Now incorporating The Sudbury Hill Harrow and Wherever End Times

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Last word on the competition result 2008

Here is what happened:

The Willesden Herald Short Story judges would like to make a final statement on the competition, the judging and the aftermath to try to explore any mistakes, to show what was done in good faith and to aid understanding and transparency.

There were three short-listing judges, Steve Moran (SM), Anne Mullane and me. The intention was to read everything and come up with a short list of ten plus a few commended to forward to Zadie Smith for final arbitration.

The first entries started arriving in October and by the start of November, all three short-listing judges started having to give up between 12 and 20 hours every week of their time to reading. Eventually, the volunteer that opened the envelopes and did the initial data entry was swamped and at one point, while keeping the entrants’ names secret to all the judges, SM had to help out with tedious data entry by staring at a spreadsheet through the night.

Faced with a weekly pile of about 500 sheets of paper, we wanted to be interested, to be moved, to want to leap up and send the story to a dear friend and say, ‘hey, read this, it is great’ (not that we would have been able to, as the entries were for judges’ eyes only).

What the exact criteria are for a short story is impossible for me to say; Zadie, in her initial judgement alluded to what she thought a good story should be. If there was an algorithm for such things, machines would be able to write for us. We marked every story with a YES, MAYBE or NO and scribbled on some comments as we thought them necessary. SM read all of the stories. I believe that Anne and I might have skipped literally five each (not the same 5!) out of some 850 entries.

Generally, it was agreed that:

• YES meant ‘I can see this in a short list’;
• MAYBE meant ‘we can consider this if there are not enough YESes’; and
• NO indicated that the story was not good enough.

Interestingly, there were around 5 that were given a YES, MAYBE and a NO. There were also only two that were given three YESes.

When the reading was finished, about three weeks after the closing date, we all met for a weekend marathon of discussion.

We immediately discarded the triple NOs without another look. To have gone through them again, after three people had read them and independently come up with a NO would have been almost impossible. It must be remembered that even judges have day jobs and families! In any case, we were confident that we would not find any reason to reverse our decisions on them.

Piles were made of anything with at least one MAYBE. We started with those stories which had the least support and looked at them again and thought about whether anyone wanted to reconsider.

As we went through the stories, small bits of SM’s dining table started becoming visible under the mounds of paper. We got down to the last 90 or so and then the real battle began.

We reread stories, we wrote lengthy crits of them, we haggled, we drank tea.

When something like the last twenty had been siphoned off, we did consider submitting far less than ten stories to Zadie as the short list was simply not that strong. However, although there was doubt about the strength of the short list, it seemed wise to send Zadie as many hopefuls as possible to give her the chance to see if we had missed anything.

Much has been said about the weakness of the short list. For me, there were a couple that I really liked, that I would have sent to friends to say, ‘READ THIS’, but that was my personal opinion.

Hard copies of the short list were duly posted to Zadie.

SM then emailed those on our short list to:

• give them some warning that they might want to keep 28 Feb free for any prize-giving (it was imperative to contact people as early as possible as some of the short-listed writers lived overseas and these days, people have to book leave make arrangements to travel, etc);
• to ask for an electronic copy of their stories; and
• to ensure that the stories had not gone into print anywhere else in the meantime.

Of course, letting writers know they were on the short list raised their hopes.

An announcement was made on the blog which said something like: if we haven’t got in touch with you yet, you did not make the short list. No short list details were ever issued.

When Zadie received the short list, she immediately saw the flaws in the stories that we had hummed and hawed over. Remember, that only two out of 850 had received triple YES support from the judges. And even then, it was not necessarily thought that these were winners; rather that they could be imagined on the short list.

After long exchanges of emails with SM, Zadie made her no-winner decision and issued it with a long and detailed explanation. We supported this outcome and were glad that this brave step had been taken. The earlier message about the short list had been removed as it was deemed redundant. We now acknowledge this as a mistake as it lead to concerns that there had been some sort of conspiracy.

Zadie was so disturbed by the idea of not selecting a winner that she even suggested she stand back and that the short-listing judges pick the winner. However, this would have deprived us of the patronage of a writer of Zadie’s stature and so this honourable offer was declined.

The short-listed candidates were contacted and asked whether they wanted their names to appear. Some comments made on the comments page of the blog about these writers were so unflattering that it was decided that the WH should be sensitive to their feelings. Some of them might not want to have it publicised that they were the best out of 850 entries (which is an achievement to be proud of), when they had really been aiming to be the best in Zadie’s opinion.

