When we launched the Online Writing Tips Short Fiction Competition, we didn’t think much about how we would judge the entries. We didn’t decide in advance on any particular process, and we didn’t discuss the values that would inform our judgements. We wrote in the submissions guidelines that we wanted the stories that would move us – stories that would make us laugh or cry or both. That seemed to pretty much cover it. Had someone pushed us for a further explanation we would probably have mumbled about fairness and objectivity, without realising how problematic – even impossible – those concepts are.
So we’ve made the process up as we’ve gone along, and we’re still unsure about the values that inform it. We’ve moved to a multi-judge system, employing four judges, two of whom read the stories ‘blind’, without access to the authors’ names or cover letters. The stories should stand on their own merit, right? Reputation and previous success – or, in the case of two of the longlisted authors, knowing the competition organisers – shouldn’t make any difference. And we’ve started using a points system: the judges rank the stories in order of preference, and then we add up the scores and put forward the stories with the lowest totals (no, we won’t reveal the scores). Such a quantitative process gives an impression of objectivity, and it stops me and Phil arguing indefinitely, but what if it’s a process that favours safe and competent stories over high-risk works of art? What if a story wins because everyone thought it was pretty good, while the pieces that most thrilled and excited each judge alienated the others?
In any case, the impression of objectivity is only an impression. In my university role, when we do ‘blind marking’ exercises, I’m always surprised how closely our marks match, but were we to take ten stories that were marked, say, between 70 and 74 and ask several markers to rank them in order of excellence, then I suspect we’d all place them in different orders. Plus, my colleagues and I share certain literary values: we have learned to read and write by studying the contemporary canon of Anglo-American writing. When we say a story is good, are we really saying how closely it fits with that canon? And the same is true for judging this competition: it’s noticeable that while the longlist included crime and romance and fantasy and supernatural tales, the shortlist has a bias towards literary realism. Why? Because that’s what the judges are most into. That’s our bias. And there are other biases at work too: we may have two male and two female judges, but all our judges are white Europeans, and all our judges are steeped in the western literary tradition. Do we have an intrinsic bias against work from other literary traditions? Maybe.
So perhaps our first statement was the most accurate one: we’re looking for stories that move us. There are stories we haven’t shortlisted that will win other competitions, while the stories we have shortlisted might fail to excite another set of judges. We have had to say goodbye to twenty brilliant stories, knowing that many of them will go on to be successful elsewhere. Nevertheless, here are the ten authors whose stories we’ve shortlisted – and we love these stories.
Congratulations to all the above. Our judges for the final round are Lucy Tyler, D.D. Johnston, and Phil Bowne – who’ve all featured on this site before – plus Keely O’Shaughnessy who is an editor at 101 Words. We’ll announce the winners on the leap day, Monday 29th February.