When it’s better not to be shortlisted

Recently, I failed to make the short list in a competition* I had entered. It’s not the first time by a long chalk, nor is rejection by publishers or requests for revisions to something I thought was fine in its first iteration (often it turned out better in the end which reflects well on the editorial critique), so when I say I’m actually quite relieved, it isn’t a defensive swipe at the ones that made it. Maybe you’ve found yourself in this position too: you enter in good faith, you’re shortlisted, you cheer. Then you read the stories you’re shortlisted with and the only acceptable option is to win outright because to lose to any of them – especially publicly – would be horrendous.

More horrendous though is the danger of judging one’s work within the scale of any given list and not according to an internal yardstick for what constitutes ‘good’. While Grayson Perry in his Reith Lectures has made the amusing but spot-on point that ‘good [art] is what enough of the right people say it is‘ (and that ‘the right people’ shift according to what matters most – sales, popularity, income, or critical appraisal), establishing a sense of one’s own competence is a valuable way of avoiding being blown around by zeitgeist, popular opinion, those little rules that keep appearing via Facebook or twitter, and the Emperor’s New Clothes of defensive approval.

Writers are probably the group most vulnerable to these external influences when it comes to measuring their own talent and skill. That they usually work alone means there is no obvious way of developing a capacity for objective self appraisal. Add to this the tendency for women (on the whole) to make external attributions for success (‘I was lucky’) and internal ones for failure (‘I’m no good’), the landscape for self blame and being buffeted by unpredictable winds is more expansive than many can handle. No wonder we’re always on the hunt for the tips, tricks and aphorisms that seem to promise success.

I’m a self-confessed male-typical thinker which is the exact opposite of the way (most) women see things – if my stuff isn’t well received, my default position is that it’s nothing to do with me! I’ve learned to pull back from that over the years and to understand that other people might just have a valid point. Out of that has come a measured approach to feedback and criticism that allows for change but, crucially, doesn’t dent my self esteem. This seems to me to be a far better position than trying to accommodate everything and having one’s confidence perpetually steamrollered by the vagaries of opinion that might or might not have real validity.

So I wonder, are male authors more confident about their work in line with male-typical thinking, or does the isolation and introspection of the writing process and dependency on subjective, inconsistent feedback modify that bias towards the female-typical profile? Alternatively, does that isolation drive and hone self reliance for both men and women in a way that other kinds of appraised activity don’t?

Given that almost anything could be better and that we will edit perpetually given the chance, how do you decide something is good enough to go out, and if it’s rejected or attracts negative (or positive) feedback, how do you figure out what to take on board and what to dismiss? It’s a one star/five star world out there and perspective is everything!

* I won’t mention it because that would be churlish but I need to just exclude a few who might read this and think I mean them: it’s national but of an in-house nature, no I haven’t mentioned it anywhere, no it’s not Lascaux or West Sussex Writers or Steyning Festival.