THE BLOOMSBURY/IoS SHORT STORY COMPETITION

'Predictably, none of us chose the same winner.' Liz Calder, Publishing Director at Bloomsbury, on why, when it comes to fiction, the judges' decision isn't final

Back In the Dark Ages, when I was studying English at Canterbury University in Christchurch, New Zealand, we used to crowd into a small, dingy room to listen to a poet called James K Baxter reading his poems. We thought he looked like James Dean. It was utterly thrilling. Decades later, I have come across a brilliant article about writers and editors written by Baxter for a magazine called Numbers. (I should say that in the interim he became a world-renowned poet and a revered guru in New Zealand in the Sixties and Seventies.)

His words are salutary to new writers: "Year by year I become more distrustful of my own ability, and that of others, to deliver final literary judgement on any work. Entirely contradictory yet plausible judgements on books of prose and verse are made every week in our periodicals and newspapers. My own experience as a reviewer has led me to the conclusion that the best one can expect from any critic is informed opinion, though what one often gets is uninformed prejudice." Baxter ends up with: "The processes of literary composition are largely uncontrollable and inaccessible to critical intelligence. One can meddle with a writer, but one cannot make him or her. The chief factor which inhibits the growth of the younger writer and prevents the rejuvenation of the exhausted veteran is lack of trust in their own powers, lack of fidelity to their own unique situation, and above all, anxious dependence on the opinion of critic and editor. The spring must run muddy before it can run clear. We may provide a channel. We do not govern the spring."

Stick that on your wall if you are or want to be a writer.

When reading new fiction, something I do a great deal, and in particular when reading the mountain of stories submitted for the Bloomsbury/Independent on Sunday Prize, I have unconsciously always taken a Baxter-like view. Time after time it is proven: publishers and editors turn down books that go on to become classics; critics contradict each other at every turn. I say, so what? The eye of the beholder rules here, as everywhere. Critical standards matter, of course, but whose standard are we to adhere to? What matters - and this was certainly the case with the present judges - is that the writing moves, disturbs and grips each individual reader, the voice arrests and convinces.

Predictably, then, none of the four of us chose the same winner, so we let democracy rule. What this means for the writers is clear: the only use for publishers, editors, judges and critics is to provide the channels needed to give writing an airing. As a writer you must trust in your unique situation.

Another expert practitioner, John Fowles, gave some sound advice when writing in 1985 about a young-writers' competition of which he was a judge:

"At heart write always for yourself: but make sure you write from your real self, not that one besotted by vainglorious dreams of a future self."

how the four judges went about their impossible job

Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Jenny Lee may have left, but Miranda Hart and the rest of the midwives deliver the goods

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary blues and rock singer Joe Cocker has died of lung cancer, his management team as confirmed. He was 70
music The singer has died aged 70
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams looks concerned as Arya Stark
tv
Arts and Entertainment
photography Incredible images show London's skyline from its highest points
Arts and Entertainment
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
classical
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

    Christmas without hope

    Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
    After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

    The 'Black Museum'

    After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
    Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

    Chilly Christmas

    Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
    Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all