‘Short stories give themselves nowhere to hide’ – BBC Short Story Award judge Eimear McBride answers our questions

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This year's BBC National Short Story Award shortlist is, according to judge Eimear McBride, ‘a veritable festival of ideas’. Selected from over 600 entries, the shortlisted authors, announced last night on BBC Radio 4's Front Row, are Will Eaves, Jenni Fagan, Cynan Jones, Benjamin Markovits and Helen Oyeyemi.

You'll be able to read extracts from the shortlisted stories here over the coming week, but in the meantime, Eimear McBride answers our questions on the art of the short story, and the art of judging them.

As a judge, what do you look for in a short story?

The same I look for in any work of literature: a world, and the linguistic embodiment of it.

Do you have a preference for style over plot, or is it about a balance of both? Within this, do you find your judging approach different than your personal reading habits?

Preferably a well-executed integration of both. Exercises in style by themselves are deadening and plot without language, or an interest in form, usually ends up being excruciating. If I’ve been asked to judge, I assume I’m being asked for my personal perspective so why should a publicly expressed opinion differ to the one I hold as a private reader? Perhaps, as a judge, I’m more willing to spend time arguing about technical facility but if that’s all commending a story to me, then it’s probably already failed.

How useful do you find the term ‘short story’? Do you think it is marking off a particular literary category, or is it like poetry competitions that restrict entries to “30 lines or less”?

Well, I don’t know much about poetry, or its competitive constraints, but the short story is certainly a different kettle of fish to the novel and demands a different kind of attention from reader and writer alike. While some novels might do better to have been written as short stories, a good short story will rarely work better as a novel. Short stories give themselves nowhere to hide and as a reader that’s the hit, part of the pleasure. They also have a potential for perfection which is never really attainable in the novel.

How important are short stories to you as a writer/reader? Have you ever written any?

Temperamentally I’m a novelist, so that’s a difficult question to answer but, in both forms, I have an abiding respect for writing which I don’t instinctively understand how to do myself. I’ve written a few stories but I’m not a self-starter in the form and it’s a discipline I’m envious of. There’s been an unfortunate amount of debate lately about whether the short story has a future – due to publishing constraints rather than quality, or capacity for innovation – and even about whether, given the perceived American dominance in the form, it is viable on this side of the Atlantic any longer. This is obviously rubbish. Short stories, like novels, poetry, drama etc., scratch a particular itch which cannot be reached in any other way. Anyone who’s read Claire-Louise Bennett’s Pond knows that.

Do the short story writers you prefer tend to work solely in that form, or do they also write novels? 

Well, in these crappy, Brexity times I don’t wish to toot the national horn but… Kevin Barry? Edna O’Brien? Dare I say it… Joyce?

Do you think there are musical forms or songs analogous to the short story, in the way that Anthony Burgess saw the sonata as analogous to the novel? (This is our sly way of asking if you have any lively music recommendations.)

Well now, I’m a long-term Nick Cave fan, and his body of work answers that question very effectively. Being far less sophisticated than Anthony Burgess, my theory is if the novel aligns with cinema, the short story aligns with song – in quick and under the skin, as opposed to the long haul. Both burn effectively, and with equal longevity, but I know which I’d rather on a Saturday night…

The BBC National Short Story Award 2017 Anthology is out 18 September, published by Comma Press, priced £7.99