Friday, November 28, 2008

The Book Review Has Spoken

The Sunday Book Review has published its list of 100 notable books for 2008. Among the 48 fiction and poetry titles (six altogether), eight were short story collections:

by Chris Adrian
THE BOAT by Nam Le
DANGEROUS LAUGHTER: Thirteen Stories by Steven Millhauser
DICTATION: A Quartet by Cynthia Ozick
FINE JUST THE WAY IT IS: Wyoming Stories 3 by Annie Proulx
OUR STORY BEGINS: New and Selected Stories by By Tobias Wolff

In the Times' book blog, Paper Cuts, the editors explain the process: They started with a larger list of books reviewed during the course of the year (actually Dec. 2, 2007 through Nov. 30, 2008) and narrowed it down to 100. Duh!

In any event, as far as story collections go, these are very good ones--albeit obvious, mainstream choices. Lahiri's and Le's books also appeared on the Publishers Weekly and lists.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

The 2008 Entries for The Story Prize

The final tally of books entered for The Story Prize this year is 72, from 55 publishers or imprints, adding up to a total of 973 stories. Between now and the end of the year, Julie Lindsey (the founder of the prize) and I will be doing a lot of reading in preparation for choosing our three finalists, which we'll announce in early January.

To select those books, Julie and I will meet and talk about the collections we each like best until we can settle on just three. Sometimes, we end that meeting without making final choices and take another day or so to think it over. It should be especially hard to narrow the field down to three this year because it looks like we'll have at least a dozen serious contenders. Stay tuned.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

David Malouf Wins the Groundbreaking Australia-Asia Literary Award

Australian writer David Malouf is the first winner of the Australia-Asia Literary Award for The Collected Stories of David Malouf. He is the author of three previous story collections, as well as eight novels, six poetry collections, three nonfiction works, a play, and three opera librettos. The prize pays a generous $110,000 (Australian, which is the equivalent of roughly $62,500 U.S.).

The Australia-Asia Literary Award is for: "a book-length work of literary fiction written by an author resident in Australia or Asia, or a work primarily set in Australia or an Asian country. Works must have been either written in, or translated into, English and published in the preceding year." As one of the judges points out, this covers almost two-thirds of the world's population.

This is a very interesting book award--smart and daring--on several levels. In the first place, the creator and backer of the prize is the Government of Western Australia's Department of Culture and the Arts. It's hard to imagine any branch of any government in the U.S.--local, state, or federal--creating a literary award and funding it so generously. Secondly, not only print but also electronically published works are eligible--a very progressive notion. And finally, the award accepts entries of works in translation or with multiple authors (up to three). They've even established a split for translated works--$88,000 to the writer and $22,000 to the translator. That's always been one of the hurdles to judging translated work, and I think they are right to give the translator a share of the prize.

Another interesting feature is that each of the three judges has posted his or her notes on the Web site. This is from Pakistani writer (and University of Massachusetts MFA grad) Kamila Shamsie:

David Malouf is a writer of rare genius. Within the demands of the short story form he can give us a world containing a complex melange of characters, or he can take a single, seemingly insignificant moment and show all the depth and possibility it contains within it. There is tremendous power to his writing—regardless of whether he is describing a boys' encounter with nature or a woman's experience of heartbreak.

Malouf is a writer I've heard a lot about and, I must confess, I haven't read. We had hoped to consider The Collected Stories for The Story Prize last year, but we didn't receive an entry, probably because we require our finalists to attend our event, which could have been difficult for an Australian writer. In any event, some have compared his stories to those of Alice Munro and William Trevor. So I think it might be a good idea to catch up with his work soon.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Charles D'Ambrosio: For He's A Jolly Good Lannan Fellow

Short story writer Charles D'Ambrosio has won a $100,000 Lannan Foundation fellowship. Past winners known for writing short stories include: Robert Coover, Edwidge Danticat, Lydia Davis, Stuart Dybek, Deborah Eisenberg, Mavis Gallant, Denis Johnson, Edward P. Jones, Steven Millhauser, Lorrie Moore, Alice Munro, Cynthia Ozick, Grace Paley, George Saunders, Joanna Scott, David Foster Wallace, and John Edgar Wideman. It's a pretty impressive bunch, and that's not even the full list.

D'Ambrosio well deserves the honor. His 2006 short story collection, The Dead Fish Museum, which The Story Prize designated as a notable collection, is an excellent book. I particularly liked "The High Divide," "Drummond & Sons," and "The Scheme of Things," all of which first appeared in The New Yorker.

Authors who write short stories seem to do very well garnering literary honors, including the Whiting Writers' Awards and the MacArthur Foundation fellowships, in addition to the Lannan. It's when it comes to book awards for fiction that novels tend to dominate, which is one reason we created The Story Prize. Clearly, practitioners of the short story form (too bad there's not a term equivalent to "novelist") engender a lot of respect, which nobody can deny.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Author Introductions to Story Collections? Yea or Nay?

