Monday, December 28, 2009

Best Books of 2009: Tallying The Short Story Collections Mentioned

I said I wouldn't do this, but I couldn't help myself. Music and book blogger Largehearted Boy made it too easy to compile a list of short story collections that appeared on yearend lists by pulling together fairly comprehensive links to best books lists, and I've tallied the number of mentions various collections have received. (Note: I did not include three popular collections—Alice Munro's Too Much Happiness, The Stories of Lydia Davis, or My Father's Tears by John Updike. The latter two aren't eligible for The Story Prize, and we did not receive an entry for Munro, whose collection was probably mentioned in the most lists.)

Two short story collections showed up more times than any others by a solid margin: Wells Tower's Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned (12 votes) and Daniyal Mueenuddin's In Other Rooms, Other Wonders (9 votes). It's no surprise because these two were among the most widely reviewed. Here's the tally from most mentions to fewest:


Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned by Wells Tower


In Other Rooms, Other Wonders by Daniyal Mueenuddin


That Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Love and Obstacles by Aleksander Hemon

Once the Shore by Paul Yoon


American Salvage by Bonnie Jo Campbell

Don't Cry by Mary Gaitskill

It's Beginning to Hurt by James Lasdun

Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It by Maile Meloy

Love in Infant Monkeys by Lydia Millet

A Good Fall by Ha Jin
How It Ended by Jay McInerney
Nothing Right by Antonya Nelson
Reasons for and Advanatages of Breathing by Lydia Peelle
Do Not Deny Me by Jean Thompson


The Heyday of the Insensitive Bastards
by Robert Boswell

Elegy for Easterly by Petina Gappah

In the Valley of the Kings by Terrence Holt

by Caitlin Macy

Going Away Shoes by Jill McCorkle

Big World by Mary Miller

What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us by Laura van den Berg

As I said
last year, The Story Prize doesn't choose its three finalists by critical consensus, and we probably read more short story collections than most of the booksellers, bloggers, or reviewers who put out yearend lists do, so we're choosing from a different and larger pool. We'll be announcing our finalists in the next ten days or so, and shortly after that our notable books. I can tell you right now that some of the 21 books on this list won't be among our finalists or on our list of other notable books. And it's also possible that we will honor collections that none of the 26 sources below named. There were a lot of excellent collections in 2009, and we hope to also shine the spotlight on some that haven't gotten enough attention.

Sources: (Tower), (Tower, Meloy, Hemon, Boswell, Holt, Gaitskill), Atlantic (Lasdun), Barnes & Nobel (Tower), Chicago Tribune – Printer’s Row (Campbell, Mueenuddin), Christian Sceince Monitor (Adichie), Cleveland Plain Dealer (Campbell), Entertainment Weekly Shelf Life (Mueenduddin), Idlewild Books (Mueenuddin), Kansas City Star (Campbell, Hemon, Jin, Mueenuddin, Peele, Tower), Largehearted Boy (Lasdun, Miller, Millett, Peele, Thompson, Towers), L.A. Times (Adichie, Lasdun, Meloy, Millet, Yoon), Louisville Courier-Journal (van den Berg), Miami Herald (Thomspon), The New Republic (Adichie, Tower), New York Magazine (Tower), New York Times (Gaitskill, Hemon, Ishigiro, McInerny, Meloy, Mueenuddin, Nelson, Thompson, Tower, Yoon), NPR (Gappah, McCorkle, Mueenuddin (2), Yoon), Philadelphia Inquirer (Jin), Providence Journal (Millet), Publishers Weekly (Mueenuddin), San Francisco Chronicle (Adichie, Gaitskill, Hemon, Macy, Mueenuddin, Nelson, Tower, Yoon), Slate (Tower), St. Louis Post Dispatch (McInerny), Time (Mueenuddin, Tower), Village Voice (Tower).

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Gary Vaynerchuk, You Can't Crush Stories

I think Gary Vaynerchuk is great. I love his store—Wine Library—and I admire his energy. His book Crush It sounds truly inspiring. But I don't think his can-doism is the key to success in all areas. And he comes off sounding glib and a bit naive when he shows GalleyCat how to apply his methods to succeeding as a short story writer.

It takes more than time, energy, and social networking to succeed as a short story writer. Vaynerchuk throws out the phrase "creating great content" as if it's purely a matter of will. But talent is something you can't will into existence. And developing talent takes time, patience, a capacity to improve, a certain kind of stubbornness, and a particular sensibility that isn't necessarily compatible with haunting chat rooms and leaving comments on blogs. Would Gary V. say that someone could succeed as a football player by blogging and twittering? I don't think so. You might find a game to get into, but that doesn't make you a pro.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Why You Should Take Yearend Best Books Lists With A Grain Of Salt

I admit it. Last year, I was somewhat obsessed with the yearend best books lists, keeping track of and tallying the short story collections mentioned by newspapers, magazines, booksellers, blogs, and Web sites as they came to my attention. Short story collections have done so well, on so many levels, in 2009 that I don't feel quite so compelled to trumpet these mentions. I expect short story collections to be well represented on these lists, given the quality and breadth of collections we've read so far this year.

The truth is, readers should take yearend lists with a grain of salt for several reasons:
  1. Newspapers and magazines only choose from among the books they review. And as far as short story collections go, they don't necessarily review very many of them.
  2. Certain books get more attention than others, and those books tend to make the lists. So a tally of short story collections (and all books) on yearend lists is as much a tally of buzz as of excellence.
  3. Good books get overlooked. For instance, I didn't see one of last year's finalists, Joe Meno's Demons in the Spring, on any 2008 list. Also, books published early in the year can be forgotten. I haven't seen any mention of Louise Erdrich's collected stories, The Red Convertible, which came out in January.
  4. It's a matter of taste. This may seem obvious, but some people give a lot of weight to the selections of, say, The New York Times. If you're a discerning reader, you're in as good a position to judge as any reviewer.
Of course the lists that matter most to me are the books we choose as finalists for The Story Prize in early January and the list of other notable books we cite (which we post shortly after we announce our finalists). We will have chosen those books out of 78 entered for The Story Prize, which is probably about two-thirds to three-quarters of the short story collections published in the U.S. in 2009. To a certain extent, that addresses points 1 and 2 above. But points 3 and 4 are still in play--any such choices come down to personal preference, and good books are often overlooked in any process.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Book Design: Love In Infant Monkeys Writ Small

Another short story collection this year that has a design that caught my eye is Lydia Millet's Love in Infant Monkeys, published by Softskull Press, which Laura Miller of Salon just named as one of her Best of 2009 fiction picks.

