I had some short stories, poems and photographs to share ... and so here I am

A Warning About Blog Comments

 

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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:


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But then imagine my surprise when I spotted this in the middle of the article:


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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!

46 comments:

Julie at Virtual Voyage said...

I could see the funny side of this, but your point is well meant and well taken.

Charles Gramlich wrote a post a couple of months ago about the complex factors involved in online communication in that we're stripped of most of the usual conversational 'cues' that guide people when online.

I think what makes it harder are cultural norms regarding such things as humour; and the fact that people often telegraph statements when making comments - just to save time - which means they are more likely to be misconstrued. I've come to the conclusion that care has to be taken when making any comment that could be taken negatively.

Good post. I find it helps to reflect on things were all half conscious of.

Nothingman said...

Journalism is funny my friend, and after spending two years learning the 5Ws and 1H, i'd chop own legs off than join a newspaper. Journalism has truly gone to dogs.

I have myself been a victim of lazy journalists who didn't bother to check with me before putting my name in print, oh well long story. My 2 paise, pseudonyms work best when posting comments on blogs, or, use a lot of :) :) :) to show u mean it in a funny way. or simple!!!111!!!!!!!!@!@!!!!!

:D

N

Lane said...

I followed the 'Willesden Debacle' and smiled like a loon when I saw your comment the other day.

You're right about a comment being taken the wrong way. I litter my comments with exclamation marks and smileys in complete overkill in the hope that they won't be taken the wrong way. You've got to credit people with some sense though and the Times guy would've ignored any amount of smilies to get his piece.


Re the competition,Jan Moir in the Telegraph made some harsh but I think fair comments here

Greatness?? You've got to work harder Seamus. You should know that!:-):-):-)etc:-):-):-)

Lane said...

here

Eric Valentine said...

I think that it good that you have a strong constitution and can stomche things like that Seamus.

The fact that you are a journalist yourself and a good writer for my vote, helps keep the humor side going. At least you showed a lot of class in the whole business. :)

What surrprises me is that she was "A Judge?" surely the organizers of the contest should have made the decision whether or not to award a prize? :(

Eric Valentine said...

Darn it! next time I post I'll take off my mittens! :)

Wanderlust Scarlett said...

Good heavens, what a monumental gaffe on the part of the British journalist!

Posthumorously regrettable.

I shall heed your advice and be careful about the comments I post.

;o)

Scarlett & Viaggiatore

PS~it's very good to be back, missed your wit, humor, piano, art and mostly your photos.

Debi said...

Ha! & yikes! & oops!

Shameless said...

Julie - Yes, I've seen some pretty blistering exchanges on the net, and often when you take a look back at where it all started there were just an untamed comment taken the wrong way.

Nothingman - Journalism. Mmmmmmm. That's a big debate I couldn't even begin to go into. But I think the person who invented the smilies and LOL for the net is a hero! :-)

Lane - Yes, I am still thriving for greatness! :-) I have creams and potions I put in the bath, but it seems to be taking forever to see the results. :-)x 30!

Eric - Oh, you're right about the need to have the stomach for it. But I think we just have to take these things in our stride. I end up laughing at most of these little titbits of life! :-)

Wanderlust - Hey!! Wow!! So good to see you around and about. :-)x 20.

Debi - LOL. Well said!

ChristineEldin said...

I still don't think you wrote anything wrong. What you said was completely taken out of context. More than that, it's not even what you said. Humor or not.

A good caution though. I'm pretty casual around friends' blogs, and I really have to rein myself in when posting on agent's blogs, etc.

Oh well....


Maybe a short story about this event will win a competition?
;-)

laurie said...

oh my gosh!

i am very glad i am not that reporter.

oh my gosh.

you're right that irony doesn't translate well to blog comments; you need to understand who is making the comment to determine whether or not he is being ironic. it's all in the character and the delivery, both of which are invisible in blog comments.

but despite that, for cripe's sake, that reporter should have checked.

holy moly.

you have started an international incident, i fear.

Shameless said...

