Friday, September 26, 2008

Snubbed Again! It's Starting to Feel Personal

Well, it's old news now, but Oprah Winfrey didn't choose a short story collection for her book club, as we had hoped, and hasn't done so since she began featuring books in 1996. But she's not alone. I'm often disappointed to find story collections left off important lists of recommended books.

For instance, the American Booksellers Assn. Fall '08 / Winter '09 Indie Next List for Reading Groups has a grand total of zero short story collections on it out of ten books in the featured list and an additional 51 books recommended by independent booksellers. This year alone authors such as Kevin Brockmeier, Stephen King, Jhumpa Lahiri, Steven Millhauser, Joyce Carol Oates, Cynthia Ozick, Annie Proulx, Joan Silber, and Tobias Wolff have published collections, and there have been some outstanding debuts and books of short fiction by unsung writers, too.

The National Endowment for the Arts Big Read program also doesn't include any short story collections among it's distinguished list of great American books. Wouldn't classic American collections by the likes of Raymond Carver, John Cheever, William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Bernard Malamud, Flannery O'Connor, Grace Paley, Dorothy Parker, Edgar Allen Poe, J.D. Salinger, Jean Stafford, Eudora Welty, and dozens of others (including a slew of living writers) make for good reading and discussion? Even an anthology that features stories by several of these writers would make for a nice big juicy read.

I admire the passion independent booksellers have for literary fiction, and the Big Read is a worthwhile program, but how are we going to get short story collections into the hands of readers if some of our leading cultural arbiters don't recommend them?

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

2 Out of 5 Under 35

The National Book Foundation has announced its "5 Under 35" event, and two of the five authors were selected for short story collections. In a nutshell, five previous national book award finalists or winners select and introduce five writers under 35 at an event in Manhattan that includes an emcee and a D.J. Young writers, editors, publishers, agents, and journalists are invited to attend. The idea--and it's not a bad one--is to reach out to a more youthful audience.

There's usually a short story collection or two among the bunch, and this year is no exception. Francine Prose has selected Sana Krasikov's One More Year: Stories , and Mary Gaitskill chose Nam Le's The Boat . Last year's winner of The Story Prize and National Book Awards finalist, Jim Shepard, picked a novel, Fiona Maazel's Last Last Chance--not that there's anything wrong with that.

Now, the question is: Will there be a story collection or two (or more) among the National Book Award finalists announced on Oct. 15 in Chicago? I can think of a few excellent candidates based on the reading we've done so far this year.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Writerly Opinions: The Influence of Anxiety?

Whoever edits the Op-Ed section of the New York Times must have a lot of short story writers in his or her Rolodex. Today's "Week in Review" section features dispatches from swing states, including two from authors of recently published short story collections. Karen Brown, who wrote last year's Pins and Needles (Univ. of Massachusetts Press) reports from Florida. And Eileen Pollack, author of the recently published In the Mouth (Four Way Books) reports from Michigan. I'm a little electioned out myself and have long ago decided, but I hope this exposure sells a few copies of their books.

In the same section, Jonathan Lethem (Men and Cartoons), who has published a few story collections himself, has a column that links Batman movie The Dark Knight to recent events. During the primaries, short story writers Dave Eggers (How We Are Hungry) reported from California and Donald Ray Pollack (Knockemstiff) reported from Ohio. And in the past, Charles Baxter (Believers), Dan Chaon (Among the Missing), and Lorrie Moore (Birds of America) have also contributed op-ed pieces. I'm sure there are more examples I haven't dug up, and that's in The New York Times alone. Who says short story writers don't have influence?

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Good-bye, David Foster Wallace

I can't believe David Foster Wallace is dead--it's a terrible loss for readers and writers. And yet, I also can believe it. He was a tortured soul, a perpetual victim of his own brilliant mind.

Though Wallace is best known for his novel Infinite Jest, he published three short story collections: The Girl With Curious Hair, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, and Oblivion. He also wrote quite a few brilliant essays, collected in two volumes: A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again and Consider the Lobster, which included his reporting on John McCain's 2000 presidential campaign for Rolling Stone--recently published as a standalone book, McCain's Promise.

He was one of three writers (along with Louise Erdrich and Thom Jones) to serve as jurors for the first volume of the O. Henry Awards (1997) I edited. I only met Wallace once, at a reading at a New York bookstore, but we did talk a few times on the telephone and exchanged several letters. When I was unceremoniously removed as series editor of the O. Henry Awards in 2002, David Wallace offered to protest on my behalf, for which I was grateful, though I declined. In short, I felt a connection to David Foster Wallace, as I'm sure many others who encountered him and read his work did.

