Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Just Not Good Enough

Hm. Not really sure what to say about the furore - well, furore by short-story standards - over the decision by the Frank O'Connor Award judges to skip a shortlist and announce the winner early: Jhumpa Lahiri's Unaccustomed Earth. My first decision was to say nothing: my own book was on the long list and so I felt it would be hard to be or at any rate appear objective, and the matter would be better left for others to discuss. Nicholas Lezard quickly posted his disgust on the Guardian books blog and the commenters agreed pretty unanimously, and today Susan Hill expresses hers and quotes from her experience as a Booker judge when her fellow judge Roy Fuller also wanted to omit a shortlist.

A main objection has been that, however much a judging panel knew who their eventual winner was going to be, it was mean to deprive those who would have been on the shortlist their hour in the sun and the increased sales (and, I would add, reputation) which would have followed. People have noted that it seems especially perverse when the Frank O'Connor Award was specifically set up to draw attention to the short story collections published yearly (and which usually get scant attention), and in the service of this aim its long list is generous (39 books this year). Some, including a previous Frank O'Connor judge, have commented that to decide on a winner so soon is arrogant and that the purpose of a short list is to allow judges time for reflection and reconsideration via closer reading and rereading, and a Guardian blogs commenter points out that innovative or subtle short stories are more likely to rise to the surface at such a stage (the general consensus seeming to be that Lahiri's stories, while excellent, conform to conventional expectations). (I haven't read them myself.) Some have seen the choice as pandering to extraneous authority, since Jhumpa Lahiri's book, her second collection, is already an American bestseller and she won a Pultizer for her first, especially in view of the fact that member of this year's judging panel Eileen Battersby complained after last year's off-the-wall choice of Miranda July that the prize was not doing enough to acknowledge internationally acclaimed writers of short stories.

Actually, I think the meanest bit is this section of their statement:
"Not only were the jury unanimous in their choice of Lahiri's Unaccustomed Earth as the winner, they were unanimous in their belief that so outstanding was Lahiri's achievement in this book that no other title was a serious contender."
So the rest were crap, eh?

Regular readers of this blog will know of my reservations about literary competitions per se (or any ruddy competitions for that matter). And you know what, these judges have only gone and put into words what I keep saying is the unspoken implication of all competitions. It's great for the winners, but for those who don't win there's that other judgement: Less good.

But you know what, too? OK, so four or so people were deprived of being on the short list. But guess what, 34 others of us were saved having been labelled not good enough for the short list and, more to the point, being dropped immediately from the collective literary consciousness. Quite the contrary: look how it's all still being discussed.
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