What I found heartening as I read through the entries was the many writers taking on the political and social issues of our time through fiction. There were literary and social-realist stories, science fiction, thrillers and crime fiction. There were stories set in Australia and stories set in other parts of the world. There were stories tackling trauma, grief, racism, climate change and abuse. There were also some memorable stories about the small moments, the seemly insignificant exchanges and incidents that reveal so much about the human condition.
This year there were more experimental stories than I remember from when I judged the competition a couple of years ago, and while I love and applaud experimentation in fiction, it has to work for the story. Playing with structure, form and/or language in a way that doesn’t fit with the narrative or the voice of the story, will lose the reader’s trust. The winning story, ‘Water Bodies’, is an experimental story. Here the structure, language, and form are essential to the narrative. The narrator is searching for meaning, for understanding and this takes them on a journey through language, through time. I loved the tone of this story, it is a beautifully written, complex story that is also disturbing and unsettling.
All the shortlisted writers deserve to be acknowledged and encouraged. Of the stories that did not make it to the shortlist, most just needed more attention. Writing is both art and craft. Rereading (and reading out aloud), redrafting, and editing are crucial parts of the process. The most compelling stories demand attention. Through narrative, character, imagery, language, these stories have stayed with me.
The stories submitted for the 2019 VU Short Story Prize were incredibly impressive. Even the long list I read would make an amazing snapshot of the short story in 2019.
In the end, I chose the stories that moved something inside me – a twist that made my stomach drop, a perfectly imagined moment that moved me to tears, a clever wit that made me laugh out loud. I realise the limits of this way of judging; I am a person with a particular experience in a particular world so what moves me will be different from what moves you. In the end, however, this was the only way I felt I could do this job with integrity.
The shortlist was too short to include all the stories I loved, so there is incredibly well-realised work that I did not put forward to my fellow judges. I want to say to everyone whose work I read – please keep writing!
When the shortlist appeared, it was exciting to see the work other judges had picked out. Although, one story continued to haunt me – ‘Water Bodies’ is formally thrilling in its experimentation, and tells a compelling story. ‘Fruit Flies’ is equally compelling, for very different reasons. The story is deceivingly casual in its telling. However, the easiness of its tone is masterfully rendered so that the story becomes greater than the sum of its parts. ‘Don’t Tell Me’ reminds me of the work of George Saunders in its ability to make the everyday magical and strange. It traces the oddness of being thrown together for work and redemption and invites the reader to reassess and perhaps extend compassion to the rehabilitating.
Michelle Aung Thin
A few notable recurring themes in this year’s stories were environmental collapse, how technology is reshaping not just culture but our bodies, the monotony of meth addiction. There were migrants longing for a sense of home, children longing for family and many, many women trapped in risky relationships. Some of the stories were technically accomplished, but the subject matter was too familiar. In others, a single observation or insight shone, but was let down by a lack of storytelling craft. Humour was as welcome as it was rare.
The shortlisted stories were united by emotionally resonant characters and a strong writerly voice. It is a true accomplishment to stand out from so many stories and so, kudos not just to our winner and runners up, but to all those writers who made the shortlist. At the end, it was an incredibly close-run thing.
I admire the complexity and formal experimentation of ‘Water Bodies’ – how it uses text to describe relationships with language. I feel that ‘Fruit Flies’ is deftly handled. ‘Don’t Tell Me’ is also deftly written, with a painfully funny opening.
In terms of advice – read. Read the kind of story you want to write, know your genre and what has come before. Then take that genre someplace new. Subvert it. Defy the reader’s expectations. And never underestimate the power of emotion in a story. Let your characters feel deeply, even if they try hard not to show it. Especially when they’re trying hard not to show it. That way you will make us laugh and/or cry.
Sitting at my desk in judgement for this prize forced me to consider my wishlist for short stories:
Drop me in quickly. Tell me where I am and why. Don’t be coy. Don’t waste a paragraph on the weather (unless it’s cli-fi). Let me feel the writer’s urgency, that we don’t have much time and there’s a lot to cover.
Surprise me. Take me somewhere I’ve never been.
As fantastic as the surprises are, they must be anchored with emotions that must feel.
Let things get complicated: uncomfortable, surreal, sexy.
A solid ending is not the big reveal of a secret the writer has been keeping from us all along. It is a decisive action, ideally a product of emotion, that makes the reader go: Ah.
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