Of course, emails are not read instantly and so it took some time to garner the short-listed writers’ thoughts.

In response to the negative comments left about the decision not to award the prize, Zadie Smith decided that the money should be split, to help counter the suggestions that the short-listed writers were somehow ‘mediocre’. There was no intention at all of suggesting such a thing and any close reading of Zadie’s statement will show this to be false. Being the best out of 850 entries is no small feat.

It is worth mentioning that there are two standards here that we can look to:

• to be the best of a batch; and
• to be worthy of first place in a competition which celebrates outright excellence.

The latter is a much higher aspiration than the former; however, the former is something to be proud of.

When the decision was made to split the prize money, the short-listed writers were contacted again and most of them said that they did not want their names or stories to appear and did not want any prize money. They told us to fuck off. Which is fair enough.

We had a heady mixture of:

• public opinion;
• trying to be true to an aspiration of excellence; and
• being sensitive to the dignity of the short-listed writers in the face of adverse comments.

We are really sorry that at various points we failed to be true to all three of these components. Things changed too fast for us and were unpredictable.

We regret that we contacted the short-listed writers at all, but did so for good reasons (to give them notice that they might want to travel to the event, to get electronic copies and to ensure the story had not been published elsewhere). Of course they will feel disappointment. But it will have to be remembered that there would have been nine disappointed writers anyway. This way, there is only one extra, ten.

As the majority of the writers have declined the offer of money and being listed and having their stories on the website, it has been decided that the original judgement will stand.

We regret not to be able to publicise a short list, but must be sensitive to the wishes of the majority of the short-listed writers.

We regret looking inconsistent, but were trying to be flexible and listen to public opinion.

But one thing we do not regret: we do not regret running a competition that looks for excellence.

We hope that going to all the effort of running this and then taking the incredibly hard way out will show that we have integrity and that you will trust to this integrity when considering entering again next year.

Bilal Ghafoor

See also

Zadie Smith's verdict

2008 prize donated to Comic Relief


Alex Keegan said...

Well done.

Excellent decision.

Anonymous said...

Yes, a good and fair decision. Very honourable of Zadie to make the offer in the first place.

Anonymous said...

Absolutely. Serious nods and slaps on backs all round. Definitely the right decision, and thanks for the lengthy and serious explanation, Bilal. You deserve a cigar.

Now. On a jovial note, I urge readers to take a look at the Willesden Herald's strapline just at the top of the page there.

Prophetic, eh?

Paul Byall said...

I cannot speak for the others, but for myself, I have no complaint about the manner in which the contest was held, short-listed and judged. On the contrary, I am grateful to the readers and short-listers for the time and effort they put in on my and all the contestants’ behalf. My only complaint is with the manner in which Zadie Smith made the announcement that there would be no winner this year. Had she simply remarked that although the stories were strong, none, in her opinion, quite reached the level of excellence required to be named a Willesden Prize Winner, WH would not have heard a peep out of me. But was it really necessary to embark on a windy diatribe that essentially bashed the short-listed stories, even implying that they were either “jolly stories of multicultural life on the streets of North London”, “cutesy American comedies”, “self-referential post-modern vignettes” or “college satires”. Of course people were offended.

Again, thanks to Stephen, Anne and Bilal.

Love Letters From Satan said...

all in all a brave decision by ms. smith. if the sensibilities and/or ego of one or two writers were offended for the sake of having an excellent contest, so be it. i don't think ms. smith needs to apologise for anything.

Anonymous said...

I agree completely with Paul Byall. The decision is acceptable, and the staff and editors of the Willesden Herald have acted appropriately, but Ms. Smith's letter was self-righteous and insulting. Perhaps she didn't intend such a harsh tone, but I think many people read it that way.

Anonymous said...

Seems to me that those who are happy about this decision are those who thought they had a divine right to make the shortlist. Now they'd rather no one got the prize.

Alex Keegan said...

Sad that anonymous is anonymous, but why should we be surprised?

I concur with the decision and did not enter the competition.

I've already posted on standards and in support of Zadie's letter but I'd like to make it clear I support ALL of her letter, especially the comments on the types of stories entered.

Some of the whingers need to BE judges to see what 850 "me-too" stories look like, read like and smell like. A story that genuinely moves a reader or a judge is a genuine rarity. Too many writers produce "stuff for a com" instead of writing from the heart and trying to say something new.

Anonymous said...

Think you should do what it says on the tin. there is no integrity shown at taking a decision, reversing it on strenght of 18 posted comments, and then reversing it again.

Anonymous said...

