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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their final six-strong shortlist were unaware if they were reading the work of an established literary superstar or an unpublished newcomer.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.



Flickr/Alfred Grupstra
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How will future videogame makers design a grand strategy game about the 21st century?

With the diminishing power of nation states, and the lack of conventional warfare, what would a 21st-century grand strategy game look like?

In the world of historical strategy games, it always seems clear how to win. Paint the map your colour. Raise your flag over the capitals of your rivals. Pave the streets of your cities with gold. Games based around statecraft in olden times will tend to have diverse objectives, they usually focus on the greatness of a nation in the traditional senses of the word: military might, technological advancement, religious and cultural hegemony. These same priorities hold up from the times of the Roman Republic to the Cold War.

Yet if games designers in the future were to look at the world of today, how would they interpret the actions of modern governments? Do the same goals as before apply or have we moved on? Are the objectives of contemporary societies different, and if so, just what would a player in a game of 21st-century grand strategy be trying to achieve?

One thing is for sure, the conventional measures of success in historical grand strategy games don’t stack up so easily in a modern setting.

War, for instance, has always been a staple part of historical games and it remains a preoccupation of contemporary society too. In the 15 years of the 21st century, Britain has invaded two countries, conducted armed interventions in three more and is even now lining up the procurement of new fighter jets, new aircraft carriers and new nuclear weapons at incredible expense. So we can safely say we do not live in a peaceful age.

But despite having all this firepower and the political will to bring it to bear at the drop of a dossier, war doesn’t seem to serve Her Majesty’s Government in the way it does in either the history books or the strategy games. There is no territory to be won and no rival great powers being thwarted – only air strikes, occupations and teetering puppet governments.

Indeed the only country whose military adventures bear any resemblance to the old-timey way of doing things is Russia, with Putin perhaps the last of the breed of world leaders who still thinks swapping out the flags on municipal buildings constitutes a legitimate redrawing of national boundaries. Given his famous distrust for technology it seems quite likely he didn’t get the tersely worded Tweet from Obama about how that kind of thing isn’t supposed to work anymore.

On the economic side of things the approaches opted for by governments today don’t fit with the historical mind set either. Nations are no longer trying to get rich for their own sake. Privatisation relinquishes the assets of the state in return for a temporary financial gain and long term loss of revenue. Deregulation and poor tax enforcement bleeds capital overseas. It is here we see perhaps the key difference between games where you play as The State itself and real countries, countries run by people who have bank balances of their own and competing party financiers to appease.

The idea of running a country for the purpose of making that country wealthier and then reinvesting that wealth back into the country by developing assets and infrastructure has gone out of the window. Simultaneously both the leftwing model of a state run for the benefit of its citizens and the rightwing ideal of a country mastering its economy to become a more powerful force on the world stage have been quietly phased out. Outsourcing and tax havens suggest that there is no longer room for patriotism in economic policy – unless you’re China, of course, but it wouldn’t be much of a game with only one nation playing it.

On a technological front there was the space race, and there have even been games built around it. But in the 21st century, the urgency and the sense of competition has been lost. Rovers on Mars, probes on comets and space stations tend to be viewed in a spirit of collective human achievement, partly because of the collaborative nature of modern space exploration, and also, I suspect, because lots of people in those fields are Star Trek fans.

The idea of going to Mars so you can stand on the surface of another planet and tell the Communists to stuff it no longer appeals as much as that whole "pushing back the scientific boundaries for the benefit of all life of Earth" deal. It is laudable, but not ideal for games built around competing with other countries.

In the 21st century grand strategy game, we wouldn’t be looking to conquer the world, we wouldn’t be looking to buy it and we wouldn’t be looking to leave it in our technological wake either. So what does that leave? What would 21st-century grand strategy look like?

It could be argued that we’ve moved beyond the era of nation states as the bodies driving world affairs, and such a game might reflect that. Maybe something more akin to a Crusader Kings game would be the way to go, with the player taking the role of an individual – a connected political blueblood, perhaps, like an oligarch, a CEO, an activist turned politician, a drugs baron or a terrorist leader. Or maybe we would play not as an individual, but as an organisation, for example the CIA, ExxonMobil, Isis, Amnesty International or the Solntsevskaya Bratva.

It may be that we never see the present day immortalised in a strategy game, at least outside of that passing phase in Civilization where everything is either settled down or exploding in nuclear fire. Perhaps we’re destined to nestle into a historically obscure crack between the tumult of the 20th century and something spectacular or horrible yet to come. It is nice to think, however, that the times we live in are at least interesting and that maybe we’ll get to see it all laid out in a game one day, if only to find out what winning the 21st century would look like.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture