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Lift a Glass to the Apprentice Award

By Cathy Galvin

Cathy GalvinIt’s time to prepare: choosing the winners of the Word Factory Apprentice Award is joyous. I love (almost) every part of the process, which feels a little like wrapping a great gift and then waiting to watch someone open and receive it: the gift being a year’s free mentorship to a group of emerging short story writers and becoming a part of the Word Factory team.

Time and time again, our award winners reward that faith in their work with their own generosity and success. What’s not to like?

I’m not alone in this sense of anticipation: to help us celebrate our sixth year, a host of partners – including Arts Council England, New Writing North and the Northern Writers’ Awards, the Society of Authors, Comma Press, Writing West Midlands and Literature Works, have joined us to ensure this national award reaches as many talented writers across the country as possible.

Of course, not everyone likes awards, or Christmas for that matter. Too much joy, not enough seriousness, perhaps?

The novelist and short story writer Philip Hensher, for example, used his introduction to The Penguin Book of the Contemporary British Short Story to argue that awards and competitions are an unhealthy part of the British literary landscape. Here is a taste:

“The only readership many short-story writers seem to envisage is that of the members of a judging panel … Just as medieval princes paid monks to pray on their behalf, having better things to do, so we pay provincial dons and actors between engagements to sit and read a hundred humourless two-handers about war crimes in Taiwan before declaring them to be worthy of the cheque, though not of readers.”

It’s something he has felt strongly for many years, first expressing it to me at a prize dinner for the Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award – an award I founded – when he was about to embark on his massive short-story tome. I struggled then, as I do now, to understand his objection to celebrating, and paying, a few of our best writers.

Hensher suggests short story awards are judged by essentially untalented or forgotten individuals: though the judges of the Sunday Times Award have included Dame AS Byatt, Hanif Kureishi and Anne Enright. In the case of the Word Factory, judges this year include the exciting Irenosen Okojie, Polari-prize-winning Paul McVeigh and current Frank O’Connor Fellow Carys Davies – not a dusty Don amongst them.

Hensher also suggests those who enter awards are rarely capable of more than dreary authorship – which makes it hard to explain how Kevin Barry and Junot Diaz ever won the STEFG award or why our own Word Factory apprentices have gone on to such success: did our own Claire Adam achieve first novel publication with Faber and praise from Sex And The City’s Sarah Jessica Parker as a result of her deadly prose?

His argument is framed by a sense that things aren’t what they used to be, that there’s no longer a home for excellent short fiction in magazines and newspapers with work commissioned and paid for appropriately. It’s true: long-gone are the days when journals would pay Charles Dickens a small fortune for his stories; these days even journalists have difficulty securing appropriate payment. Publishers have often had difficulty with short- story collections – though try explaining that to emerging literary stars such as Eley Williams (Influx Press) or to Lionel Shriver and Tom Hanks at the other end of the commercial spectrum. There seems little reason to despair.

Everything in life changes, for the bad but also for the good. Having established one award, to reward established writers who often work for years without proper renumeration, Paul McVeigh and I wanted to create another through the Word Factory that offered a new template for emerging writers – something that reflected the importance, not of standard commercial publishing conventions, but of real literary relationships, pairing established and emerging writers and building support for the long-term within our network. I’m honoured that novelist Maureen Freely has labelled our work as “cultural activism”. The Word Factory has flourished as a centre of excellence – and support – for short story writers and from the talent and generosity of those participating – a community immune to Hensher’s “relentless two-hander”. We encourage applications from marginalised writers and BAME writers in particular, bringing some of the most talented writers in the U.K. to a wider audience – as expressed in this piece by Word Factory’s associate director, Sophie Haydock.

Winners have access to all our team – including myself, Paul McVeigh, Zoe Gilbert, Sophie Haydock and Carrie Kania. And thanks to our partners, more writers across the U.K can now apply to become Word Factory apprentices, knowing they will also be plugged into local writing development agencies and publishers where possible.

I mentioned that I enjoy most – but not all – of this process. There is difficulty in reading work from across the country, knowing not everyone will “make it”. Yet that’s also beside the point. We don’t write to become part of the literary establishment – we write because we have to, because it makes us more fully human.

If you want to spend serious time developing short stories, start thinking now about the story and letter you will send in with your application. The deadline is February 7th 2019 at 11:30PM. The application portal is open.

Good luck. Can’t wait to meet you. And let’s raise a glass to celebrate writers.