Beautiful Animals: Theorising and Defining The Short Story (In Under 1000 words)

This short essay was written in advance of an event at the 2014 Dublin Writers’ Festival. The event, “The Art of the Short Story” was a conversation between Nuala Ní Chonchúir and Mike McCormack, chaired by Stinging Fly editor, Thomas Morris. 

—By Thomas Morris, editor of The Stinging Fly

Whenever a critic writes about the short-story form, they seem to always begin by saying, “There’s a dearth of critical study on short stories.” And if we’re comparing them to novels—which always seems to be the case—perhaps it’s true. But if you look hard enough, there’s actually a hell of a lot written about the short-story form. Granted, it’s mostly precious stuff about it being a “higher” Art than the Novel, and then some deathly-dull thing about short stories being connected with the “oral tradition”—but it’s not a critically-neglected form. It’s just a form in need of new critical ideas.

As a reader and writer, I see myself primarily as a short-story person. I become very quiet when I’m amongst a group of people talking about novels and novelists. For a long time, I thought it was testament to something lacking in me—that I surely couldn’t be interested enough in books if I hadn’t read seventy-eight John Updike novels. And the feeling remained for a long time: how could I even begin the journey to identify as a writer if I didn’t read all these books that other people were telling me were so great?

But I’ve had my counselling sessions and I’ve arrived at a belief that feels both banal and true: sometimes we need short stories and sometimes we need novels. Frank O’Connor, in The Lonely Voice (sigh; another reference to that bloody book), speaks of people reading novels to assuage loneliness. In contrast, he says, people come to short stories to confront their loneliness. (A typical O’Connor dichotomy: sensible-sounding at first, but increasingly—and fruitfully—problematic on reflection.) He then goes on to talk specifically about what short stories do and, in trying to characterize their essential activity, he quotes Pascal—“the eternal silence of those infinite spaces frighten me”. It’s a knotty quotation, and one I’ve struggled to understand for a long time. But I’ve now chosen to believe it describes a sensation akin to those impalpable headspace-lonelinesses, those moments of half-clarity you get when you’re drunk and alone in a night-club toilet, sending text messages to yourself. Or when you find yourself walking around the supermarket feeling utterly despondent for reasons you can’t quite fathom.

And I do seem to encounter moments like these more often and more intensely in short fiction. Firstly, in the crises experienced by the characters, and thereafter magically, vicariously, I experience it for myself through the act of reading. In this regard, I think there is truth in O’Connor’s assertion that we come to short stories to stare head-on at our loneliness. Maybe that’s why novels are less defined by this encounter: we would struggle to sustain such a confrontation over a longer duration. (And perhaps that’s why the novella/short novel has been the ideal length for so many great twentieth-century tales of alienation?) But again, I’m falling foul of a common misconception here: that short stories need defending or explaining against novels. They don’t. And we shouldn’t compare the two: they’re like chalk and Jesus.

But if you do happen to buy O’Connor’s argument that short stories loneliness, a more interesting question is one about the nature of loneliness. And specifically, I believe, the nature of loneliness as we experience it today. How do you begin to understand, for example, what’s happening in your head when you skype with someone you love, and who just happens to live 3000 miles away? Is this a different kind of mind-confusion to receiving a letter from said loved one? What about a text message?

In its continual negotiation with loneliness, the short story form—broadly understood—is one that has been consistently concerned with the Self and its relation with itself. Sometimes, to a frustrating, solipsistic, head-up-its-own-arse degree. (We’ve all read the contrived mouse-trap short stories, with the built-in character epiphany which clunks down on the tale’s tail-end.) But the nature of self is changing. And our stories should—and will—change accordingly.

 *

Of course, everything I’ve written so far is a lie.

You cannot trust a writer to tell you what’s what in fiction. Essentially, all writers are propagandists for their own work and their own concerns. They will tell you ‘x is really about y’ because their sole interest is ‘y’—they see it and read it into everything. It’s why they write about ‘y’, and why they talk so bloody much about it.

And for every ‘y’, there’s a ‘z’ and a ‘p’ or a ‘zp’ or ‘pz’ and so on. For each short-story-theme brought forth, you can name a dozen authors whose work exhibits the very opposite traits.

