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Costa Short Story prize shortlist announced

The Short Story prize is the latest literary accolade to be offered by the Costa Book Awards - but unlike the others, its judged completely anonymously

How to get published? This, surely, is the eternal question tormenting the mind of the would-be writer. With creative writing groups throughout the country regularly dolling out advice on how to catch the attention of the elusive literary agent, any opportunity for new writers to gain publicity is hugely welcome. And when the prize is from such a well-established (and well funded) body as the Costa Book Awards, you can guarantee it will have a host of aspiring authors knuckling down to their keyboards.

Costa have just announced the shortlist for their newest award – the Short Story Prize. It’s a writing prize with a difference, as it constitutes a unique levelling of the literary playing field. The prize is submitted entirely anonymously – even the judges who ploughed through 1,800 entries to receive their final six-strong shortlist were unaware if they were reading the work of an established literary superstar or an unpublished newcomer. The winner (who will receive a £3,500 prize) is decided entirely by public vote. The Costa prize winner will be announced on 29th January, in the meantime, entries can be read and voted for here.

Any new venture to spring life into the short story genre is invariably received with applause by the literary world. Whilst the artistic integrity of the form is undeniable – short stories allow writers to be more experimental, creative, and less concerned with marketing pressures - critical and commercial acclaim are two very different things, and convincing readers and publishers to pick up short story collections has long been a widely-publicised struggle.

Nonetheless, the short story remains beloved to many, to the extent that when Radio 4 (the world’s biggest broadcaster of short stories), last year announced that they were cutting their output by two-thirds, there was such an outcry that the editors reversed their decision. Many commentators have also suggested that the short story form, naturally suited to tablets and e-readers, may increasingly suit our digital age. Indeed, literary apps and podcasts are ever more popular. Heading the download charts is the outstanding New Yorker Fiction podcasts. If you need more inspiration for short-story reading choices, here is our pick of the five best episodes:

  • Jennifer Egan reads "The Reverse Bug" by Lore Segal
    Recent Pulitzer-prize winner Egan reads a Segal story which treads a fine line between realism and sci-fi. What begins as a lighthearted account of an English foreign language class quickly descends into terror.
  • Cynthia Ozick reads "in the reign of Harad IV" by Steven Millhauser
    Millhauser’s surrealist masterpiece is as original as it is engaging. This highly unconventional tale of a medieval ivory-sculptor bears clear influence of Kafka and Borges
  • Lauren Groff reads Alice Munro’s "Axis"
    Munro is increasingly becoming the undisputed master of the contemporary short story. 'Axis' has all the hallmarks of her at her best - and the following discussion between Lauren Groff and Deborah Treisman offers insightful ideas and analysis
  • Salman Rushdie reads Donald Barthelme’s "Concerning the Bodyguard"
    Barthelme, often regarded with the somewhat off-putting term ‘a writers writer’, has long been established as one of the most experimental short storyists of all time. This spectacularly unconventional take - written entirely as a series of questions - is guranteed to be unlike anything you've read before.
  • Colm Tóibín reads "The Children’s Grandmother" Sylvia Townsend Warner
    Townsend Warner, who was published extensively from 1930-50, is now relatively unknown as a writer. The quality of her stories deserves a far broader audience, however, and she is at her darkly comedic best in 'The Children's Grandmother'.

Kamila Kocialkowska is a freelance journalist based in London.



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The Bloody Mary is dead: all hail the Bloody Caesar

This Canadian version of an old standard is a good substitute for dinner.

It is not anti-Catholic bias that makes me dislike the Bloody Mary, that lumpish combination of tomato juice and vodka named after a 16th-century English queen who, despite the immense reach of her royal powers, found burning Protestants alive the most effective display of majesty.

My prejudice is against its contents: the pulverised tomatoes that look like run-off from a Tudor torture chamber. A whole tomato is a source of joy and, occasionally, wonder (I remember learning that the Farsi for tomato is gojeh farangi, which translates literally as “foreign plum”) – and I am as fond of pizza as anyone. Most accessories to the Bloody Mary are fine with me: Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, celery, black pepper, even sherry or oysters. But generally I share the curmudgeon Bernard DeVoto’s mistrust of fruit juice in my spirits: “all pestilential, all gangrenous, all vile” was the great man’s verdict. His main objection was sweetness but I will include the admittedly savoury tomato in my ban. At the cocktail hour, I have been known to crave all kinds of odd concoctions but none has included pulp.

To many, the whole point of a Bloody Mary is that you don’t wait until the cocktail hour. This seems to entail a certain shying away from unpleasant realities. I know perfectly well the reaction I would get if I were to ask for a grilled tomato and a chilled Martini at brunch: my friends would start likening me to F Scott Fitzgerald and they wouldn’t be referring to my writing talent. Despite its remarkably similar contents, a Bloody Mary is a perfectly acceptable midday, middle-class beverage. If the original Mary were here to witness such hypocrisy, she would surely tut and reach for her firelighters.

Yet, like the good Catholic I certainly am not, I must confess, for I have seen the error of my ways. In July, on Vancouver Island, I tried a Bloody Caesar – Canada’s spirited response to England’s favourite breakfast tipple (“I’ll see your Tudor queen, you bunch of retrograde royalists, and raise you a Roman emperor”). The main difference is a weird yet oddly palatable concoction called Clamato: tomato juice thinned and refined by clam juice. Replace your standard slop with this stuff, which has all the tang of tomato yet flows like a veritable Niagara, and you will have a drink far stranger yet more delicious than the traditional version.

Apparently, the Caesar was invented by an Italian restaurateur in Calgary, Alberta, who wanted a liquid version of his favourite dish from the old country: spaghetti alle vongole in rosso (clam and tomato spaghetti). He got it – and, more importantly, the rest of us got something we can drink not at breakfast but instead of dinner. Find a really interesting garnish – pickled bull kelp or spicy pickled celery, say – and you can even claim to have eaten your greens.

I’m sure that dedicated fans of the Bloody Mary will consider this entire column heretical, which seems appropriate: that’s the side I was born on, being Jewish, and I like to hope I wouldn’t switch even under extreme forms of persuasion. But this cocktail is in any case a broad church: few cocktails come in so many different incarnations.

The original was invented, according to him, by Fernand Petiot, who was a French barman in New York during Prohibition (and so must have known a thing or two about hypocrisy). It includes lemon juice and a “layer” of Worcestershire sauce and the tomato juice is strained; it may also actually have been named after a barmaid.

All of which proves only that dogma has no place at the bar. Variety is the spice of life, which makes it ironic that the world’s spiciest cocktail bestows a frivolous immortality on a woman who believed all choice to be the work of the devil.

Next week John Burnside on nature

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis