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BBC International Short Story Award 2012

Wednesday 12 September 2012, 15:35

Di Speirs Di Speirs Editor, Readings

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Editor's note: The shortlist for the BBC International Short Story Award will be announced on Front Row on Friday 14 September at 7:15pm. Written by an exciting mix of authors, they reflect the very best in short story writing around the world today and can be heard on Radio 4 read by some of the nation's most popular actors from Monday 17th September. Here, the Editor of Readings for BBC Radio Drama, Di Speirs talks about the Award.

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It may not have the volume of the Olympic and Paralympic arrivals, but this month a small, elite group will be arriving in Britain in search of glory, recognition and an opportunity to mingle with their peers from around the world. This year's Short Story Award is, in this Olympic year, International, and so writers from Australia to South Africa, from Bulgaria to the US are now heading for the UK, and in the running for the BBC International Short Story Award 2012.

People have asked if it's any more difficult to judge far flung stories than usual, but the truth is that the same criteria apply, it's simply that we might travel further and penetrate different worlds. And in the past writers based here, like last year's winner, the Canadian D W Wilson, or British writers who live abroad like Clare Wigfall and James Lasdun have set stories beyond these shores. Nonetheless, this year there has been a significant shift in the entries and it's been a hugely enriching experience as a reader. From an aircraft crashed in a Mongolian desert to an exiled dictator of an unnamed African state, the stories and their authors have traversed the globe.

But in the end what we are looking for remains the same. Not only excellent and engaging writing that rings true, but an original story or a story with a new take on a familiar theme, a story that bears re-reading and that lingers in the mind. Looking back over the seven years of the Award so far, I still remember all the short-lists with great clarity. Taken as a whole, the body of past short-lists provide an object lesson in the breadth of possibility that the short story offers - in shape, tone, subject and style.

I'm still haunted by both the power and shock of Michel Faber's lost and lonely down-and-out in The Safehouse, in which Faber creates a parallel universe to our own more ordered lives, and by the creeping sense of abandon that surrounds another man on the edge, in Jon McGregor's If it Keeps on Raining. Both these stories give a sense of a whole life in a few pages and invite us to look at strangers in a new light.

The successful short story intimates so much more than it says. As a listener or reader we often fill in the gaps from the clues sown. A prime of example of this can be found in the 2009 winner, Kate Clanchy, whose supremely economical portrait of a mother's love for her son, The Not Dead and the Saved, is one of the most elegant and moving stories I have ever read. It takes courage and skill to skip time but here the emotional intelligence and compassion have the depth of a much longer piece, compressed to leave an entirely satisfying experience for the reader.

Humour is a trait sadly rather underused in the entries, despite appeals for it every year! Cut with pathos though, as in Jane Gardam's The People on Privilige Hill, or used with verve and an absolute sense of the absurd, as Julian Gough did in The Orphan and the Mob, it's a powerful tool as writers from Wodehouse to Thurber knew only too well.

I could go on - to the magic of Sara Maitland's fairytale Moss Witch or the compelling voice of Jane Rogers Hitting Trees with Sticks - a single handed performance piece in itself. It is invidious to single out some stories over others but I hope they'll serve both as a reminder of all that the short story can do and as a taster for what promises to be a smorgasbord of delights as the 2012 short list - at ten rather than five this year - comes on air from the 17th of September. As this year's writers jostle on the final starting line, I hope find that each and every one, past and present, offers something captivating and enticing for you to enjoy.

Di Speirs is Editor of Readings for BBC Radio Drama

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