Bath Short Story Award team member, Jude, who also organises Bath Flash Fiction Award and Flash Fiction Festivals UK, recently asked the judge of the latest Bath Flash Award, Christopher Allen, who co-edits the long-established flash fiction magazine, Smokelong Quarterly, what themes were under-represented among the hundreds of submissions they receive each week. He chose to answer this by citing themes that are over-represented. These included End-Of-The-World stories, animal metaphors and stories about the death of children. In our Award, we certainly receive a lot those themes and we’d add to that the very many stories about relationship break-ups and dementia. As Christopher says, humour is often under-represented. And we agree it’s amazing to read a story that can combine humour with poignancy.
Looking through our last anthology, the twenty stories that reached the short list, might have themes that are common, but the angles on the subject matter are striking. David Shelley Jones the BSSA 2018 first prize winner wrote a story titled ‘The Tank’, which suggests, but does not spell out, the devastating effects of climate change, a common theme among entries, unsurprisingly. The story is riveting as it shows the aftermath of a wild fire from the point of view of an elderly couple who have taken refuge in a water tank, but can’t now get out of it. The story also includes the wider community and what is happening within it.
The second prize story, ‘Off-Ground Summer’ is from the point of view of a child in the months following the death of his brother, who has been run down by a car. The subject matter is only obliquely about the death of a child. Henry Peplow shows how a child’s mistaken logic in the face of a loss of a sibling can create more tragedy in a family.
Hilary Taylor uses the point of view of a man with learning difficulties in her third prize winning story, ‘Sea Defences’. Like the child in ‘Off Ground Summer’, this character is another unreliable narrator. We are never entirely sure what has happened and of his motives. There are multiple layers to this story. Many different feelings are evoked.
There are also stories within the group of winning pieces, on the common theme of difficulties in relationships. In ‘The Other Couple’, by Sandra Marslund, commended by our 2018 judge Euan Thorneycroft, we are not explicitly told that a couple are unable to have a child, grief here is again shown in an understated way. We are also not entirely sure what is real and what is imagined in the female protagonist’s sighting of a lonely and sad older couple and this dilemma leaves much to think about.
Our local prizewinner, Chloe Turner’s story has a striking title, which is always a good way to get our initial readers’ attention. ‘Witches Sail in Eggshells’ is about the relationship between two women, whose different characters are portrayed very strongly and the title suggests many things about fragility as well as darker and deeper aspects of how people get caught up with one another and find it hard to set themselves free.
Florence Knapp, who won the Acorn Award for a writer of unpublished fiction, choses to have her female protagonist focus on a sighting of a former lover in a cafe with another woman. In her story, ‘Blue Suede Shoes’, the perspective of an outsider looking in helps the author to spell out the woman’s previous destructive relationship with the man she is viewing from afar and also allows the reader to see the woman moving on, while the man will repeat his behaviour.
Nick Petty’s commended story, ‘Down in the Mud on Limehouse Beach’ also has an arresting title. And the subject matter is very unusual too. We have the strong voice of an elderly beach comber who finds things that are discarded and who in the story, is reporting a conversation with a banker sitting, drinking, on a cafe balcony above the muddy city beach. The man can’t understand how a person can find meaning in grubbing around in the mud to retrieve detritus, although he, himself appears ruined by the pursuit of money.
All these winning stories plus the remaining short listed stories (twenty in all) are very well worth reading if you are thinking of entering our 2019 Award. As of today, there are just under six weeks to go until the closing date on 15th April. Still time to find a fresh approach to a familiar theme, or something perhaps entirely new. Or funny. You can buy the BSSA 2018 anthology directly from our Indie publisher Ad Hoc Fiction, Or as a Kindle or Nook ebook to read and be inspired.