Actually, I’m not angry at all. That was a jury-movie joke. It’s been fun. But it did remind me that when I’m on a literary jury I think how much more satisfying the winners’ list would be if it were up to me alone. It’s often said that with a jury, everybody’s second choice is the one that wins. But when every juror has a favourite, and none of the jurors is an idiot or a knave, you learn that contestants are at the disposal of one judge as much as of three, or five. Mine is just one sensibility, one writing life, one history of reading stories. You can say I’m qualified, but that doesn’t mean I can choose the “best” five stories of 120 submitted. What does “best” mean? How can you compare apples, oranges, pineapples, bananas, and kumquats?
But reading 120 stories over a few months under instructions to choose and rank the five best does cause certain qualities to stand out, and they’re not at all bad ones for a story to have. The first, and perhaps most important, is honest emotional force. It’s surprising that this quality should be so rare, considering that fiction is an art primarily concerned with human relations, but it is rare, and when it shows up, it holds you. A second important quality is intelligence. This means that if there is emotion it is not sentimental in nature, and if there is learning or cleverness it is not gratuitous. Intelligence and emotion can combine in an infinite number of ways, but the important thing is that they do so in a way that makes a reader want to keep reading. And when she gets to the end, the final test is that the ending works. Because if there is something wrong with the story, the ending is not going to work, because the story isn’t yet the story it needs to be, however many good things there may be in it.
Here is my best advice. If you have a story to tell, tell it as clearly and honestly as you can. Don’t worry about making it sound like a short story. Far more than the novel, the short story is a protean form, fully capable of expressing your unique reality. That said, while I know we’re always told to write what we know, what we know needs to include other writers’ stories of the kind we are writing, not because there is a right way to write a story but because our readers will likely have read other stories like this, and whether consciously or not their response to ours will be informed by those other stories, and if somebody has done it better, ours will not be particularly interesting to them. We are not writing in a vacuum. All the rules of good writing are only stabs at helping us to face up to what a good reader will do with what we’re giving her.
“Dad Now and Then” has the quality of honest, convincing emotional truth I’m talking about. “Six Animal Tales” is the most genuinely and effectively poetic of all the submissions. It’s witty and strange in the best ways. “Spoiled Rice” is vividly written, a poignant and memorable story. “Multiverse” is whip smart, that rare thing, a concept story with feeling. The author of “Our Hero of Light and Truth” has found an arresting way to tell a story that is difficult to tell in any voice. Besides these five, there were four others I could easily have chosen and another six that were in the running for a long time. Tell yourself yours was one of these other ten, and the next time you write a story, tell it the way you told this one, the way it needed to be told, faithful to its emotional core.
Grain Short Story Competition