The image of the half-peeled banana against a black background is striking. But the most original detail is what's on the peel—an actual sticker with the book's title printed on it. Aside from the effort it must have taken to apply a sticker to each copy, I can't imagine a commercial publisher would allow a title to be that small on the front cover.

Love in Infant Monkeys collects ten stories that in one way or another concern a celebrity (e.g., Madonna, David Hasselhoff, Noam Chomsky, Thomas Edison) and an animal (e.g., lion, dachshund, rabit, Komodo dragon). And each story has a title page with an illustration by Sharon McGill. (Hannah Tinti's 2004 collection, Animal Crackers, also concerned animals and had illustrated title pages for the stories, but the collections are, of course, very different.)
Out of curiosity, I contacted Denise Oswald, Editorial Director of Softskull (although it was founder Richard Nash who had acquired the book before he left the company). She put me in touch with Millet and the cover's designer, Jamie Keenan (who has done many arresting book covers). According to Keenan:
"I'd had the sticker on a banana idea for a while but never managed to get it through. After thinking about the monkeys in the title, I instantly thought of the banana idea. Softskull had no problem with the title being so small. In fact, when I sent them the comps for this, they were just about to publish a book called Rebels With Attitude, which has a banana on the cover and no type at all, so they probably thought I was playing it safe."
According to Richard Nash:
"The second Jamie suggested the sticker I loved it. I got our production manager to price it immediately in the hope I'd be able to make it happen, and it was pretty cheap!"
And here's Lydia Millet's account:
"I can't take credit either for the cover and its boldness or the interior illustrations, but I will say the cover is one of my favorites among my own books and the drawings inside have a heartbreaking quality for me. I walk around showing them to others proudly.
"It was Maria Massie, my agent, who thought of asking Jamie Keenan to do the cover and Richard Nash who actually asked him — and curiously, no one at Counterpoint ever quibbled (at least, with me) over the minuscule title print. And I didn't mind it at all in this case — the title incidentally is not my own, that is, it was Harry Harlow's title, the title of a famous paper he wrote on taking baby monkeys away from their mothers, his so-called maternal deprivation experiments.
"I will say this: If you look closely, you'll see the cover's banana is broken. We originally had an intact banana. Then that particular image turned out to be excessively costly. So I was asked, We can get this other, slightly broken banana for hundreds of dollars cheaper. Is that a problem? I said no. I welcomed the broken banana.
"But I like the symbolism. These days, apparently, you can't even buy an unbroken banana without breaking the bank."
By the way, Keenan also designed the cover of Joe Meno's The Great Perhaps. He's another Massie client and, of course, a 2008 Story Prize finalist.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Mystery Back Cover Revealed: John Grisham's Ford County

The results are in. The unadorned back cover I previously posted belongs to none other than John Grisham's Ford County. Blogger Kathleen Gerard was the first to correctly identify the title of the book and will be getting a copy, courtesy of The Story Prize. Thanks to all who sent their guesses.

What struck me about this particular back cover was the absence of review quotes, blurbs, an author photo, or a description of the book. Indeed, all the collection really needs to sell it is two of the words on the front cover: John and (especially) Grisham, a brand so powerful it speaks for itself. Needless to say, out of the 78 entries we received for The Story Prize, this was the only one that had such a clean back cover. And the book, despite being a collection of short stories and not a novel, jumped right to the top of many best-seller lists (the fifth best-selling story collection this year, joining those by Uwem Akpan, Stephen King, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Elizabeth Strout).

Ford County is crafty and fun to read, and Grisham is a very skillful storyteller. I confess, I've seen movies based on his books but never before so much as picked one up. Some might call it snobbery, but I think it's more a matter of demographics. People with my background and interests, for the most part, generally don't read Grisham. And the books I generally read are unlikely to find their way into the hands of most of Grisham's readers. Of course there's an overlap, but I doubt it's very large because the audience for literary fiction isn't very large to begin with. In any event, I'd encourage more readers to cross those lines both ways—Grisham readers who haven't done so before might also enjoy reading stories by Alice Munro, William Trevor, and many others.

The short story has become a genre form in many respects, but its roots (as everyone knows) are as a form of entertainment. Before radio and television, short stories appeared in newspapers and many more magazines than today, pitched to the public at large. For the short story to thrive and grow, readers and writers must avoid embracing marginality. I love well-executed stories that value language above all else, those that are character-centric, those that are multi-layered, and those that are cleverly conceptual. But let's not forget the value of plot. Readers and students of short fiction could learn a lot about storytelling from reading the stories in John Grisham's Ford County.

Friday, December 4, 2009

The Back Cover

The back cover of this book is rather striking. Why? Because, aside from the UPC code, there's nothing on it. It's a recently published short story collection. Any guesses as to the title and author? The first to send an answer to, and explain how he or she knew, wins a copy. (And no trying to read the ISBN number, please).

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Book Design: Flipping Through Pieces for The Left Hand

We've received 76 entries for The Story Prize. Thanks to all who submitted books. That's a lot of short story collections, and we have our work cut out for is in the weeks ahead as we prepare to choose our finalists early in January.

Many of the collections we've received are well-designed. A few, in particular, stand out. One of these is J. Robert Lennon's Pieces for the Left Hand, published by Graywolf Press. The paperback book has an appealing small trim size. The cover is a paint-by-numbers image of a walking man that suits the contents well. On the bottom right corner of each page is a silhouette of a man in different stages of walking (I had to mangle the book a bit to scan in all five figures), and if you flip through the pages he glides through the motions. (This isn't the first time a literary work has used the flip book concept. The last 12 pages of Jonathan Safran Foer's 2005 novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close also makes use of this device.)