You're all bloody saints. It is good to get a transparant account of the judging process and how much work and passion went into it. Good also that you tried to split the money amongst the shortlisted (which I think was only fair) and that everyone was top hole decent enough to say, "No thanks. I didn't win that fair and square."

Anonymous said...

"Think you should do what it says on the tin. there is no integrity shown at taking a decision, reversing it on strenght of 18 posted comments, and then reversing it again." - Anon

Anon - the fact that this competition, unlike any others that I can think of, doesn't ask for an entry fee, has no requirements over length, and is open to all-comers, gives it great integrity. They might have fluffed up the communications with regard to these announcements, but they've sorted it all out in the end and will no doubt learn much from that. It's time to give credit where credit is due. The concept behind this prize is glowing with a genuine love for good literature and the desire to discover and promote it.

Anonymous said...

By your logic introducing a stiff entry fee limiting the word count and genre, should make for better writing. Why not throw in age race and creed as well it might deliver the result the judges found so lacking.
The web still clear states that there will be an anthology of short listed writers, it doesn't say they must reach any particular standard.
It comes back if you say this is what you are going to do then do it.
Boasting that there have been over 800 entries from around the world but then having to admit that all 800 were crap just leaves this competition with egg all over its face.

Craig Cliff said...

I'm going to echo a lot of senitments, but I think it's worth saying again:

Thank you to Bilal, Steve, Anne, Zadie and the unnamed data entry person for the time and effort put into the organisation and judging of this competition. It would be a complicated process even if writer’s egos were not involved. This whole affair will probably treble your workload for the next competition… Winning Willesden 2009 would really say something about the quality of your story! No pressure, judges.

Thank you also for taking the time to engage with the concerned parties after the first and second announcements. Despite the flip-flopping, it’s clear (now) that your hearts have been in the right place throughout.

There real shame of the last 36 hours is how the lack of “greatness” Zadie spoke about in her announcement was misconstrued as mediocrity (or worse, so latest anon's comment), and that many of the short-listed authors appear to be insulted. One would hope in time they take more encouragement out of this, and, like the rest of us non-shortlisted authors, take up the challenge to write great stories.

S. Kearney said...

I'm very happy to see this response. I think lessons have been learned and there has been an attempt at full and frank transparency. Thanks, WH, for being willing to take into acount EVERYONE'S thoughts; this is something we don't see often in this old world we live in.

Ossian said...

"The web still clear states that there will be an anthology of short listed writers" (anonymous)

It also states that inclusion is optional for short-listed and commended. That means optional both ways and the option has now been exercised not to include them.

No reflection on the others but the book needed a winner in it to have a hope of making sales. And before you jump on that, we don't give a damn about sales as such either but no publisher can survive for long printing books at a loss. Pretend Genius has already survived for longer than the doctors gave it.

Anonymous said...

I just wish that other literary competitions could learn a lesson from this and no, I do not mean from the controversial (to some) decision. What they could learn is the way to open up the process to those writers out there waiting for an answer, wanting to know a little more about the process, the judging. The information given and the dialogue that has been ongoing, has been invaluable to all of us.

I have learnt a great deal and wish that politics could be as transparent and honest. I also did not enter this year but this has sent a challenge - by God there will be some steaming prose next time and I mean steaming in a more poetic than faecal way, in case anyone was wondering.

For all at WH - thank you for not pulling up the drawbridge and letting us see the angst and the reasoning. It helps us all out there - I hate it when competition organisers make decisions but do not explain or listen to the writers.

Kate said...

Well, you know, all 850 of us are entitled to our own personal "Autograph Man" in an otherwise stellar body of work.

Alex Keegan said...

Anonymous (surprise!) said:

"Boasting that there have been over 800 entries from around the world but then having to admit that all 800 were crap just leaves this competition with egg all over its face."

Er, not exactly.

WH comes out with CREDIT. It is hardly their fault if the entries did not come up to scratch.

The free entry meant that anything could be sent in (and I bet there WAS some crap) but you have neatly changed a decent-enough short-list (but no GREAT story) to "crap"

That was not said by WH/Zadie

Anonymous also said: "By your logic introducing a stiff entry fee limiting the word count and genre, should make for better writing. Why not throw in age race and creed as well it might deliver the result the judges found so lacking."

Of COURSE an entry fee would have cut a large number of time-wasters (and reduced the load for the readers)

Restrictions of word-count and genre might also have selected for the better because better writers respond to constraints.

Anonymous said...

