shining the spotlight on short story collections
Author and Short Reviewer Sarah Salway talks (by email) to Larry Dark, founder and director of the $20,000 Story Prize, the largest prize for short story collections in America, which was recently awarded to Tobias Wolff for Our Story Begins.
Sarah Salway: First of all, Larry, could you tell us about the Story Prize? How did it start?
Larry Dark: It’s a bit of a long story, but since you asked, here goes. When I was the series editor for Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards (an annual anthology of the year’s best stories from U.S. and Canadian magazines) I was invited to speak at Manhattanville College, just north of New York City. I don’t remember exactly what I said that night, but I later learned I made an impression on Julie Lindsey, the founder of the The Story Prize. I’m a true believer in the value of the short story, and that brand of idealism has helped me and sometimes hurt me. In many respects, it led to my ouster from the O. Henry Awards in 2002, but it also led me to this. My wife, Alice, went to speak at Manhattanville in 2003, where she encountered Julie, who said she was thinking of starting a book award for short story collections. She asked if I was available and if I would be interested. Alice brought home Julie’s card, and I e-mailed her immediately, as in moments later.
A series of meetings ensued as we developed the idea, along with Julie’s husband Jay and, of course, with excellent advice on my end from Alice. I then went on a a listening tour in the fall of 2003, meeting with publishers, editors, booksellers, agents, and writers. I asked them what they thought worked and didn’t work for book awards. Their input was very valuable to us. One thing we had decided was that we would offer a $20,000 prize to the winner, which was and still is more than any other annual U.S. book award for fiction–more than the National Book Awards or the Pulitzer Prize. Awards in the U.K. and elsewhere are far more generous. Why is something of a mystery. We launched The Story Prize in 2004.
SJS: What do you look for in a winning collection?
LD:What we look for in a short story collection is excellence. That sounds like a glib answer, and I’ll admit it is. But literary awards are highly subjective. We had decided to read as wide a selection of short story collections as we could get publishers to submit and to never associate The Story Prize with one particular style or approach. That said, if we have a bias, it’s toward the traditional, well-made, realistic story. But we remain open to anything, and some of our finalists have departed from that model. The best examples of that are Maureen F. McHugh’s Mothers & Other Monsters, from 2005, and last year’s Demons in the Spring by Joe Meno–both published by small presses.
SJS: You say you’re a ‘true believer in the value of the short story’, and indeed prizes like the Story Prize help to publicise the form. What radical move (apart from your prize!) would you like to see to get people reading the short story?
LD: Cultural arbiters need to embrace the form. We have to stop treating short story collections like they’re medicine and underscore the pleasures of reading them. I’d like to see people like Oprah Winfrey and Richard and Judy (do I have that right?) choose short story collections for their book clubs. We have a National Endowment for the Arts Program in the U.S. called the Big Read, but so far they’ve only chosen novels. They should mix in some story collections. Novels dominate our book awards, which is one reason we created The Story Prize. Still, I’d like to see more short story collections make the short lists and win those awards. And do you know what it would do for short fiction if Barack Obama was seen carrying around a story collection instead of a wonky policy tome?
SJS: This years winner, Tobias Wolff, was commended by the judges for his ‘great sense of the human condition’. Could you expand a bit about what this means? I was interested because most – non-short story reading – people think of a short story as just a slice of life. Do you think we can be too unambitious about what we expect from reading and writing short stories.
LD: Yes, writers can be too unambitious. I think the best stories reveal in some way what it’ s like to be a human being living in the time and place the story was written or set. When you read Tobias Wolff, you often experience recognition of some aspect of being a person that you might never have thought about or identified before. The best writers are keen observers of the world around them and go deep within themselves to provide something essential. A story that is well-made or clever but that doesn’t give something extra, that sense of recognition, isn’t as good as it should be.
SJS: Have you noticed any changes in the way the short story is considered since the Story Prize was established in 2004?
LD: I’m not sure. One of our aims was, and still is, to bring greater attention and support to short story collections. I’m certainly paying more attention, as are our judges and finalists, but are others? I have found a great degree of support for short fiction here in the U.S. that I didn’t know about before, and a book award seems like an inevitable part of that. Now, there’s also the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, based in Ireland, which does its part, too. But are more people reading short stories? Are more people buying short story collections? Are publishers more willing to support stories? The answer to all, is probably not.
The Story Prize has only been around for five years. Did we really expect one book award could change all of that? No. What we have done is add to the network of support for short fiction. We’ve given $20,000 to five writers, which, I hope, will encourage them to keep writing stories. So any changes we’ve seen have been on a relatively small scale, imperceptible to the culture at large. In our view, however, in terms of artistry, the story is going as strong as it ever has. We read incredibly good books every year–more than we can honor as finalists. If we can bring a little focus to them and to short fiction, then we’ve done what we can for now.
SJS: It used to be that many beginner short story writers ached to write like Raymond Carver. Who do you think are the big influences these days?
LD: I’ve been hearing that one of the biggest influences in the U.S. for the last twenty years or so has been the book Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson. I also see the influence of George Saunders’ broadly comic tales. However, someone who taught writing would probably know better than I do. I’m reading a polished, finished product–books that don’t necessarily trumpet their influences.
SJS: Do you notice a difference between short stories coming from Britain (and indeed Europe) and those from America? If so, what?
LD: I don’t think I see enough short story collections coming out of the U.K. and Europe to make a fair comparison. For one thing, we don’t read translated books for The Story Prize. For another, U.S. publishing remains fairly parochial. Many collections published in the U.K. never get picked up by U.S. publishers.
Last year, I asked Tessa Hadley why she thought American writers seem to favor short stories more than British writers do (if indeed it’s true), and she answered that there are many more places to publish stories in the U.S. We have hundreds of literary magazines. We also have more graduate writing programs. However, I don’t necessarily see those as the wellspring of short fiction that critics of writing programs do when they’re laying into their straw men. The fact is that publishers dissuade a great many natural short story writers from continuing to write short fiction and push them instead to write novels, which generally sell better.
That’s why it was so great that Jhumpa Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth debuted at No. 1 on the New York Times Best-Seller List. It showed that it was possible.
SJS: It’s probably very difficult with the number of collections you read every year, but aside from the winners, could you pick out some names from the collections that didn’t win but stood out for you?
LD: I’ll give you a dozen that have stood out for me: A Better Angel by Chris Adrian, Say You’re One of Them by Uwem Akpan, The Development by John Barth, Miss Hempel Chronicles by Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, Varieties of Disturbance by Lydia Davis, Damned If I Do by Percival Everett, Brief Encounters with Che Guevera by Ben Fountain, All Aunt Hagar’s Children by Edward Jones, Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link, Michael Martone by Michael Martone, Refresh, Refresh by Benjamin Percy, and Mothers & Sonsby Colm Toibin. This is a highly subjective list and would probably be different on different days.
SJS: And lastly, your favourite ever short story?
LD: I am continually frustrating my wife and son by my unwillingness to declare favorites. I have no favorite color, food, movie, book, author, song, record, etc. Seriously, I find the whole concept of favorites puzzling. That said, how can I not choose In the Gloaming by Alice Elliott Dark? It never ceases to amaze or move me, and I was present when it came into being. Nonetheless, I feel confident that it’s a story I would greatly admire even if I’d never met the author.
(Note from SJS: I should disclose here that Larry is married to Alice Elliott Dark, author of the brilliant ‘In the Gloaming’ (which appeared in Best American Short Stories of the Century, ed John Updike, and a short story collection of the same name.)
Sarah Salway reviews Michael Martone by Michael Martone in this month’s issue.
For more about the Story Prize, visit their website.