Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Other Outstanding 2013 Short Story Collections

We received 96 short story collections in 2013, many of them well worth reading. Beyond the three finalists and the winner of The Story Prize Spotlight Award, here is a long list of other collections that particularly stood out for us:

Keeping our long list to a reasonable length—14 books this time around—entailed drawing a somewhat arbitrary line that leaves out quite a few exceptional short story collections that might be on many other readers' lists. In the end, such choices are to a large degree personal and subjective.

Writing a story collection and seeing it through to publication is an immense accomplishment, and every author of every book we read in 2013 truly deserves to take a bow. We hope readers will explore the books on and beyond this list—along with the many fine short story collections that no doubt will be coming out this year.

* Titles link to IndieBound listings, author names to guest posts on this blog.

Monday, January 20, 2014

An Index of Posts from Authors of 2013 Story Collections

For the fourth straight year, in 2013 The Story Prize invited each author of a collection we received as an entry to contribute a guest post to our blog. Out of 94 authors, 62 chose to participate. We thank them for their thoughtful , interesting contributions. Since 2010, when we began doing this, TSP has featured 266 guest posts from 263 writers.

Popular posters: Walter and Danticat
According to Blogger's statistics, every author post received at least 100 page views, with most getting 300 or more and the most active page (Jess Walter's) so far drawing more than 1,200 hits. The posts with the second and third most hits this year were Edwidge Danticat's and George Saunders'. The links, in alphabetical order by the author's last name, are to each guest post.

Mary Akers Attends to the Details
Stevan Allred Populates a Town
Louise Aronson Answers "The Question"
Where David S. Atkinson Gets His Ideas
Ramona Ausubel and the Story About the Spool Farmer
Tom Barbash Zeroes in on a Quandary
Andrea Barrett's Science Fiction
Kevin Barry and the Deeply Esoteric

Elizabeth Cohen on What Her Stories Leave Out
Carolyn Cooke's Anti-House
Candace Coulombe's Flash Fabulism
Edwidge Danticat Gives the Reader a Story
Amber Dermont and the Incorrigible Student
Andre Dubus III Asks: What Would That Be Like?

B.C. Edwards and the Terrifying Malady
Jim Gavin: Some Notes on “The Partridge Festival” by Flannery O’Connor
Sarah Gerkensmeyer Learns to Tolerate Messes
Manuel Gonzales' Strange, Meandering Thought Process
Peter Grandbois Listens to Images
Allan Gurganus: A Few Words for the Novella

Cary Holladay's Reluctant Art Form
Jessica Hollander and the Naked Workout
Seth Johnson and the Anti-Story
Jessica Francis Kane vs. the Beautiful Chaos
Kristiana Kahakauwila Starts with an Image
Laura Kasischke: On Childish Things

Andrew Lam's American Beginning: Learning a New Language, Seeing a New Future
Rebecca Lee Gets an Offer She Can't Refuse
Norman Lock's Subconscious Needs
Kelly Luce Takes a Hatchet to Her Work
William Luvaas: How It All Starts
Donald Lystra and That Sense of Discovery
Courtney McDermott on Encountering Ideas Everywhere
Kate Milliken Builds a House

Chinelo Okparanta Paints the Truth
Peter Orner Walks Around with It
Sara Pritchard on Making Stories That Are Big on the Inside
Alex M. Pruteanu's Guerilla Writing Tactics
Jamie Quatro and the Anarchic Image
Victoria Redel's Secret Joke
Ethel Rohan Says: "Enough"
Ito Romo and the Lives of Others
Ethan Rutherford on Knowing When to Quit (and Not Quitting)
Jean Ryan and the Abandoned Story

George Saunders Talks Shop
Saïd Sayrafiezadeh and the Pressure of Having to Say Something
Katey Schultz on Writing What She Doesn't Know
Aurelie Sheehan Comes Out of Hiding
Ranbir Singh Sidhu Seeks to Broaden the Landscape
Joan Silber Makes Thematic Connections
Gregory Spatz Runs Hot and Cold
Susan Steinberg and the Story of the Twelve-Foot-High Chair
Ben Stroud Learns to Adapt

Susan Tepper on Making the Most of Insignificant Things
Johnny Townsend Asks "What If?"
Valerie Trueblood on the "When" of Stories
Laura van den Berg's Journey to "Antartica"
Anthony Varallo and "A Basket of Apples"
Shawn Vestal and the Artistic Takeover
Anthony Wallace and the Everyday Eternities
Jess Walter's "Process"
Guinotte Wise Gets Unstuck

