29 January, 2014

Does Talent Always Tell?

The winner of the Costa Short Story Award was announced last night. The Costa Book Awards always cause much excitement, and the short story category is particularly interesting as the shortlisted stories are voted for by the public. I voted for Clare Chandler's The Gun Shearer. The winner was Angela Readman with her story The Keeper of the Jackalopes. (This was my least favourite actually, but what do I know?!)

The stories are shortlisted and voted for anonymously, but once voting has closed, the names of the shortlisted authors are revealed in advance of the final result. This year, the announcement caused an extra stir because TWO of the authors (including the eventual winner) - selected anonymously, remember - were also shortlisted last year. There were more than 1400 stories submitted this year, and I imagine a similar number last year. To be shortlisted both years is an amazing achievement. I think if I was shortlisted once I'd be tempted to think I'd got lucky. Twice, and you know you're a pretty special short story writer.

So, does talent always tell? I don't suppose there's a successful writer - however we count success - in the world who doesn't know it takes a healthy dose of luck/blessing to achieve that success. There must be many writers who never get the big publishing deal, top-class agent or prestigious prize they deserve, as well some less talented writers who get the break they needed. BUT I know a lot of people believe that, in the end, talent will prove itself. If you are a good writer, then you will have some confirmation of it - even if it's not the confirmation you most wanted. You might want a three-book publishing deal and only get second-prize in a short story competition - but that is at least some acknowledgement that you're not wasting your time.

I think I agree, though I also think it can take time and wisdom. You can be a really good short story writer, but if you only ever enter Costa and Bridport you might never get any recognition. Whereas, if you enter a slightly smaller, but still quality competition, you might win a prize. I know some writers I think are talented, but who wrote for years before getting that first shortlisting or full manuscript request. It took perseverence but they got there and continue to get there - after all, we are all hopefully improving as writers all the time.

It seems tough to suggest that somebody who has been writing for years without any positive acknowledgement and with loads of rejections just isn't a good writer. But, in the end, I do believe talent will tell. The only question is: when is "the end"? If you are a good writer - subjectively, not on the word of the friend who bought your self-published book -  you will find out somehow. You might not find out you are the next John Steinbeck, but you may be a decent flash fiction writer or column writer. What do you think?


  1. That's funny - I really liked The Keeper of the Jackalopes. The Gun Shearer would have been my choice for second; I thought those two stories were the cream of the crop. I was impressed when I heard Angela Readman was the author of Jackalopes, because it's nothing at all like her story from last year. To reach the shortlist with such different stories shows real skill.

    I think talent will always tell, eventually, and in the right conditions. But I think it's important to consider what we actually mean by talent - and I'd argue that the ability to put the right words in the right place is only part of a decent writer's talent. Self-belief plays a big part, and resilience to the knock-backs, as well as the ability to find the right 'thing' (story, poem, novel, etc) to send to each opportunity. This last one does involve luck, sure, but also judgement.

    There are probably hundreds or even thousands of truly excellent manuscripts, stories and poems locked in bottom drawers by writers lacking the confidence to send them anywhere. Are you truly a writer if you don't have any readers? Personally, I'd say an author's talent is not just about finding a story, but finding an audience.

    1. Clearly most people agreed with you! It may have been something as simple as the fact I listened to them all in one afternoon while doing chores and I got distracted during that one so I didn't follow it as well. Though I often find I don't agree with SS results.

      I think you put that much more eloquently than I did. Especially that last sentence. One day, when I want to sound wise, I'm going to steal that sentence!

    2. I'm intrigued by Dan's notion that talent is both creating story and finding audience. They're different skills, of course, but I think he has a point. Most writers, in my experience, don't feel the journey is complete until someone has read their work and been moved by it in some way. Until then, to some extent, the work exists in a vacuum.

    3. I came across some quotation the other day - can't remember where (was it your blog Dan or Derek?) - about how most novels aren't published because no editor commissions books on the back shelf of a closet! Wise words!


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