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.