This is a very funny story (albeit embarrassing) that involves the New Zealander Katherine Mansfield, who is considered by many to be one of the greatest short story writers of the 20th century. This is also a warning about the comments we leave on the web, and the growing problem of how comments that are meant to be humorous/ironic can be misinterpreted and taken too seriously. I certainly never expected that one of my recent comments on a blog would result in a false report in The Sunday Times, a national newspaper in Britain. Cripes! Let me explain.
A few months ago I entered a short story contest run by the Willesden Herald blog, which had the author Zadie Smith as the judge. There was a bit of controversy at the beginning of this month when Smith announced that the £5,000 prize wouldn't be awarded because none of the 800 entries was considered to be good enough - or to use Smith's words: "We could not find the greatness we'd hoped for". Many people left comments at the Willesden Herald blog to criticise/support this decision, but also to take issue with some of the things Smith said in her announcement. These are some of the bits that came in for scrutiny:
"I think there are few prizes of this size that would have the integrity not to award a prize when there is not sufficient cause to do so. Most literary prizes are only nominally about literature, they are really about brand consolidation – for beer companies, phone companies, coffee companies even frozen food companies."
"For I have thought, reading through these entries, that maybe the problem with this prize is that my name is attached to it. To be very clear: just because this prize has the words Willesden and Zadie hovering by it, does not mean that I or the other judges want to read hundreds of jolly stories of multicultural life on the streets of North London. Nor are we exclusively interested in cutesy American comedies, or self-referential post-modern vignettes, or college satires. To be even clearer: if these things turn up and are brilliantly written, they will not be ignored. But we also welcome all those whose literary sympathies lie with Rimbaud or Capote, with Irving Rosenthal or Proust, with Svevo or Trocchi, with Ballard or Bellow, Denis Cooper or Diderot, with Coetzee or Patricia Highsmith, with street punks or Elizabethans, with Southern Gothic or with Nordic Crime, with Brutalists or Realists, with the Lyrical or the Encyclopedic, in the ivory tower, or amongst the trash that catches in the gutter. We welcome everybody. We have only one principle here: MAKE IT GOOD. So, let’s try again, yes?"
Some British newspapers ran with the fact that Smith seemed to be criticising the very literary contests that had made her rich and famous. As well as the debate about the decision not to award the prize, some people (including me) voiced concern about how the contest had been run. I held the view that a shortlist had been agreed upon, with the various shortlisted people contacted, and that didn't necessarily need to be scrapped. This is what I said in my comment:
"This whole affair does seem very odd. I love this writing project and I love the motivation behind it (yay to no beer sponsorship), but I do have some observations to make.
The decision not to award the prize is one thing. I didn't read the stories. Maybe it is true that there was no pearl among them. I entered a story, but I'm ready to accept that not everyone will agree that it's the most fabulous story in the world and deserving of a £5,000 prize. (If you change your mind, Zadie, I'm still willing to accept the cash, OK?)
But seriously, I would suggest that a bit of a rethink is in order at the Willesden Herald on how this short story contest is run. I imagine the good people there are probably already doing this.
What a shame to have all these negative questions now about this "mystery" shortlist. It's just not good PR. It doesn't seem very open and transparent. Why not release this list? Why strip these people of this honour? The shortlist was published last year and it was promised in this year's rules. Does it follow that just because the top prize isn't awarded the shortlist should also be scrapped?
For a contest that wants to be seen as reputable and a promoter of excellence, putting up news on the website that a shortlist exists (albeit unannounced), only to then quickly take that message down seems to have been very unwise.
It is very clear that Zadie Smith didn't think much of the choices made by the readers who sifted through the 800 or so entries. Could the problem then have been with the choice/standard of the readers, and not with the standard of the entries? Is it possible that a pearl slipped through in the early reading? Nothing out of 800? Wow, that's something.
It seems very odd that a shortlist is arrived at - wouldn't we all love to read those entries now? - but the effort of the readers who chose them are dismissed. I hope the Willesden Herald reconsiders this. Maybe the anthology will go ahead?
Also, I wonder if the entry written by no other than Katherine Mansfield was spotted by the readers? Wouldn't that be something, if the celebrated work of a short story master was thrown out with the dishwater? Did it make it to the shortlist?
But, anyway, here's an idea. I reckon the shortlisted writers should get together anyway and publish their own anthology. I would definitely buy a copy."
Yes, you can see that I mentioned Katherine Mansfield. I didn't think too much about that little remark, assuming that people would know that I was just fooling around. Zadie Smith had talked about not finding any "greatness", and I wanted to make the point (with tongue firmly in cheek) that maybe, just maybe, they'd missed something. After all the controversy, the organisers decided to split the prize money with those on the shortlist. Then there was an announcement that no one in fact wanted to be publicly named as being on the shortlist of "mediocre" writers and no one wanted the money. The £5,000 went to charity instead.
The Sunday Times picked up on the row and ran this article, focusing on the fact that Zadie Smith seemed to bag literary awards:
But then imagine my surprise when I spotted this in the middle of the article:
Oh, dear! Yes, it seems my comment was seized upon by the journalist who wrote that article. But wouldn't he have contacted me to find out if I was being serious? Wouldn't he have dug a little further to find out more about this, and not just base his facts on a comment on a blog? My comment wasn't anonymous and there was a link back to my site. Did I really have to put up a flag on the comment and say THIS IS JUST A JOKE? Speaking as a journalist myself, I really think this should've been checked out. He could've run this by the organisers of the Willesden Herald contest. They clearly knew I had just been teasing, and didn't even have to check back with me to confirm that. Take a look at their response to the article on their site:
"It's not true that there was a story by Katherine Mansfield sent in, or rather that would seem to be a kite flown by one of our commenters in a teasing and jocular vein. I don't think Ms Mansfield has a workable email, under the rules, and seances are at best unreliable.
I think I have read all of KM's marvellous stories, seen and heard them performed, for example at last year's Small Wonder short story festival—a marvellous production of stories dramatised from "In A German Pension" with Andrew Sachs, the divine Eleanor Bron etc. I've read "Bliss and Other Stories" so many times that the old paperback copy on my shelf is falling to bits.
Unfortunately it is the case that the the entries from Hemingway, Nabokov, Carver, and Italo Calvino had to be regretfully disqualified on account of the authors being dead (in spite of representations that Raymond Carver's editor had cut the heart out of his work first time round). Most painfully, for me personally, Frank O'Connor too.
For next year, we will try to clarify the rule about the non-eligibilty of posthumous entries. In any case it appears that the entries in some of these cases did not represent their finest work."
I think there is a lesson here for all of us. When leaving a comment on the web about something controversial, I will now try to make it very obvious what is humour and what is not, even if that means I have to hit people over the head with explanation. Hopefully the journalist at The Sunday Times will not take things at face value. Hopefully he will take more time to check his sources and check with the people who stand to be cast in a bad light (the contest organisers). A couple of emails would've easily clarified things.
This story also touches on the whole debate about "blog wars", when people misunderstand the tone of what is being said, when humorous or light-hearted comments are mistaken for something more serious. We've probably all experienced it. We leave what we think is an innocent, fun comment, only to find out that it's been taken the wrong way and upset someone. I try to put smiley faces at the end of my comments now, just to ensure that people don't imagine any hostility or malicious intent.
Anyway, all of this has taken my mind off the fact that my short story didn't get anywhere in the contest. Never mind. Anyway, I would hate to be given the badge of "greatness". What a terrible thing to have to live up to!