Fiction, Nobel Prize for Literature, Short Stories

The Value of Prizes

It’s been interesting times for literary prizes of late, what with the debate about the Nobel winner, and then the lack of a Pulitzer for fiction.

A recent New Yorker article by Michael Cunningham, “Letter from the Pulitzer Fiction Jury,” made an awkward apology for the fiction fumble produced by this year’s Pulitzer committee, but did little to assuage bemusement.

Cunningham waxes eloquent on the philosophy of giving prizes in genera, as well.

It’s partly a question of what future generations will and will not overlook. What seem fatal flaws to one generation strike the next as displays of artistic courage. Who cares that Henry James went on sometimes at questionable length because he was being paid by the word? Who cares, for that matter, that Marconi merely invented radio transmission when his actual goal was to pick up the voices of the dead?

The three books put forward by his committee were given consideration by the Pulitzer judges, but “none mustered the mandatory majority for granting a prize, so no prize was awarded,” explained Sig Gissler, administrator of the Prize. “This is the 11th time this has happened in the fiction category; the last time was 1977. It’s unusual, but it does occur.”

Maureen Corrigan, another member of the selection committee, wrote an excellent and outraged response piece, “I’m angry on behalf of those novels,” arguing that to not award a prize is basically to dismiss the novels.  And the point of a prize isn’t to diss the finalists, but to praise them.

More recently, the Guardian UK aired a complaint about a claim by the chair of the BBC International Short Story Award that all short stories need to have a twist.  Of course they don’t and the complaint is valid, but even more interesting is the fact that the complaint’s author used it as a jumping off for a larger point:

Once again, the pronouncement that comes from the chair of this year’s distinguished panel of judges – writers and critics both, who have made a life out of thinking about fiction and what makes it valuable – is privileged over those other, more informed voices, to have the soundbite that carries.

There is tremendous tension surrounding all of these literary debates, and as author Elizabeth Baines put it in her Fiction Bitch blog, “A great pity if a good shortlist of subtle stories is belied by the crass but influential words of the chairman, and their literary project sidelined.”

What’s more, it strikes me that the only winners in these scuffles are people who think awards are pointless, such as this New Yorker online commenter posting under the name PETNARD:

Maybe, just maybe, we should stop even giving prizes like this. Sure it’s helpful for the unknown author, but, like the Oscars, college rankings, or any other award system, what’s the purpose of picking out “one best”? It’s an arbitrary and subjective process that artificially crowns just one best. What’s more useful, perhaps, is at the end of each year, list the best books published, regardless of how many (4, 10, 13, whatever). Pitting books of different genres, stories, styles against one another is as useless as pitting one actor against another who performed in very different stories and styles.

I find this a backwards perspective.  Awards are like pro-wrestling.  They’re not really real, but just because its phoney doesn’t diminish its value.  Plenty of people love pro-wrestling. And the acrobatics can’t be faked.  It’s not about determining a championship.  It’s about the spectacle of it all, and the attendant attention.

What awards do is add value to artists and their expression. The Oscars would never not give an award, because they know this.

Pulitzer medal

Fiction, Short Stories

New Story: Le Mycète Sans Pitié

StrangeworldsHappy Halloween!  A short short story of mine, Le Mycète Sans Pitié, appeared today in a publication called, “STRANGEWORLDS: An Anthology of Bizarre Fiction.” So far the book is only out in a Kindle edition (for $1), but publisher BizarreBooks promises to have a chapbook version available soon.  According to the book’s description, these are “bizarre out-of-this-world mindf**k stories.” So, uh, you’ve been warned.

Fiction, Short Stories

New Story: The Angelic Host

Serve in Heaven, Reign in HellA story of mine, “The Angelic Host,” was made available this week in the anthology, Serve in Heaven, Reign in Hell.

Published by Static Movement, a speculative fiction micro-press with a growing footprint of fantasy, science fiction and horror-themed anthologies, Serve in Heaven promises readers “avenging angels, devious devils, and tempted mortals.”  A copy will set you back $15.99.

Fiction, Short Stories

New Story: The Slickens

A short story of mine, “The Slickens,” appeared today in the third issue of the Lovecraft eZine.

This new web webzine is for fans of H.P. Lovecraft’s work and legacy.  Describing itself as “a free online magazine featuring lovecraftian horror,” the website has already nabbed stories by some great authors.  The site’s editor/creator, Mike Davis, is bootstrapping together a top notch publication, and best of all he’s paying his writers, which is a rarity anymore.  Altogether a class act!

Authors, Short Stories

New Writing (by friends)

Like most writers, I have a lot of friends who are also writers.   Here are some of the recent writings that they’ve published online.  You should go read this stuff right now!

The Great Oxygen Race
by Annalee Newitz, HiLo Brow, February 22, 2010

Annalee was my adviser in college and a friend.  We don’t see each other much anymore, but I follow her writing on and was thrilled to see her story on HiLobrowThe Great Oxygen Race is a science fiction piece about a new frontier, which is pretty much the same as the old frontier.

