This story is three weeks old, in a way, although the latest developments are just a few days old. Somehow I missed this, but I'm glad I finally caught up to it. It's great when the story of a short story competition is the only good story to come out of it.
The Willesden Herald ran a short story contest, to be judged by the very famous and acclaimed Zadie Smith. I am a big fan of the first 100 pages of Zadie Smith's first novel, and a great detractor of the rest of her work, so don't take this for Zadie Smith worship by a long shot, but she ever-so-delightfully decided not to award the prize to any of the 10 short-listed stories.
Her letter is public and relatively detailed. She ends it:
...I have thought, reading through these entries, that maybe the problem with this prize is that my name is attached to it. To be very clear: just because this prize has the words Willesden and Zadie hovering by it, does not mean that I or the other judges want to read hundreds of jolly stories of multicultural life on the streets of North London. Nor are we exclusively interested in cutesy American comedies, or self-referential post-modern vignettes, or college satires. To be even clearer: if these things turn up and are brilliantly written, they will not be ignored. But we also welcome all those whose literary sympathies lie with Rimbaud or Capote, with Irving Rosenthal or Proust, with Svevo or Trocchi, with Ballard or Bellow, Denis Cooper or Diderot, with Coetzee or Patricia Highsmith, with street punks or Elizabethans, with Southern Gothic or with Nordic Crime, with Brutalists or Realists, with the Lyrical or the Encyclopedic, in the ivory tower, or amongst the trash that catches in the gutter. We welcome everybody. We have only one principle here: MAKE IT GOOD.Cute! But of course this didn't satisfy the 850 entrants, and certainly not the 10 people who'd been told they were short-listed -- told, in fact, to prepare for a possible awards ceremony!
So, let’s try again, yes? All the requirements for entry you will find below.
I’m very sorry for any disappointment caused this year, but this prize will continue and we hope it will get stronger with each year that passes. And we promise you now and forever: it will never be sponsored by a beer company.
So the Willensden Herald wrote, in minute detail, about the experience of judging this context -- perhaps the best narrative of a literary contest judging ever offered! The whole story is worth your time. Here is just a taste:
When the reading was finished, about three weeks after the closing date, we all met for a weekend marathon of discussion.So they agonized and anguished to get to the marrow -- of their shitpile. In the end, all the stories were rejected. The WH at first considered re-doing the contest. Then they thought about other things they could do with the prize money:
We immediately discarded the triple NOs without another look. To have gone through them again, after three people had read them and independently come up with a NO would have been almost impossible. It must be remembered that even judges have day jobs and families! In any case, we were confident that we would not find any reason to reverse our decisions on them.
Piles were made of anything with at least one MAYBE. We started with those stories which had the least support and looked at them again and thought about whether anyone wanted to reconsider.
As we went through the stories, small bits of SM’s dining table started becoming visible under the mounds of paper. We got down to the last 90 or so and then the real battle began.
We reread stories, we wrote lengthy crits of them, we haggled, we drank tea.
When something like the last twenty had been siphoned off, we did consider submitting far less than ten stories to Zadie as the short list was simply not that strong. However, although there was doubt about the strength of the short list, it seemed wise to send Zadie as many hopefuls as possible to give her the chance to see if we had missed anything.
In the end, they donated the prize money to Comic Relief.
Zadie was so disturbed by the idea of not selecting a winner that she even suggested she stand back and that the short-listing judges pick the winner. However, this would have deprived us of the patronage of a writer of Zadie’s stature and so this honourable offer was declined.
The short-listed candidates were contacted and asked whether they wanted their names to appear. Some comments made on the comments page of the blog about these writers were so unflattering that it was decided that the WH should be sensitive to their feelings. Some of them might not want to have it publicised that they were the best out of 850 entries (which is an achievement to be proud of), when they had really been aiming to be the best in Zadie’s opinion.
Of course, emails are not read instantly and so it took some time to garner the short-listed writers’ thoughts.
In response to the negative comments left about the decision not to award the prize, Zadie Smith decided that the money should be split, to help counter the suggestions that the short-listed writers were somehow ‘mediocre’. There was no intention at all of suggesting such a thing and any close reading of Zadie’s statement will show this to be false. Being the best out of 850 entries is no small feat.
Still, though, this didn't satisfy the contest entrants. So the WH tried again, this time posting the most delightfully detailed list of DON'TS you're likely to find. It is long, but a really great read, so click the link for all of it... here are just some highlights -- common problems they found in the submitted stories:
2. Overcrowded with characters. Seán Ó Faoláin said a short story is to a novel as a hot air balloon is to a passenger jet. Like a jet the novel takes a long time to get off the ground, carries a lot of people and takes them a long way from where it started. On the other hand, the short story takes off vertically, rises directly to a great height, usually carries only one or two people, and lands not very far from where it took off. So when three, four, five and sometimes even more names are mentioned in the first two pages, it is inevitable that readers will be turned off. They will always suffer from the following problem as well.There are 27 of these, and they're like candy for anyone who's ever taught a creative writing workshop. Amusingly, he lets his full snark out for all 27, then tries to add a sweet little "nice effort kids!" at the end. But it just comes off as a half-hearted attempt to seem a little less true:
3. Undifferentiated characters. A name is not a character. Pinky said this, Perky said that, Blinky said something similar and Pisky said the same, as the old wartime song might have gone. Each character should be a complete person, with their own C.V. if you like, their own history, temperament, habits, weaknesses, plans, objectives etc, though these need not and should not be explicitly listed as such.
4. Solipsism. One miserable person being miserable. This was the most common and depressing failing. Unrelenting monotony of one single, invariably miserable and oppressive viewpoint. No sign of concern or even mention of any other character, nothing other than one person’s dreary moaning. If you are not interested in other characters, at least make it funny.
5. Well-enough written but I just don’t like it. This is the uncongenial protagonist or narrator, arrogant, cruel-minded, usually petty, often attempting gross-out effects, and usually going round in ever-diminishing circles before vanishing in a puff of studied triviality. It leaves a bad taste and invariably evokes the response that it’s well enough written, but I just don’t like it. There is no gun to the reader’s head. People do not read to be grossed out, or to join in somebody else’s squalor or misery. There has to be an element of transcendence, transmutation of the base material into the gold of fiction.
6. Throwaway endings. The story has been going along fairly well, showing signs of life and suddenly the writer must have thought, “Oh I can’t be bothered, I’m just going to put a twist here and finish it.” It’s literally almost impossible to believe sometimes why anybody would ever think of sending in something that is clearly truncated and given up on – what a waste of postage etc.
P.S. I should add that every single entry was a valiant effort. It's a labour of love to read them as it must have been to write them, when most of us have full working days and only the tired few hours remaining to devote to our art. I only wrote the list of points above to be helpful and to open my own thoughts and prejudices to constructive criticism. Speaking only for myself, I think and always think every year, that all of the writers who entered showed talent and potential, and that among the stories there were many "near misses".
You've really got to admire the amount of text they were willing to put behind their decision. When the Yale Younger series (under Merwin I believe) refused to declare a winner, there was a stone wall for the angry decriers. This is art in and of itself.