Thursday, September 18, 2014

BBC National Short Story shortlist

I knew in mid-August, when I received an email from Booktrust's publicist, intended to get me excited as a blogger about the announcement of the shortlist for the BBC National Short Story award a month later, that of course once again I had failed to make it. The email clearly meant that the shortlist had been chosen and shortlistees informed - the publicity machine and publication and recordings requiring at least a month's preparation. Actually, I never expect to get anywhere in this competition, and most years I think wearily, 'Is it really worth my bothering to go through the motions?' And the main thing that puts me off is the bit on the form where you have to say whether you are the author or the author's publisher entering the story. I always wonder: why is this distinction made such a fuss of? Why are publishers allowed to enter stories on behalf of authors? The entries aren't anonymous (you have to declare your most recent publications - or your publisher has to); if you're a sifter, or a judge, how likely are you to overcome the temptation (conscious or unconscious) to be influenced by the endorsement of an established publisher? One year, I asked my hard-pressed small publisher to enter me: she generously and readily agreed, but I know it was a huge hassle on top of all her other work, and I didn't feel it was fair to do it again (I suppose the big publishers have publicists etc to deal with all the form-filling bother), and I'm left thinking every year: do I even stand a chance whatever the standard of my story?

Well, I guess one should reserve judgement unless one knows the ins and outs of the process, but this year's shortlist - Zadie Smith, Lionel Shriver, Rose Tremain, Tessa Hadley and the one less-well-known author Francesca Rydderch - even had chair of judges Alan Yentob being asked on Front Row last night if the reputations of the authors had influenced the judging. Of course Yentob denied it: these were simply the best stories, he insisted, and said (I think - I was driving as I was listening) that one might well expect such proven masters of fiction to produce brilliant stories, which is undeniably true.

But the press release I received makes me uneasy. We are told in the accompanying email that the shortlist is 'glittery', and the press release refers, in popular-culture terminology, to an 'all-star lineup', as well as stressing as a virtue the fact that some of these authors have been shortlisted previously. It's understandable: I know from my own time as an editor of a literary magazine the temptation - indeed necessity - of drawing readers (to serious literature) with big names and suggestions of glamour, and I'd like to think that that's all that's going on here, and that those in a position to promote the short story as a form aren't ending up sacrificing it on the altar of 'celebrity' or the status quo.