THE ETHEL WEBB BUNDELL
SHORT STORY AWARD 2012
It was a considerable pleasure and honour to be asked to judge The Society of Women Writers’ Ethel Webb Bundell Short Story Award. I remember Ethel well from my early days in the Fellowship of Australian Writers, and recall her as always vivacious, supportive and positive towards many younger writers, so it is wonderful that her name is memorialised in relation to this important short story competition.
The first comment to make concerns the sheer bulk of all this creativity! One hundred and seventy four stories were entered, some short, others hovering around the 4,000 word mark. It was a lot of reading.
The second comment is with regard to the quality of these submissions, which was generally very high indeed, both in terms of the technical skills associated with writing and the business of imaginative story-telling itself.
I have not quite resolved whether it is a problem or a delight that the story genre, fiction in general, has so widened its gates in the past 100 years or so. While there are still certain strictures for most commercial fiction, there are almost no bounds when it comes to so-called “literary” fiction. It would be churlish to deny that some types of memoir, vignette, travelogue, anecdote, social history and the like are not contained within the genre of story-telling. The welcome surge in the market for creative non-fiction is partly an indication of this.
However, it seems to me that a truly fictional story (how’s that for an oxymoron?) is at the heart of what we understand to best represent this genre, and that means writing which contains controlled contrivances, invented and vivid characters, an identifiable setting and mood, an underlying thematic purpose. The rudiments of Story-Telling 101, as it were, but enhanced by an author’s life experience, daring and sheer knowledge of craft.
It is this understanding which primarily determined my choice of this year’s winning entrants, combined with an alertness to an original way of developing the matter of the story, a concern with the contribution made by style.
I won’t dwell on the weaker elements of some of the stories, save to act as a possible corrective in future competitions, for they didn’t dominate my overall impression of the submissions. There was occasionally a tendency to over-rely on flat or undeveloped characters, a sometimes too-leisurely unfolding of the narrative and consequent lack of tension, a lack of balance between exposition and dialogue, a few unsightly clichés. There were few excursions outside what might be termed the naturalistic mode, though this is not necessarily a weakness, simply an observation.
But the many strengths were considerable: as mentioned earlier, the technical quality of the writing - attention to sentence structure, punctuation, paragraphing - was excellent. In most cases, a sense of purpose prevailed, a confidence in the writing which encouraged reading, and a commitment to that revelation of change that is the hallmark of all good stories.
Subject matter was almost as extensive as the number of stories themselves: childhood experiences, earthquakes, marriages, floods, cakes and cake-judging, addiction, love and loss (lots of these!), snakes, birds, parents, ageing, illness, bereavement, murder, dogs, immigrant experience, male escorts and. . . Well, I’ll stop there - you get the picture. Obviously, there was no shortage of things to write about.
It is perhaps a truism to say that all good writers are different from one another, and one only has to think of a few of the great story-tellers just to realise how strange and diverse this variety is: Chekhov, D.H. Lawrence, Raymond Carver, Carson McCullers, Katherine Mansfield, Kafka. Harold Bloom has remarked that “Short stories are allied to one another only as miracles.” And this sense of individual identity is clearly found in the best of this year’s authors.
And so to the winning entries.
I would like to Commend four stories, in no especial order:
“A Hard Bargain” - This is a beautiful and poignant account of migrant experience, specifically the wrench that comes from having to leave an old European culture for the brash new world of Australia. It subtly reminds us never to forget those matters which are really important to us.
“The Weird World of Politics” - Never was a title more apt, given our recent history. However, this is not about domestic politics, but the American scene. I cannot say too much about this one, as it is intensely plot-driven. Suffice to say that it imagines a world which would require would-be Presidents to undergo drastic procedures to ensure their future integrity.
“The Scanner” - This was one of the few genuinely humorous contributions, revolving around the perceptions and ambitions of a self-proclaimed middle-aged “check-out chick.” Plenty of micro-scale intrigue and drama.
“A Girl Like You” - This is essentially the story of a hitch-hiking couple and their culture clash with our nearest cousins in New Zealand, set against a sub-plot about a lurking serial-killer. It authentically replicates a sense of a particular place and time.
I would like to Highly Commend three stories, again in no particular order:
“Brown Paper Hearts” - This is a gritty, contemporary crime drama that begins with the grim discovery of a premature foetus. It is tautly structured and paced, full of realistic detail, and ultimately it is very moving.
“Footprints in the Wind” - This story, too, was very affecting, distinguished by some fine descriptive writing and strong characterisations. It poetically captures something of the alienating impact of some desolate Australian landscapes, combining this with an overlay of simple but subtly conveyed human emotions related to need and loss.
“Figs in Her Pocket” - By way of contrast, this is an uplifting and upbeat celebration of family and gardens, specifically vegetable gardens and the joy of home-grown produce. The message here is that it is usually the simpler things that make life worthwhile, as when the narrator’s mother remarks that “What makes life memorable is the taste of just-picked tomatoes spread thickly on homemade bread.” Hard to disagree with that!
And now to Third Prize:
This is awarded to “Aftershock”, which makes very imaginative use of recent disastrous events, such as the earthquakes which have devastated Christchurch. The twist-in the-tale story has certainly been overdone, but when it is as convincing and credible as the one here it can still provide a very genuine surprise indeed. The build-up, the rising suspicions, the antagonism between two brothers, all are swiftly and believably developed. The resolution is as satisfying as it is unexpected. Well done!
Second Prizeis awarded to “International Interlude”.
This story, too, has its real surprises. It carefully juxtaposes two points-of-view, always a bit risky in short fiction, but the transitions between the two are very skillfully managed. As with “Aftershock”, it is difficult to summarise the plot without giving too much away. This story has a cinematic quality, positioning the reader in this direction, then altering it almost imperceptibly. It is full of convincing details and observations that justify the use of that now slightly quaint word, verisimilitude. A mouthful, but a useful term which refers to an author’s ability to effortlessly transport reader into the virtual reality of the printed story. Congratulations!
First Prizeis awarded to “The Ventriloquist’s Dummy”, a tale that repays several readings, as so many hints and background details are sprinkled along the way to the dramatic climax. It is old-fashioned in the best sense, with its Poe-esque establishment of place and atmosphere. It demonstrates how successful the use of first-person point of view can be in overcoming plot elements that might otherwise be difficult to accept.
I was a little surprised to realise, at the end of so much weighing-up, that the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Prize stories were all exactly that: stories, contrivances, vehicles for character that were also meticulously plotted, in the post- or post-post-modernist world a technique regarded as something of a throwback (David Malouf is on record saying that if he thinks his writing is developing a plot, he changes it!). As with the previously mentioned stories, not much can be said about the route taken by this story. It is intrinsically enticing, involving as it does the misfit characters in a travelling variety show, including the eponymous ventriloquist’s dummy.
It seemed to me that such imagination, boldness, control and sheer verve should be rewarded. Hearty congratulations.
I would like to close by stressing just how many other good stories there were in this competition, and no doubt another judge might have chosen somewhat differently. It is mightily encouraging to see such good work, such competent and more than competent fiction being produced, and I am sure that many of these stories will find publishers or perhaps awards in other competitions.
Memories of exhaustion have long faded. I retain a sense of gratitude to have been entrusted with this great variety of tales, all these individual styles, and wish to thank all the writers and all the organisers involved in this creative enterprise.
6 June 2012