Fiona the K: Dame Fiona Kidman, chief judge of the 2022 Sargeson Prize.

The annual Sargeson Prize – New Zealand’s richest short-story competition, even bigger and better than the Sunday Star-Times contest, which is nearly as generous but not quite – is back in business, with increased riches on offer. Entries open tomorrow, on April 1, which suggests the whole thing is a hoax but it isn’t. The total prize pool is truly more than $12,000 and the author of the winning story will truly pocket $10,000.

Entries for the Sargeson Prize close on June 30. There is no entry fee and stories are limited to one per person. Stories in the Open Division can be up to 5000 words and 3000 words for Secondary Schools stories.

The competition is staged and sponsored by the University of Waikato, in association with good old ReadingRoom. It was established in 2019 by Catherine Chidgey in her hat as the university’s senior lecturer in creative writing. Chidgey also wears a more glamorous hat as one of New Zealand’s best living authors. Right now her novel Remote Sympathy is on the shortlist for the Dublin Prize (first prize: 100,000 Euro) and the longlist for the Women’s Prize, in the UK. She’s the real thing, a writer with an international reputation and audience, an artist with a great range;  her role with the Sargeson Prize gives it an instant credibility.

So does the money. The winning purse has increased year on year. And since last year, when the Sargeson Prize partnered with ReadingRoom, the stories have reached a wide audience – ReadingRoom publishes the winning story, and those in second and third place, as well as the winner of the Secondary Schools Division.

All of which is further evidence that the New Zealand short story is enjoying a renaissance. The form has long existed as one of the brightest jewels in New Zealand letters, going back to Katherine Mansfield, and later revolutionised by Frank Sargeson. The University of Waikato prize is named for Sargeson, born Norris Davey in 1903, in Hamilton. Other short story writers of distinction have included Janet Frame, Witi Ihimaera, Patricia Grace, CK Stead, Owen Marshall, Ian Wedde, Emily Perkins, Charlotte Grimshaw, and Breton Dukes; collections of short stories, however, have always been a hard sell. That changed drastically when Bug Week by Airini Beautrais won the most celebrated (and richest) prize in New Zealand literature, the Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction at last year’s Ockham awards. It was a landmark win and marked a vote of confidence for the short story.

New collections by Vincent O’Sullivan and Maria Samuela were published this month. Patrica Grace has a collection due later this year. The weekly short story published every Saturday at ReadingRoom has acted as a showcase for new and emerging talent. It’s interesting to note that the most widely read stories that we published in 2021 were all by writers of colour – Shelley Burne-Field, Emma Sidnam, Airana Ngarewa, and Te Ariki Wi Neera. The past 12 months have seen new collections of short stories by Māori writers in Huia 14, Asian-New Zealand writers in A Clear Dawn, Vanuatu writers in Sista, Stanap Strong!, and Pasifika writers in Vā: Stories by Women of the Moana. And in the past fortnight, ReadingRoom has featured two consecutive stories by the same writer, someone who belongs to a minority and almost a rarity in modern New Zealand literature – a white male.

The Sargeson Prize is the one all New Zealand short story writers will want to win. The chief judge this year is Dame Fiona Kidman. She said, “I don’t believe there are any absolute rules for writing short stories. The well-made beginning, middle and end went out the window long ago. And yet, when I’m judging a competition, it’s the spark at the beginning that grips me, the moment when I begin to read and I know that I have to keep going. The voice of a character reaches out and I go ‘oh hullo, tell me more’.

“Straight away, I can tell you that a short story with a clearly defined character, who the author knows and understands, is a great help. If the writer knows the character then they will know that voice, hear it in their heads as they write. And if I can hear it too I will almost certainly be hooked. Listen… listen to the world around you.”

Nicely put. As the gatekeeper of the short stories submitted to ReadingRoom, I depart from the worthy Kidman: I don’t usually respond to any kind of spark at the beginning. I like stories that take their time. I like stories that read differently and more richly on second or third reads. I like to believe in a completely real world that the author creates in a mere few pages – here is Frank Sargeson describing his 1938 classic story “Toothache”, in an interview in Landfall: “I’m using almost all one-syllable words and I’ve pared the thing down to just this horror of human life, of our isolation, our solitude, grief and pain that we don’t understand and I’ve tried to put it into a few lines.” I also like stories where something, anything really, actually happens. The archetypal story submitted to ReadingRoom (and sometimes accepted for publication), can be described thus: “Nothing happens, and there’s someone moaning about something.” Which kind of sounds like life in New Zealand. I bet Fiona the K will receive plenty of those kinds of stories.

The Sargeson Prize also encourages teenage writers. The winner of the Secondary Schools Division will receive $500 and a one-week summer writing residency at the University of Waikato, including accommodation, meals and mentoring. Catherine Chidgey: “It’s a wonderful chance to get your work published, and also to take up a writing residency that I’d have killed for in my teens. You’ll get one-on-one feedback to help you develop your voice, and you’ll also get a taste of what studying creative writing is like at Waikato.”

Last year there were about 850 entries in the Open Division and 150 in the Secondary Schools Division. First place went to Waikawa writer Lara Markstein with her story “Good Men”. Chief judge Patricia Grace really knew what she was doing. That’s an awesome story. The voice of a character reaches out, and it reads differently and more richly on second or third reads… All the best to this year’s entrants; may they write something as good as that.

The most read short story ever published at ReadingRoom is “Pinching out the dahlias” by Shelley Burne-Field. It’s the one that goes, “That girl called you a Pākehā c**t. At the school! And you just took it.”

Steve Braunias is the literary editor of Newsroom's books section ReadingRoom, a noted writer at the NZ Herald, and the author of 10 books.

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