And what's this bit about "The Willesden Herald" cancelling the awarding of the prize for the best short story, especially after a shortlist had been announced?
We're talking about a short story contest for amateurs here, not seasoned professionals. I would definitely expect to find an entry that showed the writer knew proper grammar usage and story structure, one that was more elegantly written than not, but let's face it, no one's going to find the next "Good Country People," "The Horse Dealer's Daughter," or "A Rose for Emily" among the entries. Zadie and the other judges aren't going to discover the next Chekhov, Trevor, Faulkner, or Flannery O'Conner. It's possible, but not probable.
In addition, winning "The Willesden Herald's" short story writing contest isn't something to be compared to winning the Pulitzer or the Booker or even the Orange Prize, though Zadie seems to think it is. Winning doesn't involve a great amount of money or even name recognition. Not necessarily.
But were all the entries that bad? So bad that a winner couldn't even be chosen? I find that difficult to believe, although, as an editor, I do know the quality of writing submissions has gone way, way down in recent years. Still, one would believe that at least one of those stories merited the prize. I didn't enter the competition and I know no one who did, so I have no first hand knowledge of the quality of even one story submitted. I do know "The Boston Review" has a short story contest every year and usually manages to come up with some imaginative and well written winners.
While Zadie Smith is a very talented writer, I don't think history is going to place her among the "classics" that withstand the test of time. She plays more on what's topical than what's eternal in human nature.
However, if what Zadie says about the "Herald's" competition is true, then it's a very sad commentary on the state of fiction writing today. Of course, we all knew fiction writing had degenerated, but I certainly wasn't aware it'd degenerated that much. I'm still not sure it has.