I have just spent the weekend in Wellington for the tail end of Writers & Readers Week. One of the best sessions I went to was the Prize in Modern Letters readings. I don't normally go for readings, because I perfer to hear writers talk, but when you haven't read any of the entries and there are six of them, it's really nice to get a taste for what the books are like. The standouts for me were Michele Amas, Mary McCallum and Jo Randerson. Jo's story started out as a light, jokey sort of a tale and took the most unexpected gut-wrenching turn. Powerful stuff. Mary proved herself very adept at writing a sex scene without tipping over into ickyness, smut or coyness.
The winner on the night was David Beach who was quite a character, reading some poems from the point of view of God and I think he won a lot of fans with his nervous and charming delivery. The judge of the award, Brigid Hughes, editor of A Public Space and former editor of The Paris Review, said she found herself wanting to argue with his book, Abandoned Novel, which is a pretty good recommendation. I have to say I wasn't suprised by her selection after I saw her speak on the panel Who Owns the Story? with Jane Parkin and Fergus Barrowman. When asked by the chair what she looks for in work to publish, she made it pretty clear that she favours the experimental over the polished, which to me immediately ruled out four of the candidates I saw read.
Which got me thinking about how subjective awards are - not that there is anything wrong with that. I think the most important thing is to make sure that awards have varying judges so that a whole range of work gets rewarded. I can't help feeling that the Sunday Star-Times short story competition, which, along with the Katherine Mansfield is seen by many as one of the most important writing competitions in New Zealand, should look at getting a fresh judge. Owen Marshall* has judged that competition for a long time. The effect is that anyone whose stories are rejected by him one year can't then enter the same story again the next year because they already know he doesn't like it. Therefore all they can really do is keep trying with new stories and they may just end up writing the kind of story they think he likes rather than what they really want to write. And I reckon what can happen is that a sort of norm develops for the kind of stories that win awards, which are often the only ones that get read by the general public. And then there becomes a public perception about what 'good' writing should be. New Zealand's short story landscape becomes less diverse. If Owen Marshall had been judging the Prize in Modern Letters, the outcome would have been very very different.
*This is nothing against Owen, who is a fine judge and a great writer.