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Let’s talk about failures…

There’s something that happens more and more on Twitter that makes me feel slightly queasy. But I also hesitate to say this, because it might not go down well. It’s the habit of (as soon as the results of a competition are out) dashing off a tweet to the effect of: ‘Congratulations to all the winners [of Comp Name]! Amazed and humbled to see my poem [on the shortlist/among the Commendeds]!’

There’s nothing wrong with saying ‘well done’ to other poets, surely? So by griping about it, does that make me a sore loser/ grumpy person /antisocial member of the poetry community? Possibly all of those, but I hope not. My queasiness comes from observing what looks like an exaggerated pleasure in others’ successes on the part of the tweeter, whilst at the same time sneaking in the fact that he/she was commended/shortlisted or whatever, thereby starting yet another chain of ‘Congratulations!’ tweets etc. I try not to go on about my distaste for ‘humblebragging’, but this new trend of congratulating ‘all the winners’ (presumably including a number of poets completely unknown to the tweeter) seems to be humblebragging by any other name. It appears to be widespread, and it feels like a relatively new phenomenon.

You may be thinking ‘well if she doesn’t like it, she can always unfollow/mute’. True. And sometimes I actually do, but I prefer not to, as the ‘offending’ tweets are frequently made by people whose tweets I generally enjoy and want to hear from. As I said, it’s so widespread it’s become normal everyday behaviour. But the queasiness continues. Why do I feel this way? Am I really the only one?

Recently, as a response to someone announcing that to be on a shortlist they felt like ‘a winner’, I asked them if it wouldn’t feel even better to actually be the winner. The reply was that ‘I find it easier to be happy for other people’s successes’ – now I may be reading this wrongly but the implication was ‘…than my own’. This was from someone who’s had plenty of successes.

Is the world really so full of altruistic people who truly, genuinely, find more pleasure in the success of others than in their own? Or are they reluctant to admit it on social media, for whatever reason – fear of looking big-headed, or of people not liking them, or just a preference to go along with the cheerleading norms, or even a worry that to celebrate ones own success means to put others down…I do hope the last one isn’t the case, because I think it’s mistaken.

Look at this way: if we stopped congratulating ourselves at making a longest/shortlist/commended, and only invited or offered congratulations to those placed 1st, 2nd or 3rd, then the vast majority of us would not be winners. At the moment it looks like literally everyone is winning something, and that’s very disheartening to those poets who never get anywhere in competitions. (I find it disheartening myself, and I do sometimes get somewhere. And however pleased I may be with a shortlisting, I am always disappointed not to have won.) It can also look like a coterie of winning poets continuously congratulating each other.

I read another comment recently, in which someone apparently was so upset not to get ‘on a list’ that they felt they may give up and stop writing. The responses to this were concerned and supportive, with someone else pointing out that ‘you have to remember that no-one talks about their failures on social media, only their successes.’ But can we reasonably expect people to remember this? Was this person feeling that way due to his/her tweetstream giving the impression that the whole world was on the bloody list except them?

It’s been said plenty of times before. Social media (and the internet long before social media) is a goldfish bowl of performative behaviour. I think those of us who spend a lot of time on it have a responsibility to remember that. There was a time when out-and-out self-promotion seemed to take over Facebook and Twitter (which was a big reason why I left Facebook some years ago). The rule of ‘Twitizenship’ now seems to be: only promote one’s own successes if at the same time you shout about everyone/anyone else’s.

And failures? Someone once said they hated the way some people filled up Facebook with their bad news, which no-one wants to be dragged down by. And yet, whenever I talk about my many poetry rejections on this blog, it gets the most positive comments. It would certainly be refreshing to see the odd ‘for the tenth year running I came nowhere in the Bridport’ on Twitter. But who wants to be accused of sour grapes?

