Tuesday, September 06, 2005

The (UK) National Short Story Prize

About two weeks ago, a new short story prize was announced at the Edinburgh Festival. The winner will receive the handy sum of £15,000, which is said to be the largest award in the world for a single story. The prize is sponsored by Nesta (the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts).

You can find further details of this award on a substantial web site (Story) which has been set up as part of 'a campaign to celebrate the short story'. The web site has been created, it seems, by the (UK) Arts Council, the Scottish Arts Council, Booktrust, and the Scottish Book Trust. In other words, what we have is an initiative funded at least in part by taxpayers' money (though Booktrust in particular seems to be remarkably vague about its sources of funding).

Now there are a few things that I ought to say at the outset of this discussion, before we get on to considering the National Short Story Prize itself.

First, it needs to be said that I am not in favour of public subsidy of the arts. Why? Because I have not yet heard an argument which justifies it. However, I am open to argument, and I recognise that I am in a minority of one. But all forms of subsidy of the arts do make me just the tiniest bit grumpy. Even though I struggle to retain my usual sunny nature.

The second thing to say is that the art of the short story is a matter on which I have very definite views. See, for instance, my earlier posts on what I refer to as the official history of the short story, as opposed to stuff which people might might actually want to read for fun.

Third preliminary point. The Story web site contains a very large amount of useful information. But one part of it you can safely skip. I advise you not to bother with reading the essay by Raymond Carver which is made available on this site. Carver is a big name in the world of the literary short story (though I am not enthusiastic about his work myself), and in his essay Principles of a Story he purports to explain why he came to prefer the story to the novel.

In fact, as you might guess, he does not explain that at all. He simply says that he 'no longer had the patience to try to write novels.' Why? Oh, 'it's an involved story, too tedious to talk about here.'

Well, according to a friend of mine, who admires Carver greatly, what actually happened was that Carver became an alcoholic. As such, he constantly needed money for the next bottle. Problem: writing novels meant that he had to wait for ever for the next cheque. So he started writing short stories instead. That way he got paid pretty quickly, went on a binge, sobered up, wrote another one, and so on. His essay on the 'principles of a story' is more of the same device. It is not so much a pot-boiler as a bottle-buyer.

Now to the main subject of this post, namely the National Short Story Prize. What follows, by the way, is information derived from the Story web site, plus information given to me over the phone by a p.r. person for the Scottish Book Trust. Plus, of course, my own comments.

The award has generated a certain amount of publicity and the organisers declare themselves to be well pleased with the press coverage so far. However, at the risk of being accused, once again, at turning my nose up at something worthwhile, I do have to say that I have one or two reservations.

My reservations derive from the small print associated with this award. Perusal of the terms and conditions for same reveals a number of... Well, I was going to say problems, but perhaps circumstances would be kinder. Circumstances which may or may not take the edge off your eagerness to win the £15,000.

The first circumstance is that you are only eligible to enter the competition if you are a previously published writer -- a term which is tightly defined to exclude self-publishers. You also have to be a British national or UK resident. These two requirements alone mean that many hopeful wannabes will not even get to first base. Oh, and you're not allowed to enter if you're in prison -- not even if the jury made a dreadful mistake.

Another circumstance is that the National prize is being supported by BBC Radio 4, and Di Speirs, the Executive Producer Readings at Radio 4, has written a piece about the BBC's approach to the short story. This reveals that the BBC intends to broadcast the stories by the shortlist of five final candidates. Indeed, in entering for the competition at all, you have to agree that the story may be so broadcast.

So what, you say. Ah well, see, there are snags. Sorry, circumstances. (Trying to be positive here.) Stories entered for the competition may be up to 8,000 words in length. But the BBC normally only wants 2,000 words for a short story deemed suitable for broadcasting. On this occasion the BBC is prepared to stretch a point, and allow 4,000 words. But, as the arithmetic tells us, this may still mean that, to be broadcast, your story will have to be cut by 50%.

But fear not. The BBC say that this will be done 'with our usual sensitivity' by 'highly experienced abridgers'.

Another circumstance that may have occurred to you is that this is Auntie BBC that we are dealing with. And Auntie is normally very concerned about not offending people. Does this mean, I asked, that there are limitations on the kind of language and subject matter which might be considered suitable in a winning story?

I am assured not. The five shortlisted stories will be broadcast in a late-night slot when readers are judged to be broader-minded than in the afternoon. Though whether they will be quite broad-minded enough to swallow that favourite story of yours about lesbian vampires remains to be seen.

I note also that the whole emphasis of the competition appears, at first sight, to be on literary fiction rather than fiction from any other genre, such as crime, romance, or science fiction/fantasy. The first set of judges includes William Boyd, who is a literary novelist and screenwriter, Francine Stock, who is described as broadcaster and writer (two novels which look lit'ry to me), Alex Linklater, deputy editor of the the highbrow magazine Prospect, Di Speirs, of BBC Radio 4, and Lavinia Greenlaw, a poet who has won various British Council and Arts Council awards.

It did not appear, to my jaded eye, that this lot would have much time or patience for a story which first appeared in, say, Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine or Woman's Own. But again I am assured that this is a fallacy: a false suspicion in the mind of an unusually grumpy old man. All the judges will be looking for fantastic stories, from whatever genre. And they are very open-minded, prepared to consider anything, wholly without prejudice. Which is definitely good news. And we shall see what results.

