AFTER SERVING AS AN ADJUDICATOR for a number of short story competitions, I felt I was capable of passing judgement on collections of stories. After all, many of the winners I’d chosen had gone on to win other competitions, or had published collections, thus vindicating my choices.
But in single story competitions the stories are judged anonymously. There is no name to prejudice one’s decision. With collections it’s quite different. There, emblazoned on the covers, are the writers’ names, many of them highly regarded literary figures. There, too, are the publishers’ logos, some of them synonymous with great writing. Just to add further pressure, the prize is the richest in the world.
So when I first confronted the books for the Cork-City Frank O’Connor Short Story Award, it was the famous names, and logos, and the prestige of the prize that seemed daunting, not reading the sixty-odd tomes submitted. I was, however, greatly relieved that I would have two highly qualified judges to assist me—Milka Jankowska from Poland and Lloren Foster from the United States.
My initial strategy was to pick randomly from the collections. I would read the first three stories, the title story if it wasn’t in the first three, and then the others in no particular order. I would form three piles—one for those that didn’t make the grade, one for further consideration and one for a possible shortlist.
At first, none made the possible shortlist pile and I worried that I was being too critical. Then Wells Tower’s Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned reassured me that my critical faculty was working fine. Here was a writer with a great range of stories and characters, who effortlessly wove his knowledge of unusual facts into the narratives. If I had one reservation it was with the title story, its Viking-era setting making it seem out of place. I also wondered if the story was an analogy for American involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq, and if so, why hadn’t the writer written it so? Despite this reservation I judged the book well worthy of consideration for the shortlist. Now I felt more at ease with the process. I had my yardstick.
Because of the pressure of judging, it was difficult to ‘enjoy’ reading the collections. But I did enjoy Forgetting English by Midge Raymond, The Theory of Light and Matter by Andrew Porter and Vanishing by Deborah Wills. When I picked up Life in the Universe by Michael J. Farrell, I couldn’t help but enjoy reading it. Here was an Irish writer with great wit and insight and a compelling voice. It would go into the possible shortlist pile, but not right away. I was taking it on holiday to re-read at my leisure.
I took one other book with me to re-read on holidays, Love Begins in Winter by Simon Van Booy. This book ‘grabbed’ me from its first paragraphs and demanded to be read. Here was a writer in control of language and character, with lyrical writing that was beguiling. His characters might be adrift in an indifferent world—one that could cruelly and arbitrarily rip their personal worlds apart—yet it was a world where one could find redemption. Hope could exist, even in the depths of despair.
I was impressed with the way the writer showed how minor events in our lives affect our existence, how chance plays its part and how happiness can turn on a moment. Compared with other collections, with their dark view of the human condition, Love Begins in Winter celebrated all that was good about humanity and implied that hope is the greatest virtue and without it we would exist in a soulless place.
After much reading and re-reading, seventeen books eventually ended up in my possible shortlist pile. Among them were some of the prestigious names— Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Kazuo Ishiguro, Sana Krasikov, Mary Gaitskill and James Lasdun. With a quarter of the entries in this pile and as many more remaining in the pile I’d set aside for further consideration, it was heartening to conclude that the short story was in very good health despite much pessimism about its imminent demise.
With these seventeen titles I joined the other two judges to draw up a shortlist of six, not without some doubts. Had I rejected a book that deserved to be there? Had I chosen a book that shouldn’t be there? To my relief, when we’d whittled down all the entries to just twenty, all my choices remained. Now a final six had to be chosen. After much discussion, and regret that some had to lose out, six were eventually chosen, among them Tower and Van Booy.
Two of the other four had been previously short listed for the prize—Charlotte Grimshaw and Philip Ó Ceallaigh. Grimshaw’s Singularity consists of a series of linked stories while Ó Ceallaigh’s The Pleasant Light of Day is a stand alone collection. In my opinion, the former needs to be read from beginning to end like a novel while the latter can be dipped into anywhere and each story enjoyed without any reference to the other stories. I felt that this linked approach weakened the Grimshaw collection. Ó Ceallaigh, on the other hand, is a ‘true’ and very assured short story writer, not simply an Irish writer, but a writer who happens to be Irish. If I have one reservation about his collection, it is its negative view of humanity and pessimistic tone.
The other two short-listed books could not be more different either. Petina Gappah’s An Elegy for Easterly paints a depressing picture of her native Zimbabwe and gives us a glimpse of the reality of the lives of the people behind the news stories. However, its bleak outlook is enlivened with humour. I felt that the book was too overtly ‘political’ and that this created a sense of ‘sameness’ about the stories. Writers should note V.S. Pritchett’s definition that a short story is a ‘glimpse’ of a particular world. Too many similar glimpses, rather than giving the glimpse clarity, actually blurs it.
Ripples by Shih-Li Kow was my first introduction to the Malaysian short story. It is a world of the senses and one can smell and taste the ma kiok and hear the crackle as it’s eaten. Since reading Ripples, I feel as if I’ve been to Malaysia. Shih-Li Kow is a true storyteller with great humour. Her writing is incisive and she can delineate a character in a few words of narrative or dialogue. However, her stories are extremely short and I would like to see her ‘stretch’ her undoubted abilities.
At the final adjudication meeting we had to choose a winner. All six collections had, we still felt, deserved to be on the shortlist. We also agreed that they were so evenly matched that it was going to prove difficult to choose a winner. Discussion on the merits of the collections took up much more time than the original short-listing. We were all three passionate about our choices and willing to argue their merits, so much so that in the end it came down to a majority decision and Love Begins in Winter was chosen as the winner of the Cork-City Frank O’Connor Short Story Award. It was a majority decision, not because it wasn’t the best book, but because all six were ‘best’ books.
If I have one general comment to make about the submitted collections, it is that many of them deviated from my idea of what a short story should be. The stories lacked focus and a recognisable central character. Point of view shifted continually, even within the same paragraph, and it seemed as if there was no limit to the number of characters. In one story I listed eleven different characters’ names in a page and a half.
Whether this problem lies with writers who don’t care about their readers, or who are willing to dismiss technique as too confining, or with the editors who publish such stories, I don’t know. The short story must evolve or die— this is true of any art form—and if one reads Gogol’s ‘The Overcoat’ now, one can see how far the short story has evolved. But it should still be a short story. If writers wish to change point of view line by line, or have eleven characters in two pages, then perhaps they need to study the great practitioners of the art form. For what’s fascinating about the form is its ability to focus closely on a character in that moment of transition—that moment when everything that character does or says or thinks is so intense and vitally important that we can’t take our eyes from him or her. How can we do so while ten other characters are jumping about shouting: ‘Look at me!’
Reassuringly though, there are still a great many fine writers who adhere to the basic premise of a short story. A good number of them had collections entered for the Frank O’Connor Prize and one of these emerged a worthy winner. One cannot ask for more.