Friday, 12 April 2013

Leila Aboulela, Judge 2013; writer and winner of the inaugural Caine Prize in 2000

Today I finished reading all the stories submitted for this year’s Caine Prize. In February the postman had delivered a sumptuous box full of books, journals, magazines and photocopied sheets.  I opened it straight away. Inside was the future winner of the 2013 Caine Prize and I was going to play a part in discovering him or her.  What struck me first was the practicality of running a prize.  Each book, for example, had a typed label on the front cover with the name of the submitted story and the page numbers. A spread-sheet, three pages long, listed each entry by title, author, country of origin, publication and whether the story was included in a book, journal or as a photocopy (most of the photocopies were internet publications). Each of the five judges must have received an identical box.  A lot of hard work had gone into this, I thought. Running a prize was not an easy matter.
And would judging it be any easier? At first I dug in and read haphazardly but I had to develop some system. I decided to grade the stories.  I gave a D to those stories that should not have been published in the first place, let alone submitted. I gave a C to the mediocre ones. And I gave an A to the exceptional, outstanding ones, the kind of stories I would want to pass on to friends, the kind of stories I would be keen to recommend. As for the Bs, they intrigued me the most because here was talent that needed development, here were shy voices that needed to be raised a notch, here were first drafts that needed more work and here were flashes of brilliance bogged down by clumsy skills and what I suspected to be lack of sufficient exposure to critical reading and editorial support. Perhaps the As would forge ahead no matter what but the Bs were the ones in need of encouragement    

In conclusion, the statistics were as follows:
            A s      19 stories        18.4%
            B s      26 stories        25.2%
            C s     36 stories        35%
            D s     22 stories        21.4%

I made notes on the As and Bs and I am now looking forward to reading them again. But before I started on this next stage, I decided to jot down the top ten stories that made the biggest initial impression on first reading, the ones that stood out in my memory.   It turned out that six of them were ones I had given an A grade and four a B. Perhaps they would be the stories I would take with me to the judges’ short-list meeting, perhaps on a second reading I would swap them for others.  Have I steered away from the more brutal themes? Am I more inclined towards the domestic and emotional?  I am looking forward to discussing my choices with the other judges.  I am sure my own tastes would be challenged at times but hopefully, too, my instincts would be confirmed.

Nearly every submitted story reflected the economic, political and social difficulties of life in Africa.  The writers did not shy away from sensitive issues or gruelling realities.  But serious subject matters do not guarantee a good story.  There are other qualities that are more important – creative imagination, skills, the ability to invoke delight,  plough depth, stir drama and chart connections, a sense of place, history and culture,  characters who intrigue, an individual vision. Here are some of the notes I jotted down on the entries I judged worth re-reading, the ones that scored As and Bs

Earthy, confident writing with a sense of integrity
Poetic and strange
Chilling with a neat ending
No-nonsense rending of a familiar tale of tragedy
Spirited, universal
Vibrant, great opening line
Confident, superb pacing
Wacky, gripping,
Fluid narrative, touching
Bold…. I want to read more from this writer.
Throughout the past two months I have read approximately one hundred stories and kept company with the diverse voices of African writers. A literary prize such as the Caine confers recognition, exposure and an international stamp of approval.  African writers deserve their place in the sun.  Whatever their themes, regardless of their chosen setting,  at the end of the day it is excellent writing that makes the powerful impact, it is the cream which rises to the top.


  1. Look forward to hearing more about these stories! Especially the Bs. :-)

  2. I am delighted to read about this process - it will make a short story writer to put in more effort in polishing a story.

  3. An inside look at the brain of a Caine Prize Judge. This is rare! Nice blog post. I hope the remaining judges will also say something. This is the kind of stuff spectators like me want to read in here! Looking forward to reading the stories in the shortlist.

  4. the post is a sad direction for African lit. Too much subjectivities:my inclinations...Am I more inclined towards the domestic and emotional...come on Leila take a cue from Judge Evaristo's post last year. That was a fine leap for African lit

    1. i think fundamentally one often gravitates to one's own inclinations or preferences - human nature really. But whether the themes are brutal or not, whether they are domestic or not, whether they are genre (taking from Evaristo's epic post last year) or not, the story, and the telling of it, reigns supreme!

      cant wait to read this year's short list