Several years ago, I was invited to be a judge in a short-story writing competition offered by our local library. It was restricted to writers over the age of fifty, as it was felt that the life experience of older writers would yield a more mature and reflective quality of work than that of younger writers. Judges were expected to be ‘published authors,’ and to have had some experience in judging work of literary merit. I qualified. As a high-school teacher of English, I had edited the work of some five thousand students during my years in the classroom. The painstaking and time-consuming work of correcting mechanical and stylistic errors, substituting a more effective word or phrase in place of defective diction, assessing organization and logic in the development of narrative or argument, detecting plagiarism or noting a failure to make good use of evidence in essays, and providing constructive criticism, including fulsome praise where warranted, is more akin to editing than to ‘marking,’ with which it is all too often confused, to the chagrin of most conscientious English teachers.
I enjoyed being a judge. For several years until library authorities decided the age limit was exclusionary and decided to replace the competition with one that did away with that limit, we prepared interested competitors by sharing with them our experiences of judging, and presiding over animated discussions about the evaluation criteria and guidelines for the contest, about what constitutes effective stories, their types and traits, sources of authorial inspiration, and the importance of accepting that writing is often a necessarily frustrating process involving frequent re-writing and revision. We then met to read and compare anonymous selected stories from among the entries and advocate for the best ones. Our judgments were remarkably similar. My colleagues were writers, teachers, and academics. I like to think we all learned from one another. This year no plan for the new competition was announced, perhaps because of budget cuts. The final blow was administered earlier this year by the current coronavirus crisis.
An effective short story is one that is not only well-written, but also compelling, convincing, and memorable. Such a story compels the reader’s attention and interest, in some cases holding him or her enthralled. A thrall is a lovely Anglo-Saxon word meaning a captive, hence a reader or viewer is held captive by the author’s power, so much so that he cannot, for example, hear or heed the call to the dinner table. A good short story must also convince the reader that the story could happen or could have happened, and persuade him that the characters, setting, and events are similarly believable. A convincing character in the story would act in such a way, would say what she says, would do what she does. The story causes the reader to employ what the poet Coleridge called ‘a willing suspension of disbelief,’ when we temporarily suspend our critical faculties by persuading ourselves that what we are being exposed to is real, and not merely ‘make believe,’ just as an actor does on the stage when he assumes the role of a fictional character. If the story is very good, it will also be memorable. We will want to remember it, reflect on it, talk about it enthusiastically with our friends, and encourage them to read it for themselves. All three components make up that crucially indispensable word ‘impact.’ Stories with impact have staying power, which is why fairy tales, parables, folk tales and fables have lasted for centuries.