Zadie Smith hates your short story

This year Zadie Smith and the other judges of the Willesden Herald Short Story Competition decided not to honor any writer with the prize. They didn’t consider any submissions good enough to win. I thought that was pretty awesome, even though the whole thing reeks of a publicity stunt. The judges wanted to make a statement about not rewarding mediocrity and about upholding high literary standards. Zadie Smith writes:

Just like everybody, we at The Willesden Herald are concerned about the state of contemporary literature. We are depressed by the cookie-cutter process of contemporary publishing, the lack of truly challenging and original writing, and the small selection of pseudo-literary fictio-tainment that dominates our chain bookstores. We created this prize to support unpublished writers, and, with our five grand, we put our money where our mouths are. We have tried to advertise widely across this great internet of ours and to make the conditions of entry as democratic and open as we could manage. There is no entry fee, there are no criteria of age, race, gender or nation. The stories are handed over to the judges stripped of the names of the writers as well as any personal detail concerning them (if only The Booker worked like that!) Our sole criterion is quality. 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. It’s for this reason that we have decided not to give out the prize this year. . . .

. . . .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.

The more I think about the Willesden Herald’s decision, the more self-important it seems. We’re not talking about the Nobel Peace Prize here. We’re not even talking about the Pulitzer or the Booker. We’re talking about a short story contest that might make some unpublished writer’s career. I mean every month the lesser literary magazines probably contend with a dearth of good writing, but they still put out an issue. Did it occur to Zadie and the judges that perhaps the better writers were submitting to the bigger, more prestigious contests? But now they have branded themselves as an exclusive club that all the most ambitious writers must try to enter.

Maybe it’s a good sign that every literary magazine doesn’t receive outstanding submissions to every writing contest. This shows that no matter how many amateur writing classes and writing programs and writing blogs proliferate in our wordy world, it still holds true that not everyone can do it well. Even though more and more people are writing books, literary greatness is still rare.

Artistic integrity is an easy banner to wave, but if you’re going to make a commercial living through publishing and prizing literature, you can’t expect every weekly/monthly/yearly crop of writers to be a great one. Sometimes the crop will just be mediocre. But there should still be a winner. When I throw a hotdog eating contest and only three people show up to compete and they’re all anorexic, I still award a prize. The winner might have only eaten half a hot dog, but the other competitors just sniffed the bun.

7 Thoughts on “Zadie Smith hates your short story

  1. When I go off on a tangent like this, I always have the inappropriate urge to conclude the post with, “Right?! Am I right or am I right?!”

  2. baconfat on February 18, 2008 at 12:01 am said:

    i hope the grammys employ this tactic next year.

  3. Excellent point, baconfat. We live in a world where Chris Daughtry wins Grammys.

  4. But with a literary magazine, a short story contest is only as good as the entries it receives. The Grammys have no excuse not to honor great music, because there is a whole world of outstanding music to choose from, not just the names and faces on the covers of Vibe and Rolling Stone.

  5. This is exactly what I’m afraid of when I apply for grants. Like, not only will they hate my pictures, but they’ll actually be insulted by them.


  6. I am almost ready to take back this post because I am FINALLY reading Zadie Smith’s White Teeth. I can’t believe she published that book at age 24. I forgive her everything.

  7. I’m really not sure I buy this argument. You say, “if you’re going to make a commercial living through publishing and prizing literature” but this clearly contradicts the statement that Smith makes about most contests of this sort: “literary prizes are only nominally about literature, they are really about brand consolidation – for beer companies, phone companies, coffee companies even frozen food companies.”

    Different publications and different prizes have different aims. If the aim of a journal is to put out an issue at certain time intervals, then of course they will have to compromise on quality in order to achieve this. The organizers of this prize set out their aim – to award £5000 to piece of great fiction. If they received no pieces of great fiction, then for what possible reason should they feel compelled to award the money.

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