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.