At the end of every year of reading collections for the Story Prize, four copies each of approximately 100 books end up stacked in my small home office, a space already crammed with volumes from previous years. My wife has pointed out that I could create more room for myself by asking for only two books per entry and requesting additional copies of the three finalists when I needed to send them to the judges in January. However, I want to have books ready to send out the instant Julie Lindsay, the founder of the Story Prize, and I make our final choices. And I like to think that any collection that comes our way could make the cut.
When we conceived of the prize 10 years ago, I had recently ended my six-year tenure as series editor of Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards (now published as The O. Henry Prize Stories by Anchor), and before that I had edited four short story anthologies. Julie, too, had long been an avid reader of short stories. We knew the field pretty well and had a good sense of the variety of approaches writers take. Short stories were being published frequently and well in literary magazines. And established prizes existed for individual stories and for writers of short fiction. Yet short story collections were rarely finalists for and even less frequently winners of major book awards. So we decided to create an award that would bring these works more attention. With the generous support of the Chisholm Foundation, we have aimed to raise the profile of story collections by showcasing exceptional books.
In our first year, I found out how different an experience reading an assemblage of work by a single author is from reading single stories by many writers. A collection amassed over many years can feel like the experience of a long friendship. A volume written over a short period is more like having an intense all-night conversation with a kindred spirit. How would I compare the two? And how would I measure a volume of three or four rich, expansive novellas against a book of 58 crystalline short shorts? It’s like judging a dog show: The only way to compare the hard-working herding breeds to the companionable toy dogs is on the basis of how well each fulfills the potential of its kind.
However, inherent in story collections is a certain tension. While each story must be a show dog and stand alone, all should also work together seamlessly like a team of sled dogs. Congruity of ability and sensibility makes the difference between a book I admire and a book I love. I’ve read many collections containing three great stories and four or five good ones. These collections might land on the long list, but the stories in books that are finalists all attain a high level of accomplishment, reflecting the author’s distinctive sensibility. Young writers are understandably eager to be published. Yet it is wise to be certain that every story fits into a collection as certainly as every chapter must fit into a novel. The 30 finalists we have picked for the prize over the 10 years all share this trait. In a time when it’s often said that short story collections are difficult to sell, such books are irrefutably worthy of a publisher’s attention.
During the early years of the award, I saw a trend toward connected stories. This choice has become less prevalent among our entries of late. Connections always exist anyway, and an ongoing character or a narrative through-line doesn’t automatically make a collection more coherent. Great stories can’t raise the level of lesser efforts. Writing bares an author’s every choice. This is daunting, and why I have deep respect and hope for every book that arrives in my post office box. It is also why I stand ready to send any of them to the three judges we choose from among authors, booksellers, librarians, editors, and critics—all people whom we trust to be able to compare a Whippet to a Wolfhound.
The 2013 Story Prize will be awarded on March 5 at a ceremony at the New School in New York City. Our finalists this year are George Saunders for The Tenth of December, Rebecca Lee for Bobcat, and Andrea Barrett for Archangel. We spent hundreds of hours in 2013 narrowing the entries down to these three books. They each exemplify what a great collection can do. The 2014 books are already starting to arrive. I welcome every copy.
Now, if I only had some place to put them.