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Fifteenth BBC National Short Story Award shortlist revealed


Pictured: L-R top row: Caleb Azumah Nelson, Jan Carson, Sarah Hall. L-R bottom row: Jack Houston, Eley Houston


“I am inordinately proud of this year’s shortlist - it’s sharp, relevant, sometimes heart-rending, sometimes funny! If we set out 15 years ago to help save the short story, what this year’s writers prove is that in 2020 it is rude health and more versatile and flexible than ever.”

Di Speirs, Editor of Books, BBC Audio

Sarah Hall nominated for fourth time as 15th BBC National Short Story Award reveals bold, experimental shortlist celebrating a generation of voices.

BBC National Short Story Award-winner (2013) and four-time nominated writer Sarah Hall is joined by 26 year-old British-Ghanaian photographer Caleb Azumah Nelson; Creative Writing lecturer and James Tait Black Prize winner Eley Williams; poet and newcomer Jack Houston; and Belfast-based writer and 2019 EU Prize for Literature for Ireland winner Jan Carson, to complete shortlist of writers exploring race, family politics, millennial relationships and inner-city life.

The BBC National Short Story Award with Cambridge University (BBC NSSA) shortlist was announced this evening, Friday 11 September 2020 during BBC Radio 4’s Front Row.

Celebrating 15 years of the award, the shortlist included established and new voices, with 2013 winner of the award Sarah Hall shortlisted for the fourth time.


The judges praised the shortlist for its energy, experimentation and versatility with the stories ranging from "perfectly miniaturised flash-fiction" to the "fully literary and layered" - via diverse and topical inspirations including Black Lives Matter, millennial relationships, addiction, loss and family politics.

The BBC National Short Story Award with Cambridge University 2020 shortlist is:

  • Pray, by Caleb Azumah Nelson

  • In The Car With The Rain Coming Down, by Jan Carson

  • The Grotesques, by Sarah Hall

  • Come Down Heavy, by Jack Houston

  • Scrimshaw, by Eley Williams


The BBC National Short Story Award is one of the most prestigious for a single short story, with the winning author receiving £15,000, and four further shortlisted authors £600 each. The 2019 winner of the BBC National Short Story Award was Welsh writer Jo Lloyd, who won for The Invisible.

The 2020 winner will be announced live on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row on Tuesday 6 October.

All five stories will be broadcast on Radio 4 and on BBC Sounds and published in an anthology produced by Comma Press.


The readers of this year’s stories include award-winning actress of stage and screen Anne-Marie Duff, who reads Come Down Heavy; Law And Order actor and rapper Ben Bailey-Smith, aka Doc Brown, reading Pray; and Outlander star and Northern Irish actor Laura Donnelly reading In The Car With The Rain Coming Down.

Lydia Wilson, whose television credits include Requiem and Flack reads The Grotesques, with Call The Midwife and Fresh Meat actor and singer-songwriter Charlotte Ritchie completing the line-up with Scrimshaw.

Jonathan Freedland, journalist, author and Chair of Judges for the BBC National Short Story Award 2020, says: "In a strange, perplexing year, we five judges were privileged to be taken away to worlds both faraway and near, rendered by five brilliant writers.

"These stories deal with the timeless human preoccupations - family, love, loss, longing - but with freshness, energy and great skill. Any reader picking up the collection or tuning into them on air has a variety of delights to look forward to and - luckier than us - they'll be free of the painful task of picking a winner."

Jonathan Freedland is joined on this year’s judging panel by Commonwealth Prize winner Lucy Caldwell, who was shortlisted for both the 2012 and 2019 BBC NSSA; British-Nigerian writer Irenosen Okojie, a Betty Trask and Caine Prize winner; Edge Hill Prize shortlistee and Guardian short story columnist Chris Power; and returning judge Di Speirs, Books Editor at BBC Audio.

Di Speirs, Editor of Books at BBC Audio and judge of the Award since its launch says: "I am inordinately proud of this year’s shortlist - it’s sharp, relevant, sometimes heart-rending, sometimes funny!

"If we set out 15 years ago to help save the short story, what this year’s writers prove is that in 2020 it is rude health and more versatile and flexible than ever. From what is practically but perfectly miniaturised flash fiction, to the fully literary and layered, via bold new voices tackling tough realities and incisive humour within domestic tensions, this list reflects a generation of writers playing with form, range and the freedom of short fiction. Do listen to or read them."

The BBC National Short Story Award with Cambridge University was established to raise the profile of the short form and this year’s shortlist join distinguished alumni such as Zadie Smith, Lionel Shriver, Rose Tremain, William Trevor and Mark Haddon.

As well as rewarding the most renowned short story writers, the Award has raised the profile of new writers including Ingrid Persaud, K J Orr, Julian Gough, Cynan Jones and Clare Wigfall.

Dr Sarah Dillon, University of Cambridge, says: "It is a pleasure this year to see the shortlist represent both established writers of short stories and new emerging writers, reflecting Cambridge’s commitment both to studying the canonical history of short fiction, and its focus on nurturing students’ creativity and voice.

"In a year such as this, the shortlist yet again demonstrates the importance of creative writing, especially the short form, for making sense of the world we all share."


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