I just wish we could a) talk more realistically (and more often) about the fact that the vast majority of poems don’t win prizes, as this may help us all to put things in perspective, b) worry a little less about keeping up a saintly/sanitised appearance on social media, and c) put the brakes on the ‘congratulations’ circulars: by all means send a DM, but no-one needs to be congratulated publicly/anonymously on Twitter for being on a shortlist, in my humble opinion. Am I making a mountain out of a molehill? Am I just being grumpy?

Published inAngstBlogRejectionsSubmissions


  1. Maybe grumpy! But good article.
    Most poets seem to be chasing something called success by any means possible.
    .I only congratulate people I have actually met.
    Had a career a career in Variety know the game you were only as good as your last performance, publicity important, but then I had to eat!
    Strayed from the point as usual …
    But poetry seems more like a game to me! All those subscriptions. entry fees, expensive mentoring etc. Bit of a clique?
    But once won a local comp. and was longlisted in Bridport. A friend told me wasn’t so computer savvy then.
    Feel free not to post. Take carex

    • Robin Houghton Robin Houghton

      Hi Ann, thank you – all good points yes ..I think treating it all as a bit of a game is probably healthy. I appreciate that some writers feel they have to stay present on social media and if they ‘disappear’ then so might their book sales. But I suppose (as a former marketer myself) I’ve never liked the idea of social media as a promotional channel, or a broadcast medium; that it should be about conversations. But that’s me being idealistic (or naive!)

  2. Diana Brighouse Diana Brighouse

    Thought provoking blog. I gave up twitter a couple of years ago because a) I felt that I was wasting far too much time on it, and b) it seemed that one either got in an echo chamber of people whose views one agreed with, or got involved in increasingly unpleasant debate with those who held opposing views. Likewise I only use facebook to post about petitions or appeals, never anything personal.
    As far as the prize winning/ short listed/ long listed/ commended poetry goes, I can honestly say that if I were fortunate enough to be commended or long listed for any competition that I entered I would be over the moon, and definitely not disappointed that I hadn’t done better. Perhaps it’s to do with whether one regularly enters competitions or not. Mostly I write poems to discuss with my workshop group, and then to redraft and redraft until I’ve got them as I like them. My biggest pleasure is in the process of writing and sharing with other writers whose opinions I trust. I guess I only enter competitions sporadically precisely because the majority of poets will never win, or be commended, and I think that multiple regular rejections would take all the pleasure out of writing poetry for me.

    • Robin Houghton Robin Houghton

      Hello Diana and thank you for posting. I appreciate not everyone is into entering competitions, and I think yes, how one feels about the relative merits of a win/placing/longlisting or whatever is relative to previous results achieved. We’re all at different stages with our writing and people want different things. I too know poets who derive pleasure from workshopping their poems, sometimes even just writing and reading their work to an audience, with no desire to enter competitions. But for those who do like to try their luck it can appear that everyone else is winning something, when in fact very few do actually win. I envy your ability to not wish you’d done better in a comp. I’m thinking that even if I come second! Although of course that doesn’t stop me accepting that the poem wasn’t great, which I usually think even when it has won something. Happy days!

  3. Penny Penny

    Loving your honesty Robyn! I would only congratulate the winners if I’d read their poem and loved it. No harm in griping about not winning. I’ve had a string of them lately and a shortlisting would cheer me right up and give me a confidence boost as I never expect to win so any recognition is a positive outcome, but I’ve found myself cringeing before when I’m proud to have been shortlisted and try to compose a tweet mentioning the winners and other shortlisted poets! It feels awkward and totally like humblebragging! I love hearing about random peoples’ successes on Twitter, especially if the launch of a book, but also relate to any tweets about let downs too – the number of times I’ve submitted to Mslexia now is bordering on embarrassing hehe and I had a really lovely rejection email recently which I wanted to tweet about but didn’t!

