Friday, 20 April 2007

Found This

In the ongoing Boot Camp discussion I mentioned earlier today, someone raised the fact that "exotic" stories seem to be doing well in New Yorker etc. Then another Boot Camper said I'd made a comment some time back in an article "The Disease of Competence".

While I was looking for said comment, I came across this, the judge's report I wrote after reading all 275 stories for The Philip Good Memorial Prize ( a few years back).

When I was asked to judge the Phillip Good Memorial Prize I said, Sure then had the choice of reading a short-list or all the stories. I chose to read the lot, and I have to tell you that was a mistake from which it will take me a long time to recover.

In the end I picked two stories as joint-winners but what was surprising to me was that the 3rd and 4th stories were humorous and another of the top ten was “genre”. I’m surprised because I so much prefer serious fiction these days (life’s too short to waste), so why did I not pick the ten best literary pieces?

As I’ve said, I chose to read all the stories, and reading almost three hundred me-too pieces, many with the same tone, same phrasing, same voice (a kind of mid-Atlantic thinned-literate creative writing exercise voice), the stories began to blur and no matter how hard I tried I began to see only words.

Instead of reading and assimilating, I found myself swallowing words and waiting to be hit between the eyes. I think I have found (for me) the best two stories, but after that, those stories from 3rd through to 30th (and indeed some which missed the long list are so similar, all competent but lacking that extra spark or ambition, that it’s quite possible I’ve missed decent work.

For this I’m sorry, but the writers, that’s you folk, bear some of the blame.


This, despite being a winner, is far from perfect, but what it does have is scope and ambition – it isn’t the minor, close focus parochial of so many stories, the cuckolded husband, the betrayed wife, the abused child.

So many stories, so few large canvasses, so little courage.

To begin at the beginning (beginnings matter a great deal, even more so with a sad, depressed and very jaded competition judge) here I scored the opening 14 “Very Good. Something in the language or manner made me expectant of a good read”. It’s a rare story which scores under 13 and goes on to blossom. If a writer can’t stamp authority in a few lines, if s/he can’t make it clear s/he’s a professional, then my spirits drop and what comes afterwards is filtered through an extra veil of depression.

Here, the tense is going forward, it’s back there and talking about a winter to come. A little bravery. I was to go on and be concerned about the time-line but not enough to give up. That is, the braver opening, its direct-ness, clean language told me I was in better hands and to look harder at what followed, give it a bit more leeway.

Then the second paragraph quickly “made” the reverend, and the next, the setting. It was the economy, not a big bang which attracted me.

In truth, I don’t see the necessity for the letter at the bottom of page one. Had the opening been flat and ordinary I might have written off the whole at this point. Indeed, the reminiscences weren’t “easy” but the story survived on the momentum earned from the feel-good of the opening.

What then carried this story for me was the sense of crumbling England, the way a drug was the vehicle of dissolution, how wars had made and unmade men, how one (even with his history) was the engine of destruction. So here we have a straight, straightforward story (Peter’s) and if that was all we had then the story would have drifted down to marks in the 110-120 range, the better of the near-misses.

What lifts this is the bigger picture revealed, the macro, while we discuss the smaller, more specific, the micro. This is what I mean by ambition, canvas, a thing to say (and worth listening to). So many of the competing stories were “just” Peter’s story, competent, mildly interesting, but ultimately forgettable.

Here the difference was that I was made to wonder how we changed from a non-drug culture to the one where Ecstasy, Pot, Cocaine, Heroin undermine the basic fibre of this island.

I have no idea if the writer had it right, if “ice” is real, but what matters is he told a story and also made me think. The story remains memorable.

XXXXXXXXXXX (Joint Winner)

Competition entrants should understand what it’s like to be a judge. If they did they would work harder, be braver, redraft their stories, would print perfectly on good paper, would make their manuscripts crisp and inviting.

XXXXX was the last story I read, what chance did it have? By this time I hated reading competent, so-what short-stories about the same old tired subjects. I read this one at one a.m. knowing it would be nothing-story #275 but luckily (for the author) it was direct, crisp and uncluttered, at least enough for me to take a breath and give this last one a chance.

Like its co-first, this opener woke me up. It’s by no means brilliant but it doesn’t make me groan; I’m not expecting another funeral story and I know (Oh Thank-you, God) it’s not My Life as a Cat.

Paragraph two, quite long, “works”, it’s OK, it’s passable, but it hardly needs to be there. Had it followed a weak opener, this story might have been still-born (to this judge, that is).

What follows is a mix of nicely understated love-story and African detail which, in truth might not be needed or should be tightened. (Here the author is lucky in that the extraneous detail is exotic and therefore of more interest – I took this in to consideration when deciding, despite it squeaking home on marks, to award it joint first place).

I confess this story has many weaknesses (but then all the stories in this competition have some weaknesses) but it wins for one simple reason, the last page aches, it makes me empathise, it lingers, it resonates.

The penultimate paragraph was superb.

I found this judging very hard. I apologise to some good writers I may have missed, but blame yourselves too. Read your first pages and ask, “Is there true promise here? Would the reader expect something special?

Other judges I’ve read talk about the pleasure of reading “so many good stories”. Not me. So many similar stories, so many unambitious, narrow, and hackneyed stories, and almost all lacking guts, ambition or any deep sense of truth or honesty (not quite the same thing).

Before you send out your next competition entry, ask this of yourself: “I may be competent, even a good writer, but what I write about, would anyone care?”

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