Winning Stories often more than disappoint me, even in competitions I haven’t entered! (No! Not when they’re mine!:-)

That’s perhaps to do with the fact that we all read differently. We might be ‘better’ or ‘worse’ readers than each other. We might be readers who are each looking for, and responding to, different story elements.

  This might be a more than inconvenient truth for editors, publishers, writers, and competition judges alike. It isn’t much of a problem for readers though.

Recently I was stopped on the second sentence of a prize winning (2nd prize in a Flash Fiction competition) story simply by the fact that, three characters having already been introduced and the first two being men, the third asked ‘he’ a question. Which of them, I wondered, was being asked? Either could have been intended, but the significance of the question, and of the answer would have been, well, significantly different.  Reading on, it seemed to me that the ambiguity was not intentional, that one was more obvious than the other…obvious enough, perhaps, to claim that there was no real ambiguity, only a grammatical, structural one.

It was enough to have stopped me in the story though, and not least because it was a prize-winning story. The questions raised about that placing seemed to erase the questions raised by the story. I was more interested, I confess, in thinking about why the judge had not noticed, overlooked, or not recognised what I saw as a fault, and a fault so early in the story…before I had irrevocably engaged with it.

There’s a section relevant to this in Tobias Wolff’s introduction to his 2008 collection Our Story Begins. I’ve quoted this introduction before, in relation to H.E.Bates, with whom it disagrees fundamentally about the practice of re-writing and editing stories written, and published, long before. Wolff is in favour (Bates wasn’t). The point here is that Wolff  is in favour of ‘correcting’ anything he sees that needs correction, and asks a rhetorical question that reveals why: ‘why should I throw you out of the story with an irritation I could have prevented?’

We’ll answer that question for ourselves, and perhaps with questions, but I can say with certainty that I felt ‘thrown out’ of that prize-winning story by that unexpected early encounter with the ambiguity; yet not primarily because of the story. My attention had been entirely diverted to the judging!

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