April is a busy month for UK short story competitions, with the biggest and richest, and one of the newest and hippest both announcing their winners – and the good news is that all of the shortlisted entries are available to read online, making these a great resource for readers and writers. What is the current short story scene looking like? And what kinds of stories are winning prizes?
Firstly, the Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award was won by Bret Anthony Johnston for his story ‘Half of What Atlee Rouse Knows About Horses’. This short story competition is very much an establishment gig – it is only open to writers who have been published in the UK (not self-published), and in fact Johnston is Director of Creative Writing at Harvard University. You don’t get much more established than that! Previous winners include Yiyun Li, Junot Diaz and Kevin Barry (who we’ve studied on the St Mary’s CPW course – his winning story, ‘Beer Trip to Llandudno’ can be read here.
Here’s the opening paragraph of Johnston’s story. It’s a tiny masterclass in grabbing the reader’s attention: the reins being held out of the car window, the name Buttons, Buttons never once turning left. And in the use of language: simple when it needs to be, but with vivid notes of colour, interest and intrigue: swaybacked, carnie, cowgirls.
His daughter’s first horse came from a travelling carnival where children rode him in miserable clockwise circles. He was swaybacked with a patchy coat and split hooves, but Tammy fell for him on the spot and Atlee made a cash deal with the carnie. A lifetime ago, just outside Robstown, Texas. Atlee managed the stables west of town; Laurel, his wife, taught lessons there. He hadn’t brought the trailer – buying a pony hadn’t been on his plate that day – so he drove home slowly, holding the reins through the window, the horse trotting beside the truck. Tammy sat on his back singing made up songs about cowgirls. She named him Buttons. No telling how long he’d been ridden in circles at the carnival. For the rest of his life, Buttons never once turned left.
You can read the rest of Johnston’s story and the rest of the shortlist can be read online here. Will you go for Celeste Ng’s intense first person story ‘Every Little Thing’? Or the experimental, Borgesian games of Richard Lambert’s ‘The Hazel Twig and the Olive Tree’?
Lambert’s story would have suited The White Review Short Story Prize, except that, in contrast to the Sunday Times gig, this is only open to writers who haven’t had a full book (novel or collection of stories published) – ie open to emerging writers. (I, me, Jonathan Gibbs, was shortlisted for the first iteration of the prize, in 2013: it was won that year by Claire-Louise Bennett, whose Pond we have also studied at St Mary’s.)
The White Review is a journal very much at the avant garde end of the literary scene, and so they are looking for writing that “explores and expands the possibilities of the form”. The say the prize was founded “to reward ambitious, imaginative and innovative approaches to creative writing”.
The winner this year is Nicole Flattery, for ‘Track’, a suitably edgy and nervy look at love and celebrity in contemporary New York. Here’s the opening paragraph:
My boyfriend, the comedian, took pleasure in telling me about rejection – how it came about, how to cope with dignity, how it had dangerous, possibly cancerous, elements. He said if I pinched just above my waistband, where the unfamiliar portions of fat resided, that’s what rejection felt like. He claimed the link between cancer and repeated failure was irrefutable. He had a lot of new, unusual ideas. ‘Feel that,’ he said, grasping at my hips and thighs, ‘that’s the texture of rejection right there.’
What do you think? Are these inspirational? What can you learn from them? Could you do better?