Monday, April 16, 2007

National Short Story Competition

The shortlist for the National Short Story Competition was unveiled on Friday, and I'm wondering whether the fact that I can't find any news reports about it is yet more evidence of our national lack of interest in the short story, or of the fact that news editors, like me, find the competition an uninspiring creature. Last year, its first year, this competition attracted over 1,400 entries, but this year only 428 entered, presumably discouraged by the establishment status of last years' winners. Well, OK, nothing wrong with sorting the wheat from the chaff (ie ensuring the seriousness of entrants) and signalling from the start that this is to be a competition of status, but the suspicion arose then that there was a focus on a certain kind of status, and at the expense of innovation for which the short story can be a supreme vehicle.

It's hard to comment on something you went in for but failed at, without looking as if you're crying sour grapes, but (Bitch that I am) I'll go ahead anyway.

In fact there are names on this year's shortlist which are unfamiliar to me *, and clearly it is only by listening to the stories (all this week on Radio 4) that we'll be able to judge, but the fact that the shortlist consists of five men and one woman with a story about a man fails at this juncture to reassure that the establishment flavour has been dispelled. Jackie Kay, the one woman and the only writer on the list whose short stories I know well, is indeed a brilliant short-story writer: her stories are lucid, tight, vivid and utterly humane. And here's an important point: they work beautifully on radio.

For this is the unacknowledged requirement of any story submitted for this competition: it needs to work on radio, broadcast being part of the prize. Stories with a conversational voice like those of Jackie's work on radio, stories with strong characterisation (again like Jackie's) work on radio, as do monologues and stories without too much dialogue allowing a credible reading by an actor. There are stories which definitely don't work on radio: strongly non-linear stories, stories with typographical patterning, or any kind of innovation which can't be picked up easily by the ear. It is hard not to conclude that certain kinds of stories would be out of the running.

Here is one of the competition rules:
'By submitting a story Entrants agree that the BBC may in its sole discretion edit, adapt or abridge it for the sole purposes of broadcast.' (My italics)
Well, as far as I'm concerned anyone who can make a rule like that simply doesn't understand the nature of short stories - that the perfect short story is a web of connections, all of its parts perfectly orchestrated, that it has to be the length it is and not a scheduler's required minute count.

As last year, the judges' comments have betrayed a similarly reductive and slightly defensive approach to the short story. On Radio 4 Monica Ali spoke only of the range of subject-matter covered in the shortlist. On the BBC website chair Mark Lawson again stresses subject matter, stating that
this year's selection makes very clear that there is no connection at all between word-count and the scale of subject-matter or characterisation that can be achieved
and James Lasdun (also last year's winner), when asked what was the essential value of the short story(admittedly he was being rushed), reacted like a rabbit caught in the headlights and could only come up with 'Economy.'

* Edited in: As last year, every author on the short list is however a published novelist.