If I’m being honest, I don’t believe there are any suitable definitions for a short story—any such ark would be too small to house such beautiful animals. As with our definitions of Art, we’ve made it all up: it, too, is just a story! And a story—I actually do believe this—can be absolutely anything it deigns to be; or rather, anything we understand it as. So long as it’s believable, wholly incredible, deals with a character in crisis or stasis, takes place over one day or a hundred years, contains revelation and denial, experiments with form, sings like a pop song, reveals a human truth, moves us to tears, makes the familiar strange, the strange familiar, asks difficult questions, resists easy answers, and ends with the low thud of a slammed door, or the high-pitched squeak of another opening…

 

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Thomas Morris devised and edited Dubliners 100: Fifteen New Stories Inspired By The Original  (Tramp Press, June 2014). His debut story collection, We Don’t Know What We’re Doing, will be published by Faber & Faber in 2015.

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10 Writers On The Bad Advice They Chose To Ignore

The Stinging Fly

A google search for ‘writing tips’ provides 1.9 million results. And you can’t walk down a Twitter-street without someone proffering their #WritingTips (we’re even guilty of it ourselves). But one of the most difficult tasks is learning how to filter the good from the bad, and the useful from the not-quite-so-useful-at-the-moment.

So we asked ten authors to share an experience of counsel that isn’t/wasn’t all that constructive. (Bearing in mind that one man’s baguette is another man’s reminder of his gluten intolerance…)

Write The Book Only You Can Write!

—Colin Barrett

Advice I’ve heard more than once, in different scenarios, and which I’ve always thought to be wary of, more than anything because of the scope for misinterpretation, is the idea that you must ‘write the book only you can write’. Broadly speaking I suppose, there is behind this tautology the relatively benign notion that you should write to your ‘strengths’ (another slippery conger of a concept) but too often I think writers can succumb to the illusion that Book X is the one they must write. It is The One. And so they hang onto it for too long, whether in terms of physically writing it, or pursuing its publication thereafter. There are plenty of legitimate examples of such tenacity paying off, of course, but as dismaying (and habitually necessary) as it is to admit defeat in a given project, with that capitulation/emancipation comes access to one of the few consolations the living, failing scribbler can reliably know: the next thing can, or may, or might be better.

Play The Game!

—Eimear McBride

While in the midst of my dystopian publication nightmare, a—considerably more successful and critically lauded—writer went to pains to impress upon me the paramount importance of choosing single word titles because ‘that’s what’s in fashion now’ which, for me, displays a combination of such industrial-strength savvy and soul-crunching cynicism that I’ve never since been able to pass a display of their impecuniously-titled novels without a rush of infuriated blood to the head.

Don’t Be Selfish!

—Billy Ramsell

‘Don’t be selfish’—that’s one you hear a lot, especially growing up from parents, guardians, teachers and so on. It’s terrible advice for writers though. Writing practically demands that one exhibit a high degree of selfishness. Not I hasten to add with regard to money, prizes and acclaim but when it comes to time, that most definitively finite of commodities. Can you taste it in the back of your mouth? The almost tangibly metallic tang of wasted time as you sit there reading this blog? Writing, especially for those of us not in the position to go at it full-time, requires a maniacal degree of possessiveness about your every spare quarter hour. It means letting down and fobbing off lovers and dependents, cousins and confidants. You have to master the gentle art of inflicting disappointment.

Be More Specific!

—Dimitra Xidous

I used to be part of a writer’s group back in Canada—myself, four other women and one man. One evening, I brought in a poem, ending on the lines:

I confess that I laid myself down then

like a dog, for love

The women ‘got’ it. Understood what I meant by ‘like a dog’. The man kept asking ‘how, like a dog’ exactly? He wanted me to make it explicit, to take away all the ambiguity—which, to my mind, and to the other members’ minds—was the reason the poem worked.  He went on—‘was it salivating’, was it ‘hungry’ etc. And everything he suggested only served to lessen the impact.

Needless to say, I did not take him up his advice—I left it. I know what ‘like a dog’ means to me—and it may or may not have meant the same thing to the other women in the group. I wouldn’t dream of taking the pleasure that ambiguity, when used well (and I am going to go out on a limb here and say that in this case, I’ve used it well) affords a reader to come to their own conclusion as to what dog-like thing love can sometimes turn us into. It is different for everyone. Making something like that explicit makes assumptions about love, the experience of it, not to mention the reader/audience. Now, this is not to say I am advocating for more ambiguity in poetry—it is a difficult thing to use and use well.

But in this poem’s case, I think it works because of that metaphor. Gauging by the man’s reaction, I think, yes, in this case, the use of ambiguity is perfect.

Stay Clear Of The Following Things!