According to Erin Kottke, marketing manager at Graywolf:
"The idea for the walking man (the flip book part) came from Ethan Nosowsky, our editor-at-large and the editor of John’s book(s). Actually, the walking man itself was his idea. John immediately liked both ideas. After we decided on the figure, Rachel Holscher had an illustrator [Matt Schuler] draw it to match the image on the cover, which was Kyle Hunter’s (the cover designer’s) invention."
Author J. Robert Lennon, had this to say:
"The original 'walking man,' when flipped, looked a little like he was doing a moonwalk—we had the artist go back and add a couple of 'frames' to make the walk more natural.

"Graywolf originally presented me with two possible covers—one of them had the 'walking man' strolling across a musical staff...the background was a photograph of a hand, I think. I didn't like it—it was too representational, too much like one of those CNN graphics that try to get every element of the news story into the picture. The cover we went with looked great to me—almost like something Scandinavian, from the seventies, if that makes any sense. It had an aura of ad hoc mystery to it, which I think represented the contents quite well. The image, as I'm sure you've been told, is from the Smithsonian paint-by-numbers collection—something I hadn't known existed.

"I think the whole package is just perfect, and I know the sales have exceeded Graywolf's expectations—I think it has a lot to do with the size and style of the book, the way it feels like a literary artifact, rather than merely a collection of writing."
In my view, Graywolf did a great job with this book. While big commercial publishers often solicit the author's response to cover designs, one of the advantages in working with small presses is that they're often more responsive to author ideas and more willing to take chances.

By the way, beyond its clever packaging, Pieces for the Left Hand is an interesting collection of 100 very short stories, well worth reading.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Margaret Atwood's Speech to the Whiting Writers' Award Winners

Thanks to David Varno, who posted this on Critical Mass, the National Book Critics' blog, here's a video of Margaret Atwood's speech to the Whiting Writers' Award winners on Oct. 28.

Untitled from Sonnet Media on Vimeo.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The 2009 Whiting Writers' Award Winners Get Money And Advice

If you're a writer and you have a book or play or two under your belt, you might want to answer the phone if it rings some time toward the end of September. That's when the Whiting Writers' Awards calls to notify its ten winners, each of whom gets a generous $50,000 check.

Unlike The Story Prize, Whiting Award winners aren't required to attend the ceremony, but nearly all of them do. And, sure enough, ten authors sat perched on ten folding chairs stage right on Oct. 28 at the Morgan Library auditorium in New York for the 25th annual ceremony. They were: poets Jericho Brown, Jay Hopler, and Joan Kane; fiction writers Adam Johnson, Nami Mun, Salvatore Scibona, and Vu Tran; nonfiction writers Michael Meyer and Hugh Raffles; and playwright Rajiv Joseph.

And ceremonious it was. As the audience, which included authors, editors, publishers, and agents sat in rows of red velvet seats that quickly ascend to a height far above the stage, each Whiting Award winner had his or her moment in the spotlight. As is customary, one by one, they stood by the podium listening as Barbara Bristol, director of the Whiting's writing program, read out their diverse and illustrious biographies. Some honorees nodded their heads approvingly or gestured to affirm a quirky fact. For instance, Johnson did, in fact, earn a degree from McNeese State University; Mun covered her face when it was revealed that she had once been a street vendor and Avon Lady; Raffles actually is compiling a book of essays on human-insect interactions; and Scibona pumped a fist at the mention of his publisher, Graywolf Press. Most appealing of all may have been Kane, who was convincingly pregnant and tottered on high heels that must have been truly difficult to balance on as she listened to her own rather interesting story.

Until the writers walk onstage, you don't know who the winners will be. And since they are emerging writers, most are unrecognizable, so you have to wait until they're introduced to find out their names. The list of winners is a closely kept secret, but the authors are allowed to share the news with family, editors, and agents. So when I see agents or editors I recognize among the crowd, I generally assume they're in attendance because one of the winners is an author of theirs. For instance, agent Amy Williams of McCormack & Williams and Riverhead Press editor Megan Lynch, were there on behalf of Mun.

Each year, an illustrious guest writer gives a keynote speech, generally offering inspiration and/or advice. This year's speaker was Margaret Atwood, who reeled off a string of jokes as sharp and funny as any opening monologue you'll hear on late night television. One riff presented a list of unlikely mashups of literary classics and occult/horror subjects, which culminated in War and Peace and Heads That Grow Out of Your Armpits*. But Atwood had advice to offer, too, and pivoted to face the cluster of writers several times, pausing and peering over the top of her reading glasses to emphasize a point of particular importance.

A reception followed the event. On the way out of the auditorium, ushers handed out press releases with the list of winners and the biographies we heard. The Whiting Writers' Awards is a well-organized and idiosyncratic event, with a charm all its own, and this year was no exception. Some of the writers are likely to go on to great careers, but as speakers emphasized several times, that's not the point of the award. Rather it's to give a budding artist (not necessarily a young one) a chance to grow in his or her own way.
And what better fertilizer is there for that than the support of peers and a nice fat check?

* Corrected 10/31. I mashed up two of Atwoods mashups (Jane Eyre and the Creature from the Black Lagoon and this one) to produce the incorrect Jane Eyre and Heads That Grow Out From Under Your Arms. However, in today's climate, these are all good ideas worthy of substantial advances.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Four Questions for Librarian Bill Kelly

One of the three judges for The Story Prize this year is Bill Kelly, who is a librarian at the Cuyahoga County Public Library. In order to learn more about Bill's work as a librarian and his interest in short stories, we posed a few questions to him.

Can you tell us how you became a librarian and what you do?
I came to the profession after a brief foray into the music business. As a voracious reader, I have always frequented libraries so it seemed like a natural fit. Of course, libraries are much more than books and reading. I love the work because I learn something new every day. While much of our work is technology oriented, we still do quite a bit of old-fashioned readers’ advisory. I spend a good deal of time merchandising our collection and talking to customers about books because there are so many great writers out there that go undeservedly unread.

