John Brantingham’s report on the 2023 Bath Novella in Flash Award

Our big thanks to writer, editor and teacher, John Brantingham for his judging our 2023 and final Novella-in-Flash Award. John made a close read of twenty six novellas on the longlist and his enthusiasm comes across. His comments on the whole process of reading the longlist of 26 novellas in flash are very encouraging. We appreciate his offer for writers to reach out to him which he made in his previous comments when the short list was announced. We entirely agree that there were so many excellent examples of this exciting novella form among these and the other novellas submitted to the contest. We look forward to Ad Hoc Fiction publishing the top three novellas this year and hope that many of the others will find publishers soon.

John’s general and specific comments

I am grateful to have this chance to judge this year’s novella-in-flash competition. Thank you Jude for allowing me to take part.

When I first began to write flash in the 1990s, publishers and friends were often confused as to what I was doing and why I was writing what they thought were incomplete stories. However, what I thought then, and I know now is that so much is possible when a writer strips a story of artifice. I don’t mean, of course, that all longer stories are false, only that our form allows writers to approach fiction from a different perspective, highlighting emotions and realities in a way that longer forms simply cannot. For me, that means going more deeply into an emotionally complex place.

I was thrilled to see how all of the writers on the short and long list understand the emotional and artistic possibilities of the form in a way that the publishers from all those years ago didn’t. These writers have used the form to find an emotional meaning and reality that deeply moved me throughout the reading process. My wife and I ran a novella publisher for a few years. We would have published many of these had they come across our desk.

The three that I finally chose were novellas that I read multiple times, not because I needed to so much as because I wanted to. They were brilliant. They were moving. They changed the way that I understood their topics. They deepened and complicated my understanding of flash fiction generally, and the novella-in-flash specifically. They are what I am always trying to accomplish with my laptop and so often failing to achieve.

All I can say about all of the novellas-in-flash that I have read here is that their writers need to keep writing. The world is often a complicated and mysterious place to inhabit. You make me understand it and myself in a much better way. Keep writing!

A Learning Curve

A Learning Curve was personal and profoundly moving. The author draws us into a world of deep pain and helps us to understand the motivations of people whose actions might be dismissed by those on the outside. We are given an inside look at mourning and postpartum depression. The individual flash pieces vary in style and structure. Sometimes they are lists or hermit crab stories. Sometimes they play with punctuation. Always, the style is a new way into the emotional realities of the characters. This is a master class in the form, but I certainly wasn’t thinking about the control that the author had over structure. I was simply drawn into the stories and was moved by them. These are absolutely brilliantly written.

Runner up:

Prodigal also uses the form to its full advantage. The author of this novella-in-flash understands the iceberg theory (that what we see in a brief scene can suggest a much fuller and complex reality) in a way that few writers do. The writing suggests the years of struggles it takes to become a woman, both the good and the bad. We are given insights into the small details of eating disorders and painful relationships. We understand what it means to grow and the difference between adulthood and adolescence because through the small moments, what a haiku writer might call the moments between moments.

Runner up:
The Top Road

The writer of The Top Road draws us into the consciousness of a small boy, which is often dangerous. People can underestimate the intelligence and sensitivity of children, and these stories can become overly sentimental. Not so here. The writer understands what it is to be a child in a way that Dylan Thomas and Charles Bukowski did. The writer also draws us into the consciousness of a fox. Writing from the point-of-view of an animal is also dangerous. Doing so can also be sentimental. Not so here either. In the tradition of Virginia Woolf’s Flush, the writer uses the perspective to complicate our understanding of the story. Rather than being sentimental, it is moving. We grow to care for the fox and the people with whom it interacts.

Highly Commended:
The Rupture Gene

I found myself harboring a deep affection for Jack, the main character of The Rupture Gene. He is quiet and thoughtful. That he cares deeply for the people around him is apparent. I found myself thinking about a passage from The Catcher in the Rye about the books Holden Caufield likes: “What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. That doesn’t happen much, though.” I felt that way about Jack who is sensitive and thoughtful, and it made me think that the author is as well. Maybe the author is, who knows? The point is that the characterization here is beautiful, and this is a book I hope many people will read.

Highly Commended:
Dancing in the Burning Fields

As I read Dancing in the Burning Fields, I was reminded of Waiting for the Barbarians somehow, but I’m not exactly sure why. It has something to do with the tone of it or what the author chooses to focus on or think about. In any case, it’s an exceptional novella-in-flash. The chapters here are shorter than most other novellas-in-flash that I have read and the compactness of the writing draws us into what matters in the pieces. And I have to say, the imagery and language throughout is exceptional. The first moment of the manuscript drew me in, and there was never a page that did not move me.

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