—Daniel Seery

When I was nine, our class went on a trip to Clara Lara Fun Park. Before we went, my mother took me aside and told me to stay clear of any water. Of course she wasn’t to know that every activity in Clara Lara was based around water. Being a literal kind of a child I dodged the rafts and the water slide and the swings dangling above the lake. I spent my day continuously walking back and forth under a tunnel, the only dry place in the park.

If my mother had seen Clara Lara for herself I’m sure her advice would have been different. ‘Don’t drown yourself!’ or ‘Don’t drown anyone else!’—or some other equally useful tip.

I guess the same concept applies to writing—the whole idea of taking inflexible advice before you fully understand where you’re going, before you are 100% sure what your novel is going to be about, before a word has even been written.

e.g. Do not use flashbacks. Do not use mannerisms in your dialogue. Do not write a novel over 100,000 words. Do not have a domestic pet as a central character!

For me, writing doesn’t work well with limitations. Writers have the luxury of making mistakes. We have been given the gift of editing. And I prefer to leave the editing until I actually have something to edit.

Do Something Else Instead!

—Nuala Ní Chonchúir

People love to advise writers. I get the following said to me: (1) ‘You should write in Irish.’ (2) ‘Write a book for children!’ and (3) ‘Write one of them chick-lits and earn a fortune.’

No, no and no.

I tried (1) — I wrote a few poems in Irish but my heart wasn’t in it; I don’t think through Irish so find it unnatural to write in it.

(2) I was commissioned by a publisher to write a kids’ book, but I just couldn’t muster interest in the project so it didn’t get very far.

As for (3), I don’t read chick-lit so wouldn’t have the first idea how to write that kind of book.

We write what we write and it’s distracting and time-consuming to follow other paths. I’m happy where I am, and I will only veer away from that if an excellent opportunity—one that I am fully enthused about—comes up.

Quit What You’re Doing!

—Rob Doyle

Ages ago, an editor urged me to leave behind the motifs that recurred consistently in my fiction at the time—sexual obsession, strippers, earnest young literary men with porn fixations—and represent the day to day experiences of people from a similar social background to my own. I briefly gave this a try, but found, as I have found with so many things in life, that I just couldn’t be fucked. What is clear to me now is that, as an artist of any kind, all you really have are your obsessions, fascinations and perversions, and the way to artistic self-definition is to be trenchantly faithful to them. All the rest is dreary obligation: in other words, community service.

Three Classic Pieces of Advice!

—Niamh Boyce

1) Write What You Know!

This one makes my soul shrink. Write what I know? What do I know? Oh hell, I’m so limited! If I write what I know—my books will be minuscule novellas of doom. Not even doom, my life’s too dull for doom… I wish I was a Parisian. Maybe I should learn—I don’t know—to trapeze before I even think about starting to write. I’ve never bungee-jumped or taken acid at an orgy. I’ve never even been invited to an orgy. I prefer, ‘Write anything you damn well like…’ That’s different. That I can do.

2) Find Your Voice!

This one irritates me. By listening to my characters, I hope that each piece of work, each novel, each story, will have its own distinctive voice. I know it’s not a completely rational response, but I don’t even like the sound of this advice. And years since I first heard it, I still don’t know what it means. Find what voice? What’s to find? Don’t I have a voice? (Or am I channelling Victor Meldrew’s here?) And, why does a writer need a Voice with a capital V? Doesn’t a writer give voice to her characters? Aren’t they the important ones?

3) You Need A Room Of Your Own! (Sorry Virginia!)

Who doesn’t want a room? Make mine a red boudoir, with a coffee maker, a balcony and an open fire. But for now, and the foreseeable future, I don’t have a room and I’m getting along fine. So, don’t wait till conditions are perfect, or even half-perfect. Don’t wait for the room, the cash, the time, the space or the ‘inspiration’ … write on loo roll if you have to. Use spare minutes. Writing can be done anywhere, almost. After all, when De Sade was stuck, he used his blood as ink and the walls of his cell as parchment… you and I don’t have to stretch that far (unless we want to) but let’s not wait for that illusive room. Life’s too short, there’s work to be done.

Have Something To Say!

—Gavin Corbett

I’m not sure if anyone has ever said this to me directly, but I regularly enough come across the advice that a writer ‘should have something to say’, which I think is terrible guidance. Writers who write because they have nothing to say are my favourite kind. If you’re uncertain about your place in the world, about how you feel about the world, then that’s the best starting point of all. In the process of figuring it out, you’ll create something valuable. Revel in the noise-making, and in the feel of the words under your nails, and don’t worry about what you’re ‘saying’. Let others decide on that.

