Last word on the competition result 2008
Here is what happened:
The Willesden Herald Short Story judges would like to make a final statement on the competition, the judging and the aftermath to try to explore any mistakes, to show what was done in good faith and to aid understanding and transparency.
There were three short-listing judges, Steve Moran (SM), Anne Mullane and me. The intention was to read everything and come up with a short list of ten plus a few commended to forward to Zadie Smith for final arbitration.
The first entries started arriving in October and by the start of November, all three short-listing judges started having to give up between 12 and 20 hours every week of their time to reading. Eventually, the volunteer that opened the envelopes and did the initial data entry was swamped and at one point, while keeping the entrants’ names secret to all the judges, SM had to help out with tedious data entry by staring at a spreadsheet through the night.
Faced with a weekly pile of about 500 sheets of paper, we wanted to be interested, to be moved, to want to leap up and send the story to a dear friend and say, ‘hey, read this, it is great’ (not that we would have been able to, as the entries were for judges’ eyes only).
What the exact criteria are for a short story is impossible for me to say; Zadie, in her initial judgement alluded to what she thought a good story should be. If there was an algorithm for such things, machines would be able to write for us. We marked every story with a YES, MAYBE or NO and scribbled on some comments as we thought them necessary. SM read all of the stories. I believe that Anne and I might have skipped literally five each (not the same 5!) out of some 850 entries.
Generally, it was agreed that:
• YES meant ‘I can see this in a short list’;
• MAYBE meant ‘we can consider this if there are not enough YESes’; and
• NO indicated that the story was not good enough.
Interestingly, there were around 5 that were given a YES, MAYBE and a NO. There were also only two that were given three YESes.
When the reading was finished, about three weeks after the closing date, we all met for a weekend marathon of discussion.
We immediately discarded the triple NOs without another look. To have gone through them again, after three people had read them and independently come up with a NO would have been almost impossible. It must be remembered that even judges have day jobs and families! In any case, we were confident that we would not find any reason to reverse our decisions on them.
Piles were made of anything with at least one MAYBE. We started with those stories which had the least support and looked at them again and thought about whether anyone wanted to reconsider.
As we went through the stories, small bits of SM’s dining table started becoming visible under the mounds of paper. We got down to the last 90 or so and then the real battle began.
We reread stories, we wrote lengthy crits of them, we haggled, we drank tea.
When something like the last twenty had been siphoned off, we did consider submitting far less than ten stories to Zadie as the short list was simply not that strong. However, although there was doubt about the strength of the short list, it seemed wise to send Zadie as many hopefuls as possible to give her the chance to see if we had missed anything.
Much has been said about the weakness of the short list. For me, there were a couple that I really liked, that I would have sent to friends to say, ‘READ THIS’, but that was my personal opinion.
Hard copies of the short list were duly posted to Zadie.
SM then emailed those on our short list to:
• give them some warning that they might want to keep 28 Feb free for any prize-giving (it was imperative to contact people as early as possible as some of the short-listed writers lived overseas and these days, people have to book leave make arrangements to travel, etc);
• to ask for an electronic copy of their stories; and
• to ensure that the stories had not gone into print anywhere else in the meantime.
Of course, letting writers know they were on the short list raised their hopes.
An announcement was made on the blog which said something like: if we haven’t got in touch with you yet, you did not make the short list. No short list details were ever issued.
When Zadie received the short list, she immediately saw the flaws in the stories that we had hummed and hawed over. Remember, that only two out of 850 had received triple YES support from the judges. And even then, it was not necessarily thought that these were winners; rather that they could be imagined on the short list.
After long exchanges of emails with SM, Zadie made her no-winner decision and issued it with a long and detailed explanation. We supported this outcome and were glad that this brave step had been taken. The earlier message about the short list had been removed as it was deemed redundant. We now acknowledge this as a mistake as it lead to concerns that there had been some sort of conspiracy.
Zadie was so disturbed by the idea of not selecting a winner that she even suggested she stand back and that the short-listing judges pick the winner. However, this would have deprived us of the patronage of a writer of Zadie’s stature and so this honourable offer was declined.
The short-listed candidates were contacted and asked whether they wanted their names to appear. Some comments made on the comments page of the blog about these writers were so unflattering that it was decided that the WH should be sensitive to their feelings. Some of them might not want to have it publicised that they were the best out of 850 entries (which is an achievement to be proud of), when they had really been aiming to be the best in Zadie’s opinion.
Of course, emails are not read instantly and so it took some time to garner the short-listed writers’ thoughts.
In response to the negative comments left about the decision not to award the prize, Zadie Smith decided that the money should be split, to help counter the suggestions that the short-listed writers were somehow ‘mediocre’. There was no intention at all of suggesting such a thing and any close reading of Zadie’s statement will show this to be false. Being the best out of 850 entries is no small feat.
It is worth mentioning that there are two standards here that we can look to:
• to be the best of a batch; and
• to be worthy of first place in a competition which celebrates outright excellence.
The latter is a much higher aspiration than the former; however, the former is something to be proud of.
When the decision was made to split the prize money, the short-listed writers were contacted again and most of them said that they did not want their names or stories to appear and did not want any prize money. They told us to fuck off. Which is fair enough.
