You’re Bookered

Many years ago I was on a theatre awards panel. The judges had to see around 90 West End productions across 12 months. Even when a play was truly awful, there was the possibility of an award winning performance. Then there were the costumes, the lighting, the set, the sound, the direction… After a while, separating the component parts became second nature. I looked for more than personal enjoyment, and found it easy to evaluate individual contributions.

On one point, however, I remained inflexible. If the first half of a production did not meet any of the markers – and a handful were pure torture, I’d leave at the interval. When you’re going to the theatre two or three times a week – I was still going to small shows that weren’t on our list – you don’t feel any compunction to keep watching a play that has failed to engage or shine.

Twice a year the judges met to slug it out. Between us there might be twenty nominations in each category. Each of us fought our corner trying to get our favourites on the list. The debate could run for hours. Not once in all of that, did any of the shows I’d considered unwatchable get mentioned. There was a gold standard just to get on the radar and we all recognised it.

I was surprised then, to read a piece by one of the judges of this year’s Booker Prize who said she had read every book to the end – even those she’d hated – in case someone else put it forward for the shortlist. She argued that some of our greatest novels don’t catch light till halfway through.

With 156 books submitted by publishers for consideration, surely a primary marker of excellence should be that 50 pages in, and a 100 pages in, and 150 pages in, you want to keep reading?  Even if the second half of a book is astonishing, it patently lacks the consistency of a novel that is astonishing from the off.  Is that not inherent in the Booker’s gold standard?

When choosing short stories for Tricycle Readers, the imperative is quality work that is consistent from start to finish. Reading on should be a pleasure not a duty. The group itself is the judging panel. Members initiate discussions about the work of Alice Munro, William Trevor, Rosie Dastgir, Lori Moore, Edith Pearlman, Rudyard Kipling et al.  We seek engagement and challenge. And brevity: the nature of the exercise means stories should be fewer than 3000 words.

If you have ideas for stories that fit our gold standard, please share them here! And congratulations to Richard Flanagan on his Booker win for a universally acknowledged masterpiece.

132.Richard Flanagan-The Narrow Road To The Deep North cover

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7 comments

  1. Using the well worn adage that ‘life is too short’ I have learnt to stop reading if it is a chore. Mxxx

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  2. I am the same. The house is littered with half read books. Not only is life too short to read the unreadable, it is not long enough to get through the thousands of novels that are unputdownable. Two good reasons to stop if the going’s tough.

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  3. Slightly contrarian view. In my yoof I was fond of fantasy, and found many of my favourites began with what seemed like an extended steeping in the mundane. This seemed to make the fantasy more meaningful when it finally arrived. And, just like Christmas, the wait heightened the pleasure when it finally arrived. It just seemed right that you should wait and work for anything worthwhile.

    Of course this doesn’t apply to short stories. My favourite book of all is probably “The Just So Stories”. Partly, admittedly, because I have children. (Russell Hoban’s “La Corona and the Tin Frog is another favourite.)

    For a grown up set of deliciously twisted fairy tales, there’s Susanna Clarke’s “The Ladies of Grace Adieu”. (Set in the alternate Napoleonic world of Mr Norrell and Jonathan Strange, which some find hard to get into for the first few hundred pages.)

    Oh, you want “Literary”? How about Kazuo Ishiguru’s “Nocturnes”? Wonderful meditations on music and the night.

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  4. We’re doing an Ursula Le Guin short tomorrow that fits your first point. Will report back. As for the ‘No pain no gain’ ethic, it is vital for managing the otherwise unendurable – like dieting and studying for exams – but where pain is not vital to either one’s wellbeing or peace on earth, the ‘lots of joy and lots of gain’ alternative is a better bet, methinks. Hated the stories in Nocturnes, they felt dashed off, but will return to it now you have raised it! And will look for Susanna Clark. Thank you:)

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  5. Hmm… I’ll have another look at the Ishiguro. I was going more on a general memory of the mood they conjured than on anything specific.

    (Dashing off isn’t always bad… Iain Banks dashed off some rollicking good yarns in his all too short time.)

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  6. As for “No pain, no gain”, you develop a taste for the pain. Like chilli.

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  7. I quite liked the Leguin, though I wouldn’t call the set-up mundane. Almost the opposite: she starts with something unbelievably utopian. She drops increasingly heavy hints that we can’t be suspending our disbelief THAT much. And FINALLY drops in and at the end, twists it into something surreally believable, whisking back the grimy curtain on the nasty secret at the heart.

    And, finally hooks you with a nice little mystery.

    Did you discuss where they went? Or just the meaning?

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