Monday, January 13, 2014

And the Finalists for The Story Prize Are...Andrea Barrett, Rebecca Lee, and George Saunders

2013 finalists for The Story Prize: Barrett, Lee, and Saunders
The Story Prize, which is celebrating its tenth anniversary this year, is pleased to honor three outstanding short story collections chosen from 96 submissions representing 64 different publishers or imprints. The three finalists are:

Archangel by Andrea Barrett (W.W. Norton)
Bobcat by Rebecca Lee (Algonquin Books)
Tenth of December by George Saunders (Random House)

On March 5, these three authors will read from and discuss their work on-stage at The New School's Auditorium at 66 West 12th Street at an event that starts at 7:30 p.m. After the final author interview, Julie LIndsey, Founder of The Story Prize, will announce the winner, who will get $20,000—still the most of any annual U.S. book award for fiction—along with an engraved silver bowl. The other two finalists will each take home $5,000.

You can buy tickets to the March 5 event from The New School box office online or by calling 212-229-5488.

It's always difficult to choose just three books as finalists (and one as The Story Prize Spotlight Award winner), and several other books we read would have made excellent choices. In the weeks ahead, I'll post a list of some of these other collections. Also look for more posts leading up to the event and to commemorate ten years of The Story Prize.

Julie and I have chosen the finalists, now, it's up to our three judgesStephen Ennis, Antonya Nelson, and Rob Spillman—to determine which book will get the top prize. We will announce the outcome at our March 5 event and via social media: Twitter, Instagram, Google+, and Facebook.

This Year's Winner of The Story Prize Spotlight Award: Byzantium by Ben Stroud

Last year, we established an additional award to complement The Story Prize, which we named The Story Prize Spotlight Award. The purpose is simply to honor an additional collection worthy of further attention.

This year's winner is Byzantium by Ben Stroud, published by Graywolf Press—a remarkable debut collection that spans continents and eras, from 7th Century Constantinople to post-Katrina Texas. Stroud creates memorable characters to inhabit these worlds, including Jackson Hieronymous Burke (aka "The Moor"), the son of a slave and plantation owner, who sets himself up as a detective in post-Civil War era Havana and, again in a second story, in Berlin at the end of the 19th century.

Byzantium won the 2012 Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference Bakeless Fiction Prize. Stroud's stories have appeared in Harper’s Magazine, One Story, Electric Literature, Boston Review, and The American Scholar, among other places, and have been anthologized in New Stories from the South and Best American Mystery Stories. Originally from Texas, he holds a BA in English and History from the University of Texas at Austin and an MFA in Fiction and PhD in Twentieth-Century American Literature from the University of Michigan. He has taught literature and creative writing at universities in the U.S. and Germany. He currently is Assistant Professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Toledo.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Allan Gurganus: A Few Words for the Novella

In the 62nd in a series of posts on 2013 books entered for The Story Prize, Allan Gurganus, author of Local Souls (Liveright)—a collection of three novellas, advocates the form.

The novel is a forgiving form; its loose clothes can hide your extra ten to twenty pounds. But writing a novella means entering an Audrey Hepburn lookalike contest. There is no faking that caliber of leanness. "Less is more."—More work!

Still, I’m in love with the novella’s very difficulty, its requisite 400 crunches a day. For someone inherently longwinded, the discipline of condensation can lift from narrative generality certain hard-earned abs.

Pascal: No time for brevity
—“I have made this longer than usual only because I have not had the time to make it shorter.”

That famous statement, sometimes attributed to Woodrow Wilson, sometimes Mark Twain, really came from a letter mailed in 1657. It was written by Blaise Pascal. His insight into the painful value of compression sums up what’s most heroic about committing short fiction. No single chapter of a novel need claim formal perfection; the next chapter can take up the slack and promise more. But the novella—in its inexorable single-minded sweep—demands a tight-rope’s through-line economy, unwavering grace. How hard is that? Try reducing ten acres of French lavender into perfume’s single ounce.

What is one, a novella? Randall Jarrell’s all-purpose definition might suffice: “A work of a certain length that has something wrong with it.” If a story runs you up to fifty thousand words, it might have hatched into a novella. Single besieged central character offered with a novel’s depth of specific character.