Many of the reviews of Stephen King's short story collection, Just After Sunset, have referred to King's introduction to the collection, which talks about when he was first starting out as a writer and wrote short stories, how he got away from writing them, and how editing The Best American Short Stories 2007 reawakened his interest in the form.

It's interesting to see how King's own summation has framed much of the discussion of his work. Many reviewers don't know how to talk about a short story collection as a whole. So, in a sense, an introduction can make a collection more reviewer friendly.

Still, most of the short story collections that I read don't have introductions. And those that do, tend to veer toward a genre, such as science/speculative fiction, horror/suspense, or mystery/crime. In some cases, a prominent writer in that genre will introduce another writer's collection, for instance George Pelecanos introduces Laura Lippman's Hardly Knew Her. (My intention is not to disparage so-called genres but to make a factual observation.)

In so-called literary short fiction, authors will sometimes introduce their own selected or collected works. For instance, Tobias Wolff opens Our Story Begins with "A Note from the Author" that addresses the question of whether or not an author should revisit (i.e. tinker with) earlier stories when putting together selected stories. (Notice he doesn't call it an "Introduction.") Wolff did, in fact, revisit earlier stories--and that's the sole focus of his brief note. And, like King's introduction, it has helped frame reviewers' discussion of his book.

Of course, ultimately, stories have to speak for themselves. And anyone who doesn't want an introduction can skip it. In addition, a popular writer like King often has a very public, ongoing relationship with his readers, who are likely to appreciate insight into his creative process. Truth is, you could ask why more writers don't share their back story and their insights with their readers.

Still, call me a traditionalist, but I generally like short story collections better without introductions. How do you feel about it?

How do you feel about short story collections that have introductions?
I don't approve of introductions--the stories should speak for themselves.
An introduction is sometimes okay. I take it on a case-by-case basis.
I like to read introductions.
I don't care. Readers can skip them if they want.
Barack Obama free polls

Monday, November 17, 2008

Give Us This Day Our Daily Nada

There's a restaurant in Granville, Ohio, called The Short Story Brasserie. I stumbled on this unexpectedly when I switched to Google Maps on the heels of a Web search for "short stories." The inspiration for the restaurant? Ernest Hemingway.

In the words of proprietor J. Norman Housteau:
I always envied Hemingway’s hunger for life. He bound the words in his stories together with his passion for food, wine, friends and travel.... This brasserie is intended to bring a world of flavor and culinary adventure to you in the same spirit that Hemingway brought the sights, sounds and flavors of the world to my house. I have always wanted to be a professional writer like Hemingway. Until then, please enjoy The Short Story.
The menu carries through on the literary conceit with appetizers listed under Introduction. Chilled small plates, hot small plates, and large plates are Parts I, II, and III. Dessert is the Dénoument, and coffee, tea, and after dinner drinks are the Footnotes (very postmodern). Personally I'd go with Rising Action for the appetizers, Climax for the entrées, Anticlimax for the desserts, and Resolution for the after dinner drinks.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Nam Le's Christmas in Wales

Congratulations to short story writer Nam Le (The Boat), who is the winner of the ₤60,000 biennial Dylan Thomas Prize, which goes to a writer under 30 and is the U.K.'s largest literary prize. The result was announced on Nov. 10 at an event in Thomas' native Swansea, Wales, along with a special message from Welsh-born actress Catherine Zeta Jones. (I wonder if Renee Zellweger is available for The Story Prize event. )

The other finalists were: British poet Caroline Bird, South African novelist Ceridwen Dovey, British novelist Edward Hogan, and Ethiopia-born U.S. novelist Dinaw Mengestu. At 29, Vietnam-born, Australia-raised, Iowa Writers' Workshop educated Le squeaked by just under the age limit. At today's exchange rate, the prize comes to roughly $92,000.

From our partisan point of view, it's nice to see a short story writer win an award that's also open to novelists and poets. And by the way, on Nov. 17 Nam Le will be participating in the 5 Under 35 reading in New York as part of National Book Awards week. So far his youth seems to be serving him well.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

A Play on George Saunders' Words

"Carolyn, remember that RE/MAX one where as the redhead kid falls asleep holding that Teddy bear rescued from the trash, the bear comes alive and winks, and the announcer goes, Home is the place where you find yourself no longer longing for home..."
from "Jon" by George Saunders
President-elect Barack Obama is not the only show in town in Chicago. At the Building Stage, from now through Dec. 14, you can see a theatrical version of George Saunders' short story "Jon" (pictured above), adapted and directed by Seth Bockley of Collaboraction. The story is one of my favorites by Saunders, who read from it at our award night on Feb. 28, 2007, when In Persuasion Nation was a finalist for The Story Prize.