Finn’s Bulletpoints
by Leland Cheuk, Is Greater Than, May 25, 2010

Leland I got to know recently through a writing group.  From what I’ve seen, he’s a great writer and Finn’s Bulletpoints is no exception.  It involves the narrative of an underachieving, deviant office drone whose salacious thoughts come at us like PowerPoint slides.

A Letter to Dad
by Nick Petrulakis, Bay Area Parent, June 1, 2010

Nick I’ve known since he took the DeCal class on Stephen King that I taught at UC Berkeley.  This is not fiction, but a touching letter that he really sent to his father.  And, if it doesn’t make you cry, you’ve got a harder heart than me.

Authors, Short Stories

Raymond Carver

While we’re on the topic of short stories

Raymond Carver has been hailed as the “savior of the American short story.” And from a certain perspective, he was. Carver not only wrote the most influential short stories of his generation, but gave extensive advice on the subject, as well.

While I feel that Carver’s achievements have become somewhat inflated, he was certainly a great writer and can provide inspiration to anyone looking at writing literary fiction. His so-called “minimalist” style is as gorgeous and mysterious as a talented surfer on a giant wave. And he makes it look just as effortless.

The less said about his sordid life the better, perhaps, but if you wanted to know more about him, YouTube has this 5 part video:

Of course, what you should really do is read some of his fiction.

Genre, Short Stories, Writing Tips

Short Stories

When it comes to fiction, it’s an interesting fact that size matters.  I’ve been thinking about this because I recently downloaded Dubliners, James Joyce’s collection of stories, from Gutenberg and have been rereading the stories on my phone.  (Yes, my phone, whatevs).

It’s funny to think, but there was a time when you could find a short story in most any periodical, and they were even somewhat culturally relevant.  Some speculate the internet will lead to a Renaissance for short fiction, but it hasn’t materialized.  And may never.

Novels sell so much better that it has engendered an entire genre of collections of (occasionally very vaguely) interconnected short stories that get called novels. You see more an more of these things all the time.  I believe if Dubliners was published today, it would have been marketed as “Dubliners: A Novel,” just to garner sales.

But, of course, the difference between short stories, novellas and novels is about much more than length.  Reading Kurt Vonnegut’s advice on how to write short stories, I’m tempted to say the difference is in digression.

Usually a really effective short story does not digress from its main objective, and it delivers its meaning in a single bold stroke of insight.  But a novel can go all over the place.  In this way some novels really do end up like a collection of short stories, although, of course, there is usually some ultimate coherence.

That said, there are more than a few ways to bring focus to the short story genre. Atlantic Monthly Fiction Editor C. Michael Curtis has detailed a couple of the main ways:

A short story can “work” in a number of ways, depending on the author’s intentions.  Some stories, the ones I tend to admire most, are “dynamic.”  That is, they move forward toward a resolution of some kind, and have a fulcrum, or transforming moment, for which the author prepares us, and toward which the action of the story is plainly directed.  This transforming moment provides a change of some sort: a concrete change of circumstance, an illuminating and life-altering insight, a moment of clarity, an authentic glimpse of the self, or the like.

The other familiar story type is “static,” or rooted in the moment.  Such stories are meant to explore “How Things Are,” rather than where they’re going or ought to go.  They depend upon shrewdness of insight, elasticity of language, a gift for weaving together apparently disparate elements into a revealing and organic whole.  They illuminate problems rather than follow characters toward decisive action, and many are both shrewd about human behavior, and entertaining in their use of language and paradox.

So, we’ve got dynamic and static short stories, what you might call stories and sketches.  There are other styles you are probably familiar with, such as the O. Henry twist.  Joyce liked to say his story technique was to seek out epiphanies.  Whatever you call it, each technique is just another way to accomplish the same thing: to apply pressure to the story. To compress it.  And that’s perhaps exactly why short stories aren’t as powerful as novels for modern readers.

Readers of fiction, the ones that read large quantities of fiction, do so to escape the real world.  And hence they want that escape to draw them back in and go on and on. Witness what sells.  Short stories aren’t really doing it for these readers, because the whole purpose of the short story is precisely the opposite.  If what you want is a long digression, a short punch in the face isn’t going to satisfy your want.

Thankfully, there are still some people who love short stories, and the genre is widely recognized as an important way for writers to practice craft.  At a recent event at 826 Valencia, Daniel Alarcón referred to short stories as “a gateway drug.”  And given the addictive nature of writing, maybe that’s just what they are.  They get people started down the path that will lead them to those novels that the public loves.

Plus, sometimes, they’re just frickin’ awesome.


William Emery wrote a great response to this post over at 365 Crush.  (If this keeps up, I’m going to have to open this blog up to comments!)