Courtesy Bryan Washington

Announcing the Tenth Annual Texas Observer Short Story Contest

This year's judge is Bryan Washington, author of Lot.


Bryan Washington’s 2016 story “Navigation” tells the story of a taqueria worker who gives Spanish lessons to his wealthy white lover. Throughout the story, the narrator navigates lines of race, class, and queerness in Houston.  

Washington’s story was a finalist in the 2016 Texas Observer Short Story Contest and appears in Lot, his highly-lauded debut collection. We’re pleased to announce that Washington is the judge for this year’s contest, the Observer’s tenth.

The stories in Lot take place in Houston, Washington’s home, and capture the city in a “meticulous, tenderhearted way,” Michael Arceneaux wrote in a review last year. Washington penned “Navigation” after witnessing an interaction at a local haunt—a flirtatious encounter between a cashier and an oil-and-gas type—and “wanting to explore the possibility of a story inside it,” he told Observer fiction editor David Duhr in 2016.

“I think that’s still how I approach, or at least begin, fiction for the most part: as a vehicle to explore relationships between individuals, communities, and ourselves,” Washington recently told the Observer. “But I’m less interested in answers than I am in furthering and extrapolating questions—it’s a conversation, and, hopefully, an ongoing one.”

In the past few years, Washington’s work has appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Believer, Buzzfeed, The Cut, and Fader, among others. He’s also a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 prize winner, an Ernest J. Gaines Award recipient, an International Dylan Thomas Prize recipient, a PEN/Robert W. Bingham prize finalist, a National Book Critics Circle John Leonard Prize finalist, and the recipient of an O. Henry Award.

What qualities does Washington look for in short stories? “I gravitate towards stories with distinct voices, a keen sense of place, and a palpable intimacy,” he says. 

Submissions are open now through July 13. The prizes and rules remain the same in year 10 as they were in year one: The winning writer receives a check for $1,000 and publication in the Texas Observer print magazine and online. Up to four finalists will be eligible for online publication. We take submissions from Texas and non-Texas writers of all experience levels working in any genre. Stories must not exceed 2,500 words. Texas settings and themes are welcome, but not mandatory. 

For this tenth edition of our contest, we’d like to revisit some past winners and finalists:

2014 winner Ling Ma published her award-winning debut novel, Severance, with FSG in 2018. Severance is about (ahem) an apocalyptic pandemic believed to have originated in China. There’s never been a better time to check it out.

Opioid, Indiana (SoHo Press), by Brian Allen Carr, who won our inaugural contest with “The First Henley,” was a 2019 Indie Next selection. 

Simon Han, our 2015 contest winner for “Three Phone Calls,” will publish his debut novel, Nights When Nothing Happened, with Riverhead in November. Lorrie Moore calls Simon “a wonderfully adventurous and sensitive writer,” and that year’s judge, Stephen Graham Jones, clearly felt the same.

And Bryan Washington’s much-anticipated debut novel, Memorial, will come out October, also from Riverhead. 

Success stories like these are just part of what makes us proud to have offered this contest for ten years. Will you be 2020’s winner? Do you have a story with a distinct voice, a keen sense of place, and a palpable intimacy?

Head over to the submission page for full guidelines and to enter.