Sunday, September 19, 2010

On Literary Awards and Subjectivity

Ron Rash, winner of the O'Connor Award
Congratulations to Ron Rash, winner of the £35,000 (around $55,000) Cork City – Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award for his story collection Burning Bright  (Ecco). In the five (correction, six) years since the O'Connor prize was established (The Story Prize is in its seventh), the overlap of winners and finalists between the two book awards for short story collections has been small. So far, only two of our finalists--Jhumpa Lahiri's Unaccustomed Earth and Wells Towers' Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned--have been finalists (Towers) or winners (Lahiri) of the O'Connor award. We don't announce our finalists until early January, so that correspondence could increase. But what's clear is that literary prizes are (as everyone understands or should) largely subjective.

The first year I served as series editor for the O. Henry Awards, 1997, I got in touch with Katrina Kenison, then the series editor of Best American Short Stories, and we established a practice of comparing winners, once we'd both chosen. In those pre-social-networking days, there was no announcement. And until the galleys were sent out, few people knew the complete list of stories chosen for either collection. The first year, I think both Katrina and I were nervous as we read our lists of stories to each other over the phone. What if we had too many in common? She was nervous because our collection came out six weeks earlier. I was nervous because their collection routinely trounced ours in sales. Both our fears, however, were unfounded. We didn't overlap a single story in 1997. In 1998, we had three stories in common and two in 1999, 2000, 2001, and 2002.

One big procedural difference between the annual collections was that I chose the 20 stories myself, whereas Katrina picked 120 or so stories to send to the guest editor, who chose the final 20. We would often both admire some of the other collection's choices, and she sometimes took on a wistful tone. For instance, that very first year, she told me she would have liked Rick Moody's "Demonology" to have made the Best American cut. And I believe I made the better choice of Annie Proulx stories in 1998, when I chose "Brokeback Mountain" and Best American guest editor Garrison Keillor chose "The Half-Skinned Steer." Truth be told, I always thought the O. Henry Awards choices were better. But, then, I would. That's what subjectivity is all about.