As it happened, I chose two of Wallace's stories for Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards: "The Depressed Person" (in 1999) and "Good Old Neon" (in 2002). The latter was the last story in the last volume I edited, in a sense the last words of my tenure. Sadly, both stories presaged his untimely end, with "Good Old Neon"ending in the death by suicide of the protagonist. Here's how that story ended (just a brief excerpt from one of his characteristically long and brilliant sentences):
"... the realer, more enduring and sentimental part of him commanding that other part to be silent, as if looking it coldly in the eye and saying almost aloud, 'Not another word.'"
I had hoped that writing that story (and writing in general) offered him some solace. Sadly, it didn't.

Posted By Larry Dark to TSP at 9/13/2008 10:51:00 PM

Friday, September 12, 2008

Guest Post: Paul Vidich on Digital Distribution of Short Stories

(Note: This post is in response to the Sept. 10 post, Mixed Books? Mixed Feelings, below.)

Paul Vidich left Time Warner in 2006 after 19 years as a senior executive in its AOL and Warner Music divisions, where he was executive vice-president in charge of worldwide strategy and business development. At Warner Music, he negotiated the first major label license agreement with Steve Jobs for iTunes, which set the precedent for Apple’s subsequent acquisition of music rights from the other music majors.
Vidich left Time Warner to pursue a career in writing and now attends the MFA program in creative writing at Rutgers-Newark. He is a board member of Poets & Writers and other cultural institutions. His short stories have been published in several online and print publications, including,, and

The nature of the Internet is that it doesn't respect forms that are tied to technologies that it makes irrelevant; the album was the creation of the long playing disc and then the CD--artists recorded albums to fill the space available. Of course, the artists who worked in the medium saw their collections as the work itself, and consumers didn't necessary agree. They often remembered or cared for one or two tracks.

The analogy to books only partly holds up. Certainly, the consumer will have the same desire to pick and choose digital stories according to preference, which threatens any collection or compilation. And to the extent that reduces the buying of traditional books it will change the book industry. On the other hand, many of the consumers who actually read (those important educated buyers of books) have not been sold yet on the value of a digitally distributed book. Many (most?) still like to own the physical product.

I suspect this may change over time. When that changes happens I doubt that consumers will buy digital stories with the purpose of downloading and printing them into custom collections. More likely they'll download, store on a drive, and print them individually as a convenience to read, as they would today with a magazine article. This whole area is quite fascinating and still in its early stages. My take is this: If the technology permits it and the consumer finds value in it, it will happen, industry/profits/intransigence/paranoia notwithstanding.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Please, Oprah, Pick a Short Story Collection!

There's rampant speculation about the next pick for Oprah's Book Club, which will be announced on Sept. 19. If you look at the list of past choices, you'll see that Oprah Winfrey has never picked a book of short stories--to my mind, a glaring omission. So, please, Oprah, pick a story collection! Ron Hogan has gotten my hopes up by speculating in GalleyCat that Edward P. Jones' All Aunt Hagar's Children--which is chock full of exceptional stories--may be the book. That would be good news, indeed. But don't stop there, Oprah. There are a lot of great collections, old and new, to choose from. How about this one?

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Mix Books? Mixed Feelings

About a week ago, Ron Hogan posted in GalleyCat about a column by Leon Neyfakh in the New York Observer, which took publishers to task for not offering digital distribution of individual stories in a collection. The headline of Neyfakh's story was: In Age of Shortness, Why Shouldn't Fiction Be Sold by the Piece?

Short answer: It should and it will. I'm convinced that at some point readers with digital devices will be able to buy individual stories in a collection the way you can now buy a song from iTunes. And when that does happen, I think stories, essays, and poems could gain a larger audience.

But we're not there yet. This is an idea that has been kicking around for a while. When I worked at BusinessWeek a couple of years ago, I suggested similar possibilities to a reporter who was working on a story about digital books. Unfortunately, the idea of shorter literary forms gaining in prevalence in the digital age didn't quite rise to the surface of that particular article. I did, however, put the reporter in touch with short story writer George Saunders, who is quoted in the article.

Getting back to the iTunes analogy, I was recently thinking it would be great if you could make your own anthology of your favorite stories, poems, essays, etc., and give it to friends in the form of a bound volume, the way you make a mix tape or mix CD. Call it a mix book (a term already taken). I didn't know that, again as Ron noted in GalleyCat in January, the possibility already exists. But a wider availability of stories is necessary for it to really work. I think digital distribution of short stories will truly happen when someone in a position to make it happen (e.g. Amazon, Apple, Google) embraces the idea or when an audience is so clearly clamoring to buy individual sections of books that providing this service becomes a no brainer.

Still, digital distribution of stories does have potential pitfalls. I agree to some extent with Paris Review editor Matt Weiland who's quoted in the Observer as saying that a good collection is greater than the sum of its parts. As the editor of ten anthologies, I have to say: "True dat." And piracy is one possibility authors would be wise to fear. Look what's happened with music. In the end, the deconstruction of the book, like the deconstruction of the record album, might be just another form of the creative destruction that has resulted from nearly every advance in this digital age. So, while short stories may benefit from digital distribution, short story collections may be in the crosshairs.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Courting Controversy

I just read this in today's Publishers Lunch, and it kind of blew my mind:

Booker Shortlist Announced
What a "shock." As usual, manufactured "surprise" is the fuel of the Booker publicity machine, as the "longlist" turns out to be a head fake for the real shortlist...

