Sunday, 21 September 2014

Is it an Award? Is it a Competition?


From tomorrow, the five stories shortlisted  for the BBC National Short Story Award (NSSA) will be broadcast on Radio 4, one each day. I'm not sure how many I'll catch live, as they go out mid-afternoon when I'm usually working, but I'll make sure I download the podcasts once they're made available.

This was the first year in quite a while that I wasn't holding my breath and listening to the announcement of the shortlist with the absurd and fading hope that my name would be read out. I didn't enter this year's competition. Part of my decision was, admittedly, down to me not having written a story of suitable length, subject matter, and quality. However, a far greater part was attributable to the lingering sour taste left by last year's revelation by one of the judges that the way the competition was run meant the final selection might be, possibly, not actually being judged as anonymously as everyone had assumed.

I wrote that post almost a year ago and, while I was pleased to see that for the 2014 Award the organisers had updated the Terms & Conditions to make the situation regarding the final stage of judging much clearer, there are still elements of it that concern me. Here's the relevant section from the rules:
4.3 Some judges may reserve the right to read the longlisted stories anonymously, however they are not required to do so. The whole panel will be provided with the name of the author of each longlisted story ahead of shortlisting to ensure all judges are party to the same information when making their decisions. At this stage, judges may call-in entries from authors whose stories were not longlisted in stage 1.
So, we know the final-stage judges are given the names of the authors, and that it's down to them whether or not they ignore those names. That's strange but, OK, fair enough, if that's how they want to run things. It's that last sentence that doesn't entirely make sense. Are the judges entitled to call in stories that didn't make it past the initial readers? Isn't that like a football team winning the World Cup even though they were knocked out of contention at the group stage? Considering only the longlisted stories are forwarded to the judges, does that include stories they haven't read? Or maybe it's even stranger than that; as the stories can be previously published (as long as it's within the 12 months before the closing date), can the judges bring in stories they've read elsewhere - stories that weren't actually entered in the competition?

The problem, I think, is that the BBC is in an awkward situation. They need good stories, but they also need authors who are recognisable enough for people who aren't really into short fiction to take an interest and get on board with the idea that the Award is a genuine reflection of the 'best' of the work that's currently out there. Consequently, it's not really a competition, but it's not quite a straightforward award, either. And I wonder if that's why in some ways, although the stories are usually pretty impressive, the Award itself is beginning to feel a little stale. The shortlist seems to have fallen into a pattern whereby it contains two or three household names, a couple of lesser-known but well-established writers with a book or two to their name, and a newbie, who often turns out to have a novel or at least a collection of short fiction approaching publication.

Obviously I don't know exactly how the judges come up with the shortlist. There's no way of knowing how many of them ignore the names of the writers when making their decisions. Maybe they all do. Maybe even if they recognise a story they've read somewhere else they can somehow ignore that. Maybe none of them call in any other stories from the rejection piles or from outside the competition. Maybe all that stuff's in the rules just in case, but it's never been put into practice.

Whatever's happening, as a reader/listener, I can't help but think the quirks of the selection process might be contributing to the fact that the NSSA is getting a bit samey. Even 2014's all-female shortlist didn't attract much comment - because this is the third time in the Award's seven-year history that's happened. I'd love the whole thing to be a lot less predictable. I'd love to think the Award was bringing me exciting, new stories I couldn't hear or read anywhere else. I'd love, just once, for the shortlist to be announced and for me to have never heard of any of the writers. I'd love to believe that stories by talented writers at the start of their careers were competing on equal terms with those from established best-selling authors, that the quality of the story was the only thing that influenced the selection of the shortlist. At the moment, I'm not really feeling any of that.

Asked how it felt to be shortlisted for a third time, Lionel Shriver quipped, "Familiar". Well, quite. This year, three-fifths of the shortlist is recycled from elsewhere (Zadie Smith's story was in the Spring 2014 edition of The Paris Review, while Tessa Hadley's and Lionel Shriver's both appeared in The New Yorker towards the end of last year).The NSSA is one of the biggest and most prestigious literary prizes in the UK. It should be many things, but I don't think "familiar" should be one of them.

5 comments:

Teresa Stenson said...

Great post, Dan.

What an odd thing to have in the rules - the bit about 'calling in' entries not longlisted. Hm. I gave up entering a year or two ago. It seems a bit more in line with that other big award. Is it the Times? I can't remember.

ANYWAYS great post, I think you should be writing this kind of thing for a magazine or something.

Dan Purdue said...

Thanks, Teresa. I'm always a bit wary of writing this sort of thing but plenty of people have retweeted the link to it and commented elsewhere, so I think I'm reflected the concerns quite a few people have about this award.

You're right - the Sunday Times short story award is pretty much the same (it's run by Booktrust, too). I guess at the end of the day they're just competitions that exist with a particular aim in mind. The good news is that there are plenty of other competitions out there where the author's name can't be part the judges' decision.

I'll continue to enjoy the stories the BBC NSSA promotes, but I don't think I'll bother entering in the future. Not until I've reached a different stage of my writing career, at least.

Dan Purdue said...

Jeez, my typing's shocking today.

Jenny Thomson said...

That's shocking, Dan. If entries are meant to be judged anonymously, they should be. How can the entries be judged on merit otherwise?

Dan Purdue said...

Exactly, Jenny - I think it should be one or the other. Not, as it seems at the moment, a sort of halfway house between the two.