How do you think libraries will change as the digital age progresses?
We certainly exist in a constantly evolving environment, but I think libraries are uniquely positioned to meet the challenge. We are in the information business and while books have hitherto served as the primary medium for accessing information, we understand that other mediums also serve that function. Because information has proliferated and seemingly become available at the click of the mouse, the librarian has had to become an expert at retrieving relevant and accurate information. I equate the internet with Borges’ story
"The Library of Babel," in which all information is stored in a vast library but in a completely random, meaningless order. Or, to borrow a line from T.S. Eliot, “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”

Here at Cuyahoga County Public Library, we have an initiative we call Reconnect with Reading, a very conscious effort to get our customers back to the book. It has had tremendous and continued success. Since we initiated RWR, we have seen that an increasing percentage of our overall circulation has been books. In other words, the book is still our primary focus and it is here to stay.

Who are some of your favorite short story authors?

I consider Chekhov to be the benchmark by which all other short-story writers are measured. For me, Jorge Luis Borges is a close second. My contemporary favorites include Steven Millhauser, William Trevor, Jim Sheppard, Andre Dubus (the elder), David Foster Wallace, Annie Proulx, George Saunders, Michael Chabon, Alice Munro, Dan Chaon, and Lydia Davis. Most recently, I’ve enjoyed Donald Ray Pollock and Wells Tower.

How do you think the short story is faring these days?
From an artistic standpoint I think we are experiencing another renaissance in the form. I am excited to read so many new and unique voices. Whereas previously in the past century we have seen writers like Hemingway and Carver become so very influential, today’s short story masters come to us from a variety of backgrounds, cultures, and influences. One can read the more conventional but nonetheless profound and powerful work of a Trevor or Munro and then turn to any of the emerging voices such as Nam Le, Mueenuddin, or Pollock. I am also thrilled to see so many writers working with what are traditionally labeled genre themes. I think this will go a long way toward broadening appeal and bringing new readers to the form. Of course, the recognition from literary prizes and greater promotional efforts by publishers seem to be breaking through to a wider audience as well.

From a societal or cultural standpoint there is a great opportunity for the short story. Be it due to our increasingly frenzied lives, shorter attention spans, or just the quality and volume of work being produced, I find that more readers are more willing to pick up a collection of stories. We display our collections prominently at our library and the books always find readership.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Four Questions for Story Prize Judge Carolyn Kellogg

One of the three judges for The Story Prize this year is Carolyn Kellogg, who is the lead blogger for The Los Angeles Times' Jacket Copy. Before that, she was an early and well known book blogger. In order to get to know Carolyn a little better, we posed a few questions to her.

What led you to start blogging about books?

The exact answer is that I had an internet radio show that played music, discussed books and interviewed authors, and a blog was the easiest way to create a website for it. The bigger answer is that five years ago, I was the Web producer at a venerable Los Angeles foundation, dressing like a banker and paying my mortgage, when I broke up with my boyfriend. The world opened up in new ways: I started the show, blog, and then podcast as a book lover, an avid amateur with an English degree. My book blogging was generation 1.5—I began slightly after bloggers like Maud Newton and Mark Sarvas of The Elegant Variation, who I came to know when he was a guest on that long-ago show.

You have an MFA in fiction from the University of Pittsburgh. How does that inform the reporting and reviewing you do?
It helped me be conscious of the craft of writing fiction. At Pitt, we workshopped a lot of short stories, so I've read many that are in a stage of becoming. I'm sensitive to—and intrigued by—a writer making one choice over another. I was never a fan of the notorious MFA-style story (overbred, shaped by committee) and getting an MFA didn't change my opinion, although it did let me see how writers slip into the trap of writing for approval. As a returning student—I just earned my MFA last year—I found that I had been reading contemporary fiction more voraciously than my professors. I'd already read Annie Proulx, but they hadn't read David Mitchell yet. So for reporting, the key wasn't the MFA but engaging in literary culture through blogging. I began blogging for the L.A. Times when I was still in school in Pittsburgh.

Who are some of you favorite short story writers?
I'm going to try to avoid saying anyone who might be in the running for this year's prize... which means a few top-of-mind writers are left out. So: Aimee Bender, Jason Brown, Raymond Chandler, Nikolai Gogol, Denis Johnson, Jhumpa Lahiri, Kelly Link, George Saunders, Tobias Wolff.

How do you think short fiction is faring these days?
I think it's marvelously fertile. If there is perhaps too much of the MFA-style story, it's only because there is so much short fiction being written. There's an abundance of online venues where work can be published now without the cost of producing a traditional literary journal. That said, I think it may be hard for readers to navigate the volume of work, and I think we're in a stage where that is just being sorted out, which is kind of exciting. I think The Story Prize is a key way readers are directed to outstanding short fiction, and I'm looking forward to being a part of it.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Two Short Story Collections Are Finalists for the National Book Awards

Here's something I don't get tired of: More good news about short story collections. The National Book Awards announced their fiction finalists yesterday, and two of the five are short story collections: Bonnie Jo Campbell's American Salavage and Daniyal Mueunuddin's In Other Rooms, Other Wonders. Readers of this blog (who are legion) may remember that in a previous post about summer reading, I pointed out that author and NPR commentator Alan Cheuse had recommended Muenuddin's collection. Well, guess what, he'd also recommended Jayne Anne Phillips' evocative novel* Lark and Termite, which is another finalist for the National Book Awards. While Cheuse is only one of the five fiction judges, in retrospect his summer picks provided a partial preview of the NBA finalists.

As I said in that post, I can highly recommend Muenuddin's excellent collection. Yesterday, Bonnie Jo Campbell's book immediately jumped to the top of my pile and, half way through, I'd have to say it's a brilliant choice by the NBA judges. It's especially impressive because of the huge number of fiction entries (236) they read this year. One of the best things a book award can do is to shine the spotlight on deserving and underappreciated books, authors, and publishers. This group of judges obviously didn't cut any corners and gave their full attention to a university press book (Wayne State) that didn't get widespread attention. Kudos to them. That's why Julie and I make sure we read everything we get. You never know where you'll find a gem.

