1st The Prince - Graham Mort, Carnforth, Lancs
2nd “I can Squash the King, Tommo...” - Vanessa Gebbie, Ringmer, E Sussex
3rd Slip, Out, Back, Here - Liza Wieland, North Carolina, USA
Runners-up (alphabetical order)
The Sand Monster - Judith Allnatt, Upper Weedon, Northants
And that’s all there is to it - Jackie Beacham, Forest Row, E Sussex
Golden Retriever - Michael Carson, Wallasey, Merseyside
The Fire Child - David Grubb, Henley-on-Thames, Oxon
Ghost Lights - John Haggerty, California, USA
Keeping On - Huw Lawrence, Aberystwyth
The Fish - Toby Litt, London
Peas and Pictures - D A McIlroy, Brussels, Belgium
Next to Godliness - Kevin Parry, Seaford, E Sussex
How doth the little Crocodile? - Stuart Tallack, Felpham, W Sussex
1st Wanton - Christopher Buehlman, Florida, USA
2nd The boy who could lay eggs - Caroline Price, Tunbridge Wells, Kent
3rd Wells-next-the-Sea - Kate Rhodes, Ipswich, Suffolk
Runners-up (alphabetical order)
Going to Therapy - Jonathan Asser, London
Questions I wanted to ask you in the swimming pool - Emily Berry, London
Puff Ball - Marianne Burton, London
Exhibit - Rachel Curzon, Andover, Hants
Passport - Claudia Daventry, St Andrews, Fife
Ephemeral - Anthony Hughes, New York, USA
Campaign Desk - Catherine Ormell, London
Late Snow - Wayne Price, Aberdeen
Had I Not - Rodney Pybus, Sudbury, Suffolk
Scott of the Riviera - Christopher Stocks, Portland, Dorset
THE Dorset Award
Scott of the Riviera - Christopher Stocks, Portland, Dorset
It has been a pleasure and a challenge to judge the Bridport Short Story Prize this year. Mind you, I've had it easy. I only had to read the longlisted stories, culled by an army of diligent readers from a record number of several thousand submissions. Anyone who thinks short stories are a dying genre should note that figure and think again.
I admire good short stories. It is so hard to get them right. I began my writing career with stories before "graduating," as I thought at the time, to novels. I have since returned to respect the genre. In a novel, you can get away with a little flabbiness, the odd clanger of a sentence, a tangential paragraph. Not so in a short story, where every word counts, every character is crucial, every metaphor pops out. Writing a short story forces you to use your writing muscles in controlled, precise movements rather than hiding behind the paunch of a novel.
It was fascinating, if not a little dispiriting, to find out what subjects people choose to writing about these days. Certain themes recurred with almost monotonous regularity: aging and problems with elderly parents, suicide, road kill (yes, really!), illness, religious faith. Oh, and cigarettes - lots of 'em. With smoking now banned in public places, smokers have come to represent rebellious, misunderstood outsiders - not just teenagers anymore, but adults too.
Underlying all of these issues is a persistent attempt to make sense of death, particularly of those most vulnerable in society - children, the elderly, animals. It's not surprising, I think: writers often use stories to work through subjects they don't understand and are struggling with. I'm not necessarily suggesting that all short story writing is therapeutic, but it does have a purpose beyond entertainment, and that is to explore what it means to be human. In this age of all information all of the time, death continues to be the great unexplained event that happens to everyone. No wonder we write about it so much.
If only writers could be a little, well, jollier about it! Sorely missing from the entries was humour, with the honourable exceptions of "Ghost Lights," which made me laugh aloud, and "The Fish," with its surreal subject matter and bravura style (there is only one full-stop, at the end of the story). Otherwise, reading the stories made me more and more depressed. While I'm not in a position to chastise - I myself am not known for many laughs in my books - I would like to make a plea to future writers: humour is good! Not only that, but a funny story is so much harder to write than a sad one. Let it be a challenge to us all. I will if you will.
Subject matter aside, I was very impressed by the many examples of good writing and the confidence and economy with which entrants established character, voice and scene. I was often completely convinced by the narration, marvelling again and again at how easily I was pulled into an alternative world for a few minutes. Many stories felt so real I couldn't resist speculating on their possible autobiographical nature.
Certain lines and phrases leapt out at me as well: "a careless merriment of freckles"; rain "slants down like harp-strings"; "the sea is flat like a pencil line drawn at the bottom of a blue piece of paper." And this line from the winning entry: "His mother fed him a piece of cake from a china plate and his head came forward for the morsels like a tortoise." I wish I'd written that.
What let down many of the stories, however, were their endings. As good as entrants were at setting scenes, fleshing out characters and giving them authentic voices, they often didn't know what to do with them once they got them there. Too many times I thrilled to a story, only to be bitterly disappointed on reading the last page. For one story I even had the prize administrators check with the writer to make sure there hadn't been a printing error or page left off by mistake. If it hadn't ended so abruptly I might have given it a prize.
Of course, endings are difficult to pull off. I sweat more over endings than anything else. In a way, they're impossible, for the reader demands the impossible: to be both surprised and satisfied. Too often entrants didn't give me either option.
Endings aren't everything, though, and the three stories I have chosen as winners are so well written, so complete, with content and style knitted together so successfully, that the endings are not really the point so much as part of a truly integrated whole. I have chosen them mainly because they have done what so few stories do these days: make every word count.
"Slip, Out, Back, Here" is an unusual, gorgeous contemplation of a young girl's relationship with her mother, a dream-like examining of the tight bond that both stifles and secures them. It takes risks with structure, and its ending is soaring and emotional without being sentimental.
"I Can Squash the King, Tommo" tells the story of a childhood accident that reverberates over he years. Its strange, surreal tone perfectly suits the subject matter, feeding the nostalgia and guilt that weave through the narrative.
