The BBC International Short Story Award 2012 Anthology (Comma Press - January, 2013)
The short stories in this anthology are simply the very best of 2012, or are they? The BBC International Short Story Award is certainly one of the most prestigious prizes, and consequently we may conclude that the ten stories published here represent the nonplus ultra of story writing. This claim rings particularly true as the Olympic spirit has moved the BBC to extend the competition, for this year only, to English-speaking writers from around the world.
The shortlist certainly lives up to the prize’s international aspiration as, conveniently, each continent seemed to have at least one contender for the £15,000 award, which is funded by NESTA (the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts) and managed by BBC Radio and Prospect magazine in partnership with The Booktrust. The panel of judges, including Anjali Joseph, Ross Raisin, Michèle Roberts and Di Speirs, read their way through seventy of the five hundred submissions to select ten gems that, at first sight at least, are very diverse. There are stories about playing computer games, outdoor camping, launching a new brand of Vodka and even about the commercial possibilities of black holes.
Although brevity is officially understood to be a virtue the question arises - can a story really be defined by its word count. As is happens the winning story is almost six times longer than the shortest short story that has been shortlisted. The victorious contribution by Miroslav Penkov, East of the West, takes place at the border between Serbia and Bulgaria and has the feel of an epic tale as it is a moving family saga that runs over several decades. It is quite remarkable as to how much the author has packed into five thousand words, or there abouts. It reads as a wonderful, quirky and disturbing feast that mixes folklore, magical realism and political issues. It is well shaped to fit the short story format but maybe could have been expanded into something even longer and even better.
All the stories in this book are truly accomplished, and I love them all for different reasons; there is much humour, wit, imagination, skill, food for thought, subtlety and boldness. Among the runner-uppers are the fabulous Deborah Levy who was one of this year’s Man Booker nominees, Julian Gough a previous winner of the BBC award, MJ Hyland and Carrie Tiffany - both have been up for the Orange Prize - and much else besides. Also shortlisted were Adam Ross, Lucy Caldwell, Krys Lee, Henrietta Rose-Innes and Chris Womersley all with an impressive CV and growing reputations. According to the copyright page it appears, however, that many of the stories had previously been published in other anthologies or magazines. Clearly the judges didn’t take too many risks as the writing throughout is well-mannered and accessible.
Although there are some very surprising twists and styles in these stories which at times border on the surreal, it is remarkable how well these stories sit next to each other. This seems to derive from the fact that the authors predominately used the first person narrator, giving the story a feel of exclusivity and immediacy that hits home. Furthermore, the reader is frequently faced with a taboo or awkward family secret that I would interpret as dramatic. The prose is fuelled by a tension that is rooted in complex or painful relationships between the narrators and their fathers or mothers or siblings or close friends. Notably personal spheres clash with social conventions and notions of normality. It seems drama makes not only the world go round but all around the world drama provides the powerful ingredient that makes for a compelling read.
This is a wonderful book if you want to champion this less regarded literary form, love engaging storytelling, or simply want to find out what this year’s trends are. Despite the colourful diversity of these stories there is a decisive message to be taken from this anthology as to what constitutes successful short fiction in 2012. Interested to see what 2013 will bring.