Introductory remarks by ReadingRoom literary editor Steve Braunias: Leeanne O’Brien, who pocketed cold hard untaxed $10,000 cash as the winner of the 2022 Sargeson Prize for short stories, enumerates 11 good reasons for writers to enter the 2023 Sargeson Prize, as below; they are very good reasons, but there is a 12th imperative, which governs the composition of all short stories – the opportunity to create a perfectly formed shortform work of art. Leeanne O’Brien created such a thing with her incredible story that was judged first prize last year and so, too, did the winner of the 2022 schools division, Shima Jack. God they were good stories. They were stories with heart, with a sense of danger, as was also the case with the four stories I rate as the best to appear in ReadingRoom this year so far: “Moonfish” by Kōtuku Titihuia Nuttall (told with heart: check, sense of danger: check), “Hush” by James Pasley (I think he operates in a similar way that Wellington writer John Summers does in his nonfiction: ordinary New Zealand lives, important decisions), “Babydoll” by Catherine Chidgey (two novels in two years plus a short story that good – next to her, all writers are sloths), and, yeah, that story, the most popular of the year by miles, as well as the most disturbing, “All gone” by Kirsty Gunn. Kirsty’s story was told by a white racist mother who goes out and gets a gun. It’s a story about a school shooting. It was first published in Landfall and when the journal asked if there was anything in that issue I’d like to republish, I jumped straight in to bring it to a wider, general audience. There was a fair bit of criticism of the story – and of the two “platforms” that ran it – on social a few weeks back. Good. The story crossed a line. It went there. How and why it went there is the subject of an essay about to appear in ReadingRoom soon, by the author; I asked Kirsty Gunn to put it into some kind of context.
Anyway. Submissions for the 2023 Sargeson Prize close at midnight on Sunday, June 30. The entry form sets it out. Prize convenor Catherine Chidgey (her again!) says: “We have over 400 entries so far, and looking at my 2022 records we have slightly more in the Secondary Schools Division and slightly fewer in the Open Division (get it together, grown-ups). Last year almost half of the entries arrived on the last day – hundreds of the things. My advice is to get in well before the deadline of 11:59pm on June 30. Please don’t be sending plaintive emails about broadband meltdowns or cats deleting your homework.”
Eleven reasons to enter the 2023 Sargeson Prize, by 2022 winner Leeanne O’Brien
1 Vincent O’Sullivan is the judge and Owen Marshall probably too much of a gentleman to submit.
2 Your dog will be proud of you.
3 An immovable deadline will give your life meaning.
4 When you can’t sleep at night because the critics in your frontal lobe are at full volume, you might be able to turn on your side and reach towards your dresser and just about touch a small perspex block that sandwiches a certificate with your name on it and the words Sargeson Prize.
5 If you win, fizzling messages might arrive from your friends and family and people who you don’t even know. Some might have comments and theories that never entered your head (but nevertheless you could claim them from then on).
6 If you win, you will honour Waikato University and its people. And they are so deserving. (Listen to Catherine Chidgey talking to Simon Morris on RNZ about the competition and the process of selection and be humbled by both the devotion to stories and the deep attention to each person’s efforts.)
7 You might decide to read Frank Sargeson: A Life by Michael King.
8 You might win an aberrant amount of money.
9 You might learn that keeping a good secret has some unexpected and surprising parallels with keeping one of a murkier sort and it might spark an idea for a story.
10 At a dinner afterwards you might get to sit beside great writers who are kind and encouraging and mischievous and funny.
Enter the 2023 Sargeson Prize now. The winner of the Open Division receives $10,000. The winner of the Schools Division wins $2000, plus a a week-long writing residency at Waikato University. The stories of the two winners, plus stories judged second and third in the Open Division, will appear in ReadingRoom and each author receives a fee of $350.