I think, as others have already suggested, that it was the tone of Smith's letter that upset so many people. It was patronising and discouraging. All the ensuing jibes - all the banding around of 'mediocrity' - only discourage aspiring writers further. Smith's latest letter still whiffs of condescension with her sardonic 'power to the people, etc.' comment and addressing us all 'you lot'. Does she hold such a patronising opinion of us when we read her work?
Fair enough if the judges decided none of the stories met their standards. There is no doubt however, that their communication of this message could have been much more sensitive.
I do wonder now how many people will enter the competition next year. How do writers attain greatness if they are not encouraged? Constructive criticism of course is great but that is what Smith gave. She directed us all to Ballard and Svevo with the intent, it seemed, of humiliating us.
Or are we to believe all writers are born great rather than achieving greatness?

Anonymous said...

real talent can't be discouraged. i'm sick of all this whining. i'll enter the contest next year now based on what transpired this year. if you don't want to enter don't enter. don't worry about who and how many will enter next year.

my last name is really anonymous.

Anonymous said...

Talent CAN be discouraged. As a teacher, I see it every day of the week - young people who lack belief in their own abilities because of lack of support and attention.
Probably, however, the last writer is right in suggesting that those who succeed in writing are those who persevere. Amongst those who succeed, there are the talented and the untalented. Amongst those do give up or never try, there are also the talented and the untalented.

Anonymous said...

i said real talent. are you kin to me? i know daddy got around but gee whillikers.

Anonymous said...

Now now my anonymous brothers you shouldn't post as anonymous. you should do what alex keegan does and post as a woman. isn't that right esme?

Anonymous said...

Yes, I stand corrected. You said 'real talent', I just said 'talent. No adjective. Clearly your argument is more persuasive.

Anonymous said...


i'm confused. did the postman deliver my entry OR NOT?

Anonymous said...

That's a hard sentence for all the unreal talent out there.

Anonymous said...

And why shouldn't that gentleman post as a woman if he feels like it? Do I detect a note of anti-transexualism in that remark above? If I can combine lumberyard work by day, and the hearty cameraderie of men in the tea hut, with the glamour of karaoke in high heels and bouffant hairdo down at the Bear and Flag at the weekend, surely...what the hell was I going to say (?) Oh never mind, I'm not deleting it all now.

Vanessa Gebbie said...

So let's get this right. Real grown-up writers, burgeoning undiscovered talents all, will put their pencils away in their pencil cases and take up flower arranging ... just because of the TONE of a judge's comments?


So when these talents become 'real writers', and their books are on the shelves, no one will be allowed to use the wrong tone in reviews?

Get real. Wake up.

And take ZS's message for what it is... it's doing writers a favour, if they could but see it.

Ossian said...

The racing form sheet for the winners from 2006 and 2007 now looks pretty impressive. Joint winners in the first year and outright last year.

Anonymous said...

By your logic introducing a stiff entry fee limiting the word count and genre, should make for better writing. Why not throw in age race and creed as well it might deliver the result the judges found so lacking." - Anon

Anon - I don't know how you could have inferred that from my statement, which was celebrating the lack of such restrictions and the fee. I suggest you learn to read before you write.

Anonymous said...

The only real annonymous is me. What I have been trying to get across to 'you lot' ( is that plagarism if ZS has used it already) is that up until a week ago the impression WH was giving was; they had been inundated with entries and that soon they would announce a winner. Nowhere did they intimate that the protracted decision was down to poor standard. That is where the dishonesty and lack of integreity lies.
And for the record if I the real ANON had entered then there would have been a clear outright winner with or without the imprimatur of the renowned Miss Smith.
I remain, as always, annonymous; no matter what the illustrious Mr. Keegan might have to say.

Anonymous said...

waaaaaaaaaaah. i want my mommy. waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah. sniff sniff sniff. nobody intimated anything. waaaaaaaaaaaaaah.

Anonymous said...

This is sheer identity theft. I am the one and only anonymous. The proliferation of imposters is an ominous trend. I disavow all of the messages in my name. None of them are by me, they are all by imposters pretending to be me, including this one.

Anonymous said...

O, Zadie Smith...literary punk-priestess of north London, how you smite us!

Anonymous said...

Esme dear, there you are. For god's sake, woman, stop pestering these poor people. They're trying to ignore each other.

Arturo, I love your work.

Ossian said...

disposition of the prize money

lightupvirginmary said...

anonymous... 'dishonesty and lack of integreity'
You can't even spell integrity, so i doubt if your story was any cop.

Anonymous said...

Di you say this was the final say on the matter????
Please let it be so...yawn...snore...snooze...

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