent Millay was launched as a poet when her poem "Renascence" won a contest.) How do we know if our work has any merit? Sales largely indicate popularity, and as you say, Lisabet, so do some contests. However, writing contests interest me. Recognition in some form seems better than languishing in obscurity.

    • Anonymous

      I prefer to think of it as luxuriating in obscurity (and anonymity).

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