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Carys Davies, a judge on this year's Short Story Award

Carys Davies on how she and her fellow judges – Diana Evans, Romesh Gunesekera, David Nicholls and Andrew Holgate – chose the stories on this year's longlist

Early February, when I began reading the entries for this award, feels a world away now. By the time I turned on my laptop to join my fellow judges to discuss the stories, we were all under lockdown, and I can’t help thinking that our 2020 longlist will be the last one for a good while which doesn’t reflect, in some way, our present situation. Which is one of the things I love about it.

Pandemics – these 17 stories seem almost defiantly to be reminding us – may come and go, but we will always be preoccupied by the ordinary, difficult, funny, sad, and sometimes sublime struggles of our lives. Each story, in its own way, is a powerful assertion of the enduring, everyday mystery of being human.

Take Catherine Lacey’s Cut, or Edward Hogan’s Single Sit, which both capture the sadness and confusion of early middle-age. Or Niamh Campbell’s Love Many and Alexia Tolas’ Granma’s Porch, which skewer the pain and intensity of young love. Experience the fear and tenderness of parenting in The Curfew, The Flier, and the deeply unsettling Simon. Read Harpies, A Mother’s Dilemma, and You Get What is Yours and find yourself drawn into three wholly distinctive meditations on violence against women. Plunge into the rural Ireland of Sparing the Heather, Waiting, and Brown Ford Cortina to inhabit their characters’ desires, doubts, and disappointments. For brief, intense dramas about the arrogance and ennui of youth, or having a demanding mother, or being homeless, step into the worlds created by Shawn Vestal and Max Sydney Smith, Namwali Serpell and Marie-Helene Bertino.

In any award with more than one judge, there is always passionate debate and discussion, and it took several hours for the 17 longlisted stories to pull clear of the other entries. All five of us went into the meeting with our own favourites, and we all left having had our minds changed at least a little about others we’d ranked less favourably.

It was a process we’d all begun separately, by ourselves, during the months before the meeting – reading stories and then returning to them, and upon returning, finding that there was either less, or more, than we’d initially thought. It’s one of the myths that exists about short stories: that because they are short, they are quickly dealt with. The truth is that a great story will repay multiple readings, revealing layers and resonances that weren’t always immediately apparent.

That said, the stories which stood out – the ones which had us all wanting to go back to them and read them again and again, and made us want to fight for them – all had certain indispensable qualities in common. They were the ones which touched us most with the truthfulness of their emotions and their observations; the ones which, sentence by sentence, impressed us with the quality of their writing, and with their technical command of this exceptionally challenging form. They were the ones which felt neither abbreviated nor overburdened. They were the ones which insisted on being read, taking hold of our attention with their first words, and holding it until their last. They had a voice we believed in completely, which never faltered. They had a point of view and a vision, and the confidence not to explain themselves; they trusted the reader enough to leave things out. The very best knew precisely how and where to end, and were written with such unshowy skill that we didn’t feel their full effect until after we’d finished reading them.

There were moments, during our discussions of some of the stories that didn’t quite make the longlist, when we wished we could have been editors, not judges – when we wished a writer had cut the first paragraph, say, or the last; or hadn’t broken the story’s spell with a false note in a scrap of dialogue. There were moments when we saw talent and promise and wanted to be able say to the writer: Keep going! Don’t give up! Just because you haven’t pulled this story off yet, it doesn’t mean you won’t!

I was struck by how many entries came within a few words of the 6,000 word limit, and it became clear that some of these stories just weren’t ready yet. Every story is as short or as long as it needs to be, and too many stories hadn’t been given enough time to find their proper length. They needed more work; more honing, more thought, more patience.

I won’t lie, it’s hard. Many of my own stories have taken me years to write. The title story of my last collection, The Redemption of Galen Pike, took 10 years. And then there are the ones that never amount to anything, however hard I try and however much time I devote to them – in fact, most of the stories I attempt, fail. But I’ve come to understand that this is just a step along the way to writing a story that will succeed, because sometimes a failure can act as a kind of heart transplant, mysteriously breathing life into a different, unrelated story. Without the failure, the new one would never have existed.

It’s a slow and often maddening process. But there’s really nothing that compares with the high that comes when you finally know you’ve written something you can call a short story. Sometimes I feel I’ve spent half my life chasing that high – what the veteran New Yorker editor, novelist and short story writer, William Maxwell, defined, with characteristic truth and simplicity, as ‘the happiness of getting it down right’.

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