Behind the scenes at the BBC National Short Story Award
BBC Radio Books Editor Di Speirs tells author Paul McVeigh how the prize is judged
The shortlisted authors: Kerry Andrew, Sarah Hall, Kiare Ladner, Ingrid Persaud and Nell Stevens
Over the last few years I’ve worked with a number of literary awards and prizes, and it’s been an education. The behind-the-scenes processes have varied quite significantly. To illustrate with one example; for the £30,000 International Dylan Thomas Prize we read the longlist of twelve books then re-read our chosen shortlist of six, for the Edge Hill Short Story Prize we didn’t read the longlist only the five collections on the shortlist, for the Seán Ó Faoláin International Short Story Prize I was the only judge and reader, tackling around 750 short stories.
This year I was asked to be an ambassador for the BBC National Short Story Award. I first worked with the award a few years back for an event at the London Short Story Festival, which I co-founded and programmed. Now in its 13th year, the award has become a landmark on the short story landscape in the UK and internationally. I have long been a fan of their excellent website, for podcasts and recordings of previous winners and specially commissioned short stories from the best writers in the form. On that note, a little known astonishing fact, BBC Radio 4 is the world’s biggest single commissioner of short stories, attracting audiences of over a million listeners to short fiction.
Due to its unique and powerful position, at times, questions are asked about access to the BBC’s short story feast. As I watched the twitter reaction to the news of the fifth all-female shortlist and the issues raised re its selection process, I realised there were some questions even I had about the way the award worked.
I used my role as ambassador to gain an interview with Di Speirs, founding judge of the award and BBC’s editor of books, who has gone into detail about every step of the judging process, and shares her love for the short story form.
Can you talk us through the submission process?
Firstly, every entry is checked against the terms and conditions of entry, and eligible entries are sent to our team of first readers. We were the first short story prize to employ “double sifting”, ie our first readers are paired in teams and together act like a mini judging panel. Our sifters abide by the same judging processes as the official judging panel; they are briefed with the same reading guidelines, and all reading is done blind with no information on the writer provided. Each pair will read the same 90-odd stories and then discuss them. If there is disagreement, they will re-read, debate and finally agree a joint list of 10 or so that they are happy to put forward to the next stage.
The sifters’ lists are combined to form a top 60 or so that goes forward to the official judging panel of five. In addition to these stories, the judges are given the option of “a call-in”, whereby they can see a list of eligible writer names and their story titles that did not make the top 60; some judges call a few stories in from this list each year if they see a popular author or one of their favourite short story writers; others choose not to look at it at all. For instance, I commission a lot of short stories for Radio 4, and so I often know of writers and collections of interest and may call those names in just in case they slipped through the sifting net. Occasionally, a judge reads a call-in story that they love and they champion it to the rest of the judging panel alongside the top 60, but the sifters get it right the vast majority of the time.
Once the judges have read the stories, we ask them to put forward a non-binding longlist of 10 or so each, so that the chair of the judges can get a feel for the judges’ feeling. The judges meet and produce a shortlist of five, and then there is another meeting some months later to select the winner.
As part of our briefing, we also ensure that all judges declare any conflict of interest.
Each of the five stories that makes the shortlist will have been read at least seven times, but more like a dozen – and we review our processes every year.
The award always has an impressive final judging panel but who are your first readers? Are they from diverse backgrounds with knowledge of the form?
Our sifters are from mixed backgrounds, drawn from across the BBC and our partners’ networks. For 2018, our first year working with First Story and Cambridge University, our reading team includes BBC staff, postgraduates and PhD students, writers, people working in publishing and the wider literary world, and journalists; for the Young Writers Award, we also work with Radio 1 staff and those who have an interest in and experience of working with young people. The awards have always been run in partnership, at the beginning with NESTA and Prospect, and until this year with our longstanding partner BookTrust, and so recruiting the sifters has always been done collaboratively from a broad-based group of literary experts and readers.
Regarding the requirements for sifting, experience and interest in fiction is paramount – reading widely enables our sifters to competently assess the quality of each short story. We are always looking for new people, so if there are any readers who want to get involved, tell them to get in touch!
With the recent hullabaloo about the award’s all-female shortlists, has that partly to do with the gender make-up of submissions?
