February 2019 Judge’s Report Vanessa Gebbie

Below, our eleventh Award Judge Vanessa Gebbie's report, detailing her interesting way of selecting the short list and winners from an anonymised list of flash fictions:

I was sent the long list – fifty carefully crafted flashes representing an impressive range of styles and subjects, a real cornucopia of flash skills. It’s always a huge responsibility, this judging game – and this time, I decided to see if there was any mileage in the Marie Kondo philosophy – could her thinking be applied to help me to remove thirty of them, somehow, leaving me with a short list of twenty.

Kondo suggests, when ‘decluttering’ at home, that we should keep items that spark joy. Not that this judging is decluttering, exactly, but there are parallels. I sort of understand that spark at gut level, when it applies to rationalising my higgledy-piggledy shelves of jumpers and tee shirts for example. But, would it work for fiction? I decided my criterion for that was not me leaping about the room going ‘Oh joy sublime!’ (besides, it might get the neighbours talking…) but I’d ask the question, “Do I really, really want to read this again?”

And, it worked. I had a ‘read again’ list, but found myself going back right now with some, decided that they were calling me back to enjoy them a second time now now now – irrespective of content, irrespective of style. What was calling me back? No idea. Something. That spark of joy, I guess. All I know is, those made me feel differently. Far from it being a job for later, those twenty drew me back to spend the next five minutes of my life rereading what I’d just read.

Sigh. Now I’ve got it down to twenty, and many many congratulations are due – and an apology. Firstly the congratulations – to everyone with a story in the long list. I have enjoyed them all. Then, the apology. To those who wrote the flashes that were Kondo’d out. I am sorry. I recognise the skills, and the care, and the love – and I know exactly what its like to get a knock back. It’s just I was wielding that indefinable 'not this time’ Kondo method, and I’m sure they will go on to find a home, fast. And so, further congratulations – to all the writers who have flashes in the short list.

Also, please think of me. This job now gets much much much harder because they are all sparking joy here, and if I’m not careful, I’ll auto combust…

Fire extinguisher at the ready, I am now asking, “OK, Kondo. Does this piece keep delivering that spark? Does it keep calling me back, or was it just that once?” Watch this space.

Finding the Winners

Having explored the Marie Kondo method of “sparking joy” to help me arrive at the twenty-strong shortlist, I now had to find a way to reduce that shortlist to five – (first, second and third places and two commended). Would the turbo-tidier be of use now?

In short, yes, up to a point and that point came when I had halved the list to ten flashes, all of which I admired. What now? Joy was sparking pretty consistently.

One thing helped. Good as all of these final ten were, I knew that when considering a few, I also felt the ‘Aah’ of recognition. I’d read something a little like those before – just a little, not exactly, of course not - but something, maybe the subject matter, the way the flash unfolded, the voice, or the structure – was something I’d met before. Sure – I still loved the flash in front of me – but that ‘oooh!’ of surprise I get when reading something new to me, something fresh and original, was muted. I was down to five. Now then. What order?

First Prize: Candy Girls

I loved everything about this one - particularly the bravery and clarity of this flash. The placing in time and setting. The characters. The prose, clipped and clear. And the theme – the way it hits the prejudices and hypocrisies of society in decades past head on – particularly antisemitism and racism – and shines a light on a patriarchal society in which women were routinely exploited. It’s not that long ago – there are clear echoes of the male behaviours of those times which the Harvey Weinstein case and the #metoo movement is exposing, now. One of the resonant lines, among many:

“You’ve seen them on silver screens; later they’ll shine on black-and-white sets, small as they really are.”

Here at The Stork Club the tables are turned, as the exploited become the exploiters, albeit damaged ones. Two fabulous female characters, the Jewish Miriam and the black narrator break the rules of the club in this terrific flash – their relationship, although hinted at, is not completely understood for sure until the end. It says so much, this one.

This one went to the top spot as soon as I was considering placings. And it never moved. Many congratulations to the writer.

Second Prize: Snow Falling Upwards

I was intrigued by the title, and this flash didn’t disappoint. The prose here is just beautiful – and the story that of a love which has never been matched by a marriage. Thematically it seems to be saying “Don’t wait…”.

Seen through the language and metaphor of meteorological imagery, the intense thousand-day relationship between the narrator and the lover who called him Meteorological man is never forgotten. And the gentle poignancy of the ending is so well done – it is so restrained, and maybe it packs more of a punch because of that.

Who knows – I just know I went back and re read this one many times, savouring gorgeous thoughts and images like: “snow falling upwards, its just a trick of the light,” and “nothing but a goitered winter moon...”

Many congratulations indeed to the writer.


Third Prize:
Sunday Crossword: These Three-Sided Polgyons Trap Lovers (9 letters)

Well! A story woven round no fewer than fifteen anagrams of the answer to the above. It’s really clever, well voiced, and I’d never seen or read anything like it, and it really deserves to be up there. Listen:

“The serving wench, she lingers at our table and wipes it with a tinsel rag. Her ears glint with stolen gold…” (did you spot three of the anagrams?!)

Terrific – well done, congratulations to the writer!


Commended:
Fingers

A deceptively easy, comfortable flash, a simple description of movements in a queue in an airport sweet shop. Add in a single father, a toddler… I am never ever, EVER going to get over that ending. Many congratulations!


Commended:
Her safe word is circus

One breathless sentence, a thousand images, nouns turned into verbs – a sparkling pyrotechnic display of close third stream of consciousness that might take place during a circus act, or a trip. I didn’t really care which. Extraordinary ... I really did have to hold my breath as I read – and loved the way you did some magic – made the style echo the reader’s response. Really well done. Congratulations!

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