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Interview: Anne Enright, this year's award judge

Anne Enright is an Irish author and short-story writer, whose novel The Gathering won the Man Booker prize in 2007. She judged this year’s Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award, and speaks to Sophie Haydock about how blind reading benefits women writers

  • How did you find being a judge on this year’s STEFG short story award?
    I enjoyed reading all the stories. You never know what planet you’ll be on when you start each one. The first paragraph is always very exciting. You’re decoding where you are and what may, or may not, be happening. Are we in the 18th or the 20th century? Is it no century at all? What kind of language is the story written in? I surrounded myself with the stories. Reading them was a very nice evening retreat.

    Was it easy to absorb so many different worlds and perspectives over a relatively short period of time?
    It’s like being a doctor who sees 100 patients a day. I found it weirdly easy. I wrote notes on each story to say roughly what they were about and the theme. I also liked to let them settle. It’s then that some of your early enthusiasm levels out or some of your later tiredness. Things lift on a second look.

    Were there any recurring themes in the stories you read?
    There were many set in small-town America. Several others were wonderfully contemporary, which I enjoy. Technology can exist in a short story in ways that complicates a novel no end. Google has destroyed the plots of longer works.

    What do you love most about the short story format?
    The short story is a sharp, energetic little engine, and it can take on the contemporary without turning it into a satire. With a short story, you can get in and give society a shake in a way that a novel is too lumbering to do.

    Do you think the process of blind reading is important in a competition?
    I really do love the process of blind reading, particularly with short stories. You can’t help but assume a work is by a certain author or that someone is imitating them. You’re not really ever right. I love the way that blind reading ungenders a story. The complete freedom is terrific. The story lives or dies on its own terms, absolutely, without reference to the author. There’s something about the voice and the lightness and the whole “go” of a story that still remains attractive, even if you don’t know whose personality it is that’s driving it, or whose voice it is.

    And blind reading has been valuable for your writing, too?
    Yes, indeed. In 2004, I won the Davy Byrnes short story award. The prize was €20,000. My mother persuaded me to enter! I felt very unlucky at the time, like I was a bit washed up in Ireland, and that while my books were gathering small accolades abroad, I was somehow the wrong kind of writer for what was needed then. I don’t know what was wrong with me, and whether it was true or just a perception, but I thought I had a better chance with a blind reading than I had with a named reading. So I felt wonderfully vindicated when I won the prize. It’s my favourite ever. A huge amount of mindless work is put into our reputation management. It’s lovely to settle back out of the page.

    Are you disadvantaged as a woman if competitions aren’t judged blind?
    Statistics certainly show that women suffer more from unconscious bias than men. I remember hearing about a woman who sent out her book under her own name, then as a man, and she got eight times the amount of response as a man than as a woman. That does show a clear unconscious bias in the industry. But I’m very cautious about saying things absolutely because an awful lot of our fears or projections turn out not to be true one way or another. For example, I have a slight worry that they’re tired in London of Irish people winning things, as this year they well might, as there’s been a lot of Irish writers doing well in the award season. I worry about that, but clearly there are English writers who would say there’s an unconscious bias against English writers, too.

    Have you ever felt disadvantaged as female author?
    Fortunately, in international waters, I’m treated more as an Irish writer than as a woman writer, so it’s all a matter of external definition. You can change genders now, in a way you couldn’t when I was growing up, but it’s still difficult to change nationality, or to self-define as coming from a place where you were not born. But to me, they’re not the defining things.

    Should more competitions be judged blind?
    It’s very hard to do for a novel, but much easier to do for a short story length. The short story is constructed of sentences that connect vitally one to the other, and there’s no redundancy there – no extra paragraphs are allowed. It has to be a shaped thing. So it’s very strongly an aesthetic judgement, as well as a social one, or a matter of taste or interest or personality or voice.

    Would you be a different author if you were a male American?
    Oh, yes. But every problem is its own solution. There’s a feeling in Ireland that as a woman you write from the periphery rather than from the centre of things, so you have to be lighter on your feet and keep moving. So these things give life to your prose that might not be there if you didn’t feel challenged in such a way.

    Is it important for writers of any gender to be true to their heritage?
    I write as much in opposition to ideas of Irishness as I do towards them. I can’t wake up one day and be Ukrainian. It’s what you’re given. All writers are trying to push the envelope a little and all trying to get out of one box or another, and the greatest accolade as a writer is when you turn into your name – when that becomes your label, rather than “Irish writer” or “woman writer”. We’re all fighting our way out of that and into a common humanity. On top of that, you want your readers to be from everywhere with all kinds of approaches to life.

    What are your thoughts on the cultural appropriation debate?
    You have to be really respectful as a writer. It’s a question of good manners.

    Can we find redemption as individuals, as a nation, through a story?
    I don’t know if we can do that through an individual work. But bookshops and libraries are islands of sanity in many countries, where people find not redemption, but refuge in the life of the mind.