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.