We had a heady mixture of:
• public opinion;
• trying to be true to an aspiration of excellence; and
• being sensitive to the dignity of the short-listed writers in the face of adverse comments.
We are really sorry that at various points we failed to be true to all three of these components. Things changed too fast for us and were unpredictable.
We regret that we contacted the short-listed writers at all, but did so for good reasons (to give them notice that they might want to travel to the event, to get electronic copies and to ensure the story had not been published elsewhere). Of course they will feel disappointment. But it will have to be remembered that there would have been nine disappointed writers anyway. This way, there is only one extra, ten.
As the majority of the writers have declined the offer of money and being listed and having their stories on the website, it has been decided that the original judgement will stand.
We regret not to be able to publicise a short list, but must be sensitive to the wishes of the majority of the short-listed writers.
We regret looking inconsistent, but were trying to be flexible and listen to public opinion.
But one thing we do not regret: we do not regret running a competition that looks for excellence.
We hope that going to all the effort of running this and then taking the incredibly hard way out will show that we have integrity and that you will trust to this integrity when considering entering again next year.
Zadie's 1st letter:
Dear Willesden Herald Readers,
This is a difficult thing to write. Just like everybody, we at The Willesden Herald are concerned about the state of contemporary literature. We are depressed by the cookie-cutter process of contemporary publishing, the lack of truly challenging and original writing, and the small selection of pseudo-literary fictio-tainment that dominates our chain bookstores.
We created this prize to support unpublished writers, and, with our five grand, we put our money where our mouths are. We have tried to advertise widely across this great internet of
ours and to make the conditions of entry as democratic and open as we could manage. There is no entry fee, there are no criteria of age, race, gender or nation. The stories are handed over to the judges stripped of the names of the writers as well as any personal detail concerning them (if only The Booker worked like that!) Our sole criterion is quality. We simply wanted to see some really great stories. And we received a whole bunch of stories. We dutifully read through hundreds of them. But in the end – we have to be honest – we could not find the greatness we’d hoped for. It’s for this reason that we have decided not to give out the prize this year.*
This doesn’t make anyone at The Willesden Herald very happy, but we got into this with a commitment to honour the best that’s out there, and we feel sure there is better out there somewhere.
Now I would like to lose the collective pronoun and speak personally for a moment. I am very proud to be patron of this prize. I think there are few prizes of this size that would have the integrity not to award a prize when there is not sufficient cause to do so. Most literary prizes are only nominally about literature, they are really about brand consolidation – for beer companies, phone companies, coffee companies even frozen food companies. The little Willesden Herald Prize is only about good writing, and it turns out that a prize faithfully recognizing this imperative must also face the fact that good writing is actually very rare. For let us be honest again: it is sometimes too easy, and too tempting, to blame everything that we hate in contemporary writing on the bookstores, on the corporate publishers, on incompetent editors and corrupt PR departments – and God knows, they all have their part to play. But we also have our part to play. We also have to work out how to write better and read better. We have to really scour this internet to find the writing we love, and then we have to be able to recognize its quality. We cannot love something solely because it has been ignored. It must also be worthy of our attention.
Once again, the judges and I, we are absolutely certain there is great writing out there on this internet. Many of the entries we received suggested it. But we didn’t receive enough. And now, in order to try and draw whatever great writing is out there towards this little website, maybe my fellow judges and I need to be a bit more specific about what we’re looking for. Actually, as it always is with writing and reading, it’s more useful to say what we’re not looking for.
For I have thought, reading through these entries, that maybe the problem with this prize is that my name is attached to it. To be very clear: just because this prize has the words Willesden and Zadie hovering by it, does not mean that I or the other judges want to read hundreds of jolly stories of multicultural life on the streets of North London. Nor are we exclusively interested in cutesy American comedies, or self-referential post-modern vignettes, or college satires. To be even clearer: if these things turn up and are brilliantly written, they will not be ignored. But we also welcome all those whose literary sympathies lie with Rimbaud or Capote, with Irving Rosenthal or Proust, with Svevo or Trocchi, with Ballard or Bellow, Denis Cooper or Diderot, with Coetzee or Patricia Highsmith, with street punks or Elizabethans, with Southern Gothic or with Nordic Crime, with Brutalists or Realists, with the Lyrical or the Encyclopedic, in the ivory tower, or amongst the trash that catches in the gutter. We welcome everybody. We have only one principle here: MAKE IT GOOD.
So, let’s try again, yes? All the requirements for entry you will find below.
I’m very sorry for any disappointment caused this year, but this prize will continue and we hope it will get stronger with each year that passes. And we promise you now and forever: it will never be sponsored by a beer company.
Zadie's 2nd letter
Dear Angry Willesden Herald Readers,
We apologise again for any upset we caused - it was all my (Zadie's) fault*. Stephen is innocent! Better luck next year I guess. Power to the people, etc.
Zadie, Stephen and co.
* Not so fast: as a bad Catholic, I demand my share of any guilt that's going round. SM
Note/update: Well, we tried. See above for the final outcome/ decision/ result.