Christine - Thanks for your words of support! :-) Yes, amazing how one little comment can go so far!

Laurie - Yes! Cripes! And holy moly! Oh, well, only thing for it is a nice cup of tea! :-) lol

Billy said...

Seamus, what an incredible tale. And it was a great piece of journalism, as a matter of fact--the way you related the whole thing. Great post.

Part of your post reminded me of how grad students have typed an author's magnum opus (sometimes a classic) in manuscript form--standard grad prank--and submitted it to the original publisher, only to have it rejected as a "nice first effort but not quite there yet. This was done a few years ago with a Pulitzer prize winning novel. Was rejected.

Anyway, with no inflection, I am with you on all the smiley faces -:)

bleeding espresso said...

Oh my goodness! Thankfully you didn't write anything more controversial...or about someone alive ;)

Shameless said...

Billy - Thanks. Yes, I've seen this done a few times ... which is probably where my comment came from ... and each time the masterpieces seem to have been rejected outright! :-)

Sognatrice - You're right! If the journo took that comment verbatum, imagine if it had been something sensational!

Anonymous said...

Fascinating story - the papers just want a controversy, it seems to me. I made some jokes on my blog, in the early days, about my terrors about being copy-edited by Macmillan New Wrtiting, and my own stress about the arrival of the proofs. Because the papers were lining up to have a pop at MNW, they jumped on my perhaps ill-advised jocularity. I found myself in a column in the Times (hmm, some pattern emerging here?). They did not seem to realise that my little story of me hiding behind the sofa and speaking to my wife via walkie-talkie as she looked at the proofs in the kitchen, was actually A JOKE!

Anyhow, that's all water under the bridge now.

As a journalist, you must find it interesting/chilling to find yourself in the story, rather simply relating the story?

Oh, and by the way, Shameless - do you ever have any writing-related dreams? I'm trying to collect them over at my blog.

Best wishes,

Roger

L.M.Noonan said...

A well desrved rash of comments to your post Seamus. This kind of thing seems to occur with alarming frequency these days, which is why I don't read the papers and only watch the news to see if the bloody rain is EVER going to stop. The judge could have split the prize two or three ways if he'she felt the standard was so low... beitch (you can quote me)

katcampbell said...

This news is frustrating on many levels. It feels so unethical to run a contest and then not award the prize, but to lift a blog comment and not check a source! My editor would slam dunk me for such a thing. I've had a few comments taken wrong by fellow bloggers...even with the smiley face!

Minx said...

I had almost forgotten why I stopped reading newspapers.
Who is to say that any of it was true in the first place? The last I heard was that Zadie Smith had a sex change and was living Outer Mongolia as 'Bernie'!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Shameless said...

Roger - Yes, there is always a danger for a journalist when it comes to what's a joke and what's not. LOL! And yes, it's funny to see this kind of thing happen ... knowing how things should be done. :-) Good to have you stop by, Roger.

Loretta - Yes, I can only see the funny side of this - but that's because I'm seeing it from the inside! And that blasted rain! It's still coming down? ! Jeez. :-)

Kat - Yes, this piece does bring up lots of issues, which is why I thought it would make a nice piece. It's a minefield out there! LOL.

Shameless said...

Minx - Hi! You just ducked in there between messages. :-) Hahaha. Yes, maybe the contest never even existed! I did see a comment somewhere saying that perhaps Zadie Smith wasn't the judge and the stories were not even read. Maybe it was all a hoax by that blog, loooking to up its stats! Now, that would be a good story for The Sunday Times! :-) (Um, this is just a joke, Mr ST Reporter, in case you ever read this!)

Art Durkee said...

I think this tends to happen more often when The Print Media don't check their sources as carefully, but rush to publication. That's nothing new, although it has perhaps accelerated as a trend post Web 2.0.

