Tuesday, October 20, 2009

From series editor Nancy Zafris

The announcement of this year's winners of the Flannery O’Connor award for short fiction coincides with the publication of the winning collections from last year's competition: Geoffrey Becker’s BLACK ELVIS and Lori Ostlund’s THE BIGNESS OF THE WORLD.

Sadly, another coincidence: just a few days ago Charles East, the esteemed former editor of this series, passed away is his home state of Louisiana. Charles East helped launch the careers of many writers. I had the privilege of working with him when I won the Flannery O’Connor award in 1990. I still have the typewriter-typed pages of his meticulous edits and lengthy comments. A couple of stories in the original collection didn’t pass his muster. We took them out and added a couple of others. To this day I sometimes think, Good thing he got rid of that paragraph. I will be forever grateful to him for taking a potentially good collection and honing it into something better. He did the same for every writer.

Charles East got to experience the thrill many times over of selecting the winners and notifying them of their award. This year I had the pleasure of calling Jessica Treadway and Linda Grover, this year’s co-winners. This will be Linda’s first book of fiction. Her collection "Dance Boots" follows several generations of Ojibwe family members as they struggle, clear-eyed and stoic, to rise above the lot defined for them. There is a Willa Cather-like authenticity in these unique stories. In Jessica Treadway’s collection, "Please Come Home to Me," a variety of recognizable characters living a recognizable life make small turns that accrue toward big and surreal effect. Like the characters themselves, the reader ends these stories changed.

You don’t have to wait a year, however, to read award-winning stories. BLACK ELVIS and THE BIGNESS OF THE WORLD demonstrate the high literary standards Charles East demanded for the Flannery O’Connor award series.

THE BIGNESS OF THE WORLD takes us to exotic locales all over the world, yet Lori Ostlund’s small American towns might be the most exotic of them all. Publishers Weekly, in its starred review, called The Bigness of the World “remarkable” and “sublime.” This is Lori’s first book and she followed it with winning a $25,000 Rona Jaffe grant. Quite a banner 2009 after years of struggling.

“Black Elvis,” the title story of Geoffrey Becker’s winning collection, was featured in Best American Short Stories a few years ago. The many fans of this story, as well as newcomers to Geoffrey’s work, will be delighted by the other offerings in this collection and the way such imaginative premises play out in this superb craftsman’s hands. And music lovers and art connoisseurs will be further rewarded.

Fewer and fewer presses are in the position of publishing work based solely on literary merit--especially collections of short stories. The editor-in-chief of a large New York publishing house told me a few years ago that he would publish collections of poetry before collections of short fiction -- because they know up front that poetry won’t make money. Bottom line: because of profit margins, collections of short stories are avoided more than any other type of genre. I venture to say that if Flannery O’Connor were sending out her stories today, the big presses would be asking these questions: How do we market this? Can we make money? Perhaps Flannery O’Connor would be told the same thing told to many writers: give us a novel we can sell and we’ll agree to this collection.

The University of Georgia Press stands committed to the goals of the Flannery OConnor award for short fiction: to bring to the public works of lasting literary value. For me, it’s a great feeling to know that my charge is to find the best stories being written today, period. Nobody asks me for a marketing plan.

Please show your support for the two wonderful collections that just came out. You can find them at your local or online bookstores. Enjoy!