Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Simon Mawer on Judging the Fish Short Story Competition 2010/2011

On Judging the Fish Short Story Competition, 2010/2011

Short story writing is a bit like painting in water colours. It’s an art of precise strokes in which you need to be deft, accurate and sensitive to the faintest imbalance. And if it’s good then the finished whole is somehow more than the sum of its parts. On the other hand, novel writing is more like painting in oils. You can layer, rework, scrub things out, move near, stand back, live with the thing in your studio for a year or more, counterbalance a lapse here with a successful passage there. And all too often the whole is somehow less than its various parts. As a writer I feel I can do the oil painting, more or less; it’s the water colours that make me feel inadequate.
So it was with some trepidation that I received the final twenty stories that had made the cut in the Fish Short Story competition this year. No committee decision from now on: it was up to me alone. Aside from being a novelist I have also been a teacher – not of English or Creative Writing but of workaday Biology – and as soon as I turned to the first story I found the teacher in me asking questions: what are the criteria? where is the mark scheme? how can you be objective about this? The answer is, of course, you cannot. Assuming all the stories are competently written (they were) any further judgement must be purely subjective. So, feeling guilty, I threw years of pedagogical conditioning out of the window and sat down to read. I wasn’t a teacher marking exams, I was a writer doing the impossible: trying to rank works of art. And the only way I could do it was by deciding which of these stories I liked best.
What struck me forcibly was the preponderance of family anguish stories. Isn’t this theme a trifle hackneyed? Perhaps it comes from that injunction of the Creative Writing course, that you should write about what you know. I’d say, write about what you imagine. Let your imagination take you to places and inside people whom you couldn’t possibly otherwise have known. Imagination is the key, the crux, the hinge on which all art turns.
So I was captivated by the desolate mining world evoked in Big Spirit Blow with its awful shrivelled corpses and the bewildered Ozzies trying to make out what was going on. And the biologist in me loved the gruesome mutated Cordyceps fungus attacking humans as the current species attack insects. The tone is right, the language is right, threat is expertly hinted at. You breathe in the spores as you read.
Closer to home, La Paix seemed a beautifully oblique portrait of a marriage broken by a single, mundane tragedy – half a lifetime distilled into a few thousand words, emotions alluded to rather than stated bluntly. I enjoyed the bleak detachment of the narration and the bitter irony of “insurance”, which is the leitmotiv of the story.
Finally my winner was The Space Between Louis and Me, for its humour and its gentle mockery of our current obsession with the virtual world. With social networks and online gaming replacing human interaction, who can doubt that someone like Louis, or Louisa, is waiting just round the corner for you? Yet beneath the veneer of humour was a real evocation of the isolation that imbues so much of modern life. And, as with a fine water colour, this piece was created with minimal brushstrokes. 
So that’s my verdict. And why do I still feel guilty? It's the damn teacher in me again, having awarded marks and then thinking, "Have I got it right?" as though there is some absolute rightness against which we will all eventually be judged …

Simon Mawer
March 2011

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