Wait Your Turn!

—Sarah Maria Griffin

During my MA in Writing, we had a guest speaker in. She was a poet. At this point I was twenty-two and absolutely tenacious, I really wanted to get my start. I asked, during the Q&A at the end, how does a person go about getting a book of poetry in the world? I mean, it’s a green question, sure. I was only a bit more of a kid than I am today. I honestly wanted to know, because it’s something I wanted to do. Make a book.

She replied, slightly scornfully, that one usually had to be asked. It wasn’t as simple as just going and getting a book put out there. You had to wait. You can’t really just go and do it. That’s not done. You had to be asked for a collection, you didn’t just make one. I took this to heart pretty badly and felt embarrassed for quite a while for even imagining that I was someone who should even be considering putting a book out in the world. This moment was gatekeeping at its finest, and it’s a terrible thing to tell any young writer.

Stop telling people to wait. Tell them to work hard, make good art, and wake up fighting. Tell them to staple together a chapbook and sell it five quid a pop—like a musician would with a home-recorded EP or a mixtape, tell them to put their studio headphones on! Tell them to write query letters and go to readings and meet people and make friends and network and write and write and really, really, wake up fighting and make good art. Don’t tell them it’s not as simple as going and making a book. It’s exactly that simple.

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Colin Barrett’s debut collection, Young Skins, is published by The Stinging Fly in Ireland and by Jonathan Cape in the UK.

Niamh Boyce’s debut novel, The Herbalist, won the 2013 Bord Gais Irish Book Awards Newcomer of the Year.

Gavin Corbett’s second novel, This Is The Way, won the 2013 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year.

Rob Doyle’s debut novel, Here Come The Young Men, will be published in May (Lilliput Press). His review of Markus Werner’s Zúndel’s Exit appears in our current issue and can be read here.

Sarah Maria Griffin’s poetry collection Follies was pubished by Lapwing Press. Her latest book, Not Lost: A Story About Leaving Home, is published by New Island.

Eimear McBride’s debut novel, A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, is published by Galley Beggar Press. The novel won the Goldsmiths Prize for Fiction 2013 and is currently shortlisted for many more awards.

Nuala Ní Chonchúir’s second novel, The Closet of Savage Mementos, will be published in Spring 2014 by New Island. Nuala guest-edited the fiction in our current issue.

Billy Ramsell’s second poetry collection, The Architect’s Dream of Winter, is published by Dedalus Press. His essay on Patrick Galvin appears in our current issue and can be read here.

Daniel Seery’s debut novel, A Model Partner, has just been published by Liberties Press.

Dimitra Xidous’ debut poetry collection, Keeping Bees, is forthcoming with Doire Press. Dimitra is the featured poet in our current issue.

(Stinging Fly) Editorial Statement: A Tingling Pleasure

by new editor of the Stinging Fly Thomas Morris

My attitude towards manifestos is the same as it is towards birthday parties: I like attending other people’s, but I’m not that keen on organising my own.

To carry the birthday metaphor a yard further (and a yard too far) I’ll say this: for a magazine editor, the submissions period is a bit like one long curious birthday. All the stories come tumbling in on a certain date(s), and so long as they remain unopened, each gift remains full of promise.

But this is where the metaphor comes a cropper: your stories shouldn’t be gifts especially designed for a particular editor. Your stories are something you’re giving the world (or at least the small part of the world that still reads short fiction). And while I enjoy receiving what I have asked for (a CD, a bear clad in a tweed jacket, a 2,500-word neat and tidy short story about love and loss), it’s always so much better to be blown away by a gift—some strange but perfect object—I never knew existed, but now, gleaming there in my hands, already seems utterly essential, appears to have always existed, and makes me wonder how I ever got by without it.

Of course, though, some gifts are double-edged: we give them to others because we want them for ourselves. And we need this initial excuse of the other person, the recipient, because we think to give a gift to one’s self is selfish and indulgent.

And this brings us to one of the big questions: for whom are we writing?

