800 entrants, no hope


February 5, 2008 by Tracey S. Rosenberg

The Willesden Herald International Short Story Prize, judged by Zadie Smith, said that they couldn’t find a story good enough to win.

I say, bah.

It attracted 800 entries. Yes, some of those are going to be crap. Badly spelled, under punctuated crap. Some will be so dusty from sitting in the drawer that you can’t turn the pages without having to brush bits of fuzz off your jeans. But I simply can’t believe that there isn’t something there that doesn’t make you shout, YES! The short story is alive and well!

And to forestall any ‘but you can’t imagine the kind of drek a slush pile generates’ objections: in fact, I can. I interned at Copper Canyon Press (waves to J.B.) and I had to wade through the mound of hundreds of poetry manuscripts to find the shortlisted ones. Some of those manuscripts had pictures for each poem, and explanations of why they were significant. I’ve also been an editorial assistant for an academic journal that also accepted fiction and poetry, and made actual real decisions. Does this mean I’d always get it right if given a box of stories? Hell, no. But I can’t imagine finding nothing that popped my cork.

(One thing that bugs me about competitions like this (meaning, big name judges) is that the judges don’t see all the entries – just the ones that ‘qualified judges’ send forward. If I ever judge a contest like this, I damn well want all the entries. Even the ones that can’t spell. Because that’s the second major short story prize this year that I know of where the judge complained about the quality of entries, but who’s actually making those decisions?)

This is an international short story competition with a £5,000 prize and no entry fee. While many big name writers are going to be too busy fulfilling their book contracts to write short stories, plenty of semi-pros aren’t. And they did, in fact, come up with a shortlist. (One suggestion in the comments of the official announcement suggested dividing the prize money among those top ten.)

I suppose I should be all pleased that they have enough integrity to announce no winner. But if standards are so astronomically high, why should any of us bother?

Yes, I’ll reapply next year. After all, big money prizes with no entry fees are not ten-a-penny. And as I don’t write ‘jolly stories of multicultural life on the streets of North London […], cutesy American comedies, or self-referential post-modern vignettes, or college satires’, then maybe I have a chance.


2 thoughts on “800 entrants, no hope

  1. SallyQ says:

    To be honest I thought the readers’ moans about the amount of work involved in judging the competition were a bit ridiculous. Dozens of competitions are organised and run every year and every one of those competitions is hard work for those involved in the process. But somehow most of them manage to pick a winner out of the pack.

    As you say, Tracey, if someone reads through enough of the submissions, they will find something that floats their boat. So the problem here seems to have been with finding something that Zadie Smith would like.

  2. Mandy says:

    Well, as an entrant in this competition, I for one applaud Zadie Smith’s courage. So often I see the winners of short sotry competitions and wonder what it was that the judges saw – often I am not the only one. I know the story I submitted was not of an “Oh Yes!” quality, rather it was a watered-down version attempting to present half a point so as not to offend anyone.

    As writers we should be pushing the envelope and so many of us no longer do this. I for one am encouraged by a competition that does not promote mediocrity.

    Congratulations! I look forward to submitting a story of substance in the next competition.

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Tiny bio

I live, work, and write in Edinburgh. I travel to other places as much as I can. To contact me, email writingmostly at gmail dot com.


CURRENTLY READING: The Ginseng Hunter by Jeff Talarigo.

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