Can we grade works of fiction? Novelist and short story prize judge Benjamin Markovits thinks we can—and tells us howby Benjamin Markovits / December 7, 2018 / Leave a comment
For six months in 2018, I was a judge on the BBC National Short Story Prize. This was not a full-time job. In May they sent me 60 anonymous short stories, and I was supposed to whittle them down to 10 or 12—in the privacy of my own home. Then, at the end of June, my fellow judges and I met in a conference room of the London Library and spent a pleasant afternoon (with platters of cheese, fruit and cakes on the table, which slowly yielded to partial assaults), coming up with a shortlist of five.
A few weeks ago, I showed my kids 12 Angry Men, the original Sidney Lumet production. Henry Fonda plays an architect who quietly persuades a panel of jurors to vote Not Guilty—a “slum” kid has been charged with knifing his father. But the movie is really about the personal feelings the decision-making process churns up, the way it exposes prejudice. Judging the National Short Story Prize might more aptly be called “Five Friendly Writers,” but it also raised uncomfortable questions about what the hell we were doing.
How do you judge fiction? How do you say one story is better than another? I also get paid to do this as part of my day job—teaching Creative Writing at Royal Holloway. Short stories are the meat and drink of the workshop. You can discuss them in class, the whole and the parts, plot arcs and sentences, in under an hour. If they didn’t exist, universities would have had to invent them. You can expect students to write several in the course of a term; you can give them feedback and consultations, help them work through several drafts. The whole process is designed to produce a constantly improvable piece of writing, which you then assess at the end of the year. You give it a grade.
People often ask me: how do you mark creative work? I’ve got a standard line in response. Well, it’s not that different from judging an English essay. There are objective criticisms you can make, you can point stuff out, but how you decide to rate or value the things done well, how much you penalise the things done less well—it’s a semi-random choice. It’s also hard to distinguish from the exercise of deep prejudice.
You can use a softer word than prejudice, like bias, or even turn it into a term of praise—you can call it taste. Much of what writers do, on the page, is to apply taste to their imaginations. I’ve always been suspicious of novelists who say you can’t teach writing, that the best you can do is pass on the name of your agent to talented students. It makes me think, either they don’t know what they’re doing or they’re not being honest about what they know. Maybe for trade secret reasons.
Once I heard Lee Child “in conversation” at a conference in Cambridge. People had queued up round the block, circling the venue, waiting to get in. Actual readers, to hear a writer talk. He said the same thing: you can’t teach people how to write. Then he proceeded to give several useful pieces of advice—teachable advice. Write the slow bits fast, he said, and the fast bits slow. Of course, this is a matter of taste. But part of the point of studying books (how to read them, or write them) is to form taste, to make you aware of it, to think about how it represents you.
In the wonderful lines of Saul Bellow: “Do I have a soul? How do I know what it looks like? Does it look like me?” Does your taste in movies and in books look like you? Does it reflect who you are? One of the things that teaching (and writing) has made clear to me is that I’m basically a realist. The way things actually happen seems more interesting to me than the way we can imagine them: subtler, more intricate and revealing. I think of reality (as boring and detailed as we know it to be) as a kind of tuning fork, which you tap before sitting down to work—that’s the note you want to strike, as close as you can get to it.
Or, to put it another way: the knowledge writers need to do their job isn’t very different from other kinds of knowledge. If you write about sports, for example, you should have a decent idea of what makes a good athlete, the thoughts they have, their habits and ambitions. You should also have a practical sense of why athletes win and lose, because this quality is likely to shape both their “characters” and “plots”—just as it would in life. A consequence of all this is that I’m less sympathetic to books like The Natural, by Bernard Malamud, about a baseball player with a magic bat. Magic seems like a shorthand that allows him to bypass the interesting “real” details that make up sporting talent.
I know this realist taste is also a kind of bias, a preference that others don’t share, and in some cases disagree with. But without this bias, it’s hard for me to judge what I read—and not only judge, but to make what seem to me objective criticisms or assessments.
One of the things I look for in any work of fiction, whether I’m teaching or judging or writing, is the number of “reads” or “progressions” a story suggests. These are American football terms. A quarterback is the guy who controls the action, often by throwing the ball to one of his “receivers.” To an untrained eye, a football “play” looks like 22 grown men running round like chickens, creating chaos. But in fact everybody is working through a series of complicated instructions, which sometimes involve responding and adapting to what other players, on their own or the other team, are doing. So the quarterback has to be able to see patterns in this chaos, and make decisions based on what he sees in “real time”—in a few split seconds.
A “progression” means looking from one receiver, to another, to another, to assess whether each is “open”—a play usually involves a decision tree of preferred options. If you can’t pass to Bryant, then Williams. If not Williams, then Gronkowski. A “read” means working through a similar kind of hierarchy for the defensive cues. Reads and progressions affect each other. A college quarterback might work through a couple at a time; but a professional quarterback can make decisions based on six or seven or eight different things happening at once. That’s why a lot of great college QBs end up failing in the professional league. They can’t adjust to the increased complexity—they can’t process reality quickly enough.
