Writings of the general word's body

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Willesden Herald Competition Stunner

If you are one of the 800 entrants for the 2008 Willesden Herald Short Story Competition, well, better luck next year. The £5000 prize judged by Zadie Smith will not be awarded this year because organisers and Ms Smith, er, judged - that none of the stories was good enough.

Extract from Zadie Smith's statement
For I have thought, reading through these entries, that maybe the problem with this prize is that my name is attached to it. To be very clear: just because this prize has the words Willesden and Zadie hovering by it, does not mean that I or the other judges want to read hundreds of jolly stories of multicultural life on the streets of North London. Nor are we exclusively interested in cutesy American comedies, or self-referential post-modern vignettes, or college satires. To be even clearer: if these things turn up and are brilliantly written, they will not be ignored. But we also welcome all those whose literary sympathies lie with Rimbaud or Capote, with Irving Rosenthal or Proust, with Svevo or Trocchi, with Ballard or Bellow, Denis Cooper or Diderot, with Coetzee or Patricia Highsmith, with street punks or Elizabethans, with Southern Gothic or with Nordic Crime, with Brutalists or Realists, with the Lyrical or the Encyclopedic, in the ivory tower, or amongst the trash that catches in the gutter. We welcome everybody. We have only one principle here: MAKE IT GOOD. So, let’s try again, yes?

And no doubt many will "try again", for the chance to be judged 'good enough' by Zadie Smith. For now, they're just stunned at the news, a real anti-climax to the competition whose winner would have collected the prize this month, as well as a real boost to their writing careers. There is speculation about the existence of a shortlist, but not even that has been made public thus far. Dissapointed writers have been leaving comments on the Willesden Herald blog. An update has also been posted on the site.

Update: Wednesday 6th February 2008
With the furore that greeted the decision not to award a prize to any of the entries (we now know there were 850 short stories from all over the world) and the non-publication of the shortlist, the organisers have now released their last word on the matter. They decided, after all, to publish the 'shortlist' of 10 writers, and to share the cash prize £500 apiece between them. But first,they had to go and check that the shortlisters were cool with this, given the negative reactions to yesterday's announcement. Meanwhile, some speculated as to whether those shortlisted would wish to be forever known as writers whose stories were so "mediocre" that no top prize could be considered. We now know the answer: the 'shortlisted' writers did not want the 'honour'; in the main, they said NO to both publication and £500 cash.
From the Willesden Herald update
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.
In conclusion, many writers agree that if the organisers did not consider any of the stories worthy of the not inconsiderable cash prize, they had every right not to award it. Some, however, have issues with the handling of the result's announcement.
Update: Thursday 7th February
More on the fallout from the Willesden Herald's own 'Super Tuesday' - and the writer Kay Sexton has revealed herself as one of the "infamous 10" who were "not good enough" for Zadie Smith.
"My story and I still think we’re 'good enough'" - she insists.
"I'm old and egotistical enough to have confidence in my own opinion, rather than Zadie's."
Hear hear.
Yet another update - Thursday 7th PM
The unawarded prize money will be donated to charity. And there's talk of the competition being wound up. Should that happen, this year's fiasco would have been the death knell...


Anonymous said...

The update has disappeared! It's all a conspiracy!

I entered that competition said...

I can't believe this. The update HAS disappeared. What the Willesden Herald and uppity Zadie Smith did is quite disgusting. Imagine her talking down to struggling writers. 800 stories and not one was good enough, imagine that. One disgruntled commenter wrote that Zadie needed to get her 'big head out of her arse', or words to that effect. I guess they've deleted that comment too. This is so shoddy. Such a cock-up.

Wordsbody said...

Sorry people, that 'update' was definitely there before...

GV said...

I saw the update before it went down. Zadie said it was her fault and not the Willesden Herald's. Maybe the candour (I think her insincerity in this matter is mind-boggling and so I hate to apply the word "candour" to her, but there you go) was too much for her reps. Her agents probably asked for that post to go because it shows that it was largely her fault for refusing to endorse anyone on the shortlist.

Not Zadie Smith's finest moment.

Nick E said...

The update's reappeared. See here -

From Lagos said...

I entered a story of mine into this competition. I had to get a friend of mine to print it out and post it in for me from the UK (I am based in Lagos). I knew I had next to no chance of winning but I didn't expect this. I had a lot of confidence that a prize of this nature with such a superstar as the judge, would get it right. I guess Nigerian prizes are not the only ones with problems. I won't bother with this one next year. Imagine announcing a result without any results. And that statement - did I enter this competition to be patronised in a statement like that I am wondering.

Renegade Eye said...

In this age of celebrity and postmodernism, I can believe most writing wasn't worthy of the prize. How often does a Capote come around?

Anonymous said...

I've always suspected Zadie Smith to be someone so full of herself - that's she's the only one who can write... I dont know why some people bother with her. Her write ups ("let's try again, yes?") are cutesy-cutesy type..

Writers Anonymous said...

Anonymous, you have a point there about the "cutesy-cutesy" nature of ZS's letter. Very School-Maamy too. It was this, more than anything, that pissed people right off.

I'm grateful Kay Sexton outed herself, because it serves as a pointer to the kind of quality on that shortlist. I know Kay's work and believe me, her writing does not generally fit into what Zadie would dismiss as:
"stories of multicultural life on the streets of North London... cutesy American comedies, or self-referential post-modern vignettes, or college satires."

They wanted greatness, she says. They'll have to give the prize once every 50 years then.

I've read "The Book of Other People", with all stories personally selected by ZS. Some of the stories in there are pretty "mediocre" if you ask me.

Seems to me an overblown writer did not want anyone stepping up the ladder. She doesn't think anyone on the shortlist deserved £5000; much too much for their little selves. If only the Orange Prize had been as ungenerous before awarding ZS the £30,000 prize. And look how many times she's tried the Booker which gives at least 50k!

"Most literary prizes are only nominally about literature, they are really about brand consolidation – for beer companies, phone companies…"

Really, ZS? Is the Orange Broadband Prize not about "brand consolidation" for a Phone company?

Zadie Smith is right: the attachment of her name to this competition IS the problem.

SMH said...





dear readers of this exceptional piece of internet space,

i'd like to have a word with some of you so-called writers. a fireside chat, if you will, on why the various entries that i, in my dead state, did read and why they were not up to—yes, you know the word. i re-translated my thoughts from english and put them here to you in order to effectively communicate what makes gooder writing with the hope that you all will understand why we (pretend genius) agreed with the judgement of the judger of this contest.


Wordsbody said...

Thanks SMH. The Guardian Book Blog waded in too (I've just done a link to it).

Best to forget this matter now.