I was telling my friend Fiz, the cage-fighter, about our short story slam and, being a burly born-to-win boy, he found the concept hilarious. He seemed to think it was a cross between all-in wrestling and The Late Show with nerdy, red-spectacled types hurling each other around yelling, ‘Take that oxymoron and die!’ When he’d stopped wiping the tears of mirth from his firm-jawed face, I explained the concept of a short story slam: the challenge and ingenuity involved in writing a complete story in only 200 words, the guts and gumption required to perform it in front of a Balham Bowls Club audience, the exhilaration in receiving applause and possibly prizes. Then he made a sensible point: It’s easy to tell who ran fastest, jumped highest or scored the most goals but how do you decide who wrote the best story? What are the criteria? How are they measured?
This got me thinking about to what extent our evaluation of good writing is subjective. For the Chalk competition, we will select the short-list in May based on original ideas, interesting use of language, the story’s capacity to move us to tears or laughter; even so, excluding blatant plagiarism or complete unintelligibility, that’s all predicated by personal taste. Spelling, grammar and punctuation may be relevant and measurable but the perfectly presented yet dull story will definitely lose out to the imaginative, engaging story with a rogue apostrophe. The performance aspect might be more obvious, with clear enunciators triumphing over nervy mumblers, but there’s still an element of individual preference. Of course, the audience vote for the winner but that just involves collective choice instead of individual.
So, can we judge literature? We can certainly discern clunky bad writing but how about the finer points of style, the choice of subject, the nuances of story? I love Middlemarch but couldn’t finish Ulysses, does that necessarily mean George Elliot rules and James Joyce is pants? Can we compare apples with kumquats?
We are all amazed when perfectly well read, completely sane people adore books we hate. We gasp when someone, whose judgement we have hitherto respected, tells us One Day made them weep. Surely they spotted the completely random, deus ex-machina lorry hurtling towards the hapless heroine in an attempt to end this middling story of contemporary life with a bit of gravitas? When a similar person confides that A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian was the best book they ever read, we sigh and wonder if they really got beyond the title. And surely 80 million book buyers couldn’t have been wrong about the Da Vinci Code? … er – well, yes they could.
So I suppose our judges will have to chose the Chalk the Sun short story winner based on their own strange, idiosyncratic preferences though I’d give you one tip: if you want to win that dinner for two, don’t end with your heroine getting run over by a lorry.
The Chalk the Sun Short Story Slam closes 12th May; the finals are 25th May at Balham Bowls Club