Be careful what you wish for


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On Tuesday, at the Willesden Herald, Zadie Smith announced that the British blog’s short story contest, which comes with a prize of £5,000 and which she judges, would not be given out this year. ‘Our sole criterion is quality,’ Smith pointed out. ‘We simply wanted to see some really great stories. And we received a whole bunch of stories. We dutifully read through hundreds of them. But in the end--we have to be honest--we could not find the greatness we’d hoped for.’

Smith went on:

‘Most literary prizes are only nominally about literature, they are really about brand consolidation--for beer companies, phone companies, coffee companies even frozen food companies. The little Willesden Herald Prize is only about good writing, and it turns out that a prize faithfully recognizing this imperative must also face the fact that good writing is actually very rare. For let us be honest again: it is sometimes too easy, and too tempting, to blame everything that we hate in contemporary writing on the bookstores, on the corporate publishers, on incompetent editors and corrupt PR departments--and God knows, they all have their part to play. But we also have our part to play. We also have to work out how to write better and read better. We have to really scour this internet to find the writing we love, and then we have to be able to recognize its quality. We cannot love something solely because it has been ignored. It must also be worthy of our attention.’


As is only to be expected, Smith’s announcement has stirred up something of a furor, especially on the Herald’s comments thread. ‘I wonder how many PUBLISHED stories Zadie Smith and the other judges would read to find one ‘great’ story?’ one comment read. ‘Few writers achieve greatness without first passing through mediocrity, promise, proficiency ....’ Another complained: ‘Zadie Smith seems to lecture and patronise ‘unpublished writers’ rather than encourage or support them.’

Because the Herald had alerted 10 writers that they were on a ‘short- list,’ the blog’s editors decided on Tuesday to split the £5,000 among them, only to reverse themselves again yesterday. Still, if the Herald’s back-and-forthing on the money is a bit unfortunate, the decision not to award the prize is a breath of fresh air. Why give a prize if no story rises to the proper standards? Why celebrate ‘mediocrity, promise, proficiency’?

No, too many competitions already function as popularity contests, meant to make writers feel good about themselves regardless of the quality of their work. Smith and the editors of the Willesden Herald have made a difficult decision, but sometimes you have to do that in the name of integrity.

David L. Ulin