Rosie Arrowsmith visits Brick Lane Bookshop to meet with the organisers and judges of its recently re-installed short story prize.
I’m waiting outside Brick Lane Bookshop before anyone else is allowed through the door. I feel like I just got the keys to Willy Wonka’s Chocolate factory. I have to contain myself, but bookshops are my thing. The more history the better, and this one has a lot. Kate Smalley Ellis arrives on her bike and I ask how long she has worked here. She laughs and says, “Longer than I would like to admit.” Kate is running the Brick Lane Bookshop Prize which is being reinstalled after twenty-five years and I’m here to find out more. “It’s a celebration. We want to help a new writer just like we did 25 years ago.”
Brick Lane Bookshop began its life in Watney Market in Shadwell as the Tower Hamlets Art Project or THAP in the Seventies. At the time there wasn’t a single bookshop in the area. Denise Jones, who is still leading the charge said “There was a group of local people who were not prepared to put up with this, we realised that we would have to start one – but start small. Stepney Books began as a Saturday stall in Whitechapel Market where we sold Penguin’s discarded proof copies alongside THAP and Centerprise local history publications.”
A few years later the shop moved to Whitechapel with its expansion led by Denise and Richard Sylvester. In 1994, with a newly adopted name, Eastside began running writing groups, book launches and outreach programmes to better serve and connect with the local community. They also launched The Brick Lane Bookshop Prize and was originally set up to highlight work from people in the surrounding area. Kate is passionate about bringing the opportunity back. “The original prize was a novel bursary, and it was only open to residents of Tower Hamlets, Newham and Hackney. It was about promoting writers from working-class backgrounds and writers didn’t usually get the opportunity to be published. It is a nod to that history.”
The east end has changed beyond recognition now but people are still very much interested in books. There are now a few established bookshops within walking distance and others popping up too. The shop has got busier and after so many years as an independent shop, has gained loyal customers because of their careful edit of the popular and the undiscovered.
As well as a bookseller, Kate is also a writer and a champion of the short story. “In one sitting, whether it be ten minutes or an hour, reading a complete short story, you get this emotional whack around the face that the experience of a novel doesn’t quite deliver. When you read a novel it’s diluted by your everyday life; you’re on the train, you’re talking to friends and that punctuates your experience. I want to make people feel stuff in a short time.” The team have decided to ask for short story submissions this time around. It will allow the panel to read more submission and engage with the entire piece from start to finish. Zoe Gilbert, author and winner of the Costa Short Story Prize is one of the panellists and also loves the short story. “There is constant surprise in a short story. It is self-contained, and they tend to linger. They can follow you around for a long time”
Short stories also have nowhere to hide. They require attention and they can reveal more to the reader on close reading than a novel. Judge Zoe Gilbert agrees. “We expect a deep dive in a novel – in a short story, everything is metaphorical. I love reading that way; every object, the weather, conversation, has a secondary meaning in a short story. It asks you to read in a deep way and think hard about why the writer has put that particular thing in the sentence. You get to really roll around in that.”
Short stories have arguably had somewhat of a renaissance recently. Since Cat Person was published in the New Yorker in 2017 and then went viral, there has been a willingness from publications and readers to dip into them more frequently. Haruko Murakami’s collection also published in 2017 as sold extremely well and there has been a steady upward curve of sales since then. The french company Short Édition has installed a short story vending machine for the worn-down commuter who wants to digest some words. You press a button and hey presto, out pops a little printed piece of paper with one, three- or five-minute stories. One of the first contributors to the scheme, Anthony Horowitz, said in the Guardian “What appealed to me was that I travel on the tube every single day and I see everybody buried in apps and games, or looking at old tweets”.
There is also the new, hugely successful Pound Project, a crowd-funded publishing house in Birmingham which allows writers to pitch their next venture that may not traditionally be picked up by publishers. They have a set window of time to win over readers and if successful they are published in pocket-sized books, digestible in one sitting. Chris Power doesn’t agree that there has been a renaissance in the form, instead he feels there has always been a steady build. He wrote in the Guardian “by getting caught up in this recurring phantom narrative and dwelling on press release froth rather than the work being produced, we spurn the opportunity to talk about short stories in a way that might actually deepen how they are understood and engaged with by readers.” Kate agrees. “This conversation has been going on forever, the mainstream will always favour novels because that is what the majority of people are used to reading. Some people get good hype, for example, Nicole Flattery has a collection out at the moment with great reviews. They always tick along.” Zoe believes any development in this area can only be a good thing. “If people are persuaded because you can fit it into half an hour and then they read stories, we should keep that alive. What they will find is that they will want to go back to them.”
