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).