Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Is It Fiction? The Toronto Star's Short Story Contest

Update:I think that a lot of people are clicking through trying to find information on the 2008 short story contest--the contest ending December 31, 2008. It can be found here, on the Star's website.

I got back from work on Sunday, and decided to read the newspaper. I get the Toronto Star. Its staff writers are just barely literate, but its columnists and feature writers are good. (You don't have to know how to write to be a journalist; you just need to know that CP style always uses "conflagration.")

The front page of the front section advised me to flip over to the back page where the third-place winner of the Star's short story contest could be found. The man had won $1,000 for his 2,000-ish-word story; he'd placed third out of about 1,000 entries. I figured, well, if 1,000 people had entered, then this might be worth my time. Third out of 1,000...it must be terrific prose. When'll I see it in the New Yorker?

But it was bad. It was so very bad. I love slagging writers, but I hate slagging writing. I believe that, even if it doesn't resonate with me, that doesn't mean that someone else won't say, "That's beautiful; that's exactly right." Some people like Virginia Woolf; some people like Philippa Gregory. That's fine. John Grisham is still a decent technical writer. He doesn't get flowery; he stays on his story.

But the Star's contest is just a mess of similes and metaphors. It's bad writing al dente.

"Now you need to listen to me very carefully. Listen to me as if your life depends on everything I say...Are you ready?"


"No matter what happens in the next few minutes, you will not hang up."

"I'm not going anywhere."

"You are correct. You are not going anywhere in life, either."

That's just a sample of the third-place winner's story. I don't want to use the author's name, because this is more about the quality of the contest than it is about the quality of the writer.

"I burned Dr. Papua's file in a steel drum behind my apartment building. Then I burned the rest of the files. I watched the paper curl in the heat and turn to ashes. My cellphone went in next. I stood back from the drum and watched. I don't know for how long. The cellphone battery exploded with a tinny bang that woke me to the night and the cold that was gathering its strength around me."

The Star's annual contest has a first prize of $5,000--a lot of money for a short story. Yet established writers never seem to win the thing. Don't you find that strange? The judging's blind, but would the tutors at the Ryerson centre for academic writing--the contest is judged by, yes, tutors at the Ryerson centre for academic writing--even know a Mavis Gallant if Joe Fiorito faxed it to them?

For $5,000 even established Canadian writers have to take a shot. (No, I didn't enter. Polygraph me if you want.) Is it because of the judging? Is it embarrassing to win this kind of contest? I guess it is. It's like publishing in Zanzinger's Inflatable Rafts Monthly. Second place goes to George Bowering; first place goes to a guy who wrote, "My eyes ached like a hundred throbbing sprained ankles, and the sun was as red as a peach that hadn't been picked in the harvest."

But I'll get to the best part: I know a guy who works at the Ryerson centre for academic writing. He's a tutor. A year ago I was out at a bar, and I saw him sitting at a table. I walked over, said hello. "What are you up to?" he asked. "Just reading," I said. "Oh, what?" "American Pastoral. I'm re-reading it, just for fun." "Who's that by?" "Philip Roth." "Right. I started that; didn't finish though. I got about twelve pages in." "Why?" "He wouldn't get to the point. He talked about everything. Too many words, you know. I hate when books just use so many words."

Two more weeks 'til we see the winner.


Caroline said...

The rules require that writers' names not be placed on the short story itself, presumably because they want the work to remain anonymous to judges so as not risk bias with established writers.

You should submit and see if they catch potential in you. If it means anything to you at all..

Additionally, I think they make their choices on POTENTIAL more than perfection..keep in mind a lot of those submissions have not been pored over by editors and skilled eyes. Think of it as canadian idol for writers..you gotta start somewhere.

Anonymous said...

Wow! I would really enjoy reading a sample of your writing! You must be amazing. In fact, if you are so critical of other people, you must be damned near perfect. Or, maybe you just think you are. Get over yourself Mister Canadian(ist).

Anonymous said...


Star blows five grand a year on unadulterated shit, year after year. It's a perfect record of shit.

You couldn't print such perfect shit if you were running the presses in a pigsty with slop for ink.

To find that much shit while blowing that much dough takes a kind of perfectly inverted genius.

You'd think at a minimum they'd be able to grasp they should use real writers to screen the drek pile; but then if they ever did publish something halfway literate their sub-moron IQ readership couldn't begin to understand what the fuck was being said (like these two geniuses commenting here).

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