Seamus, I for one would reiterate that you carry no guilt for your writings, and I would caution you against modifying yourself too much to fit the stupidities of others. I understand your points, and they are well-taken, but I have just been through a serious brouhaha myself about a recent poem of mine that caused a firestorm—so I am well up to speed on the Law of Unintended Consequences. The fact is: as much as we try, we cannot control how our words are received by others; how they are interpreted or misinterpreted. The best we can do, which I think is what you're emphasizing, if I understand correctly, is to be as clear as we can up front about our writings—what we think they are, what we intend them to be. But after that, we have to let go of them, for real.

But I wouldn't go overboard. It's also a symptom of the times that people are rushing so fast that they have become lazy about thinking things out for themselves. This is unfortunately true for journalists and readers, as well as it is for the general populace.

Ah well.

aims said...

I'm wondering what kind of 'standards' make for a good short story these days. Hard to believe out of 800+ writers - not one was worthy of the prize. I wonder what she was looking for?

Shameless said...

Art - Very wise words. You're right that I shouldn't feel guilty - I feel more amused to be honest. I also feel a bit embarrassed for the journalist who leaped on my Mansfield mutterings. But yes, when there's a controversial subject at hand (ie, potential for over-sensitive reactions), I will attempt to be more precise. After that, they make what they will! :-)

Aims - Yes, that's what many said in the comments to Smith's announcement. Was it realistic to even hope for "greatness"?

Vanessa G said...

Hi

I sat there at breakfast last weekend, read the Sunday Times, and thought, "huh? I'm sure that was Shameless. I'm sure he was kidding..."

Extraordinary, the whole episode. And it continues in today's Sunday Times. A novelist judge of some prize I'd never heard of seems to be saying that her panel decided on the criteria for judging AFTER the work was sent in, including Whie Teeth.

And that the criteria they chose was not 'good writing' among other things, but 'ambition and scope'.

And that it was thought that White Teeth might not need any more awards, so asked Zadie Smith to withdraw it. And she didn't so they had to give it to her..

and if she had withdrawn her work, they could have given it to a writer who deserved the prize much more...

I have to say I didn't see the logic. Or understand the need for the letter, other than the usual writing world stuff.

But there you go.


------------

However... another thing I never understand is the papers crowing that work by 'Jane Austen' or another writer of the classics is not immediately jumped on by today's publishers.

Wouldn't it be just a tad out of date, style-wise? Why on earth would they 'go for it' anyway??

Shameless said...

Vanessa - I'm glad there are some others out there who could see straight away that I was just kidding (including those at the Willesden Herald). I am in the corner now, with my pointy hat on ... although I have to say that I'm smiling! And re the letter in today's paper - yes, I am confused. This seems very strange. :-)X40.

Anonymous said...

Don't be too hard on yourself. I'm a longtime U.S. journalist, and there's a saying in the profession: "If your mother says she loves you, check it out."

The reporter fell down on the job by not confirming this "fact." At the very least, he could have found how which story it was, who sent it in, and so forth.

The Quoibler said...

Shameless:

This is a riot! I think it's fabulous that the journalist obviously didn't have a clue... or didn't "clue in", anyway.

It's funny for so many reasons, and your points are well-taken. Great post, Seamus!

Angelique

Cailleach said...

Grr, I had a great big comment typed out here and lost the whole text because of blogger!

The gist of it was: how intriguing to find out you were behind the K MAnsfield part of the report I read last week; that this nonsense of greatness coming from a competition is highly over-rated; and that you might consider the Davy Byrne competition in Dublin - google it - it's a huge prize and you won't be getting the 'oh, it's not good enough' guff when it comes to awards. :) :X :S (does that cover all my tones of voice?)

Shameless said...

Anonymous - Hello and welcome! Yes, it wasn't like there was no way of following up my comment. My photo was attached and there was a link back to my site, where my email address is on display. I would've happily put him straight about the Mansfield line, before it went to press and got read by I-don't-know-how-many people! :-) I also love the line about checking out if your mother says she loves you! lol

Quoibler - Thanks for the kind words. It's true that most riots can be avoided! :-) lol

Cailleach - Isn't it a pain when long comments are gobbled up. I always "copy" the text of a long comment before hitting publish, just in case the system gets stuck. That way a simple click on "paste" saves me having to repeat myself. lol. And thanks, I must check out that contest. :-)

chiefbiscuit said...