We have done some analysis on gender for the last few years, and submissions from female writers tend to account for 50 to 70 per cent in recent years.
However, rather interestingly, out of 12 winners awarded so far, five have been female, and 2018 will be the sixth due to the all-female shortlist. We’ve never had an all-male shortlist so far, and when there has a mixed-gender shortlist, the winner is male bar 2008 when Clare Wigfall won.
Where did the idea for award come from?
It came from a collaboration of people within the BBC, Prospect magazine, and BookTrust and NESTA, all of whom were really concerned that it was becoming impossible to be a short story writer in the UK (unlike in the US or Europe) as, apart from the BBC, almost no one was commissioning or paying for stories in the early noughties. Younger writers were being directed away from them, magazines weren’t taking them and publishers were very negative about publishing collections from less established names. We wanted to put the short story back on a footing with the novel – and there was then no prize in the UK for the story equivalent to the Booker, the Costa, the Orange, the Forward, the Samuel Johnson etc.. all of which celebrated particular literary forms.
Could you talk a little about your love of the short story?
I love the ability of a story, despite its economy, to people your imagination and remain with you long after reading. I love the compression into a totally fulfilling whole; a great story stands on its own terms, not leaving you wanting more, but rather leaving you wanting to dive back into what you already have; a mark of a good story for me is one you find more in when you return to it. It’s often challenging, good stories make you work a little, they give you a whole world in a fragment of a life, but that’s very satisfying. The precision of the best short story writing, rather like poetry, can also foreground detail or an emotion, which would be lost or skimmed in a bigger work, and that makes reading them immersive and allows them to linger and expand in your mind.
Whether judging the prize or reading collections, I also love the sheer variety too – the range of worlds and characters, moods and genres, the play with techniques, though I think sometimes writers aren’t ambitious enough with that. It’s a very flexible form but it’s unforgiving in that sloppy writing or tricksy work does show, especially on re-reading. I would be wrong to say I love all short stories, I think many could do with further editing, or greater bravery, that there is quite a lot of formulaic writing around, but when the form works stories are exceptionally powerful for their limited words and can transport you far further than their meagre word count might suggest.
Why do you think certain authors repeatedly show up on the shortlist eg Lionel Shriver in recent years, Sarah Hall this year?
Hilary Mantel and Jon McGregor as well…the aim of the prize is to reward those who commit to the form, and short stories aren’t an easy option. They are undoubtedly as hard as a novel in the demands for compression and exactitude, re-working and sheer craft. I don’t think it’s a surprise that some of the finest story writers in the UK have reappeared on the list given their long commitment to the form – but what is cheering too is that in a competition that is judged blind we see writers like KJ Orr and Claire Louise Bennett, Jonathan Buckley, DW Wilson, Kate Clanchy and Helen Oyeyemi also emerging. There are now 15 collections too that publishers have published after writers have been on the list so I feel we’ve helped get some writers on this path, and hopefully they will reappear sometime in the future.
Because of the medium you work in, are you looking for a short story that suits radio?
We have always been explicit that because our aim is to support writers, when we are judging this award we are judging on the page, not for how it will sound on air, so the award is never about a radio story per se. What is interesting to me is that in all the years of doing this, we haven’t had a story that won’t work on air, and I think that’s testament to the importance of good writing within the original text, which can then be made to work in a different medium where an actor and a director can bring something new. I am immensely proud of what we do on air too – my team alone commission 30 or 40 writers annually to write specifically for 13-minute slots – so a story of about 2,000 words, and where we hope most stories will “think” aurally. But really good writing read intimately is a huge pleasure – and we are fortunate that we can run the NSSA stories at half an hour.
Visit bbc.co.uk/nssa for more information and access to that excellent short story archive.
The winner of the BBC National Short Story Award with Cambridge University will be broadcast live on Tuesday, October 2nd, from the award ceremony at Cambridge University on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row from 7.15pm.
Paul McVeigh will be teaching a class on what he has learned from being a literary prize judge and journal editor, at Brooks Hotel, Dublin, on Saturday, October 13th. That Killer First Page. He is also hosting a literary salon in the private cinema in Brooks the night before, Friday, October 12th with Lisa McInerney, Gavin Corbett & Eilis Ni Dhuibhne. Brooks Literary Salon