I get notices in my e-mail from a journal called The Masters Review, which publishes “new and emerging writers.” It’s free to submit material to them, but you can get an expedited review for ten bucks, and a letter from the editor about your work for sixty bucks. Plus their contests charge a $20 entry fee, which is how they build their prize funds. I don’t mean to indicate that it’s a scam, not at all. It’s just one of the innumerable mechanisms for monetizing hope, for people to pay to try to realize some dream.
It’s no different than the big writers’ conferences, after all, except that those charge three grand instead of twenty bucks. It’s no different than MFA programs, except that those charge twenty grand, or fifty grand, or a hundred grand. It’s no different than college or grad school of any kind, in which we push the chips of our tuition to the center of the table, and place our bet on our aspirations to become a dental hygienist or a mechanical engineer or a social worker.
I’ve entered professional bowling tournaments, professional pool tournaments. The vast majority of players have a few hours of fun, or agony, and then go home lighter than they came. Those handful with real talent are the beneficiaries of our longing, taking their substantial portion of our pooled funds of hope.
The original form of monetizing hope is, of course, gambling. But there, we have no pretense of skill nor of identity. We have no impact on what lies under the silvery dots on the scratcher, where the ball will rest on the chambers of the wheel, whose horse will have a strong day. The more conflicted, complicated version is when people who truly want to exercise their best selves—as writers or musicians or artists or college faculty—enter a competition with great cost, no agreed-upon standards of judgment, and wholly unpredictable outcomes.
As always, the legal question cui bono is in effect. Who stands to gain from the monetization of our hope? Answer that, friends, before you lay your money down.