—   The sharp point of dissent   —

Section: Et Cetera
20 January 2009

The Bridport Prize: when adjudications go wrong


When aspiring fiction-writers enter short story contests, it's reasonable to suppose that they do so under two assumptions:
  1. The adjudicator will be a discerning expert, and when they give their adjudication, they will at least sound like one;
  2. The adjudicator and competition organisers will be paying enough attention to follow their own rules (after all, your entry fee pays them to do so);
Behold, then: the Bridport Prize. Often lauded as the richest "open" short story competition in the world, it receives thousands of entries each year. Doubtless the poor Bridport staff must have to wade through a sea of dreck to find a few short stories that are tolerably printable. But the sheer volume of bad prose out there is not an excuse for the Bridport crew to go slack themselves, which, as I will demonstrate below, they have done with breathtaking self-indulgence.

The manner in which the adjudicators take their eye off the ball can take two forms:
  1. Since the adjudicator is not himself (or herself) being adjudicated, they seem to assume that it is safe to proffer the most vacuous and impractical advice on fiction-writing. Breathing all manner of verbal vapour, the adjudicator's report will feature a careless prose style; sweepingly abstract statements ("transcendent" is my favourite red-flag word); and lashings of airy, unfollowable suggestions on what constitutes 'art'.[1]
  2. With their heads thus jammed in the clouds, the adjudicators will sometimes forget that even simple laws of arithmetic still apply in the real world. That is, if you create a rule which imposes a word-limit on every short story received - and threaten to disqualify anyone who violates it - you cannot thereafter award first prize to an entrant who has done just that.
So - here are three things to consider before spending money on a competition which you have assumed the organisers themselves take seriously:



1. Bad adjudicators.
In 2005, the Bridport judge's short story report contained the following passage:
"A story is more, and sometimes less, than a piece of wonderful or atmospheric writing ... I think it should involve some transformation of consciousness."
The Bridport Prize receives about 5000 entries per year. Even setting aside the fact that the above piece of advice is obviously not implementable, can you imagine the deluge of prose abominations that would result from 5000 people all trying achieve 'some transformation of consciousness'?

2. Bad adjudicators.
In 2008, the Bridport judge's short story report contained the following passage:
"I smiled when I read the covering [sic] letter which arrived with the stories from head story-sifter Jon Wyatt - 'You would not believe the number of stories that purport to be 4998 words long.' Just because there is a limit of 5000 words for the Bridport Prize, you don't have to meet it."
I smiled when I read this because anyone who has ever entered one of these contests knows that more often than not, the writer will go over the 5000 word limit, then scale down. Quite often this involves making painstaking and minute changes until you have arrived just under the limit. The Bridport crew seem to think that the entrants who had reached this very delicate stage of the editing process were actually scaling up. Not only was the 'head story-sifter' incautious enough to announce his faulty observation, but the adjudicator didn't have the smarts to spot it either. But wait. It gets better:

3. They break their own rules.
Painstaking and minute changes made with a view to observing the 5000-word rule are wasted. I once downloaded the 2006 Bridport anthology: it revealed that the first prize (of £5000, no less) was awarded to a story that had exceeded the allowable word limit.[2] When I emailed the Bridport guys to get an explanation for this, I got a boilerplate non-apology and a promise to follow processes better.[3] No public statement was ever issued: there's no mention of this gruesome blunder anywhere on the site. Two years later (as revealed in the above point), the adjudicators were chuckling at entrants who were trying to observe the very rule that they had themselves disregarded.

Moral of the story:
Don't assume adjudicators know what they are doing: often they are self-discrediting nincompoops. Learn to know which competitions not to waste your time and talent on.

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Notes:

1 Zoe Heller, for example, is the 2010 adjudicator. She managed to compact three meaningless tips into just six words. The Bridport website informs us that she will be on the lookout for: "Attention to sentences. Distinctive voices. Surprise." It's notable that someone who warns that she will be paying attention to sentences has herself chosen not to write any. (But perhaps her advice was Tweeted.)
2 The reader may satisfy his/her own curiosity by downloading the book and performing a simple word count on the first story.
3 The reply from Bridport went as follows:
---------------------------------
Subject: The Bridport Prize
From: "Frances Everitt"
Date: Wed, December 5, 2007 6:23 am
To: aoife.crowley@obelus.org

Dear Aoife Crowley

With reference to your email regarding last year's winning entry.

Yes, you are right. We do check our winning entries to ensure they comply with our rules and somehow this story has got through with more than the allowed number of words.

Some of our submissions arrive with the word count on them; if they are submitted online our own system checks the number of words. Obviously it is not possible for us to count each postal entry as they arrive (we get over 5,000) but those that are obviously over 5,000 words are immediately disqualified. As we get to the longlist, numbers are checked. Unfortunately we got it wrong this time.

Thank you for bringing it to our attention, it is prompting a complete review of our checking systems. We take our rules seriously and understand your concern.

Best wishes
Frances Everitt
Competition Administrator

Bridport Prize
Bridport Arts Centre
South Street
Bridport
Dorset DT6 3NR

T: 01308 428 333 (answerphone)
E: frances@poorton.demon.co.uk
W: www.bridportprize.org.uk