Judges’ notes | VU Short Story Prize

In the 2018 Overland Victoria University Short Story Prize, 863 entries were divided between us, the four judges. From a pooled longlist of thirty stories, we selected a very strong shortlist of thirteen. Then came the difficult task of choosing just two runners-up and one winner. We are thrilled to announce the three stories that placed this year.

Nothing in the night’ is a compelling psychological tale of grief and breakdown. This accomplished writer has a unique voice that mesmerises the reader, leading us through an emotional terrain that is both poignant and disturbing; Synnott shows great skill in their command of language, character and scene.

Dear Ophelia’ is a moving examination of two trans bodies and the various ways they are constructed, read and touched, told in the shape of an autopsy. The author’s choice of setting allows them to engage with gendered violence in a thoughtful and considered way, giving space for patient reflection and deep context. This powerful representation of the labour of tending a body is both radical and emotionally affecting. We were thrilled by its intelligence and care.

This year’s winning story, ‘How to Disappear into Yourself (in 8 Steps)’, is a marvellously rendered feat of stream of consciousness that follows a woman negotiating work, an internship, dating, family, and the wider complexities of race, class and gender that frame her daily life. The author’s energetic second-person narrative allows them to draw their character with both intimate interiority and ironic distance. They display rich emotional range, swooping grace­fully between anger, tenderness and sharp humour without losing sight of their craft or consideration for their reader. The judges found this story irresistible.

Select quotes from the judges

Michelle Cahill

Many of the stories speak about trauma overtly; I admired the poetic intensity, the surreal repetitions and sustained metaphor of ‘Nothing in the night’. I found it quite mesmeric to read and as a writer I am in awe and admire that skill of taking something so apparently banal and complicating it and making it interesting to read, poignant and disturbing.

I found ‘Dear Ophelia’ very compelling and adroit in how it integrates narrative elements with autofiction/personal history and discursive/cultural analysis. The use of the cadaver as a transitional, liminal space – a metaphoric vehicle for gendered violence as well as the literary invocation of Ophelia’s sexual and mental trauma – makes this story incredibly powerful and skilful for me.

It was difficult to select from the shortlist. Overall, I scored on how successfully I thought each story worked in its own style/theme and on the courage of the story.

I also admired how ‘White April’ uses conversation throughout so brilliantly, and how it voices cultural and class difference powerfully. I loved ‘These Tended Things’ too; the ending is unexpected, pessimistic also. It’s beautifully written, observant and ethical.

Tom Clark

Every piece on the shortlist was so compelling on its own terms that ranking the shortlist felt very hard. ‘Nothing in the night’ is a very strong stylistic (and stylish) execution of a story idea. ‘Dear Ophelia’ lands a truly breathtaking idea. The winner does both, and the hundreds of other good stories we received attest to what an effort that is.

Jennifer Mills

On reading this year’s entries, and particularly on re-reading the excellent shortlist, I was encouraged to find so many submissions had something to say. This year’s entries indicate a healthy literary culture – not only because of their diversity of voices, but also because of their weight. Perhaps in these times of political, environmental and social crisis, there is a rising sense of fiction having to justify its place; an urgency or impatience for a better world, which is causing writers to look outside themselves; to write the kind of stories that are aware of their context and ready to make change. Whatever it is, I am glad to be witnessing this moment in fiction and I feel strongly that Overland plays a role in encouraging writing that matters.

It’s worth highlighting some common errors, too: cliché in subject matter or in language; brilliant ideas that were not quite carrying the narrative; strong feelings that were not quite stories; reliance on elegant prose with little of substance to say. Many of these can be addressed by re-reading, and by making the effort to challenge one’s own ideas and assumptions – all part of the soul-work of writing fiction.

This year’s winners are testament to how a combination of hard work and a deep understanding of social forces can produce a piece of writing that feels effortless and original. It’s a thrill to be able to reward stories like these with the attention they deserve, and some money to reflect the work of making them; it’s an honour to celebrate their weight in the world.

Sarah Schmidt

I love short stories and those who write them well. I especially admire and appreciate short story writers who are bold with their narrative form or voice, subject, mood, characterisation, prose. So I was thrilled to see strong experimental fiction alongside stories that while on the surface appeared ‘worn out’ subject wise, were actually complex and skilled fictions that deeply resonated or did something unexpected. And there were a lot of great short stories this year. The stories that sung loudest to me (even when they were quiet stories) were bold in the genre or style they were written, exhibited strong narratives, and had prose that made me feel like I had experienced something very special. I will remember them for years to come.

But there were many pieces which forgot they were short stories. I know that sounds harsh, but the short story is not as easy to write as it appears to be. The form deserves respect. If I were to give general advice based on everything I read, it’s this: read as many short stories as you can. Lovely prose is not enough. But neither is a sequence of events. For me, the short story can do more than one thing but it needs to exist within its own world (in some way) where story, prose, character, voice, setting, theme, imagery, and structure of some kind play equal roles. A short story is also more than just an extract from a novel. They can be extracts, but they still need to stand outside of the novel they came from. A word on experimentation: absolutely go for it but just remember you need more than linguistic or aesthetic pyrotechnics to keep your reader by your side and for them to trust that you will take them to a place worth going no matter what you throw at them.


Image: Camp Wel-Met / Center for Jewish History





Michelle Cahill

Michelle Cahill is a Sydney writer. Her short story collection, Letter to Pessoa, won the NSW Premier’s Literary Award for New Writing. She has received prizes in poetry and fiction.

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Tom Clark

Tom Clark is a senior lecturer at Victoria University, and is president of the Australasian Universities Language and Literature Association. He is the author of Stay on Message: Poetry and Truthfulness in Political Speech (Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2012).

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Jennifer Mills

Jennifer Mills was Overland fiction editor between 2012 and 2018. Her latest novel, The Airways, is out through Picador.

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Sarah Schmidt

Sarah Schmidt’s debut novel, See What I Have Done, emerged after stumbling across the case of Lizzie Borden by chance in a second-hand bookshop.

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