Which Brings Me To Two Points:

1. You have to be aware of how you’re being received (without getting hung up on it).

2. But you also have to trust your own taste. (And always be striving to broaden, improve, and surprise those tastes.)

*

Know Your Weapons

George Saunders compares writing a short story to trying to persuade a friend to stay, to not leave town. When you’re writing a story, Saunders asks, what weapons of persuasion do you have to keep the reader from turning away? For Saunders himself, it’s his humour and self-consciousness—he says he tries to keep his imaginary friend from boarding that train by firing out jokes and second-guessing all the reasons she might have for taking leave. For a story-writer like Mary Costello, meanwhile, the weapon of choice might be a startling insight, some stab that gets to the heart of how we all behave, of what it is her almost-departing friend really wants. For Colin Barrett, it might be a concession that, ‘Yes, friend, we’re all lonely—I’m lonely too, come back and be lonely with me…’

The artillery, then, can be as varied as the people wielding them. But as a writer, the trick is to get to know what your strengths are—and then harness them. Push them and hone them, get them working full tilt. But likewise, it’s important to know the effect of particular strategies: through emotional manipulation or melodrama, for example, you might persuade the friend to stay a while, but they’ll eventually grow tired and see your game for what it is. So, don’t talk down to them, don’t give them a half-hearted reason for staying around, and don’t spent time talking about the things that don’t matter—but likewise, suss out the mood, see what needs doing, what needs saying. Each friend and each train-station-chat requires a different approach.

Which Brings Me To Editing

Editing isn’t just cutting out a few words, or changing a few details, or re-aligning all the colours in your story for symbolic resonance. It’s about being really fucking harsh and asking if what you have on the page is the best you can do.

  • Is the way you’ve told this story the best (most meaningful, most fertile, most troubling) way to tell it?
  • Might it work better in the past tense?
  • Do you need that first paragraph?
  • What’s the latest point this story can begin?
  • Is the story actually interesting? (I can’t stress this one enough.)
  • Are you writing in a particular tone because you think it will afford you a certain ‘literary respect’? A tone that—were it a shirt—would be a little too tight or too baggy for you?
  • Is your writing true? (Not in the sense of ‘not a lie’, but is it, as Grace Paley said, ‘acutely felt’?)
  • Are the stakes high enough?
  • Is this a story you really need to tell?
  • And what about that ending? Are you giving the reader too much? Too little? (Every writer will at some point struggle with the problem of getting the volume of a story right—is it too loud, too obvious? Too subtle, too quiet? This is where the agonising of the words, details and the colours-as-symbolic-resonance bit is so important.)

Of course, what I’m talking about here is craft—technique, form—and the molding of form and content and theme, of having these things work in sync to carry the story’s concerns.

There are other things I could talk about, too, like stereotype and bad writing:

Men: look at your female characters—are they there merely to annoy or titillate your male characters?

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Women: are your men unsympathetic voids concerned with work conferences and groping their tired partners in bed?

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Everyone: are you older characters de-sexed, useless things that don’t understand technology or the world they live in?

*

—Is your protagonist a writer who deserves more acclaim?

*

— Does your character lie in bed not knowing what to do?

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—Have you avoided or skipped over some detail in the narrative because it’s too fidgety and complicated? (Hint: complication is where you find verisimilitude.)

As a reader and writer of short stories, I have been to all these above towns and I can tell you they’re no good. (But, also, that there are at least twenty brilliant stories that start or situate themselves amongst the problems that rise in these locales. e.g. Kakfa’s ‘Metamorphosis’ is the best example of what to do with a character lying in bed. So, if you’re going to do any of these things, you’d better make sure the story is brilliant, that you de-trope the trope.)

But again, these problems of techniques and tropes aren’t the reason we, as readers, come to fiction. (Or are they? What do you come to fiction for? Do you want your writing to be doing the same things as the fiction you love reading? Do you even have control over what you write?) Consider why you come to stories—to read them and write them—and then hold yourself to the highest standards of those concerns. (I personally don’t care if they happen to be political, transcendental, spiritual, intellectual, aesthetic, comic, cosmic, cryptic or anything else ending in c or l — I just want (cliché alert) to read great stories.)

Some Points That Might Seem Obvious But Still Need To Be Made

  1. If you get bored by ‘plots’, don’t write ‘plots’.
  2. If you don’t like description, don’t write description.
  3. If you find third person annoying, don’t write in the third person.
  4. Don’t feel as if you have to tailor your work to fit the mould of what’s gone before.
  5. If your view of the world isn’t represented in fiction, it’s not because it isn’t valid—every view is valid (providing the writing is good)—so give it to us, and give it to us as best as you can make it.
  6. Etc

I’m not an art historian, and I haven’t read the literature on how and why Picasso went from painting these:

7aB0mad.jpg                  wJg9Zin.png

to painting these:

Mirm40D.jpg     Idxegtb.jpg

(there’s that bed again)

But I’m sure that part of Picasso’s development as an artist consisted in finding a way to convey what he wanted/needed to convey (I happen to think all four paintings are rather nice). And for anyone trying to write, that search for ideal form involves taking risks, and moving into territories that may be unfamiliar, or trying out approaches you didn’t know you had, or approaches you did know you had but didn’t know you were allowed to use—and letting yourself enter the state that Donald Barthelme described as ‘Not-Knowing’.