A novella is more nearly the twin of a poem than the sib of any eight-hundred-page novel. If all novels come laden with saddle-bag asides, the novella must offer its everything at once. Bypassing distracting secondary characters, the novella can focus upon one character’s single wish ripening toward obsession. All the drama can hang upon one pile-driving need or love or mistake. Some might call this form the narrative equivalent of eating tuna fish from a can held over the sink, but it is closer to superb hand-sliced sushi. A novella, containing the best of poem and novel, gives us the whiplash of one and the echoes of the other.

Modern life has conspired to make this orphaned form the belle of our age. Our caffeinated restlessness seems allergic to the three-tier novel. The novella can answer, without compromise, the needs of our nation’s shortened attention spans. —If the death of the novel is wildly overstated every six months, the death of the church is underreported. And its demise has opened epic new terrain to us, the secular atheist fable-makers. So many eternal questions remain unaffiliated; so many comforting rituals go weekly un-enacted. Today’s wisest readers turn to fiction. They are seeking more than some playroom pinball annex to their homes and apartments. They are asking fiction for an eternal distraction from all our usual temporal distractions. Readers now seek some sort of meditated shelter and fresh challenge. Haven’t we all had enough of life’s grocery lists unprocessed? Aren’t we are sick to death of force-fed irony offered as a solution, a protein-substitute?

Every evening I must delete email offers from Christian dating services and Korean penis enlargers (do these outfits work in tandem?). Such purgation feels like nightly sweeping back the sea. As we move toward art, as we turn our backs on the junk unsolicited, we want concision, simplification, a last chance at, yes, purity. We crave a respite from the corrosive adolescent sarcasm that’s become American fiction’s defense against a world of true adult feeling.

On the page at least, we seek the sense that some form of human dignity is still possible on earth. And I’m convinced that fiction can provide what religion, so busy besmirching its choirboys, have epically failed to give.

The novella is the perfect form for this decade of our reading history. These days we all love speed. If we don’t, traffic crowds us off the road. We live overcommitted (against our wills) to multi-tasking. Shorter fiction must satisfy us as only long works used to. Poems show how much can be said in how few lines.

I just noted how many favorite novels are actually short, are really novellas: Heart of Darkness; Death in Venice; The Call of the Wild; So Long, See You Tomorrow; The Beast in the Jungle; Pnin; Billy Budd, Sailor; Animal Farm; The Old Man and the Sea; Ballad of the Sad Café; A Clockwork Orange; The Great Gatsby.

And these works are not simply steroidal stories or stunted novels. The Canadian writer George Fetherling states in an essay that defining a novella as little more than the short novel is like “saying a pony is a baby horse.” Far more than any protracted novel, the novella invokes human speech. As with tales exchanged aloud between living persons, the fictional transaction seems to happen in real time. (Not War and Peace time.) Novellas must complete themselves in a single fire-side sitting. The writer dares not let the reader leave her-his talking presence. There is an urgent button-holing quality in riveting short fiction that gives its best examples huge immediacy.

This very swiftness admits then complements the way we live now. Peter Taylor praised the novella as “a work you can pick up after dinner and finish by bedtime.”

Dr. Seuss: A man of few words
I feel proud of attempting more and more with fewer pages. (Dr. Seuss, remember, wrote his immortal The Cat in the Hat using only a fixed 236 words.) New York publishing continues to favor The Novel as our ideal American form, the basic unit of Fictional Retail. This seems short-sighted, conventional, corporate. It is the kind of non-thinking that often precedes a species’ extinction.

Meanwhile I propose that we live in a Golden Age of American Short Fiction. So much talent everywhere. But our musty fixation with some 1940s macho Great American Novel Blockbuster Doorstop hides from us the abundance everywhere of great gifts at the shorter forms. They are—Darwinian—shaped and carved surfboard smooth by those very tsunami forces battering us all. Forms rendered by and for our frantic if exciting age.

Henry James, whose own genius is most perfectly revealed in his shorter sprints, once praised the form as “the beautiful and blest nouvelle.” The English word “novella’ springs from the feminine Italian form “novello.” meaning “new.”

What renewed form of fiction do we need now? Antique novelty available in a dosage and sufficient wattage for our own keyed-up present-tense.