I'm so naive that it never occurred to me that courting controversy could be the best way to fuel The Story Prize publicity machine. We foolishly choose the books we think are best. Maybe we'll name an unwed pregnant teen as a finalist this year.

Monday, September 8, 2008

They Coulda Been Contenders

On Sept. 21, Jhumpa Lahiri will be in Cork, Ireland, to receive the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award and its generous prize of 35,000 euros. We already know who the winner is because on July 5, the judges for the award announced that they were jumping right from their long list of thirty-nine books to naming Jhumpa Lahiri's Unaccustomed Earth as the winner, bypassing the traditional announcement of a short list of four to six books.

The three judges felt strongly that Lahiri's book was far and away the best, but that's not a good reason to bypass the short list. A book award isn't just about choosing a winner; it's also about honoring other worthy books. Those named would have gotten some extra attention and presumably more readers--and the authors might be packing their bags to head to Ireland for the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Festival, which begins on Sept. 17. Instead, everyone on the long list but Lahiri will stay home.

For most authors, being on a short list for a prestigious award adds a valuable credential. It could be the honor that tips the balance toward selling another book, having work reviewed, winning a grant, or getting a job. Announcing finalists can also stimulate discussion leading up to the announcement of the winner. A short list is not only good for the authors and publishers; it's good for the award itself.

The problem is, having judges choose both the short list (or finalists, as most U.S. book awards call them) and the ultimate winner isn't very logical. Why have a two-tiered process with the same group deciding in both instances? I'm sure judges for other prizes with similar procedures have been tempted to simply announce a winner, too. Mindful of this, we set up The Story Prize so that it really does have two tiers. Founder Julie Lindsey and I choose the three finalists, then turn those books over to three independent judges to choose the ultimate winner.

This isn't to pass judgment on the merits of the O'Connor Award's choice of a winner. Unaccustomed Earth has garnered loads of favorable reviews and sat atop the New York Times Best-Seller list for a week--an extraordinary accomplishment for a short story collection. It looks to be a serious contender not only for The Story Prize but also for the National Book Awards, the National Book Critics Circle Award, PEN Faulkner, the Pulitzer, etc. Had the O'Connor judges called attention to other worthy books, it might have helped make those authors contenders as well, instead of being stranded on a long long list, which is what they were, let's face it.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Good Times

This week's New York Times Book Review includes six full reviews of story collections (if you count Andre Brink's Other Lives: A Novel in Three Parts, which I do) out of a total of nine books of fiction. It sometimes seems as though story collections don't receive enough review attention, so this is encouraging.

The other five collections in the Sept. 7 issue were:
Fine Just the Way It Is by Annie Proulx
Yesterday's Weather by Anne Enright
One More Year by Sana Krasikov
The Nightingales of Troy
by Alice Fulton
Walk the Blue Fields
by Claire Keegan (reviewed by lit blogger Maude Newton)

I've only read one of these so far, but all six reviews made the books seem worth reading, and I'm looking forward to the other five, assuming they're entered for The Story Prize. Reviews are obviously important because they make readers aware of particular books. And for a lot of people (at least in the New York area), if it's not reviewed in the Times, it doesn't exist. So if story collections are going to hold onto and gain readers, getting this kind of attention is crucial.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

A Logical Extension

Book awards tend to play it close to the vest--perhaps for good reason. Falsely raising authors' expectations or giving away the fact that certain books might or might not be receiving serious consideration are two possibilities prizes definitely want to avoid. And those may be among the reasons most awards don't post blogs. So why are we starting a blog for The Story Prize? Because our mission is broader than handing out an award each year. The purpose behind our book award is to promote short fiction--to encourage writers to write stories, publishers to publish them, and readers to read them. And blogging is a logical way to extend that mission.

One thing we won't do is slam a collection, story, or author. Sometimes, I may get up on my soapbox in response to news. For instance, I previously contributed a couple of posts to the National Book Critics blog, Critical Mass. One was on the state of short fiction (obliquely in response to Stephen King's introduction to The Best American Short Stories 2007), and the other was to comment on judge Zadie Smith's decision not to choose a winner in the Willesden Herald Short Story Prize. I'll continue to respond here to events and situations relating to short fiction and literary awards as they occur.

What this blog will do, of course, is offer news about The Story Prize, for instance who our judges will be and details of our annual event. And once we announce our finalists in January, we plan to post profiles of and Q&As with each of the three authors. We also would like to occasionally offer brief interviews with writers, editors, critics, publishers, agents, booksellers, and librarians. And we want to make room for occasional guest posts as well. Along the way, we hope we'll be able to call attention to some good stories and collections and add another voice in support of short fiction.