By the way, one of the other NBA judges is author Lydia Millet, who has a short story collection, Love in Infant Monkeys, just out from indy publisher Softskull Press. I wouldn't be surprised if she were a big advocate of Campbell's collection, but that's just a guess.

* Full disclosure, Jayne Anne is a colleague of my wife's at Rutgers-Newark, and a friend of ours.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Story Prize Judges: Meet A.M. Homes, Carolyn Kellogg, and Bill Kelly

This year's judges for The Story Prize are author A.M. Homes, critic/blogger Carolyn Kellogg, and librarian Bill Kelly. Our aim is to have a diverse group that represents different constituencies that support short fiction. One of the judges is always a writer (who has published short fiction). We alternate every other year between a bookseller and a librarian. And the third judge could be an editor, bookseller, blogger, critic, etc. Sometimes our judges wear more than one hat.

This procedural issue sometimes confuses people: The judges for The Story Prize do not choose the finalists; Julie Lindsay (the founder of The Story Prize) and I do that in early January. The judges read those three books and vote for their top choices.

In the week ahead, I'll post about each of our judges individually. We're thrilled to have them on board and believe they'll serve the prize well--as all our past judges have.

Previous judges have been:
2008/09: Editor and author Daniel Menaker, author and editor Hannah Tinti, and bookseller Rick Simonson.
2007/8: Author/critic David Gates, librarian Patricia Groh, editor Megan O'Rourke
2006/7: Author Edwidge Danticat, blogger Ron Hogan, bookseller Mitchell Kaplan
2005/6: Author Andrea Barrett, librarian Nancy Pearl, critic James Wood
2004/5: Author Dan Chaon, bookseller Ann Christophersen, editor Brigid Hughes

Sunday, October 4, 2009

"Sincerely, Ray Carver"

In 1984, shortly after reading Raymond Carver's short story collection, Cathedral, I wrote a letter to him expressing my admiration for the story, "A Small, Good Thing." One moment in, particular, struck me as being incredibly vivid, real, "cinematic" (which I thought then was quite a compliment). It occurs in the emergency room of a hospital where a couple has taken their young son. The boy, after being struck by a car while walking home from school—on his birthday, no less—later goes into a coma. In the waiting room, the boy's mother encounters members of another family, who have brought another child to the emergency room. What amazed me was the feeling of intersecting narratives. And I could imagine a story about the second family, with this mother just passing through.

I was 25 at the time and had a different last name, Charny. (Long story short: My wife and I both changed our last names to Dark when we married). I sent the note I wrote to Carver care of Vintage and didn't expect an answer. It just felt important to send, no matter what. But a couple of months later, a handwritten letter with a Syracuse postmark arrived. I had just quit law school to pursue writing fiction, and getting a response from the great man himself thrilled me, almost seemed to validate my choice. I swore that when a fan wrote to me, I'd write back, just as Carver had.

The fiction writing career hasn't quite worked out for me—yet—some 25 years later. (I'm now double the age.) But the pursuit of it did, nonetheless, lead me in a direction I couldn't have foreseen. In 2000, I ended up choosing a posthumous Carver story, "Kindling," for Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards. It almost felt like I was returning a favor. In truth, the letter Raymond Carver wrote me, just as he was dashing off to the airport to catch a flight back home to Washington State, was a small act of generosity that I will never be able to reciprocate.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

What We Talk About When We Talk About Collaboration

I gave my son The Library of America's recently released Raymond Carver: Collected Stories for his eighteenth birthday a few weeks ago. He had discovered Carver's stories this past summer while attending a writing workshop at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon, and Carver immediately jumped the list to become his favorite writer.

When I was a young man with writerly aspirations of my own, Raymond Carver's stories also made a deep impression--so deep, that I felt moved to write the author a letter about my favorite story from his 1983 collection Cathedral, "A Small, Good Thing." Weeks later, to my astonishment, I received a handwritten reply from Carver, cementing my attachment to him and his work. I've had cause to correspond with many writers over the years, but this letter remains particularly meaningful.*

"A Small, Good Thing" is also my son's favorite Raymond Carver story. As many readers know, it's a longer version of a story called "The Bath" that appeared in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Much has been made of Gordon Lish's strong hand in editing Carver's work on that collection. And questions have arisen about the importance of the edited versions in establishing Carver's reputation. In December 2007, The New Yorker ran the story "Beginners," which was Carver's longer version of the title story, along with an account of his conflicting feelings about Lish's changes and, online, a recreation of Lish's edits. The Library of America edition includes a section, called Beginnners, that presents the original manuscript of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love that Carver submitted to Lish.

I've always liked "A Small, Good Thing" better than "The Bath," but I have to give Lish his due for his role in Raymond Carver's development as a writer and some credit for the critical reception What We Talk About When We Talk About Love received. Editors matter, and I'm sure other editors have (perhaps more quietly) played a significant role in a writer's reputation. Collaboration is an important part of the creative process and shouldn't necessarily detract from an artist's success. Here's an analogy I would make: Would the Beatles be the Beatles without producer George Martin? Yes, but Martin undoubtedly made a huge contribution that is impossible to separate from the band's lasting reputation. Would Raymond Carver be Raymond Carver without Gordon Lish? I have little doubt. With or without Lish's contribution, Carver is--and still would have been--a great short story writer. In any event, readers can now compare the different versions and see what they think.

* I'm not sure of the legalities, but maybe if I can sort that out, I'll post a copy of the letter some time.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

A Short Story Gets Graphic

Benjamin Percy's short story collection Refresh, Refresh was one of the better books we read for The Story Prize in 2007. At the time, the title story already had quite a pedigree: It was published in The Paris Review in 2005, which led to Percy winning the Plimpton Prize, and Ann Patchett chose "Refresh, Refresh" for The Best American Short Stories 2006. Now, a film is in the works, and Percy and the filmmaker, James Ponsoldt, have collaborated with graphic artist Danica Novgorodoff on a graphic version that will be out this week. What's next? A Broadway show? An ap? An opera? I wouldn't rule anything out.

