Literary Contests & their Discontents

This week witnessed what Wordsbody called a “stunner” in the world of literary contests when Zadie Smith announced that she had failed to find a winning story from the 2008 entries to The Willesden Herald Short Story Competition . In a letter to interested parties, she revealed that the literary world was in an appalling state, with bookstores increasingly stocking their shelves with poor quality, mediocre, “cookie-cutter” stories. Smith, a writer whose novels I own, went on to state that she and the other judges had been turned off by “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.”

She revealed what may count for good writing: “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.”

Of course the world woke up to be shocked by these words and it immediately responded, furiously. Within ten hours, Zadie Smith and company posted another letter, which, in part, read:

“Bowing to common fury, the prize will be split equally amongst the shortlist, all of whom have written strong and worthy stories. Our honest problem was that we didn’t feel we had found a stand-out for the big prize, and we were trying to set the highest standard, but we did it clumsily and, as many have argued, there’s no reason not to award the money, since it’s there. Maybe you lot can read them when they’re up and choose your own favourite.”

Then things took a suprising turn; a majority of the writers declined the generous offer. Who would, right? The judges then announced they would stick to their original decision of keeping the money until next year. But comments kept flooding, and blogosphere went haywire, leading to another emotional turn of events: The judges decided then to give the money to charity and threatened to cancel the competition altogether.

Interesting moments in literature. MFAs should feast on this next week.

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