Cappuccino, no sock-puppets

I’m a judge for this year’s inaugural Costa Short Story Award. There, interest declared, but one of the reasons I wanted to join in was the anonymity of the entries. There’s a mystery to who has written each story, but there shouldn’t be any mystery about the judging. As with reviews on Amazon, it helps to know who’s who and who knows who and who’s doing what.

Right. The award is open to anyone who has written a short story, whatever their publishing history, and the deadline for entries is Friday 7 September.

There are then three stages to literary glory:

1. All the entries will be sent anonymously to a group of readers, who will sort out the sixty stories that in their opinion are the most likely winners of the prize. For guidance, the general Costa Book Awards website claims to ‘recognise some of the most enjoyable books of the year’. The vagueness of that ‘enjoyable’ should be reassuring, whatever the length of the fiction.

What could go wrong (who can you blame)? The initial group of readers may be insufficiently diverse, with tastes too limited to appreciate the varied qualities of the stories they encounter. That’s a risk. The anonymity of the texts at least ensures that the story on the page will take precedence over other considerations. Reputation counts for nothing when no-one has a name.

2.The sixty stories these initial readers like best will be passed on to a panel of five judges. Anonymously.

What could go wrong (who can you blame)? The judges may be idiots. We come each with our flaws, but at least we’re not secretly unified in favour of a certain type of story.  I’ve met only one of the other judges and that only briefly. Anything else? It’s possible that a published writer with a distinctive voice might be recognisable by their style, in which case prejudices would apply as if the writer’s name were inked beneath the title. But then again the story could be written by an imitator, someone so influenced that they only sound like the distinctive writer. Heads down, back to the story. If it succeeds, it’s still a top story – if anyone thinks it’s simple to write like Lorrie Moore then go ahead, make everyone’s day.

3. The six stories the judging panel like best will be posted online (anonymously) on the Costa Book Award website. The public can download these stories and vote for their favourite. Think your taste is better than most judging panels? Fed up of shortlists where the wrong winner is chosen? This is a chance to do something about imposing your own taste as a reader on a major literary prize.

Or, in a world where everything can go wrong (oh why didn’t I win, again) the vote can be manipulated by whichever shortlisted author is most attuned to the virtual world. At this stage the anonymity breaks down slightly – the shortlisted writers will recognise their own stories. In fact, they’ll be told in advance, and may now mobilise an army of sock-puppets to vote on their behalf.

It could happen but it won’t be easy. The voting system on the Costa website allows for a single vote per email address (apparently on tv shows one person can vote as often as they can afford). Authors will be asked directly to retain their anonymity, and Costa (a bit scarily) will be monitoring social media for suggestions of authors breaking cover to influence supporters. Action will be taken (grrr). Costa will also be looking out for unusual voting trends and spikes. There will be no excuse, no gummy sock-puppet in one hand saying ‘I didn’t know, everyone does it’ while the author’s lips barely move.

Always, there’s something that can go wrong – many short stories are about exactly that subject. But in my opinion this voting system is a sincere attempt to allow the stories to speak for themselves, standing up to judgment without fear or favour. Let’s see how it goes, because when the the six shortlisted authors are revealed (Ta-da! In late January 2013) it’s going to be a bigger surprise than hearing a winner. A surprise to some if the shortlist is full of well-known authors; a surprise to others if it’s not.