Wanna Win A Short Story Competition?

I was the sole judge for a big city short story competition some years ago. (I’m sure after that, they always had more than one). I received about fifty stories in the mail. Young and enthusiastic at that time, I was delighted to have my reading material assigned to me for some weeks to come.
First I carefully read all the stories. But soon I began putting them into categories. Being inexperienced, I was surprised to find that the majority fell into one big lump in the middle. No matter the subject, they were all fairly similar.
Many were character-driven, one eccentric individual whom they thought was surely unique and would carry a rather mundane plot; aunts, bosses, mothers, lovers, who possessed, the writer felt, a uniqueness never before encountered in literature.
A good share were set in suburbia, as though no other place on earth existed, losing the distinguishing specifics of location which does so much to ground a good story.
Others shadowed well-known classic stories with slight changes here and there to distinguish them from the originals. I had expected great swathes of originality and brilliance and here in my hands I had submissions that could’ve come from any B level creative writing student in the country.
There were a very few perfectly awful. One man writing about how pretty his cat was, a couple about dogs being heroic, (and I LIKE animals, for pete sakes).
Then there were three wonderful, original stories that stuck out like raised hands in a sleepy classroom. They must have all been published by now. The winning story was about the torments of a writer, though I don’t remember all the plot after all this time. But it was a close tie between it and a suberb account of an obviously mentally ill man trying to shop in a supermarket but working against the impediment of all the canned goods on the shelves crying out to him.
After all these years, I still remember it so clearly, fresh and brilliant. He finally fled the supermarket and wet his pants on the way home.
I had to decide between the two. The writer one was far more conventional but had some good plot twists and definitely combined memoir. The main difference between them was that it had no grammatical problems at all. The grocery store story had no spelling errors but it had been written on a very old word processor that did not paragraph nicely nor had the writer been introduced to the proper use of the apostrophe.
Whether or not it was a class or money issue, I didn’t feel, in all good conscience, I could award him first place if someone asked to see the copy. It would be much worse to have his prize withdrawn, after, if someone, legitimately complained about structure. I wasn’t sure how far the competion organizers would back me but it was a near thing, something I agonized over for a week.
When I announced my choices, there was a dead silence. it was then I realized there had been an agenda. Members of this literary society had been holding the competition for many years and taking turns receiving top honours. All of their stories were in the middle bunch. But for a change, this year they had confidently opened their doors to the general public, not thinking it would matter much. But it had.
The winner was an outsider from a neighbouring village and not one of them but to their horror, second place went to a young man with schizophrenia. When he bounded up on the stage, beaming, to claim his small cash prize, I realized he hadn’t made up the supermarket story in any regard. He had written, extremely well, an experience that was completely non-fiction.
Unlike judges in my personal experience, I had written a page of mostly praise for each story with small suggestions for improvement. Him I had praised for his fresh wording, his unconventional subject matter, plot and writing skill.
“It’s my first time writing!” he said while his girlfriend hugged him and they shrieked together, while silence gathered around them. “I had to borrow somebody’s old word processor.” Coming in second was completely unimportant to him. I had high hopes he might go on and asked him to write me when he did so.
Needless to say, that was the last time I judged anything for that particular group of writers. Looking back I think being a judge was the best way I ever found for an overview of what likely all story competitions turn out to be. A startling one or two at each end and a vast pile in the middle, trying hard not to but sounding just like their neighbours. Clear evidence to mine your life and trust your gut and know what stories are yours alone to tell.

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