We are looking for Commonwealth citizens to share their views ahead of the 2024 Heads of Government Meeting. Sign up to take part

‘There Is No Magic Formula’ by Bernardine Evaristo

Posted on 16/10/2011
By Commonwealth Foundation

Bernadine Evaristo, Chair 2012 CSSP

“Linguistic flair, something fresh and original, depth, re-readability, stories that explore new ways of seeing, being, that surprise, provoke and even shock.”
Bernardine Evaristo

It was great to judge a prize where submissions were presented to us anonymously. This meant we could not be swayed by reputation. There are six judges who have to reach consensus, and one hopes that our consensus does not result in a winning story that is wishy washy – bleached of character and individuality. In my experience of judging many prizes, the more extreme ‘Marmite’ voices usually don’t get through. In this economic climate, as the publishing industry battens down its hatches and becomes more risk averse, this prize is an opportunity to reward successful risk-taking. Then there’s the matter of quality.

“We judges may be the arbiters of taste, but this does not mean that we are the arbiters of greatness.”

‘Great’ writing or the ‘best’ writing is a subjective evaluation. It is shaped by each individual reader’s perceptions, expectations, experiences and reading history, all of which help shape personal taste. The winning writer of this competition will be someone who will hopefully be exceptionally talented, but also very lucky that the judges reached consensus on their short story.

What do you look for in a short story? What gets you really excited?

Linguistic flair, something fresh and original, depth, re-readability, stories that explore new ways of seeing, being, that surprise, provoke and even shock. The ‘quiet understated voice’ is sometimes overrated and writing that is too oblique can actually be deceptively weightless – the touch so light it really is all air. One hopes to find a wide array of styles, genres and unique voices. My own taste is eclectic and while I do appreciate the cleverness of understatement, I also like flamboyance, daring, writers who take risks and push the boundaries of form. Neat, tidy, tame stories that are not going to ruffle the feathers of Middle England are everywhere. We need more variety.

What makes you start reading a short story?

There’s little time to waste with the short story so it really does need to grab my attention from the first page but I can’t pinpoint exactly what makes me want to read on. There is no magic formula. It might be do with language or subject matter, voice or characterisation, structure and the narrative hook: the thing that reels the reader in and makes us want to read on.

Does the title matter as much in a short story as in a novel?

Titles are always important as they label a piece of fiction. A great title will make you want to read a short story. Titles help shape the work, guide or intrigue the reader and add another layer to the meaning of the story. A good title will make a good short story more memorable.

What makes you stop reading (a short story)?

Boredom, exasperation, dull prose, the feeling I’ve heard/read it all before, when the writer does not have a unique voice or anything interesting to say.

 

It’s great to be judging a prize where submissions are presented to us anonymously. This means we cannot be swayed by reputation. There are six judges who have to reach consensus, and one hopes that our consensus does not result in a winning story that is wishy washy – bleached of character and individuality. In my experience of judging many prizes, the more extreme ‘Marmite’ voices usually don’t get through. In this economic climate, as the publishing industry battens down its hatches and becomes more risk averse, this prize is an opportunity to reward successful risk-taking. Then there’s the matter of quality. We judges may be the arbiters of taste for this prize, but this does not mean, of course, that we are the arbiters of greatness per se. ‘Great’ writing or the ‘best’ writing is a subjective evaluation. It is shaped by each individual reader’s perceptions, expectations, experiences and reading history, all of which help shape personal taste. The winning writer of this competition will be someone who will hopefully be exceptionally talented, but also very lucky that the judges reached consensus on their short story.

What do you look for in a short story? What gets you really excited?

Linguistic flair, something fresh and original, depth, re-readability, stories that explore new ways of seeing, being, that surprise, provoke and even shock. The ‘quiet understated voice’ is sometimes overrated and writing that is too oblique can actually be deceptively weightless – the touch so light it really is all air. One hopes to find a wide array of styles, genres and unique voices. My own taste is eclectic and while I do appreciate the cleverness of understatement, I also like flamboyance, daring, writers who take risks and push the boundaries of form. Neat, tidy, tame stories that are not going to ruffle the feathers of Middle England are everywhere. We need more variety.

What makes you start reading a short story?

There’s little time to waste with the short story so it really does need to grab my attention from the first page but I can’t pinpoint exactly what makes me want to read on. There is no magic formula. It might be do with language or subject matter, voice or characterisation, structure and the narrative hook: the thing that reels the reader in and makes us want to read on.

Does the title matter as much in a short story as in a novel?

Titles are always important as they label a piece of fiction. A great title will make you want to read a short story. Titles help shape the work, guide or intrigue the reader and add another layer to the meaning of the story. A good title will make a good short story more memorable.

What makes you stop reading (a short story)?

Boredom, exasperation, dull prose, the feeling I’ve heard/read it all before, when the writer does not have a unique voice or anything interesting to say.