Judge’s report: Susan Midalia
I’ve sometimes heard it said that aesthetic judgments are largely a matter of taste, in subject matter, form and style. But while it’s true that a judge’s taste may influence her or his final decisions, it’s also the case that there are objective criteria for the assessment of creative writing. I’ve applied four of them in my judgments of the 62 entries in this competition. The first and most important is that a story must be well-written. Whether the language is embellished or pared-back, poetic or colloquial, it must be precise, incisive and resonant, and it should know how to usethe sounds of words and the rhythms of sentences to impart an emotional dimension to a story. Secondly, I’ve looked for writing that respects the reader’s intelligence; which doesn’t explain, lecture or patronize but instead gives readers the challenge and the pleasure of creating possible meanings for themselves. Thirdly, I have valued a distinctive sense of voice, on the understanding that who does the telling is as much a part of a story’s power as the events it describes. Finally, I’ve considered how structure – both the sequencing of a story, and its use of gaps and silences – can be used to entice the reader into a story’s imagined world.
Before moving to the stories in this year’s competition, I want to offer six pieces of specific advice about short story writing. Firstly, it’s crucial not to use clichés; clichés are stale and unimaginative, and a sure sign that a writer hasn’t thought carefully enough, if at all, about her or his choice of words. Secondly, don’t overwrite; don’t use overly ornate or unnecessarily complicated words or an excess of adjectives and adverbs. Overwriting – what’s often called purple prose – is designed to display a writer’s vocabulary instead of fully imagining and communicating an experience. Thirdly, remember that the “unsaid” – the gaps and silences in a short story – are a powerful way of reminding us that our knowledge of ourselves, of others, as life as a whole, is always incomplete. “The unsaid” is also a wonderful way to create the illusion of a larger world beyond the relatively few words on the page. As the Canadian short story writer Alice Munro said, “ a good short story contains at least two other stories.” Fourthly, enjoy encountering the unexpected when you’re writing. Even if you begin with a clear idea of what you think your story is “about”, let yourself be surprised by where it might take you. It’s for me one of the great joys of writing. Fifth piece of advice: don’t be satisfied with your first draft. Do five drafts, ten, twenty, because – to quote the writer Ernest Hemingway, “the first draft of anything is rubbish.” He actually didn’t use the word “rubbish”: he used a word that rhymed with “bit.” But you get my point. Hemingway also said: “Write drunk, edit sober,” but personal experience has taught me to reject that advice. But in all seriousness, one of the best ways to improve your drafts is inclined to read your story aloud. You will hear, for example, inadvertent repetitions; whether the rhythm of a sentence is working; what you can cut out or what you need to extend. And my final word of advice: avoid conclusions that solve all the problems raised in a story. By raising questions rather than providing answers or “messages,” short stories remind us that there are no easy solutions to this complex, wayward, unruly thing called life.
And so, now, to the entries in this year’s competition. There were some notably recurring subjects and themes: the pleasures or disappointments of love and family; history and memory; suffering and victimization; the beauty of the natural world; the ugliness of violence and cruelty. There were humorous stories and melancholy stories; crime fiction and romance; stories of adventure and suspense. The most memorable ones were often unexpected, not because they relied on the overused sting-in-the-tail ending but because of shifting levels of reality, or surprising changes in a character. Other stories were memorable for their creation of an engaging sense of voice, skillful use of structure or evocative use of language.
And now, I have great pleasure in announcing the place-getters in this year’s competition, beginning with two Commended and two Highly Commended awards, progressing to second place and finally to the winner.
Commended: Number 28 ‘Auf Weidersehen, My Love’ Anne Davies
As the title suggests, this is a romance; in particular, it deals with the wonders and disappointment of first love. The story is seen through the eyes of a middle-aged woman who returns to her childhood home in Germany after the death of her mother. The home symbolises both the mother’s resilience – she takes in boarders after her husband leaves her; and the young daughter’s deception, having sex with a boarder in one of the rented rooms. What could easily have been a sordid tale of exploitation becomes instead a nostalgic recollection of the beauty and tenderness of first love.
Commended: Number 41 ‘Contagion’ Madeleine Tingey
‘Contagion’ centres on a woman who empathises with the suffering of people in the past. Focused on a trip to a former quarantine station, the story contrasts a husband’s interest in historical facts with a wife’s understanding of the value of the emotions in connecting us to those who came before us. But it also shows the danger of such empathy, symbolised by the mysterious illness the woman later contracts. In the end, the story does what all good fiction should do: it leaves us with questions to ponder.
Highly commended: Number 7 ‘The Foam Passage’ Anne Summers
This story uses a contemporary perspective on the suffering and helplessness of nineteenth-century migrants to Australia. A first-person narration seen through the eyes of a white, middle-class wife and mother, the narrative shifts from an account of an ordinary family holiday to recognizing the loss on which the nation was founded. As such, it is a work of the historical and empathetic imagination, which makes effective use of contrasts between past and present, surface and depth, to create a moving story.
Highly commended: Number 8 ‘Died in the Wool’ Astra Warren
The pun in the title – “dyed” is spelled “died” – provides a clue to this grisly tale of dastardly crime and sickening violence. The vernacular dialogue of the criminals – two callous, brutal men - is utterly convincing, as are the descriptions of the ghastly crime itself. In fact, the horribly realistic nature of the story made me think its author must be either a devotee of crime novels or a dangerous woman who must be watched at all costs. The plot moves at a brisk and deadly pace, and concludes with what I can only call “a killer ending.”
Second place: Number 10 ‘Scylla and Charybdis’ Astra Warren
This story depicts the lives of non-identical but equally ambitious twin sisters, Scylla and Charybdis, the daughters of two academics, on their single-minded journey to wealth and fame. Self-consciously constructed as a piece of “modern mythology” which draws on the allegory of Ulysses, the story uses a poised, eloquent style and morally authoritative tone to satirise institutionalsied corruption and rampant self-interest. Syl and Carry, as they come to be called in the Australian vernacular, are vehicles for the writer’s mocking contempt for the greed of corporate culture and the abuse of power by the legal system. It’s clever, biting social commentary; and is, quite simply, a highly enjoyable read.
Winner: Number 33 ‘Beneath Still Waters’ Wendy Stackhouse
This charming, cleverly structured story charts the desire for completion of a young idealistic man. Blending realism and dreamscape, the ordinary and the mythic, social critique and family legend, the story works to suggest the possibility of fulfillment in the natural world. The plot centres on the young man’s choice of two women: the one he intends to marry but ultimately rejects, and a magical creature who transforms from a seal into an enchanting young woman. The first woman comes to embody the worst aspects of contemporary urban life: materialism, alienation from nature and a profound lack of imagination. By contrast, the mythical creature symbolises a connection with nature, and with family and tradition. The story moves with apparent ease from the familiar to the unknown, and makes thoughtful use of lyrical and metaphoric language.