Thursday, November 04, 2010
Judge’s report for the BNZ Katherine Mansfield Prize.
Judge Lloyd Jones has kindly made his report available Beattie's Book Blog.
I recommend that all writers & would-be writers read this thoughtful report.
My colleague, Rosemary Norman, had the daunting task of reading 523 stories. Rosemary made the initial cut and passed on 50 stories to me to read and judge. I am happy to report that the range was wide in content and style – and in a few instances, pleasingly ambitious.
There was one judging constraint, however. I was asked to pick a winner and up to nine runners-up of publishable quality. Now ‘publishable quality’ is not the same as acknowledging imaginative derring-do and wishing that the writer could have taken the time to do another draft. Regrettably the judging process does not allow me to identify one or two stories whose ambition I really admired but could not include because of their ‘unfinished quality.’
So many of the many stories hark back to childhood. I wonder if it is because the distant world appears more settled and therefore more easy to describe. Fiction, however, is not an exercise in description. Its life blood is drawn less from a setting than a gentle yielding to possibility.
I remember entering a short story competition in the 1980s. It may well have been this one. Janet Frame was the judge. Her comment that many of the stories would make good TV scripts is true of many of the entries this year. Scripts tend to privilege action or plot over language. And yet language is where a story draws its persuasive power.
If a story competition of this kind can be said to provide a mirror for the times in which we live, then domestic violence appears to be a national pastime. Fear - once upon a time sourced in the wilds – now abounds in the family home. A shedding of parental authority was a familiar theme. The stories listed the usual disappointments – in each other, the lies, lost babies, domestic silences, the shattering of the family unit; bewildering changes in the home noted by young narrators as mothers pack their suitcases, fathers lose their way home, absences of one kind or another. There was also a surprising number of stories from the trans-Tasman Kiwi diaspora. There were stories reflecting African origins, and even one set in Central America. There were stories about Asian families and folk tales from Eastern Europe. Perhaps this reflects NZ’s place in the world, and its changing immigration sources. Perhaps we can truly say, that at last we have joined the world.
Compared to the mountain Rosemary scaled, my evaluating 50 manuscripts was a more modest task. Secretly I hoped that most them would be hopeless and that a small number would shine like gold, therefore making my job a breeze. I’m pleased to say that wasn’t the case at all. On my first run through I managed to eliminate only ten which meant I had to go back and re-read the remaining forty stories.
This time I adopted a more ruthless and efficient rule of thumb. I settled on the following criteria – competent, satisfying, intensely satisfying, and then another category which isn’t easily summed up by one word but manages, as a result of satisfying all parts of the reading experience, to place itself in another realm.
While it provided a framework it was not completely successful. Because there were stories that were competent but not really that satisfying. And there were stories which although raw in their presentation were satisfying, and in one particular case, intensely satisfying, if not particularly competent. Competence – perhaps in all things – directs us to the surface. It is what first meets the eye or the ear. On further contact, however, once we recognise what it is, it may dissolve as easily as candy floss. So as judges we need to be careful that we are not undone by the pretty thing that has just grabbed our attention. It has to cut deeper, engage us at different levels, hopefully haunt us, so that days after our thoughts may occasionally flit back to a passage, a moment in the story or even the whole.
Ideally, the pleasure of a very good story isn’t to be found on the next page or the one after. The reward is immediate. A bit like munching down on a tasty dish where all the tastes and surprises are instantly apparent. If that criteria is worth anything it brings us to language, the warm, comforting surety of language we readers can trust.
And that brings us to the winner of the Bank of New Zealand Katherine Mansfield short story award for 2010.
From the beginning the reader feels himself to be in good hands. In this story there is a steady accumulation of detail and insight. It is moving towards an idea, rather than beginning with an idea, as the Irish writer William Trevor would have it.
Luke, our narrator, is wheelchair-bound. His daily beat takes him through the city noticing various lost souls .
There is the man whose jacket carries the message – ‘I am a soldier in Christ’s army.’ There’s an old man who wears a hoodie with the image of Antony Hopkins in his Hannibal Lecter role staring out from behind a hockey mask. Interesting – but that is all, until the narrator offers an insight that says as much about him as it does the old man. ‘He had a gimpy leg and smelt bad, the kind of shaky walk that speaks of chloropromazine.’
I don’t actually know what chloropromazine is, but I feel quite certain the narrator does.
We come to the story of the homeless woman whose dog Jack likes to greedily suck the scents around the wheelchair. She used to sleep in the Botannic Gardens, until one night a man surprised her and stove in her head. The narrator imagines what it must have been like, but from the dog’s perspective. ‘I imagine Jack, barking that night, roving in desperate circles, lacking an opposable thumb, helpless to do anything.’
There’s another woman on Lambton Quay who would beg for money – ‘It was the way she appeared that was so disconcerting. Pale eyes moving from the deep gloom, as fierce, and as naked as a moray’s.’
In this way the daily-ness of our narrator is accounted for – but what swung it for me was a recollection of time Luke spent on his brother’s farm; in particular, it is this observation of the hens. ‘Most people don’t realise what complex lives they have, we’d spy on their habitual circuits through the day watching the small but important changes in their routines : their quarrels and collusions, something as simple as someone walking through the garden at an unfamiliar time would send out ripples, causing them to roost in a different place at dusk.’ Of course in describing the hens he is describing the constituency of lost souls in the city; and I very much admire how one world informs another in this way.
The same trick is achieved when Luke describes Van Gogh’s painting of his bedroom at Arles. ‘The skewed angles, shaky lines, bumps and curves, a heart-shock of contrasting colours.’
This is also Luke’s world. Although, in the hostel where he lives, his room is bare. For a person in a wheelchair there is more freedom to shift about. The furnishings of his life are elsewhere, in the city with its cast of characters and memories – that provide a different furniture and a different kind of interiority.
This is a very accomplished story that hides its sophistication beneath language that proceeds effortlessly.
I think I will end my summary this way. There is a moment in the story when Luke recollects watching a film maker make his walk to the stage to receive a prize at a film festival in Canada.
Luke says, ‘You can tell the ones experiencing the moment from the ones who have practised the words, they’re there, looking around, taking it all in, taking the time to breathe, their speeches are always the best.’
Well, let’s see if our winner has prepared for a similar moment.
The winning story is ‘Furniture’ by Wes Lee.