Ailsa Cox talks about the Edge Hill Prize
This is the sixth year of the Edge Hill Prize, and the end-of-June activities, co-ordinating the judging and getting ready for the award ceremony, are starting to feel as familiar as the last shopping days before Christmas. Several other short story prizes have emerged, since we launched in 2006 – the Sunday Times award and now a special Costa prize for a single short story – but the Edge Hill Prize is still the only prize in the UK that recognizes excellence in a published collection. The Irish-based Frank O’Connor award, is open to all collections written in English, including those in translation, and, in terms of sheer numbers, has tended to be dominated by writers from the US. Only one collection on this year’s shortlist has made it onto theirs. (Co-incidentally, the winner of the Frank O’Connor is being announced on July 5th, the night of our award ceremony at the Free Word Centre in London.)
The Edge Hill Prize gives £5000 to a main winner, and £1000 to the ‘Readers’ Choice’. Since 2010, there has also been an prize for a story written by a student on the Edge Hill MA Creative Writing. The first MA winner was Carys Bray who now works on the prize and blogs about it on http://postnatalconfession.blogspot.co.uk/. Cary’s first collection, Sweet Home, will be published by Salt later this year, completing the circle of reading, writing, studying and publishing stories the prize is meant to promote. So far the main prize has gone to Colm Tóibín, Claire Keegan, Chris Beckett, Jeremy Dyson and Graham Mort. Last year’s winner of the Readers’ Choice prize was Salt author Tom Vowler, winner of the Scott Prize for The Method. This year’s shortlist includes another Salt author and winner of the Scott Prize, A.J. Ashworth (Somewhere Else, Or Even Here), with Tessa Hadley (Married Love, Jonathan Cape), Sarah Hall (The Beautiful Indifference, Faber & Faber), Zoe Lambert (The War Tour, Comma) and Rowena Macdonald (Smoked Meat, Flambard). I’m proud of what we’ve done with the prize, but I can’t help but feel ambivalent whenever I write the word ‘winners’, an ambivalence addressed by Graham Mort last year when he said, ‘Literary prizes were never intended to provoke competition alone but to celebrate diversity, quality and commitment‘ (http://www.edgehill.ac.uk/news/2011/07/poet-scoops-edge-hill-university-short-story-prize-2011).
Graham is one of this year’s judges, along with the critic Suzi Feay and Professor Rhiannon Evans, who used to work at Edge Hill and is also a sponsor of the Rhiannon Evans Poetry Scholarship http://www.edgehill.ac.uk/video/rhiannon-evans-poetry-prize. Any worries that choosing last year’s winner as a judge would produce a series of clones have so far proved groundless. Claire Keegan was a judge when Chris Beckett won with The Turing Test, a work of speculative fiction; and Jeremy Dyson was one of those who chose Graham Mort’s Touch – image-based work which at first glance seems to contrast with Dyson’s twisted tales. I can never predict who’s going to win. But when I have sat in on the judging, I’ve been so impressed by the level of scrutiny and the joint commitment to teasing out each collection’s strengths and weaknesses. The readers’ choice award this year is being judged by students. Their feedback shows that they too have been reading and re-reading, letting the story brew in their minds before they make their final verdict. Those commentators who claim the short story is a quick fix, like a soundbite, will never be judges for the Edge Hill Prize.