Yes, a novella remains insanely tough to write. You have one chance and all its musical notes are, as professional singers, say “exposed.” And yet, so many gifted voices now gravitate precisely toward performing with these risks and at this length. The raw test of emotional courage might be what makes the novella so rich for readers, so alluring for writers.

Finally, regarding the tortures of condensation, Woodrow Wilson, of all people, states: “If I am to speak ten minutes, I need a week for preparation. If fifteen minutes, just three days. If half an hour, two days. If an hour, I am ready now.”

We writers can therefore take more time trying to tell darker lyrical and layered truths in far fewer words. With no loss to literature. Till the world’s attention span slows again for the fattie-acid ten-course feast, we might do well to opt for single-sitting flashes of pure amazing protein.

It is the way we eat now. And live. And read.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Kevin Barry and the Deeply Esoteric

In the 61st in a series of posts on 2013 books entered for The Story Prize, Kevin Barry, author of There Are Little Kingdoms and Dark Lies the Island (Graywolf Press), discusses where he finds stories and how he puts a collection together.

How often does an idea for a story occur to you, and what triggers those ideas?
Increasingly now I think that stories come from their places. I think that human feeling – and very often it’s anguished or melancholy feeling—settles into the stones of a place, and it gives off a curious reverb, and as a writer you’re merely a set of antennae hoping to snag on some of these vibrations. The stories are out there, in other words, and you just have to listen hard and hear them. I hope this sounds properly esoteric because writing stories is a deeply esoteric business. The more you do it, the less you know about it. The closer in you get to the craft, the more the mystery of it deepens.

What's your approach to organizing a collection?
I pretend that it’s 1971 and I’m Marvin Gaye wearing a very dapper fur-trimmed leather trench coat as I put together the running order for What’s Going On. A good collection should ideally work like a favourite album—perhaps you open big, with a couple of sure-fire anthems, but only as a means of luring the reader into stranger territory. I want my themes and situations to work in the way that reprise and refrain work in music.

What's the worst idea for a story you've every had?
From the point-of-view of a hedgehog. Or maybe it’s the greatest story I’ll never finish. (There was a problem with the pace.)

What's the best story idea you've had that you've never been able to write to your satisfaction?
I have any number of unborn masterpieces bouncing inside my head at all times and taunting me.  I’ve been trying to write a story about a chicken farmer in Jamaica for years, having never farmed chickens or been to Jamaica. But it’s called “Chicken Mary,” and how am I supposed to give up on a story with a title like that?

Where do you do most of your work?
At this particular moment in time, in the Quebec National Library in Montreal, because I don’t have the WiFi password and so am spared the temptation to waste my life amid the evil inanities of the Internet. I’m more usually found in County Sligo, in Ireland, where I work at home, in a former police barracks dating from the 1840s, and which appears, tragically, to harbor no ghosts.

In what other forms of artistic expression do you find inspiration?
I write screenplays. It teaches you a tremendous amount about how much or how little of a narrative spine a particular story might need to function.

What's the best and worst writing advice you've ever gotten?
The worst is "write what you know," which admits defeat for the imagination. The best is to put the story in the drawer for a while after you’ve finished it. I try to leave it in the drawer for at least six weeks, and by then its merits or otherwise are usually quite clear.

What obstacles have you encountered as a writer, and what have you done to overcome them?
I tend to write in the high style, more often than not, with the ambition of making a charged and luminous prose, and it can be difficult to keep the language from overwhelming the story. The only tactic is to work like a demon, and to listen very intently to your own work, and in as many different moods and circumstances as you can summon.

What's the shortest time it has taken you to write a story?
The first story in my first book, a story called “Atlantic City,” was written in about four hours spread over two mornings, and with hardly any subsequent revisions.

What's the longest time it has take you to write a story?
The second story in my first book, a story called “To The Hills,” was written over a period of six years and went to fifty drafts. It’s the story of a love triangle among three hillwalkers hiking the Wicklow mountains in Ireland. For the first forty nine drafts, it was eight thousand words long and I couldn’t figure what was wrong with it. I showed it to a friend who said the people are terrific, but there’s lots of description of the mountains. Now these were the most magnificent descriptions of the Wicklow mountains ever committed to paper, but they were killing the story stone dead. The fiftieth draft took about half an hour. I just cut all the descriptions of the mountains. The story was three thousand words for a finish. Writers can be inordinately dumb about their own work sometimes.