You can apply this idea to a good story. How many “progressions” is a writer working through in a scene? How many different things are going on at once? Call them “plots,” if you like. A good writer in control of her material can effortlessly suggest five or six or seven different kinds of events unfolding at the same time. Student work rarely involves more than one or two.
In “Post and Beam,” one of my favourite Alice Munro stories, Lorna, a young mother, finds her friendship with her husband’s former student, a man named Lionel, starting to unsettle her. When her older cousin visits from the country, Lorna feels torn, caught between the innocence of her rural childhood and the kind of middle-class ambition that motherhood has both frustrated and introduced her to.
Meanwhile, the cousin herself is going through a transformation, from needy spinster into a capable and attractive middle-aged woman. When the student meets the cousin, they begin to flirt. What all this really brings home to Lorna is just how unhappy she is in her marriage. She feels that something must change and resigns herself at the same time to accepting her life as it is. Cousin, student, husband, wife, children—all of them are involved in their own stories, and the stories bounce off each other and push in new directions. It’s 20-odd pages long. This kind of complexity is measurable. It’s not really just a matter of opinion.
Something else I look for is the number of stages each progression goes through—the little incidents that move it along. In Nabokov’s novel Pnin, a Russian professor gets lost on his way to a lecture. It’s a comic episode, very slight, nothing serious happens (he makes it on time in the end), but even such quiet uneventfulness is composed of seven or eight junctures or turning points. On the train, he fiddles with his lecture notes and marks an essay, puts one in his Gladstone bag and the other in his jacket pocket, before the conductor points out to him, you’re on the wrong train, pal. At the station, he leaves his bag with an attendant, wanders off to buy a ham sandwich, then comes back to find the guy has been called away—his wife is in labour. Abandoning the bag, Pnin catches a bus and checks his pocket for the speech.
Counting “progressions” and “stages” can make this approach to writing seem a dry business—an exercise in pure addition. But such complexity is hard to fake, because it’s a by-product of depth. “Real” people produce complexity naturally. Write a list of everything that’s on your mind, the things you’re worried about or looking forward to, the outcomes you want to see resolved, today, this week, next month, in a few years. If you imagine your characters in similar detail they will begin to move in several directions at once. Like the line from the poet Theodore Roethke: “Ah, when she moved, she moved more ways than one: The shapes a bright container can contain!”
It’s a test of writing that comes down to wisdom in the end: we look to realist writers for a sense of proportion, to see the different elements of our lives reproduced on the page, and scaled according to how much they matter. They prove themselves, like television chefs, by being able to put it all together in front of our eyes. Sometimes, when they’re good, they change our sense of what matters: they persuade us.
But it’s only one kind of writing, and even when people share your taste, you find yourself disagreeing over the particulars. What seems plausible to one reader seems phony to the next. Coleridge wrote famously about the suspension of disbelief, but the voice in my head that gets in the way of pleasurable reading isn’t so much disbelieving as critical. You’ve repeated that word… would that really happen… I’ve seen these characters before. It’s an annoying voice, but being a judge forces you to listen to it. Even though you know that stories aren’t written to win races. Or rather, every story wants to make the same claim: this is what the world is like.
Teaching, like judging, involves a lot of nitpicking. Cut the intro (you’re just announcing intentions, you haven’t found your stride). Shorten some of the sentences, let the story do its own work. We don’t need all the heavy symbolism and explanations. Standard creative writing advice. Behind all this is a kind of faith: that the difference between a bad story and a good one is a thorough edit. I sort of believe that, and I sort of don’t. Byron, in a letter to his editor, John Murray, once wrote: “The poem will please if it is lively; if it is stupid it will fail: but I will have none of your damned cutting & slashing.” I believe that, too. What we want from writers is the same thing we want from close friends, a view of the world that can shape our own. You can’t edit your way into that: it’s not a question of nickels and dimes. As Woody Allen once joked, about how he cheated on his metaphysics exam: “I looked into the soul of the boy sitting next to me.”
John Murray, as it happens, insisted on so many cuts and slashes that Byron eventually took his poem Don Juanto another publisher. It was his masterpiece; Murray was wrong. That’s the other curious thing about judging stories. On the one hand, you’re trying to assess them as honestly and dispassionately as you can. On the other, the whole point of the exercise is to put your thumb on the scale: to say to readers, read this, it deserves to be remembered.
And all the many stories that moved us on the jury, Five Friendly Writers, but for which there was no consensus, pass by unrewarded. Unmentioned, as if nobody had read them. It’s a funny business. It’s clear to me that a different panel would have picked different stories, which doesn’t mean they’d be better or worse. Some luck depends on the roll of loaded dice—and what you realise, as a judge, is that in this case, I was one of the dice.
The BBC National Short Story Award was won by Ingrid Persaud for her story “The Sweet Sop.”