Monday 1 February 2016

When Anonymity Backfires

or The Curious Case of the Costa Short Story Award

Anyone who's followed this blog for a while will know I'm a staunch supporter of anonymity in writing competitions, especially the big ones. If a judge or a reader knows nothing about the author, then the decision of whether or not it's a good story can only be down to, well, how good a story it is. And that's how it should be, by my reckoning at least.

This is one reason I particularly like the Costa Short Story Award. They take anonymity very seriously, with any possible 'leaks' as to the identity of the writers on the shortlist investigated and "dealt with" quickly (I've spoken to one of the shortlisted authors from the 2013 award and the level of scrutiny you're under during the public vote sounds vaguely terrifying). The organisers seem to go to impressive lengths to ensure that when the public votes on the shortlist, the stories are arranged on as level a playing field as possible.

But I didn't vote for any of the stories this time around. I've voted in all the previous years, and encouraged other people to read the shortlist and pick their favourite. Generally, the stories are pretty good, and I think the CSSA's ethos of letting the writing do the talking should be supported and encouraged. So what was different this year?

The problem was that as soon as I started reading the first entry on the list, I knew who'd written it. Not because I had any kind of special insight into the judging process or privileged insider knowledge, but because the story pretty much picked up from where one of the shortlisted entries from 2013 ended. The writing style was exactly the same, the (distinctive) location was the same, even the same characters were involved.

Now, the CSSA has had the same authors appear on successive shortlists before. In 2014, both Sheila Llewellyn and Angela Readman made it into the top six for the second year in a row. But that was for entirely different stories about different things told in very different styles (particularly in the case of Angela Readman). So that didn't seem like an issue, because I doubt anybody could have guessed who these writers were and there was no easy way to find out.

This time around, things were different. All the previous shortlisted stories are available on the Costa website, so it only took a couple of clicks to go back to the 2013 result and confirm my suspicions. The two stories were like different episodes of the same TV show, and it was clear they had been written by the same person.

I kept quiet, although the urge to find out whether anybody else had noticed was strong. What annoyed me was that having such a readily identifiable author on the list undermined the concept of anonymity. I felt I couldn't be objective or fair about the competition, so I decided I wouldn't vote. I try not to put my conspiracy theory hat on too regularly, but I started to wonder at what had gone on behind the scenes at Costa. Had an exception been made for this author? Was some kind of favouritism at work? I hoped not, but there was no way of knowing, and to me the competition seemed a little tainted by the whole thing.

So after the results were announced last week everything was out in the open, and I could finally ask about what had gone on. It quickly became clear I wasn't the only person who'd noticed. Via Twitter, I got in touch with the Costa and pointed out that for anyone with a decent enough memory, one of the writers hadn't been anonymous at all. They were pretty helpful, and via an exchange of tweets, the following became clear:
  1. The admin team who processed the entries saw the authors' names but they didn't read the stories.
  2. The filter readers and the judges who did read the stories didn't see the authors' names but because they hadn't read / didn't remember the 2013 shortlist, they didn't spot the issue.
  3. When the (anonymous) shortlist was announced, the problem may have been revealed to the organisers, but by then it would be unfair to exclude the story as it had earned its place on the shortlist via the blind judging stage.
I think I trust the Costa organisers on this, and that the episode has demonstrated a potential pitfall of their strict anonymity rule. They say they're changing the rules for the 2016 prize to avoid this situation cropping up again, so it'll be interesting to see how they word that.

In the end, then, it comes down to the author choosing to submit a story strikingly related to one that had already been published under her name and was still readily accessible online. When you consider she'd previously experienced the anonymity controls Costa require, it seems a strange decision to submit something that effectively undermines all that. It doesn't appear to have done her any harm, as this time around she won a prize, but to me it doesn't feel entirely in the spirit of the competition, and I can't help wondering whether some of the people who voted for the story knew exactly who they were supporting. There's no way of knowing, of course, and I'm not suggesting any underhand tactics by the author herself. I'm just curious.

What do you think? Should competitions with a policy of anonymity discourage or even ban writers from submitting work that can reasonably be traced back to them? What should happen if this issue turns up again?


Patsy said...

Very odd.

The rules make reference to the importance of the author remaining anonymous and I don't think submitting a story which was easily identifiable as hers complies with the spirit of that.

Susan A Eames said...

Hi Dan, you pose an interesting question and I don't think there's any easy answer because it's open to personal opinions as to whether a piece of work 'can reasonably be traced back to them [the author]'. However, I do think competitions should keep the identity of the author anonymous too! It's a tricky one, but I agree with Patsy - the author you mention didn't comply with the spirit of anonymity!

Dan Purdue said...

Thanks, Patsy and Susan. I think there will always be a grey area around this type of situation, but personally I would be very cautious of submitting to an anonymous competition a story that used the same characters, setting, etc. as something I already had published (particularly something with the kind of exposure brought by the Costa Prize). It just doesn't seem like the right thing to do.