I chose "The Prince" for first prize because the writing is word-perfect. A young boy's dying is set against the seasonal rhythms of a northern village community, with the story quietly remarking on how something out of the ordinary both does and doesn't affect daily life. In particular, I was enchanted by deft descriptions of nature, of "the damp musk of elderflower," of "oystercatchers [returning] to their ritual of picking over stones in the beck," of slugs and snails "turning cabbages and lettuces into a fine lace of greenery and then into slime." Writers today don't notice this sort of detail nearly enough, much less connect it thematically to the narrative. By awarding "The Prince" top prize, I hope to remind writers out there that such details are crucial to make stories which will move us.
I'm making my final cut in the bar of a very large boat, in the North Channel of the Irish Sea, in something the captain alleges is a 'light swell'. This thing seemed like the, uh, Titanic when we were in Belfast, but now feels like a rubber duck in a bathtub. The sea reduces everything to a cork, and there's a brutal democracy to all this that sits perfectly, I suppose, with the brutal anonymity of the Poetry Competition. Which is more than I can say for my breakfast.
Okay: while all must sink or swim by their own seaworthiness, etc., some of the fleet were scuttled in port. I'm fortunate to have had Candy Neubert sift the entries down to a vaguely manageable number of a few hundred. Competitions where the judge reads the entire entry sound much fairer, but they aren't. Apart from the fact that any system that has more than one judge is going to be far more reliable, the snow-blindness and poem-happy hysteria induced by reading three thousand poems in two days has produced some very bizarre results over the years. Some of them from me. (I recall one occasion where I almost gave the big money to a poem called 'To My Dog Benjy* Who Died Under a Landrover Aged Three Years', or something like it. The asterisk led me to a footnote which read 'Benjy was a cocker spaniel'. 'Harrowing in its simplicity', I'd written in the margin, before falling into a coma at the desk. ) You feel grateful, in the end, for the wrong things, like nice typing. But you're also able to make some very clear decisions on what's a poem and what isn't. Not here: there are almost no entries I can cheerfully mark up with a NAH, and set to one side. No bits of pot pourri fell from the sheets, and no cats were drawn in the margin. I read nothing in copperplate fonts, crayon or blood, and for the first time I felt safe enough not to check for acrostic death threats. Angels, are usual, were overrepresented - which suggests they must have been epidemic in the entry as a whole. At least the ones I saw had a sense of humour. But all these poems insist on being read, and most re-read. This'll take ages.
The only thing you can do in these circumstances is harden up your critical criteria. So I've decided that I want a poem with an interesting argument or point to make, or a compelling story to tell. That rules out a fair few. Lots of poems here sound like poems, and often very beautifully - but they don't make the shape of poems, and they have no great imaginative or dramatic proposition that makes me excited about the prospect of reading them again. Others have no real structural armature, and are really just bunch of fine images strung together, with no sense that the constituent parts are in the service of a greater whole. And too many afforded me no surprise - which is the reader's only test that the writer has themselves been surprised or excited or moved in the actual making of the poem, and not just in the idea or event that inspired it. (All this 'emotion recollected in tranquillity' stuff was always rubbish, even for Wordsworth.) Okay. That gets it down to about fifty.
Now we have to be brutal. Time for the 'technical merit' score. There are three things that I really wish poems would not withhold or muddle or fail to signpost, through incompetence or misjudgement: these are literal context (how the hell was I meant to know that it was a conversation between two elephants in a dinghy), dramatis personae (how the hell was I meant to know 'you' was your mother when she'd been 'she' in the last stanza), and chronological sequence (how the hell was I meant to know the bit in the Mongolian restaurant took place ten years ago, etc.). Now that's not to say these things aren't often artfully blurred. They are; Wallace Stevens, say, is a lexicon of this kind of effect. But if they are, the blur or the discontinuity has to be sufficiently well advertised for us to enjoy the confusion. So often, though, the reader is forced to expend all the energy fighting their way toward literal sense and temporal sequence that they should be spending on the deeper, elusive truth the poem is - hopefully - trying to communicate. Too often we fudge what the poem is about, forgetting that the reader has understand this before they can get on with the business of what the poem means.
Okay, that knocks out a few. I've got about twenty now. Now it's time for … personal whim. Above a certain level of competence, i.e. where you can no longer point to a poem's faults - all you can see are distinct individual merits. This means that you're no longer comparing like with like; you're comparing apples with bananas, and it all very much depends what you're in the mood for. There's no way round this, and this is where it all becomes deeply unscientific - but who would have it any other way? I've sat on too many panels where the winner has been a poem everyone likes, but no-one really loves. I'd rather a poem win that at least one person has a genuine enthusiasm for. That'll be me, today.
Okay. The poems I have in the final pile all have a sense of having built their own little imaginative planet, with its own consistent logic and physical laws, its own customs and protocols. I … buy them. None of them feel like their authors were trying to 'get a poem past me'. There's one poem here I feel strongly must make the final three, but that I defy anyone to like; but it's impossible to get out of your head, and seems written with as much grace and craft and unsentimentality as one might ever write about such a dreadful thing. All these poems feel … felt. None of this helps me make the unkindest cut, the final three. This is pretty much down to how the planets are aligned today, and I'd come up with a different result next week; but we're verbs, not nouns, and that's how it has to be.
And if your poem isn't here - remember that anyone who submits 'A Disused Shed' or 'Birches' to a poetry competition stands a good chance of seeing it sink without trace. The truly original most often turns up the guise of the very familiar, and the poetry competition is the hardest place to spot it. So if you did - rest assured it will find its readers. In the meantime, blame one very seasick guy.