    • Robin Houghton Robin Houghton

      Hi Penny, interesting that you say you ‘never expect to win’ – my feeling is that no-one EXPECTS to win, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong to WANT to win, otherwise why enter? I wonder if we’ve talked ourselves into some sort of self-deprecating world-order where wanting to win just isn’t ‘nice’ – it must mean you take yourself way too seriously or have an over-inflated ego. So instead we celebrate the ‘didn’t quite win’ and include all the other ‘not quite winners’, because that’s seen as the nice thing to do. And yet this can actually heighten the anxiety and sadness of others who are looking on, who weren’t ‘even’ the ‘not quite winners’. Oh dear, this is all getting a bit complicated, sorry for the ramble! And by the way a lovely rejection is definitely a positive, as I’m sure you know! All the best x

  4. Thanks for this post, Robin. I think writers do what ever they need to do to cope with the world of submissions, rejections, disappointments and competition misses. When a glimmer of good news appears, if it feels right, people should feel free to share their celebration. I found out this week that one of my poems was shortlisted for the Bridport Prize (I saw your name there too by the way!) and I wasn’t going to mention it on Twitter (it’s only a shortlisting after all so I’ve won nothing, as you know) but noticed that a few people were tweeting about it, so I joined in. I thought it was polite to include a “well done to all winners” in my tweet – for me this was more of a polite gesture and nothing more meaningful! To be honest, I was genuinely pleased (with myself) and I took my shortlisting as a sign that the new poems I’m working on are on the right tracks. I enjoyed the little flurry of likes and congrats I received, it cheered up an otherwise dull week. I think once a person has been entering comps for a while they understand the odds are against them, don’t they? Do we really need to spell it out? I for one won’t be listing all of my failures, it would be draining and I couldn’t cope with the sympathy tweets! As for being pleased about others’ successes or mini-successes – yes, I am genuinely pleased (especially if I know the person IRL or online) but I would be even more pleased if it was me. Blooming well done on another shortlisting, Robin!

  5. Robin Houghton Robin Houghton

    Hi Josephine and thank you for commenting. It’s very interesting to hear other people’s takes on things, and yours especially as I know you are very active on Twitter. I think your point about understanding the odds when it comes to competitions is moot. I suppose what I’m suggesting is that the sheer weight of ‘success’ tweets can trigger strong emotional responses, similar to the one I quoted (the person who was so dispirited they felt like giving up writing). Perhaps when one feels like that, it’s hard to remember that actually there are very few winning poems. I know we can’t take responsibility for everyone’s thoughts and emotions, but it’s just something that strikes me. And yes, like Ann mentioned, I would always congratulate people I know (although on Twitter I prefer DM as it feels more personal) and certainly when I see them real life (I hope I would remember to anyway!) … although not necessarily for short or long listings, because I don’t like to assume everyone is happy about those. (And now we’re getting into a discussion of manners – agh! I think I’ll just stop there…)

    • I can’t disagree with anything you say here, Robin. Twitter is a difficult place to be when a person is feeling fragile – I know that I’ve had to step away or mute conversations on days that I’ve been affected by its content about various issues, not only to do with writing. We can never know what matters to different people, though. For everyone who’s upset by other people’s success and their apparent failure, there’s someone else who feels brought down by people tweeting about their disappointments. You end up keeping silent for fear of hurting or harming someone – in which case, what’s the point of being on Twitter? Maybe what you’re saying is that we still need to educate ourselves on using social media. It can be a dangerous place. Thanks again for your thoughts and honesty.

  6. Thank you Robin for your refreshing honesty. The poetry world is so often a place of smoke and mirrors. It’s great that you’re brave enough to ask the difficult questions. I’ve always intuitively felt that poetry and competition are conflicting things. We know that poetry competitions are important income-streams for small publishers and lit mags. This in itself suggests that there simply aren’t enough readers to support so many publications. Poetry is a mini minority interest in the UK. Perhaps this is what we should be addressing, rather than the symptom of burgeoning competition fever. Does anyone know the circulation/readership figures for any of the lit mags? Do people read the whole of a magazine, or simply dip in to the names they already know (or not at all)? I make sure I always read all the poems in a mag or competition that I’m published in. I enjoy the sense of comradeship. I’ve done some gentle probing of poetry friends, and many admit, on the quiet, to reading very selectively (some even, not at all). Which kind of means, that most of one’s readership is probably poetry friends. In this context, humble-bragging makes total sense.

