VU Short Story Prize: Judges’ notes

800 stories were submitted for consideration this year, many exploring the politics of this decade. After six weeks of reading, we decided on a shortlist of ten impressive examples of the contemporary short story, which included this year’s three finalists.

Amanda Niehaus’s elegant and restrained ‘Breeding Season’, which took first place, exquisitely portrays a richly developed central character who deliberately sequesters herself. Runner-up ‘Wharekaho Beach, 1944’, by Allan Drew, is evocative and well-drawn, with a strong sense of the New Zealand coastline and the purpose of borders, while Judyth Emanuel’s ‘Girlish Roadkill’, also a runner-up, should be applauded for its vivid use of language, its feverish energy and remarkable control.

Our individual observations follow.

Enza Gandolfo

The shortlisted and winning stories made an impact on me – once I started reading them, I could not stop. My favourites tackled familiar themes but subverted my expectations.

The stories that failed to make the shortlist had weak openings that focused on setting up a story instead of taking the reader straight into it; there was a lack of attention paid to language, to the concrete details that bring characters and places to life, and the endings were disappointing – the story hit a wall, or the writer seemed to run out of steam or ideas.

Commendations: ‘Drowning in Thick Air’ and ‘Wind Forest’.

Frank Moorhouse

I find judging a wonderful exercise. Although the judges for this prize are from different generations and backgrounds, it’s fascinating we had such a general agreement. Maybe, after all, the assessment of the quality of prose fiction is not only just a matter of taste or subjectivity? The short story is really alive and is practised beautifully.

Commendations: ‘Drowning in Thick Air’ – a powerful and shocking presentation of male cruelty. It took me to a place I have never been in my life or imagination.

Ian See

The best stories in this year’s prize had a clarity of purpose and a strong narrative voice. A couple of pieces used subversive humour very cleverly, while others provided rich emotional insight into their characters. It was good to see that writers were thinking about contemporary injustices, such as misogyny, economic inequality and the brutal treatment of asylum seekers – fiction can shine light on these topics in powerful ways. I would caution writers to watch out for heavy-handedness – let the story and characters speak for themselves.

Rachael McGuirk

Many of this year’s entries shared a sense of sadness – loss, grief, heartache – but I liked those that used fiction as a tool to confront the political and environmental issues of our time. The strongest pieces stepped outside the personal, internal voice to explore characters, culture and place memorably, or threaded their personal stories with playful and experimental elements or parallel narratives.




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Enza Gandolfo

Enza Gandolfo is a Melbourne writer. Her acclaimed second novel The Bridge was shortlisted for the Stella Prize 2019. She is an honorary professor in creative writing at Victoria University.

Rachael McGuirk

Rachael McGuirk is a writer of fiction and nonfiction. She has a Masters of Publishing and Communication from the University of Melbourne and has worked on a variety of arts, media and development projects in Australia and the Pacific.

Frank Moorhouse

Frank Moorhouse has won major national prizes for the short story, the novel and the essay. He is best known for his Edith trilogy, Grand Days, Dark Palace, and Cold Light. His book Australia under Surveillance examines the impact on civil liberties arising from national security legislation in recent years.

Ian See

Ian See is an editor at the University of Queensland Press.

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