Friday, December 07, 2007

Judging the Competition

The BBC National Short Story Award has at last been announced, later than the two previous years, and renamed (it was previously called the National Short Story Prize).

Here's a sentence from the Terms and Conditions:
In order to establish a manageable long list all entries will initially be read by at least two (2) sifters from mixed teams chosen by the BBC, Booktrust and Scottish Book Trust.
Hmm. Fellow writers have pointed out to me that you can't expect anything else, given the numbers that will be involved. But I wonder: the numbers won't be that great, surely, since one of the conditions of entry is that a writer must have been published, and the kind of publication they've got in mind is implied by the fact that there's a space in the application form to name your publisher - and indeed a space for publishers to sign if they're submitting their authors.

As far as I'm concerned one of the greatest skills of judging or editing is the ability to recognize the innovative and creatively odd-ball which conventional expections would pass over. It surely follows that it's at that very early stage that the greatest and most expert judging skill is required. It's why, when Ailsa Cox and I were editing metropolitan, we would never let our workers do the initial sifting in spite of the fact that we were swamped with manuscripts, and it's why of course they wanted to do it and were furious that we wouldn't let them (as indeed I'd have been in their situation).

So what does this mean? That the so-called judges of this competition are not the real ones, they're just figureheads, and the real groundwork is being done by more expert but anonymous people? Or does it mean that the whole thing is geared from the start towards conventionality - as one has to suspect when the BBC, with its strangulating charter (and the formal restrictions on stories suitable for broadcast), is now so heavily involved?
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