The story, incidentally, concerns a young man, who lives in a town in Central Oregon and whose father is fighting in Iraq. The title refers to the narrator, who, in his eagerness to get e-mail from his father, sits at the computer and repeatedly hits the refresh button. He and his friends, whose fathers are also off in Iraq, become increasingly reckless as they prepare themselves for a similar fate.

This kind of collaboration between graphic artists and short story writers has a lot of potential, and I can think of a many great stories that would work well in this form. For instance, I'd buy a graphic adaptation of Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" or John Cheever's "The Swimmer" or Tobias Wolff's "Bullet in the Brain." (Who knows, they may already exist.) And in the years ahead I think more literary works will get the graphic treatment. A version of James Joyce's Ulysses is already underway. And then, there's R. Crumb's treatment of The Book of Genesis.

Short stories will, of course, remain a vital written form. But a good story can and sometimes would do well to cross over into other mediums.
Anything that gets kids--and adults--reading, right?

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Genius Authors, Enduring Works, Book Club Choices, Best-Sellers, Award Winners

I can't keep up with all of the great things that are happening for short stories and short story writers, so for now, I'm just going to list the latest and hope to circle back later to discuss some of these at greater length. Here's what has been happening so far this month:

Two Short Story Writers Win MacArthur Foundation Fellowships.
Among this years "genius grant" recipients are short story writer Deborah Eisenberg (a pure play) and the first ever winner of The Story Prize, Edwidge Danticat, whose second short story collection, The Dew Breaker, is often classified as a novel.

Four of the Six Finalists for the Best of the National Book Awards Fiction Are Short Story Collections.
In 60 years, and out of 77 books, only 11 have been short story collections. But a panel of 140 writers chose four of those books among the six finalists. Those collections are: The Stories of John Cheever, The Collected Stories of William Faulkner, The Complete Stories of Flannery O'Connor, and The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty. Short story collections are, without a doubt, among the most enduring works of American literature.

The Latest Oprah's Book Club Selection Is a Short Story Collection.
On September 18, Oprah Winfrey announced that Say You're One of Them by Uwem Akpan is the next book club selection--the first time she's chosen a short story collection.

Soon There Will Be Three Short Story Collections on The New York Times Best-Seller List.
When Akpan's book hits The New York Times Best-Seller List for trade paperbacks, it's very likely that it will join two other short story collections: Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout and Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri. Who says short story collections don't sell?

The Inaugural $50,000 St. Francis College Literary Prize Goes to a Short Story Collection.
On September 12, as part of the Brooklyn Book Festival, Aleksander Hemon's short story collection Love and Obstacles was announced as the winner of this new book award for mid-career authors.

In addition, the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award just announced it's surprising winner, Simon Van Booy's Love Begins in Winter.

More on much of this later. For now, I rest my case.

Friday, September 18, 2009

The Untrue Story of How Oprah Chose Say You're One of Them for Her Book Club

Oprah Winfrey finally did it. For the first time ever, she picked a short story collection, Uwem Akpan's Say You're One of Them, for Oprah's Book Club. Thank you, Oprah, I hope this won't be the last. Followers of this blog, who number in the low dozens, may remember that I've been lobbying for her to do this for more than a year, and obviously my efforts have been effective. In fact, now the top secret behind-the-scenes negotiations can be revealed.
Somewhere in New Jersey. The official Story Prize phone (i.e., my cell phone) vibrates on a hot August night.
LD: Hello?
OW: Hello, Larry Dark. It's Oprah.
LD: Oprah who?
LD: Just kidding, Oprah Winfrey. The most influential person in America. A thousand apologies, she who sells more books than anyone.
OW: Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha. I understand you think I should pick a short story collection for my book club.
LD: I do, indeed.
OW: I think I'm ready. What were you thinking of?
LD: How about In the Gloaming?
OW: Isn't that a Christopher Reeve movie? What else?
LD: Well, Ron Hogan thought you were going to choose Edward P. Jones's All Aunt Hagar's Children a few months ago. That's a good one.
OW: You know Ron Hogan?
LD: Who doesn't?
OW: What else?
LD: Did I mention The Dew Breaker? The Hill Road? The Stories of Mary Gordon? Like You'd Understand, Anyway? Our Story Begins?
OW: You did.
LD: Let me think about what your readers might like.
OW: Something powerful and moving like In the Gloaming.
LD: Hmmm. Well, there's another book I read last year that might be perfect.
OW: Namely?
LD: Say You're One of Them by Uwem Akpan, a Nigerian priest with an MFA from Michigan. It's well written, describes terrible events in the lives of children, and, to quote myself: "Any of the six stories in this collection set in Africa is enough to break a reader's heart."
OW: Perfect. Be sure not to tell anyone, especially not Ingram. They're sure to blow it.
LD: I promise. And, by the way, don't worry about what Rob Spillman thinks.
OW: I won't worry about anything, Larry Dark. Thanks for all your critical wisdom.
LD: Thank you, Oprah Winfrey--for being you.
That's pretty much how it happened--in my dreams. In any event, I'm thrilled that Oprah has chosen a short story collection. I've been reading some great ones so far this year. The short story continues to gain momentum, and this is a huge boost.

The Twenty-Five Thousand Pound Story

They sure know how to fund a literary award across the pond. On Sept. 13, the London's Sunday Times announced a £25,000 prize for just a single short story of up to 7,000 words from an author previously published in the U.K. or Ireland. (I'm not sure whether you have to be a citizen or resident of either place.) The deadline is November 30.

The name -- The Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Award -- is long enough to be a short story itself, but the prize comes to more than $40,000 at current exchange rates (at the least, close to $6 a word), more than any U.S. prize specifically for short fiction. The closest U.S. contender is the Rea Award, at $30,000, and that's for an author, not an individual work. The prize for the Ireland-based Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award is £35,000 (we'll find out the winner in a few days).

