The Paris Short Story Contest attracted hundreds of submissions from all over the world, dealing with many different themes and styles. It was the Editorial Committee's task to establish a shortlist of the best stories, from which the Judges selected the twelve finalists to be published in Best Paris Stories.
Most of the Editorial Committee members were themselves published writers with extensive experience in submitting manuscripts for books and articles. But now, the tables were turned, and they found themselves on the other end of the submissions process.
What did they learn from the process?
First up: Thirza Vallois, a noted expert on Paris and the author of the acclaimed Around and About Paris series. In a wonderfully far-ranging reflection, she reveals how she connected with the stories through personal experience and a love of history.
Note: Not all stories mentioned here were included in Best Paris Stories as we received many too excellent submissions to publish all.
Thirza Vallois : Notes from a Short Story Contest
I have always been a fan of short stories.
I love their conciseness, the impeccable architecture of their structure, the fast pace of the plot, the energy that drives it towards the resolution and final twist. Short stories are to novels what drawings are to paintings. They go to the point economically, creating a self-contained world and an atomosphere without wasting words on frills. It takes a tremendous talent to humbly strive to emulate the likes of a Guy de Maupassant, Somerset Maugham, O'Henry, not to mention the superb Flannery O'connor. Understandably,
I was skeptical about a short story contest with Paris for its theme or backdrop.
So many people come to Paris as aspiring writers. Would the stories I would read manage to avoid the clichéd twee depictions we read time and again in well-meaning blogs and internet forums? When I was asked to be on the editorial committee, I felt I ought to help out, although I can't say I was that keen to do so. I was actually overwhelmed when the pile of stories was handed me and wondered what I had let myself in for.
To my pleasant surprise, the first story on top of the pile was set against the unlikely backdrop of a France-Wales in the Six Nations rugby international
(How uncanny that my own first contribution to the Financial Times, years ago, also started with the then Five Nations rugby international, France-England in my case). Don't get me wrong. I am not at all into rugby, but I liked the fact that right from the start, the reader was placed in ordinary, unglamorous Paris, the Stade de France and Guy Moquet metro station on the route of line 13.
For the record, Stade de France is situated in one of the banlieues (suburbs) north of Paris where trouble erupted in 2005. (The stadium wasn't there yet in the early 1970s, when I was appointed to that same suburb as a young teacher. The France-England I had attended years earlier was still held in Colombes); line 13 is the city's most crowded, a notorious nightmare for commuters; Guy Moquet is situated in the working class part of the 17th arrondissement and is named after a 17-year-old resistant shot by the Nazis.
In short, it was a scene drawn from ordinary life in contemporary Paris, not unlike those depicted by painters and writers in the latter part of the 19th century.
Centred around a pick-pocketing incident on the crammed metro, it was all too familiar to me, having myself travelled many a time on public transportation on match days and, likewise, having been the victim of pickpockets a good number of times, including on the metro.
I even managed the feat of having my wallet removed from my handbag during my own book signing at Brentano's, the American Bookshop of Paris!
This very ordinary and unfortunate mishap, to which so many of us fall victims, is already recorded in medieval verse and engravings, and by René Clair's, in 1930, in his delightful movie Sous les toîts de Paris. To me, from the standpoint of the longtime Parisian resident and reader, it was a pleasure to identify with the protagonist.
To me, from the standpoint of the longtime observer of Paris, it was exciting to see affirmed that some traditions die hard and persist through the ages, including such petty felony as pickpocketing.
As I moved on to the next story and beyond, it became altogether heartwarming to see this applied to literary traditions as well. For hundreds years, the city's writers made a point of exploring its different worlds and thus contribute to its mosaic of diversity.
Literary testimonies are no less important for the understanding of Paris than historical documents.
I have always turned to them as part of my research. History gives us the bird's eye view and the facts; writers give us the nooks and crannies and the pulse. In their imaginative variety of topics, the authors of the contest I was given to read sustained that tradition to my delight, even in the few cases when the story fell flat.
I liked the stories that explored the dark side of Paris.
One in particular, set in a down-at-heel neighbourhood, inevitably took place during the night, when danger lurks invisible.
Victor Hugo, Balzac, Restif de la Bretonne, André Breton, Aristide Bruant... all left memorable pages of the literature of the night. Henry Miller did much the same, as did subsequent directors of films noirs, a genre the French excel in. And now, some authors of the contest were doing the same. For the time of a story, I could experience vicariously a slice of Paris I know a lot about but avoid, certainly so in the middle of the night. Weaving bits of information about the city into the plot, as it unwound, the author shed light onto dark recesses most of us prefer to ignore, as we go about our daily lives, except on dramatic or tragic occasions, when the media throw them in our faces.
I liked the subtle way the bobos were brought into the story, these bourgeois bohemians of contemporary Paris who often live alongside the migrant and the shiftless; though only up to a point, when it comes down to it. When I was young one spoke of communistes de salon, a generation later of gauche caviar. The bohemians of the 19th century also lived in seedy neighbourhoods, notably by the Louvre, an enclave long erased and replaced by the Carrousel esplanade, of which Balzac left a striking depiction.
Forget about Paris — I surprised myself enjoying reading some of the stories for their own sake!
Independently of Paris!
At the time the selection was very difficult, but now with hindsight, and the beneficial distance afforded by time, one story sticks out. it was superbly written.
I savoured it the way one would a truly fine dish. The author was a born writer and had writing in her blood. The phrases just flowed with the story energetically and fluidly, from one to the next. It was so engaging and came across as so effortless, which of course, for me is the hand of an artist. Occasionally, she managed to pack an entire, huge emotion into one crisp, sketchy phrase. I say "she" because it must have been written by a woman (Incidentally, it was interesting to notice that although I didn't know the identity of the authors, I believe I could always detect their gender — no offence meant!). In this instance, the feminine touch was expressed in the style, in the subtle observation of a facial expression or of a mood, it was all beautifully wrought and beautifully streamlined from the very beginning to the end. It was also full of fun and a had fun ending. I, the reader, was just invited to sit back, glide along and enjoy.
At the end of the day, the experience has been very positive.
It was heartwarming see a lot of talent and keenness around, a lot of good writing too. But it was also a confirmation that there is a long way between talent and great talent, alas, which is not a reason to throw up the sponge. I think that everyone who has that drive in him or her should give it a try, but with eyes wide open and realistically. We are not all going to become a Colette, a Virginia Woolf or a Proust, but it doesn't matter. And if I can make one critical comment, to me the few weakest stories were those written by authors too wrapped up in their own world. They came across as too self-indulgent to the detriment of the actual plot. It doesn't work for the short story genre.
Thank you for allowing me to be part of this venture.
Thirza Vallois is an expert on all things Parisian and lectures worldwide on Paris and France. She has lived in Paris most of her life and holds several post-graduate degrees from the Sorbonne, including the most prestigious agrégation. She is the author of the internationally acclaimed Around and About Paris series, Romantic Paris Aveyron, and A Bridge to French Arcadia, as well as the Paris entry of the Encarta Encyclopaedia. Thirza Vallois has appeared on PBS, BBC, the Travel Channel, the French Cultural Channel, Discovery and CNN, has spoken on radio in the UK, the US and France, and has worked as a consultant for the BBC. She contributes stories regularly to the international press. Her award-winning "Three Perfect Days in Paris "story was published in United Airlines' Hemispheres and aired on their international flights.