FASCINATING indeed. Wow! And still it unravels, going by the comment re confusing letters. I'd say you'd have to have a lot of arrogance / confidence in your own judgement to be able to say there was nothing worth rewarding. (And I'm not smiling.)

Shameless said...

CB - Yes, I would be too scared that people would rush off to take a look at my own short stories, to see whether the greatness is evident in my own work. :-) But do you need to be a great footballer to spot a great footballer? lol :-)

Monique said...

This is such a good post. What can I add? The obvious perhaps? Blogs are worldwide and therefore something what is humourous in one country can be perceived as rude in another. For instance, I had a comment once saying that that particular blogger had little time for middle ditch (my other blog). Was I insulted? No! This was a Dutchman and in his language it was not meant as it would have been perceived by an Englishman (no time meaning rubbish), it sincerely was meant "I have little time for listening".

Shameless said...

Monique - Hello and welcome! I'm glad you liked the post. Yes, humour is not always universal, as many of us have probably discovered. There has to be lots of forgiveness on the net, I think, or at least a little understanding. Hopefully we are all doing out bit to make the world smaller. :-)

Sarah Hina said...

Fascinating anecdote, Seamus. Oh, what a tangled web blog comments weave. ;)

Kind of scary as a reflection of journalistic integrity. But funny, nonetheless.

I love Zadie Smith's books, but gimme a break. Put out the short-list already. Give these writers some credit.

Shameless said...

Sarah - LOL. We could call it the wwtw ... the world wide tangled web! :-) Too late for the shortlist now though ... they all told the organisers to bugger off with the prize money and publicity, apparently.

Marja said...

I think it's quite funny but also serious I agree completely with you that things should have been checked out and I've heard more stories that witnesses didn't get checked out and untruth revealed in papers. Worse me and my mother were followed once in Germany for an article about increased tourism to that city. We sent them away (they followed our every step)
Lateron my parents got the article given to them with our photo. half of it was completely made up. Scary

Homor is sometimes very subtel. I had to be careful a lot when I came here. I realised that I was so used to mild sarcasm and found that I was suddenly offending people. Strange awareness.

Dan and Wendy said...

For crying out loud, if British journalists are so gullible, I'm going to start posting on my blog that Ernest Hemingway and Katherine Mansfield, just last week, read one of my posts and just adored it...I'll be published in no time. Are British journalists aware that Hemingway passed away? Here's hoping they don't fact check that one.

Anyway, I came to your blog because I was recently given a Roar For Powerful Words award, and traced the origins back to you.

Thank you.

Shameless said...

Marja - How awful to be followed like that - and just for article on increased journalism? ! I think it would give anybody a heart attack! :-)

Dan and Wendy - Welcome! Good to have you stop by. And I'm thrilled that you were recipients of the lions roar! Excellent. :-) Yes, gullible is the right word here re the Mansfield business. lol.

Jessica Schneider said...

You didn't do a thing wrong, and it's their fault for not checking more carefully. Makes me wish KM had been in there, but yet doubtful they would have recognized the "quality". And I always got a chuckle at the thought of Zadie Smith judging writing. She is simply atrocious.

Dan had a similar thing happen to him when one of his Omnisonnets ms. was tossed aside by judge W.S. Merwin.
http://cosmoetica.com/Omni1.htm

No prize was awarded--similar reasons. It's all about popularity, not quality.

Shameless said...

Jessica - Yep, check check check and then don't trust it. Short cuts always cost us! :-)

Marja said...

Ha ha that's funny especially about increased journalism yes.

leslie said...

Far be it for me to be the suspicious one, but I thought 'fake contest' at the outset.
There was too much backpeddling about giving out the prize money. Anyone that organizes a contest knows that the prize has to be awarded regardless of the entries.
A tad smelly.

Will it now be reported that I think Katherine Mansfield is smelly? :)

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