The one thing that really did cause my eyebrows to rise, however, was that part of the terms and conditions for entry which I expected to be there but which was not there.

What I expected to see was a statement that the stories will be judged anonymously, and I expected to see the usual instruction not to put your name on the story submitted (seven copies required, by the way), but to provide details of your name and the title of your story on a separate sheet.

Not being able to find any such instruction I sought guidance. Are we to understand, I asked, that the judges will have the name of the author of the story staring them in the face while they read it?

Well, after a certain amount of head-scratching and being passed from one person to another, I was told that the final arrangements for judging the stories have not yet been fixed. A further meeting is to be held next week. (Is this not a bit late, I ask myself. But never mind.) At present, however, it does not appear to me that anonymity will be the order of the day.

Now I have to say, in the clearest possible terms, that a short-story competition in which the name of the author of each story is known to the judges at the time of judging is not a competition which I hold in much regard.

Just consider the unnecessary effort involved. The judges are committed (T&C clause 4) to being 'fair and independent'. But the book/publishing world is a small one. And so, if they know the name of an author, each judge is going to have to clear his/her head of all previous knowledge of that person -- are they not? A story by Martin Amis of SW1 will have to be given no more and no less attention than one by Freda Farnsbarns of Huddersfield. And therefore all past acquaintanceships, friendships, love affairs, rivalries, punch-ups, drunken orgies and the like, must be cast from the judges' minds.

I dare say the judges can do it. But why should they have to, when a simple anonymity arrangement can be (and normally is) set up?

It is true that, if you poke around long enough, you can find the odd short-story competition where anonymity is not applied. But they are odd competitions indeed. Conversely, all the high-value competitions which are held in any serious esteem (e.g. Bridport prize, £3,000, and Fish prize, 10,000 euros) make anonymity of authorship a requirement. And, in my view, the higher the cash value and the more prestigious the award (at least potentially), the greater the need for this rule to apply.

So. Not quite three cheers yet then. It remains to be seen how things work out.


Anonymous said...

Absolutely agree with you that anonymity should be enforced in the short story competition.

In the Romantic Novelists' Association we insist on it for our own Elizabeth Goudge Prize - and that has no money attached at all, just a silver cup that needs polishing and has to be given back after a year. We don't open the envelope containing the author's details until the judging is finished. (This year's winner was Eileen Ramsay, runner up Nicola Cornick; both popular and well respected authors, as it turned out.)

The problem, of course, is that blind tasting is high risk for the tasters. What if M Amis, I McEwan and J Barnes enter and yet the prize goes, say, to a member of the Crime Writers' Assocation? Even, God forfend, a Romantic Novelist? The Emperor's New Clothes would disappear in a puff of the proverbial followed by some serious lightly boiled to the visage.

Damn good fun for the rest of us, of course.

Wonder if they dare risk it?

Jenny Haddon (er - Chairman of Romantic Novelists' Association)

Anonymous said...

So the scoundrel O. Henry would not be allowed...

One must look at the conspirators involved, anyway, and I wouldn't believe them even if they claimed submissions were "anonymous."

Not for a minute.

Anonymous said...

A short story competition in which entries are not read anonymously? Spooky! (What’s the betting that the organisers will shortly announce that anonymity will indeed be enforced, and that any ‘confusion’ on the matter is attributable to their own regrettable failure to make this clear in the first instance?)

But I want to comment on the subject of state (or indeed, any) sponsorship of the arts. Far from being a new phenomenon, it is probably as old as art itself: I would guess that the cave painters of Lascaux, for example, got time off huntin’ ’n’ gatherin’ in order to do their work. And without sponsorship we would, to cite only two examples among many thousands, lack the music of Mozart and the art of Leonardo.

But times have changed. We now live in the affluent society, a society richer than our ancestors could even have imagined. As a result, the arts no longer need to be sponsored. Which means that the onus is on those who believe in sponsorship to justify it.

As it happens, for reasons many and varied, literature is the least sponsored of the arts, and where it is, the effects are mixed. It may be that some support is necessary for music and the visual arts (and if you think I am contradicting what I said in the previous paragraph, I can only say that you are an egregious pedant), but I doubt that any sponsorship of literature is justified at all.

Take the novel. The novel is popular art par excellence. Since its beginnings with Don Quixote –- please let’s not argue about it; for present purposes, it doesn’t really matter where you find its origins -– it has always paid its own way. What’s changed? I recently commented (GOB, August 17) that the health of the novel would be completely unaffected by the abolition of all creative writing courses. To this I now add my contention that it would not notice the disappearance of all sponsorship (except in so far as sales figures are affected -- distorted? -- which is enormously). I am prepared to bet that no Booker-winning novel would have gone unwritten had the Booker never existed.

Now poetry might be affected by the abolition of sponsorship . . . And a good thing too.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, very interesting!

Anonymous said...

Thank you, very interesting!

Anonymous said...

Well, a minority of two... I tend to agree that if people are silly enough to go in to the arts rather than doing something useful they certainly shouldn't be rewarded by taxpayer's money. Getting away from literature for amoment, the two most subsidised forms of entertainment here in Australia are ballet and opera. Guess who goes to see ballet and opera? A clue: not poor people.