Do The Defining Yourself, Then Share It With Us (Please)

There are as many definitions of the short story as there are writers and critics of the short story. For example:

it’s a glimpse

it’s a photograph

it’s a form devoted to loneliness

it’s a weekend break

it’s best suited to explorations of Self

it’s about moments of change

it’s character-driven

it’s about paring everything down to its element

it’s about language

it’s concerned with moments of realisation

But while there are some loads—solely because of its length—that the form might struggle to bear, a short story can be whatever the fuck you want it to be. And it can do whatever the hell you can make it do. And you shouldn’t let anyone’s definition, least of all a magazine editor’s, stop you from making of it what you want—and need—to make of it.

So please, this March and beyond, be generous and send me a present. Be thoughtful, and make it as best as you can. But be as bloody selfish as you—and most importantly, the story—demands. You owe it to yourself and you owe it to the well from which we all draw such odd and tingling pleasure.

P.S. If you care about your presents, please don’t fold them four times and stuff them into a tiny envelope. A non-fancy A4 envelope will suffice. (And yes, at present, we’re still not accepting online submissions — but please be assured that we recycle all material that doesn’t get published. You can read the submission guidelines here.)

Davy Byrnes Short Story Award 2014

The Stinging Fly are delighted to announce the return of the Davy Byrnes Short Story Award — Ireland’s biggest short story competition.

Prize fund: €15,000 for the best short story, plus five runner-up prizes of €1,000

Competition Judges: Anne Enright, Yiyun Li and Jon McGregor

—The competition is open to Irish citizens and to writers who are resident or were born in the thirty-two counties.

—Entries must consist of a previously unpublished short story written in English. The maximum word count is 15,000 words, no minimum. Only one story per entrant.

—We will be accepting entries from December 1st 2013. No online entries. Entries must be posted/delivered to Davy Byrnes Short Story Award, c/o Dublin UNESCO City of Literature, Dublin City Libraries, 138-144 Pearse Street, Dublin 2, Ireland.

—The deadline for receipt of entries is Monday, Feb 3rd 2014. There is a €10 entry fee, payable online or by cheque/postal order.

—The six short-listed writers will be announced in late May/early June 2014 and the overall winner announced in June 2014.

The competition is sponsored by Davy Byrnes and organised by The Stinging Fly in association with Dublin UNESCO City of Literature

For further information about the award — and to enter your story! — please visit our website.

What the judges say:

The Davy Byrnes Award is given to a story that has the writer’s name removed, the judges of the prize have been more international than local and the prize money is substantial. These three things meant the world to me when I won in 2004, a time when I felt washed up on the shores of the Irish boom. The short story yields truth more easily than any other form, and these truths abide in changing times. As a writer turned judge, I am looking for a story that could not have been written any other way; that is as good as it wants to be; that is the just the right size for itself.

—Anne Enright

I am a staunch advocate for short stories, and respect any organisation/effort that supports stories and story writers. I am thrilled to be serving as a judge for the Davy Byrnes Award. As for what I look for in a short story, to borrow from Tolstoy: ‘Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’ There are stories written like happy families, which one reads and forgets the moment one puts them down. But the stories that belong to the category of unhappy families, they can do all kinds of things: they touch a reader, or leave a wound that never heals; they challenge a reader’s view, or even infuriate a reader; they lead to a desire in the reader’s heart to be more eloquent in his ways of responding to the story yet leave the reader more speechless than before. A good story is like someone one does not want to miss in life.

—Yiyun Li

I’m both thrilled and slightly daunted to be taking part in judging the Davy Byrnes Award this year. Thrilled, because it’s a prize with an astounding track record of unearthing great talent and excellent stories; the previous judges have clearly had a very sharp reading eye. Daunted, for pretty much the same reasons. There’s a lot to live up to.

What I look for in a short story is a kind of intensity of purpose and a clarity of expression; something which holds my attention and rings clearly in my reading mind. For me, this is mostly something in the voice on the page; something in the control of the syntax, which immediately puts me in the world of that story. If it’s there, it usually kicks in within the first few lines; after that, it’s just a matter of seeing whether the writer can really keep it up.

—Jon McGregor