photo by Vitor Antunes
Closing Remarks by Nicholas Royle, 2011 Chair of Judges
at The Manchester Fiction Prize Gala Ceremony
Friday, 14th October
Publishers traditionally claim that short stories are not popular. People don’t like them. Well, I’ve got a two-foot-high pile of manuscripts on the floor of my study that says otherwise. And then there are the seventeen home screens of competition entries on my Kindle. And that represents only a third of the entries to this year’s Manchester Fiction Prize, because my fellow judges Alison MacLeod and John Burnside have equally impressive piles, so to speak.
When you volunteer – or are invited – to judge a competition like this, your first thought may be for the nuggets that you will turn up. Sometimes it doesn’t take long. Indeed, story number 0001 is among the 30 or so stories that Alison, John and I have commended. The full list is on the competition website. Very soon, however, you become overwhelmed by the sheer number of stories that have to be read. You press on. Patterns start to emerge, favourite subjects and themes. War – Iraq, Afghanistan, as well as Europe and the Pacific 70 years ago. Family, relationships. Death and mourning.
I have always believed that publishers are looking simultaneously for two things when reading submissions: a reason to carry on reading and a reason to stop reading. Of course you would prefer to find the former, and I think I can speak for Alison and John when I say that the stories that jump out at you – those on our commended list and those written by the writers who stand here tonight and those other shortlisted authors who were unable to be here – do so the moment you start reading them. You know by the bottom of the first page that this is a story with a good chance of making it. You often know by the end of the first paragraph. Sometimes it take no more than a sentence. And it doesn’t matter how eloquent we judges wax with our analyses and emails back and forth to each other; it’s instinctive. It’s like being hit in the stomach. In a good way. If you can imagine that. You know. You just know. And carrying on reading when you know is an incredibly exciting experience.
We found ourselves with so many excellent stories that collectively we couldn’t bear to let go; we asked James, the Prize’s custodian and manager, if we could increase the number of shortlisted stories from six to eight. He kindly agreed. Our deliberations continued and a winner emerged, a story that seemed to punch a little harder in the stomach than the other seven. And then, another winner emerged. The rules allowed us to split the prize, but would they allow us to split it in such a way as to let one story edge in front, effectively creating a first prize and a second prize, the first time that this has happened in this competition? Yes, they would. And so, ladies and gentlemen, we find ourselves with two winners.
Yet while there may be two winners, there are no losers here tonight, so before we open the golden envelopes, could I please ask for a huge round of applause for all the shortlisted writers?