Skip to content Skip to main menu

10 JUDGES, 10 YEARS: Rose Tremain

Next in our series of short interviews: to celebrate a decade of the Sunday Times Short Story Award, we talk to ten past judges to get their insight into the process and gain an understanding of what makes a short story shine...

Rose Tremain was one of six judges on the Sunday Times Short Story Award in 2016. She shares her thoughts and tips on the short story as a 'difficult and petulant entity'

What was your experience of judging the Award?

That the stories are submitted anonymously is a clever idea. It immediately does away with prejudice for or against an author. There is just the naked story to be judged, in all its perfect beauty or its embarrassing imperfections. It means that the judges’ meetings tend to be seriously focused on the work and nothing else. And as a writer, I learned quite a lot from these about the diversity of literary taste.

How do you think the Award benefits the short story?

By offering decent prize money, the award suggests that it recognises the short story, not as the poor relation of the novel, but as a rich art form in its own right. And this is admirable. On the down-side, you could also argue – with its ‘all welcome’ policy, that it fatally nourishes the notion that everybody on the planet is capable of capturing an original idea in six thousand words, which is far from being the case.

What skills do you especially admire that are showcased in the short story form?

The short story is a difficult and petulant entity. It’s as demanding as poetry in its aspiration to say something important while continuing to work within the confines of its own shortness. In many stories, ideas flail about like helpless offcuts from a longer work, going nowhere. Poetic economy of construction is thus the core skill needed to make a story honour its defining form.

Why is the short story important today? What about it do you think should be most celebrated?

I guess, in its brevity, it’s quite suited to the culture of the sound bite, the blog, and the podcast, where so many people have now developed a pathetic fear of the long read. But should we celebrate this? I’m not convinced we should. However, there is some very good work out there in the short story form, to which many of our best writers often return, and this is certainly worth celebrating.

How do you think the market/appetite for short stories has changed over the past 10 years?

US publishers and magazine editors have always given time and attention to the short story and paid its authors well, which is why so many of the greatest short story writers are – still today - American. In Britain, we’re just beginning to catch up and the Sunday Times Prize has played a major part in this adjustment since its inception.

What would be your One Top Tip for writing short fiction?

Map out the exoskeleton of the story before you start. Whereas novels can grow and find their shape and their true intention as the journey of the book progresses, the story is most likely to deliver its punch if it knows where it’s headed from the start. But never believe that your first draft is ‘the one’.

What would be an example of ‘the perfect short story’ written by another writer?

Robert Penn Warren’s Blackberry Winter is an impeccable piece of short fiction. Told by an adult narrator, looking back on a devastating flood he lived through as a nine year-old boy, it perfectly captures both the boy’s innocent astonishment at the destruction and ‘meanness’ the flood has washed in and his later understanding, as a grown man, of how these things are just an everyday part of human life. It asks a lot of a story that it handle two time frames and two contrasting perspectives, but Penn Warren seems to do it effortlessly. Here, then, is another key to a great short story – that it’s like a swan, powered by beautiful workings we only sense ‘beneath the water’ but do not see.

  • Rose Tremain was one of only five women writers to be included in Granta’s original list of 20 Best of Young British Novelists in 1983. Her novels and short stories have been published worldwide in 27 countries and have won many international prizes. Her 2014 collection of short stories, The American Lover, was shortlisted for the BBC Short Story Award and 2016 saw the publication of her fourteenth novel, The Gustav Sonata. She was made a CBE in 2007 and in 2013 was appointed Chancellor of the University of East Anglia

Jonathan Tel took the top spot in 2016 with The Human Phonograph. Read his winning story here and discover more about the judges that year here.


See more news