For the most part, U.S. literary prize amounts are markedly lower than those in the U.K. and Ireland. Enlisting corporate sponsorship has allowed book awards like Man Booker to hand out some pretty nice checks (£50,000). It's hard to imagine a U.S. newspaper teaming up with a U.S. bank to create a short story prize (especially with both industries tottering). The Los Angeles Times Wells Fargo Short Story Prize? The Financial Times and Goldman Sachs, however, do team up for a business book award. So maybe that's something we should explore further.

After five years, at $20,000, The Story Prize still offers the highest amount of any annual U.S. book award for fiction. Among the major fiction prizes, PEN/Faulkner pays $15,000, and the National Book Awards and the Pulitzer Prize both hand out $10,000. Of course, U.S. book awards offer the promise of reaching a larger audience. The Pulitzer, in particular, can pay rich dividends. Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteridge remains on the paperback bestseller list after 15 weeks. The U.S. also offers other support to writers, such as the MacArthur genius grants. Still, wouldn't it be nice to see some larger literary prize sums in the offing?

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Short Stories Stand Tall at the Brooklyn Book Festival

Tomorrow (Sept. 13) I'll be moderating a panel at the Brooklyn Book Festival. Here's the listing:

(180 Remsen St.)

11:00 a.m. Short Stories Stand Tall. A panel discussion exploring the advantages, tools, and inspiration authors gain by writing shorter fiction. Featuring Jeffery Renard Allen (Holding Pattern), Joan Silber (Ideas of Heaven: A Ring of Stories) and A.M. Homes (Things You Should Know). Moderated by Larry Dark, director, The Story Prize.
In addition, the festival is honoring first-ever winner of The Story Prize Edwidge Danticat with the Brooklyn Book Festival Best of Brooklyn, Inc. (BoBi) Award. Danticat grew up in Brooklyn after leaving Haiti as a child. My connection to Brooklyn is that I've been there several times.

I didn't come up with the theme for the panel, but I think it's a good one—the short story is standing tall—and I'm looking forward to sharing the stage with Jeffrey, Joan, and A.M. If you would like to suggest any questions, you can send them to me at

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Richard Poirier's Short Story Legacy

Richard Poirier, who died at the age of 83 on Aug. 15, is probably best known for being the founder of Library of America and of Rutgers' Raritan Review, but he was also series editor of Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards from 1961-1965, a title I, too, held for six years, from 1997-2002. In between the two of us came William Abrahams' amazing 31 year reign as series editor.* I met Abrahams once but never Poirier.

In 1998, my then-assistant Scott Conklin and I compiled a complete list of stories included in every O. Henry Awards volume, starting with the first one in 1919, and I had the list posted on the Web, sorted by name and year. The alphabetical list also includes the name of the series editor who selected each story. So my own labors allowed me to get a quick sense of Poirier's short story legacy, via his work as O. Henry Awards series editor. I discovered that:
  • Stories by Donald Barthelme (1964), Bernard Malamud (1964), Mary McCarthy ('65), Leonard Michaels ('65), Joyce Carol Oates ('63), Reynolds Price ('61), Thomas Pynchon ('62), John Updike ('61), and Joy Williams ('65) earned their first O. Henry Awards during his tenure. **
  • He also included fiction by Gina Berriault, Hortense Calisher, John Cheever, Arthur Miller, Flannery O'Connor, Tillie Olson, Kathryn Anne Porter, Philip Roth, William Saroyan, Terry Southern, Wallace Stegner, and Peter Taylor, among others. Olson's "Tell Me a Riddle" and O'Connor's "Everything That Rises Must Converge" are among the enduring stories that appeared in O. Henry Awards volumes from 1961-66.
No doubt, Poirier missed the boat on numerous other great writers and stories. I know that in my time I did--that's par for the course. But even without all of his other accomplishments, Richard Poirier contributed to American short fiction through the writers and stories that he did introduce to thousands of readers in his six-year stint as editor of the O. Henry Awards.

* Abrahams also co-edited with Poirier in 1965 and 1966.
** Oates would go on to appear in O. Henry Awards volumes 29 times (25 times under Abrahams who was her editor at Dutton), Updike 13 times, Malamud 5, Barthelme 4, Michaels 4, and Williams 2.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Psst! Agents and Publishers, Short Story Collections Aren't Poison

As I've said before, it's high time that publishers and agents stopped perpetuating the myth that there isn't an audience for short story collections. Two interviews I saw on the Web last week (via Twitter links) addressed this truism. First, this from an interview with Petina Gappah (An Elegy for Easterly) on the Short Review Web site:
I did not have a collection in mind at all, especially because very early on in my writing career, someone pretty high up in publishing had told me that there was no interest in story collections. So I wrote stories as a way of flexing my writing muscle, and to find my "voice," with no thought of collecting them in a single volume, until my agent . . . suggested putting them together in a single manuscript. I was stunned when Faber offered to publish them. This went against all that I had heard about publishers' loathing of short stories.
And James Lasdun addressed similar concerns in an interview he did for the Edinburgh Festival Guide, billed as "A Strident Defence of the Short Story":
Over the years James Lasdun has turned his pen to novels, screenplays, travel writing, journalism and poetry, but short stories are his current medium of choice, having recently published his third collection, It's Beginning to Hurt. Lasdun suggests that the short story should have great appeal ‘because it’s short, it’s quick and people have limited time and short attention spans. One would think it would fit right into the habits of mind that people have in this era.’ He offers a few hypotheses as to why it remains as the novel’s lesser-seen younger sibling. ‘I think there’s a feeling that this is an insider’s game, that it’s an artsy type of writing, and if you’re not part of that world then you might just be wasting your time and money and why not go out and get a novel by some novelist that you know and love?’
There was also a provocative post on the Rumpus last week, as well as one on the One Story blog.

The fact is, some short story collections have sold very well in the last year or two. Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteridge has been on the New York Times trade paperback list for 16 weeks. And, Jhumpa Lahiri's Unaccustomed Earth was number one on the hardcover fiction list last year and is having a substantial run (18 weeks so far) on the trade paperback list. Stephen King's Just After Sunset also hit the best-seller list last year. Wells Towers' Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, made some extended best-seller lists a few months ago. The Best American Short Stories routinely sells more than 100,000 copies a year. And I'm sure Science Fiction and Horror collections and anthologies, which are often overlooked in these discussions, draw a very solid audience. They're certainly staples of these genres and worth reading.

