Stroud Short Stories runs twice a year, picking ten stories to be read at an evening event. Participation is usually limited to Gloucestershire. In the winter of 2014, I was picked to read. In the spring of 2015 I edited an anthology of all previously selected stories. Last autumn I was invited to help with the judging, and I’ve been asked to do that again this spring.
Judging literature is a very subjective process. A small percentage of the submissions don’t work – they don’t make sense in some way, are too unoriginal, or express prejudices that aren’t acceptable. Those are the easy ones to weed out, although I have to admit it’s possible that amongst them are high art, super clever serious literature that I’m not smart enough to get. The flip side of this is that I know the audience who come to hear the stories, and they tend to be more like me, and are not cutting edge literary academics either.
The quest for the best ten is not an easy one. It helps that there’s the ‘reading out’ aspect, because this rules out a percentage of the stories. We judge without knowing the author, so I’m less likely to pick a story that depends on fantastic, theatrical delivery. Most authors are shy, wary of the microphone and many come to the events not having read much (or ever) in public before. The story has to work regardless of delivery. I’ve learned to be wary of vast stretches of dialogue, because not every author can produce two or more clear voices on a stage.
As a reader, first and foremost I want to be surprised. This is true of anything I get my nose into. I want not to know where it was going. I want to encounter thoughts that would never have crossed my mind. I am susceptible to beautiful language, but it has to be in service to the story, and I do not like things that sound clever and poetic but lack for meaning.
In the autumn we were picking to a theme, and having the Eerie Evening (see poster!) to work with, was a useful focus for selection. There’s no theme this spring, and I have no idea how that’s going to go. The competition is now open for submissions, and in the weeks ahead, I’ll be reading, and pondering perhaps something in the region of a hundred short stories, looking for the ten. I hope I can do the process justice.
It helps greatly that I’m not doing this alone. John Holland also judges, and he’s done far more of this than I have. While there’s a fair overlap in our tastes, we think in different ways, and in finding stories that we both think work, we’ve got a good shot (I think) at getting the best ten, at least on paper. How they’ll translate on the night is an unknown quantity. Some stories come alive in whole new ways when read aloud, others don’t have the punch you expected. Nothing is certain, and that’s part of the allure.
If you’re in Gloucestershire and want to give it a go (but don’t tell me!) the details are here – http://www.stroudshortstories.blogspot.co.uk/