I've posted this here for easy reference for myself, and also because I agree with so much she's said, especially the bit about length of story. She makes some interesting comments about tenses, too.
Helen Simpson was the short story judge for 2008.
BRIDPORT – Short Story - Judge’s Comments
The first thing to say is this: if your own story is not on the list of winners, do remember that all such competition judging is subjective, and that every judge has his or her blind spots. You should also know that your stories went through a team of ten careful and skilled reader-sifters before the short-listed manuscripts landed on my doormat. Astonishingly, this short-list represented just a small percentage of the total number of entries, so if your name is here you can feel very pleased with yourself.
I found that many of the stories I read improved as they went on – after an unpromising first page or so, they would often get into their stride and be really impressive towards the end (and I include the winner of first prize in this observation). This is not ideal, for the short-story reader’s patience is far more limited than that of the novel reader, and out in the real world any story which does not harness the reader’s attention on its first page (indeed with its first paragraph, its first sentence) will likely be cast aside. The problem is easily remedied – take more trouble. Many stories on this list read as first or second drafts. Also, when in doubt, cut. At least half the stories I read would have benefited from being shorter. Short stories often are short. I smiled when I read the covering letter which arrived with the stories from head story-sifter Jon Wyatt – ‘You would not believe the number of stories that purport to be 4998 words long.’ Just because there is a limit of 5000 words for the Bridport Prize, you don’t have to meet it. Is that length the right length for the story you are writing? If not – cut!
The stories that most satisfied me had the ring of emotional truth as well as some sort of intentional shape or form. Several short-listed entries reminded me afresh that although a slice-of-experience piece of writing may be moving as a document of pain, unless it is transformed by art it is not a story. Also, the choice of ostensibly weighty subject matter (for example, terrorism and natural disasters) does not in itself guarantee a good or well-written story – in fact, perversely, it often does quite the opposite.
A surprising number of these stories were written in the present tense. The accepted wisdom seems to be that this will increase their sense of immediacy and emphasise dramatic moments. I’m not so sure – the present tense can also lead to a sort of solemn, frozen, sitting-on-the-fence quality. This is emphatically not the case, however, with the winning story, Face, where the present tense is used to recount an old woman’s moment-bymoment perceptions of a quietly devastating day. Dramatised in short telling scenes, alternating dialogue with the main protagonist’s observations and memories, Face is powered by real emotional honesty.
A Pocket Guide to Infidelity for Girls, winner of the second prize, uses both the present tense and the tricky second-person viewpoint, as pioneered by Jay McInerney in Bright Lights, Big City. This viewpoint is good for a wired-but-detached tone when describing addiction of one sort or another – here, that of a young woman’s obsession for her married lover, told with utterly convincing intensity. In third place, Little Bad, a story about parents coming to terms with their two-year-old daughter’s diagnosis of epilepsy, shows some rare, welcome pleasure in language. Even if the word play is not quite in Dorothy Parker’s league – ‘good cope, bad cope’ – the bravely wise-cracking dialogue and drily witty tone give the story extra poignancy, particularly in its second half.
Of the ten other winners, Irrational Acts contained some excellent vivid lines and powerful images, but needed work on its shape and general coherence. The Greenhouse Effect, too, rambles on confusingly – at times I was tempted to rename it Under the Influence – but after a while demands to be read aloud, its energy contained in a sort of syncopated forward momentum. On Such a Night is another story which gets better as it goes along; at first I was put off by less-than-careful writing (for example, the main protagonist is ‘self-depreciating’) but found myself gripped by the second half.
Curl Up and Dye is a blackly comic story about old age and death which put me in mind of Muriel Spark’s brilliant Memento Mori. One for You, One for Me was as short and sharp as the slaps exchanged in it; I admired its scene-splicing and vigour. On the Edge was a well-structured story about new parents torn between the buzz of city life and the sunlit patios of the suburbs (it was a shame about ‘Berkhampstead’, though, as misspellings shake the reader’s confidence in the writer). Portrait of a Lady, describing the aftermath of a husband jumping ship, is told in a fluent chatty voice with a nicely-judged edge of hysteria. Breathing is an oblique account of the disintegration of a marriage, sensitively written from a child’s viewpoint.
Finally, the contrast between two very different stories reminded me of an interesting distinction Angela Carter made between the short story and the tale – ‘The tale does not log everyday experience, as the short story does,’ she wrote in her afterword to Fireworks. The casual prolixity and naturalistic surface of Going for a Turkish lulls the reader along so that when an apparently comic character begins to issue threats it is all the more alarming. However, The Butcher and the Thief is quite different in method and approach – brief and elliptical, with repeated motif-like images of meat and fruit, this is definitely a tale rather than a short story.