Zadie Smith got flack for electing not to select a winner in a short story competition and got accused of failing to support fledgeling writers. Not having had anything to do with this particular competition, I can’t comment on the standard of entries. Having not entered, I don’t have any interest in the outcome either. But, in principle, Zadie Smith deserves a round of applause.
What’s a competition for: is it to pick the best of what’s entered, even if the best entry is poor work, or is it to reward good writing? Zadie Smith wanted to reward good writing, not merely pick the best of the bunch. But was she right to ignore the opportunity to support fledgeling writers by picking substandard work?
I’ve been lucky in that the competitions I’ve been involved in judging (either as shortlister or sole judge) have always yielded a deserving winner. But I would feel distinctly uneasy about awarding a prize where I felt no entry deserved to win. I’ve felt that a competition is about rewarding good writing and awarding prizes to substandard work undermines that. Granted there’s a subjective element to judging but that only comes after objective criteria have been exhausted. Once you’ve been through the entries and selected the stories that had a compelling plot, fully-rounded characters and held your attention from beginning to end without sagging in the middle, then you start picking out the stories that appealed directly to you.
In one instance I was shortlisting 100 entries from 700+. It was incredibily difficult. Not because the standard was so high I was spoilt for choice. But because the standards were so low, I struggled to find 100 decent entries. The competition was well-promoted and the final judge was well-known and an established workshop tutor. But so many entries screamed “don’t pick me” that whittling out the decent entries was easy. It was clear that most of them had been written by people who fancied having a go at writing but hadn’t written anything since school and certainly hadn’t read any contemporary literature. It may seem harsh, but why do so many fledgeling writers think entering competitions is a good idea?
Rewarding substandard writing does no one any favours. The competition entrants don’t learn that they must do so much better than just good enough. And it puts the judge on the spot: how do they justify rewarding something they know to be substandard. It doesn’t happen in every competition: some competitions have found very worthy winners. Zadie Smith is right here, if nothing was worthy of winning, then no prizes should be awarded.
But here’s a challenge: Zadie Smith is judging this year’s competition. Let’s see if she gets a story worthy of winning this time.