When selecting the judges, Kate wanted to have a plethora of experience and expertise. Having entered a number of competitions herself, she loves the idea that a writer, publisher and agent will read the work. They are all very different. Kit Caless is from Influx press and publishes work with a unique voice around the corner in Hackney. Published authors under Kit and his team include Eley Williams and Claire Fisher. Zoe Gilbert used to attend the writing group at the bookshop which supplied a wonderful connection. Her book Folk is published as a novel but it can be read as a collection of short stories and she is very engaged with the form after teaching it and consuming it for many years. Emma Paterson was chosen because Kate wanted to find a young and engaged agent with a fresh take on the industry.
There are more literary prizes than ever coming from such varied sources. MOBO award winning artist Stormzy has just launched the Merky Books New Writers Prize to connect with young writers. Kate says “Arguably the prize scene is cluttered, but I think they are important, I think because you can be a random person writing on your own in the middle of nowhere and then suddenly you are shortlisted for a prize and you consider yourself more of a real writer.” Zoe also thinks prizes are hugely important for up and coming writers. “It is a chance to get that feeling of validation that we all crave; someone who you don’t know reads something of yours and thinks that it’s good, a stranger is vouching for you. It’s great for confidence and encourages you to keep going”
With so many prizes out there, I wonder what discipline it takes to enter them, and how much time you should dedicate to the process? Kate says “I enter prizes when I am interested in the judges or the prize has some clout.” Zoe has a very organised approach to entering prizes. “What I learnt to do is to be quite business-like about entering things. Keep an eye out, keep a list – as long as I felt I could afford it I would always make a note of deadlines and enter it in a spreadsheet.” She says that she never set herself a target number per year but of course the more you enter the better chance you have. But she expresses “it’s a bit of a lottery, you don’t know what their tastes are. Just be proud that you have entered stuff, someone out there has actually read it.” There are also other huge benefits to entering prizes. Zoe has found it to be a fantastic way to network and build champions of your work. Friends and family are lovely, but they are not necessarily objective. This gives you a chance to test it on people.
Both also talk of the importance of failure something that is being explored at length at the moment, for example in Elizabeth Day’s podcast How To Fail, which finds that it is something we must all go through in order to succeed. Kate advises “I think rejection encourages you; I’m just going to write a better story, I will accept it and carry on.” Zoe adds, “The worst thing that you can do at any stage of writing is active waiting. It’s likely that you won’t be on the list when competition is so fierce. If you can enter things and forget about them, if you don’t make it, it doesn’t matter. Just try again and again”.
The prize like many others will be read blind, giving everyone a fair chance. At least two people will read each entry, Kate will aim to read them all as a background first reader. Other people will overlap other sections. I wonder what the panel will be looking for from entrants? Kate says “It’s so exciting when you come across something new and you think ‘Wow this is brilliant.’ I want it to really stick out, I want to see something unique and playful.” Kate enjoys work from Lorrie Moore “she can talk about the saddest experience and make it hilarious and moving and surprising.” She also loves George Saunders and has recently read Carmen Maria Machado’s collection, Her Body and Other Parties which “kept me awake at night – it’s playful and funny and dark and weird.”
Zoe says of the entries “I have read so many short stories over the years, all I need is to be delighted and surprised by it – an unusual form, surprising voice, a new world, style, or it may be structured in an unusual way, or a familiar territory in a new direction” Zoe has a personal taste for the mildly fantastical and would love to see something exciting in that area. Zoe is also enjoying the work of Lorrie Moore at the moment; “her observations of human beings is second to none” as well as Margaret Atwood, Angela Carter, and Lucy Wood.
The team also felt it was important to produce a physical book at the end of the process and so the Bookshop will be self-publishing an anthology. Zoe excitedly talks about what it feels like to see your work printed. “It is the ultimate proof that you have done it, it’s a physical thing you can hold in front of you, something you may have been dreamt about for years. It’s really symbolic, it feels solid, it’s the moment you can be really, really pleased”
It feels like more than just a literary prize, it is a celebration about independence, about the physical book and the hard work that goes into the passion of writing. Kate say’s “We’re still here, we’re an independent bookshop, we’re surviving and we have the funds to be able to do this, and hopefully, we can help a new writer out in the same way we did twenty-five years ago.” Zoe ends “I’m really pleased that the book shop has funded the prize. It is a prize with real integrity and I’m excited to see what we can discover”.
The deadline is the 25th May and you can enter here. Entries are accepted from anyone in the UK and should be between 1000-5000 words. The prize is worth £1000 and publication in The Brick Lane Bookshop anthology due to be released in October 2019.