I know, Strout won the Pulitzer Prize--but I'd bet her collection has sold better than many novels that have won the same award. Oh, and Jhumpa Lahiri is a perpetual best-seller--but the book that put her on the map was another short story collection, Interpreter of Maladies (also a Pulitzer winner). When all is said and done, her two short story collections have probably sold as well as her novel, The Namesake, which had the advantage of being made into a film. Of course, Stephen King is Stephen King--I have nothing to counter that, of course.

The point is, story collections aren't poison, and agents and publishers should stop treating them as such. Collections by established writers with strong followings will still sell. And debut collections probably perform no worse than debut novels. Story collections that get support from publishers and reviewers (as in Towers' case), have a chance to find an audience. In addition, I have no doubt that the digital age is going to be a boon to the short story, as shortness becomes a greater advantage.

I could go on and on and on (and no doubt will). But the bottom line is: Writers should keep writing stories. And agents and publishers should stop repeating empty truisms and get behind short story collections instead of offering resistance.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

My Favorite Forty-Two Books of the Year...So Far

There are 42 short story collections on my bedside table, so to speak. That's how many entries we've had for The Story Prize so far in 2009, and that may be only half the number we're going to get by the end of the year. If the second half were to match the first half, the number of entries this year would equal the most we've had: 84 in 2005.

There are two deadlines for The Story Prize--July 15 for books published in the first half of the year and Nov. 15 for books published in the second half--to allow ourselves time to read all of the entries. If we got all of them at the end of the year, it would be overwhelming, and we think every short story collection entered deserves careful consideration. So far, I've already read about 15 of the books (so my stack is actually a mere 27 books high), and several would make excellent finalists.

The total number of stories in these 42 collections, by the way, is 610. That may sound like a lot, but it's not nearly as many as I had to read each year when I was series editor of the O. Henry Awards. My estimate back then was about 3,000 short stories a year. (Which makes me wonder how Heidi Pitlor, series editor for Best American Short Stories, is going to read that many plus work published online, which is eligible this year for the first time.)

The 42 entries we've received so far come from 33 different publishers or imprints. Of course, not every book that could be is entered for The Story Prize, so this isn't a measure of the number of publishers who publish story collections or the number published in the U.S. each year. But my guess is that we end up reading about two thirds of them.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Sixty Years of the National Book Awards (and a Losing Streak for Short Stories)

What do National League baseball and the short story have in common? Similar losing streaks, at least by one measure. Including last night's 4-3 loss to the American League, the National League hasn't won the All-Star game since 1996, which is the last time a short story collection--Ship Fever by Andrea Barrett--won the National Book Award for fiction.

This has come to my attention because, in celebrating its 60th Anniversary this year, the National Book Awards is currently looking back at the 77 works of fiction (some years there were multiple winners for different categories) it has honored. Altogether, 11 short story collections have won National Book Awards for fiction since 1950:

1951: The Collected Stories of William Faulkner
1959: The Magic Barrel by Bernard Malamud
1960: Goodbye, Columbus by Philip Roth
1966: The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter
1972: The Complete Stories of Flannery O'Connor
1974: A Crown of Feathers and Other Stories by Isaac Bashevis Singer
1981: The Stories of John Cheever (paperback)
1983: Collected Stories of Eudora Welty (paperback)
1984: Victory over Japan by Ellen Gilchrist
1985: Easy in the Islands by Bob Shacochis (first work of fiction)
1996: Ship Fever and Other Stories by Andrea Barrett

This is a pretty solid list, with a virtual Murderers' Row of mid-20th Century short story greats: Faulkner, Malamud, Porter, O'Connor, Singer, Cheever, and Welty. Any book award would be proud to have these authors on its roster. And, of course, it's inevitable that some talent will be stuck on the bench. For instance, it would be nice to see collections by writers such as Donald Barthelme, Raymond Carver, Andre Dubus, Grace Paley, Lorrie Moore, and Tobias Wolff (among others) represented. But arguing with the choices is a futile exercise. It all comes down to how the judges/umpires call it. And it's worth keeping in mind that there were good novels published every year, too. Besides, short story writers play small ball, while novelists often swing for the fences.

In any event, one major reason The Story Prize exists is precisely to rectify this imbalance and make short stories are the star of the game for once. I can only hope that we last for 60 years and compile as vital a list of books and authors as the National Book Awards has (and that a short story collection and the National League will come through one of these years).

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

A Quirky Prize Announces Its Finalists

The Frank O'Connor International Short Story Prize has announced this year's shortlist/finalists:
As far as I can tell, three of these books aren't scheduled for U.S. publication this year (and therefore won't be in the running for The Story Prize): Grimshaw's, Kow's, and O Ceallaigh's. U.S. publishers might want to take a look, if they haven't already.

John Fox on the BookFox blog reminds us that last year the O'Connor prize announced a winner--Jhumpa Lahiri's Unaccustomed Earth--and no finalists, a decision that kept as many as five other authors from the extra attention this would have brought them. The official announcement of the finalists is a bit unusual this year, as well, in that it specifically mentions other authors whose books the judges didn't choose:

Notable names edged out for a position on this year's shortlist include Booker winner Kazuo Ishiguro, Orange Prize winner Chimanda Ngozi Adiche, veteran short story authors Ali Smith, Mary Gaitskill and James Lasdun and reviewers' darling Sana Krasikov.
While The Story Prize does announce a list of other notable books a few weeks after we announce our finalists, it seems odd to me to specifically mention books you haven't chosen when revealing your finalists. It detracts slightly from the books the judges did choose and is certainly no consolation to the also-rans.

This is a quirky book award, but the upside far outweighs the oddities. It's exclusively for short story collections, and the prize is a very generous 35,000 euros (the equivalent, currently, of nearly $50,000). By the way, the winner will be announced on Sept. 20 at the culmination of the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Festival in Cork, Ireland, which looks like a lot of fun. Hmmm, maybe we should have a short story festival like that in the U.S.