A lot of stories have been made into movies, and many I've read would be great for the stage, so I hope to see this happen more often. Here's the description of the play, which serves as a pretty good summary of the story, as well:
Jon is a futuristic allegory about teenage love and self-discovery in a corporate universe where television commercials replace life experiences.
Try it, you'll like it. I bet it's M'm M'm good.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Let the End of Year Listmaking Begin

It's early November and already a couple of lists of the year's best books are out.

Publishers Weekly has a fiction list of 25 books including three short story collections: Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri, The Boat by Nam Le, and Knockemstiff by Donald Ray Pollock.

Amazon has several numbered lists to scroll through. Their editors' list of the top 100 books--of all types--includes five short story collections. Knockemstiff is the highest ranked, at #21. The Boat is at #29. And Unaccustomed Earth is ranked #39. The other two books in the top 100 are Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout (#53) and Ms. Hempel Chronicles by Sarah Shun-lien Bynum (#95). Lahiri's book is ranked 18th on the readers' top 100 and #2 on the readers' Literature & Fiction list. Pollock's collection is #10 on the editors' Literature & Fiction list.

These are all good books. But I can think of several excellent collections that didn't make the cut. The list of winners and finalists that we announce in early January, will include our choices. In the meantime, I'll keep my eye out for other yearend best ofs.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Stephen King's Latest Equals 90+ Ordinary Short Story Collections

Here's a bit of news from Publishers Weekly:

Reflecting a market in which publishers are significantly reining in their printings, Stephen King’s Just After Sunset arrives Tuesday, November 11, with a 900,000 copy announced printing, down from the 1.25 million copies projected last summer.

I'm sure that may be disappointing to King and Scribner. But, if you figure that the average print run for a hardcover short story collection is probably under 10,000 (most far under), that means the print run for King's book is roughly equal to the combined run of 90 typical short story collections. That's more than the total number we'll receive as submissions to The Story Prize in 2008.

Put another way, if you were to place all of the printed copies of Just After Sunset on one side of a scale and all of the printed copies of nearly every other short story collection published in the U.S. this year on the other, the scale would probably tip King's way. I say nearly all, because Jhump Lahiri's Unaccustomed Earth, which for one week (lest we forget) sat atop the New York Times Best-Seller List, no doubt has far more than the average number of copies in print. If Just After Sunset reaches the top of the list in the weeks ahead, that will make two stoy collections at No. 1 in 2008. Not bad for a form many consider to be foundering.

Given King's megapopulatity, it's great that he writes stories because it means that many more people will read them. In fact, I'd guess that, given the powerhouse sales of his book and Lahiri's, more Americans will read a short story collection this year than any past year. King has been a generous supporter of short fiction and of other writers' collections. He also writes some darned good stories. So, literary readers, don't hate him because he's popular.

And Now a Word from Our Sponsor

The deadline for entries of short story collections published from August through December of this year is Nov. 14. If finished books aren't available for those with late November or December pub. dates, bound galleys are acceptable. Entry forms and guidelines are available on The Story Prize Web site. Some great books have come our way so far this year, and we're hoping to read several more.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Bond. James Bond. Short Stories.

A new James Bond film is due out this month, and it borrows its title from an Ian Fleming short story, "Quantum of Solace." In the Guardian, Andrew Lycett traces the real story behind the story that inspired the film that actually has little to do with the story. Lycett also explains the curious title which refers to:

"...a precise equation of the amount of comfort necessary between two people if love is to flourish. If this figure is zero, there can be no love."

Huh? Is it kind of like an intimacy credit score? Is there such a thing as a subprime relationship?

"Quantum of Solace" was originally included in Fleming's 1960 collection of Bond stories For Your Eyes Only and is the title story of the newly released Quantum of Solace: The Complete James Bond Stories--no doubt a good read. Alas, only living authors are eligible for The Story Prize. So, Miss Moneypenny, this is one we won't be considering.

Ed Park on Stories about Stories

On the L.A. Times Web site, in the first of two installments, Ed Park declaims on short stories included in two collections. The headline is: "The Glorious, Oft-Overlooked, Short Story." (Not sure about that second comma.) The two stories are "On Skua Island," by John Langan, from Mr. Gaunt and Other Uneasy Encounters (Prime) and "Biographical Notes to 'A Discourse on the Nature of Causality, with Air-Planes,' by Benjamin Rosenbaum," by Benjamin Rosenbaum from The Aunt King and Other Stories (Small Beer Press). Langan's book is scheduled to be published later this month. Rosenbaum's book is available as a free download or in book form.

The focus of Park's column is stories about stories. As he says:
What connects them is their playful interrogation -- sometimes subtle, sometimes glaring -- of the short story form. They jolt us into fresh ways of reading.
Focusing in detail on a particular story is an original and interesting approach to discussing a collection, and I think it works very well. Unfortunately, we'll have to wait another month for part II, because this appears in a monthly column, called Astral Weeks, that Park writes for the L.A. Times site. He is, by the way, one of the editors of the eclectic, snark-free monthly magazine The Believer and the author of a workplace novel, Personal Days.