    • Robin Houghton Robin Houghton

      Hi Claire, and thanks so much for your interesting take on it. I like to think I read a magazine (especially one I’m subscribed to) in full, but the reality is not always. In fact, your comment reminds me of the project I’ve been doing at home that brought this into stark relief – I’ll blog about that shortly. I agree that poetry and competition don’t sit well together, and yet as you say, it seems to be a useful funding mechanism. I’m not sure how to address the issue of poetry being such a micro-interest. Actually I think that’s part of its appeal (for me I mean.) Almost certainly there are too many publications for the size of the readership (or non-readership!) but for as long as the editors are prepared to produce them, it does make for a diverse and intriguing poetry-world, doesn’t it? (I still don’t like the humble-bragging…)

  7. Judith Shaw Judith Shaw

    Hi Robin

    I always read your blogs with interest and this was no exception. You seem to be saying a few different things, some of which I agree with and some I don’t. I certainly agree with your first point about ‘humble bragging’ which I agree can be somewhat ingenuous and a bit dishonest.

    However, I’m not sure about your second point about not celebrating being on a short/long list as it makes it difficult for others who have never got anywhere and it makes it seem that everyone is winning prizes. I haven’t won anything, but have been extremely pleased to be longlisted for a couple of prestigious competitions. It has meant a lot to me in terms of encouragement about the quality of my work and I’ve wanted to share this on Facebook with people who are, hopefully, going to be pleased for me.

    Surely, not doing this because it might upset people who have never yet been short/longlisted would be not celebrating my success – albeit limited so far. I’m well aware that the majority of poems don’t win prizes; that most of the time the joy is in the writing, learning about poetry and improving my skills with close poetry colleagues. This makes me even more delighted when something I have written gets some recognition, even if it doesn’t win.

    Thanks, as always, for your interesting and thoughtful blog posts.

  8. Robin Houghton Robin Houghton

    Hi Judith, and thank you for contributing to the debate. I do take your point about wanting to celebrate/share one’s successes, (as defined by the poet themselves – whether it’s an actual win or a longlisting or whatever) with friends. I hope I would always congratulate a poet friend, or a poet I know/have met, either in person when I next see them, or in a private message. In most circumstances if I saw news of their win on twitter I’d also retweet it. All the same, we can’t really second-guess another person’s definition of success. ( I think it’s interesting that the Bridport Prize organisers give shortlisted poets the option of not having their name publicly listed. This tells me that someone (and presumably more than one person) has asked for this. I can only imagine the reason for this is that they were probably a poet used to winning or doing very well in high-profile competitions, and that for them, a mere Bridport shortlisting might not look good.)

    Conversations on Twitter used to be pretty much private, for the most us without huge profiles or thousands of followers, but it has developed over the years and I believe there are many more people using the platform to watch/read/occasionally check in, rather than actively taking part. I just wonder if the more performative behaviour comes from that realisation, or whether it’s done unwittingly. (I can’t talk with any real authority any more about Facebook, except to say that when I left (about 3 years ago I think) things in this respect felt to me already out of control.) I guess what I’m saying is if it’s the latter, then perhaps we need to be aware of it. And of course we can each of us decide whether it’s worth worrying about or not.

    PS Sorry about all the parentheses. And for blog posts not always being coherent – I do tend to think as I go along!

  9. Hi Robin, thank you so much for this excellent post. You have summed up a lot of why I left TW and FB earlier this year. It just was not doing me any good any more. I do think it is polite to say well done to a poet you know who might have won something, but for me this is a private thing between friends. I don’t see why it needs to be in public. It’s a very postmodern phenomenon and makes me feel deeply old-fashioned not to get it. I wish you every success in everything you do, especially writing poems. With good wishes as ever, Anthony

    • Robin Houghton Robin Houghton

      Thank you, Anthony, for your kind words and support which mean a lot. Robin

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