Judge’s Report on the 2023 Subbub Prize

Well, this was quite a thing. It’s the first time I’ve ever run a competition. I’ve been involved in various capacities before, but I’ve never actually been responsible for managing the whole shebang. So the first thing I want to say is that Subbub has been the most amazing tool for helping me do this. I mean, I know I’m bound to say that because it’s my baby, but honestly, this thing is bloody amazing.

There were a total of 130 entries, so a bit of basic arithmetic will tell you that it didn’t quite break even. This is a shame, mainly from the point of view of my bank balance. However, I don’t think it’s too bad considering that I was trying to promote it at a time when engagement on Twitter was plummeting thanks to you-know-who. Anyway, my heartfelt thanks to everyone who entered – you’re all wonderful. And even if you didn’t win a prize or even get shortlisted, remember that it’s purely down to the personal subjective choice of the judge and another one might view your work entirely differently.

A quick word about the process. The great thing about 500 word stories is that they don’t take too long to read and you can very quickly get a feeling if something works for you or not. One of the cool features of Subbub – and you just knew I was going to say that, didn’t you? – is that it presents the reviewer with a randomised and anonymised list of all the entries that they haven’t marked yet, so that there is no chance of any favouritism or other form of structural preference.

As I read through the entries, I marked them as Yes (definitely shortlist), No (reject) or Maybe (save for another look). This is one of the options offered by Subbub; you can also set a competition up for an explicit mark or a simple Yes/No. As things turned out, when I got to the end, I had exactly ten Yeses, so I didn’t have to go back over the Maybes. Then with the shortlist, it was simply a question of reading and re-reading until I felt happy with my choice.

Only two entries breached the 500 word limit – one by a LONG way. I mean, go ahead if you want to do this, because the competition still gets the entry fee and the judge doesn’t have to bother reading it, but I should probably advise you to save your hard-earned cash next time. In amongst the ones that didn’t break the rules, there were two stories based on the exact same fairy tale, along with another based on a different one. Two stories were based on board games, which was unusual. Three stories ultimately turned out to be about some species of animal. The most common theme was spousal murder. Make of that what you will.

So why did I choose the ones I did? Well, here goes.

Doing Relationships is, on the face of it, is a simple story of love, loss and prejudice in a small Welsh village. But when you scratch the surface, you realise it’s so much more than that – there’s a portrait of an entire community here, driven by the very affecting contrast between the voices of the grieving protagonist and the well-meaning if somewhat breathless and grammar-free letter-writer. This was the first story I read that was a definite Yes and I kept coming back to it.

Tangible is quite an odd story, and even now I’m not 100% sure what’s going on in it. But there was something haunting about it that stayed with me long after I’d read it. I think it took me back to the times when as a child you visit a friend who lives in a much bigger house where unusual things happen and you realise that everyone lives in their own world with their own unexplained customs.

Papa’s Hands has a wonderful physicality to it, and I could almost imagine the story presented as a sequence of highly textured black and white photographs, maybe by someone like Bill Brandt. This is apparently Jordan’s very first publication, and I am personally just as excited about this as she is.

Of the other stories on the shortlist, Against the Grain is a story of a breakdown in IKEA that takes a sudden but smoothly-executed surreal turn in the second half. Aunt D’s Funeral is a witty description of one of those funerals where more questions are raised than are answered; it comes across as a true story and if so, I think it will do very well in a mini-memoir competition one day. Perchance to Dream is a very clever and disturbing story about dreams, memory and madness. Soundtrack is one of those stories where a neat structure combines with a slick wit to produce a very satisfying result. The Definition of Irony is an excellent example of taking a great idea and stretching it to see how far it goes, before turning it in on itself for a satisfying twist at the end. Whispers is, surprisingly, the only science fiction story that made it to the shortlist. As with all good sci-fi, there’s a lot that isn’t explained and left to the reader to fill in the gaps, and there’s a nice contrast between the mundanity of the protagonist’s task and the unearthliness of their situation. Finally, WHY CRICKET IS GOOD FOR YOU – BY JONATHAN CARMICHAEL (year 7) is a very clever, funny and horribly believable tale of early adolescent blackmail.

Almost all of these stories were in contention for one of the prizes at some point, and I hope to see them popping up elsewhere in the future. It was a pleasure and a privilege to read them and I hope we can all convene the same time next year. OK?

Jonathan Pinnock

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