While living and working in Edinburgh in 2008 I set out to write one million words in 366 days... but only managed 800,737.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

The Affair of the Willesden Short Story Competition

That's what this would be called if written by Arthur Conan Doyle.

I sat down this evening with the best intentions to write fiction. I opened up the Excel spreadsheet in which I track my stories, their status (complete, in progress, not begun) and the wheres and whens of submissions. Scanning my growing list I was reminded that I entered the Willesden Short Story Prize back in December. I hadn’t heard anything yet, so I googled around and wound up here.

Perhaps I have a sixth sense for controversy?

To summarise: after receiving 800 entries, short-listing and handing X number of stories to Zadie Smith to make the final judgement, it was announced today that no story was good enough to award the prize (£5000 and “immortality” as they said in the conditions of entry).

According to comments on the Willesden Herald’s blog, they actually posted a message a few days ago saying the short listed authors had been notified… And now this.

It was a free competition. Apart from printing and postage costs, which all but one person would not have recouped if a winner had been announced, so there’s really no issue there.

[Except the claim that the prize next year will be this year’s £5000 plus a year’s interest, which would only make the average prize-money £2500+interest over the two years… surely they could up the £s next year, or spend it on promotion to get the best entries out there for 09 rather than banking it for a couple extra hundred pounds…]

Zadie Smith makes some interesting points in her explanation for the prize being withheld, and I can’t really argue that it’s their right to not award the prize if they didn’t read “greatness”.


In the same diatribe-cum-apology, Zadie Smith talks about the aims of the competition as supporting unpublished writers. I wonder how many PUBLISHED stories Zadie Smith and the other judges would read to find one “great” story? Of course a free competition will have some chaff, but to expect “greatness” in a short story competition might be overstating the competition’s importance. Especially one “established to support unpublished writers.” Few writers achieve greatness without first passing through mediocrity, promise, proficiency…
I can understand why they wouldn't want to send the message that proficiency was enough, but if the competition and its organisers really want to help usher writers towards greatness, how about some specific critiques? I’d be particularly interest to hear how the short-listed entries fell short…

As I re-read Ms Smith’s carefully chosen, agonised-over, words, I started to see a subtext.

“I think there are few prizes of this size that would have the integrity not to award a prize when there is not sufficient cause to do so.”

Add to this the repeated references to this prize not being sponsored by a beer company, it’s difficult not to consider whether this is less about the stories received and the writers who submitted than upping the prestige of the prize and the people involved…

But it would be simplistic and misanthropic to say this decision was a cynical marketing ploy. It was a combination of less-than-great stories, the desire to get better stories next year, and the potential to rattle a few trees that lead to this decision.

The only problem I have is that what Zadie Smith perceives as greatness would vary wildly from the opinions of “Rimbaud or Capote… Irving Rosenthal or Proust… Svevo or Trocchi… Ballard or Bellow, Denis Cooper or Diderot… Coetzee or Patricia Highsmiththe” (writers mentioned in her explanation). Again, the “not good enough” ruling calls out for examples. They usually publish an anthology of the shortlisted stories – I think it would be more interesting to read it this year (with an introduction addressing where they fell short) than the last two year’s anthologies.

If anyone involved in the competition is reading, it may take some grovelling to the short-listed entrants, but such an anthology would do more for writing than simply keeping mum until next year.


Ossian said...

Hmm, but a majority of the short-listed authors would not agree to a proposed solution. They wanted to keep their stories. A few would have agreed, but not enough.

I'm not sure I agree with all your points, but thanks for taking an interest.

The "split the prize" suggestion was rebuffed and so the original "no winner/no prize" decision stands.

We faffed about a bit and made it all a bit like "rolling 24-hour news" instead of waiting and posting definitively, but that's all down to my scattiness, nobody else to blame.


Anonymous said...

O, Zadie Smith...literary punk-priestess of north London, how you smite us!

Anonymous said...

O, Zadie Smith...literary punk-priestess of north London, how you smite us!

Craig Cliff said...

Gee, thanks for that Anon/Arturo. You've posted that comment 3 times on my blog and at least twice on WH's. Your 'burn' doesn't really work here. I'm the one posting without anonymity/pseudonyms and putting my hand up saying I wasn't even short listed. There's no shame in falling short of greatness (on a one off basis). The only shame is how some people misconstrued the punk-priestess' words.

And thanks for showing up Ossian. I'd take faffing and engagement from the organisers over stone-silence.

Anonymous said...

And now the great Arturo Bandini is going to school you, Mr. Cliff. Don't let the double 's' fool you in priestess...the possessive singular is "punk-priestess's words."

And never mistake sincerity for authenticity.