Tuesday, March 12, 2013

30 Days of the Flannery O'Connor Award: Day 8

Nancy Zafris on the Last Five Years

Sometimes a stray comment warms your soul. I got to have breakfast with my 18-year old son the other day and in between what pre-workout drink he should use and what freshmen classes he liked, he was paused by a brain burp: out came the remark that his favorite short stories were “A Good Man Is Hard To Find” and “The Dead.” Then he went back to the pre-workout drink discussion.

My son wasn’t praising these two classics by Flannery O’Connor and James Joyce as an underhanded way to disparage the contemporary short story. Nor was he pretending that if a 70-page manuscript titled “The Dead” arrived in his slush pile, he would immediately recognize its genius and publish it. He was simply responding as a reader to something beautiful that had moved him a year earlier, and continued to.

I believe in the short story and its lasting impact. I believe it is an art form. And I believe that the real thing is rare and valuable. That my son would be attracted not only to the real thing but also to stories that are essentially quiet and modest (I remember him complaining last year that “The Dead” opened painfully slow) hit me hard and underscored my mission as series editor of The Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. I want to find literature, real literature, in whatever packaging it comes in.

A prevailing belief in publishing seems to be that great literature won’t sell unless it hooks into a zeitgeist that is already yearning for those very topics it delivers. Most agents and publishers read a manuscript not only for its quality but also for its marketability. The University of Georgia Press has given me the great gift of concerning myself about one thing: quality.

In 2008, my first year as series editor, I chose Geoffrey Becker and Lori Ostlund. I was quickly enchanted by the premises of Becker’s stories in Black Elvis: a black celebrity impersonator of Elvis; a lovelorn man who gives fake art tours in Florence, Italy; a real-deal artist who has to earn money by painting cows and fences into western-motif paintings rendered by a wildly popular hack. All expertly crafted with angst-threaded humor. Becker’s stories never faltered under the weight of their high concepts but charged ahead with an addictive story propulsion. When I later learned that the wonderful title story had previously won an O. Henry Award, I have to admit to being thankful for the promised sales and good reviews on the horizon.

I was on an airplane when I read co-winner Ostlund’s magnificent collection, The Bigness of the World. I started passing some of her sentences over to my husband to read. And I remember quite distinctly thinking to myself, well, this won’t sell because the sentences are so long and it’s so intelligent. And then I consoled myself with the fact that it was great literature and would be a beautiful book that wouldn’t go out of print. Then something quite wonderful happened after its publication. The Bigness of the World won all kinds of awards, including the California Book Prize for First Fiction, the Edmund White Award, an O. Henry Award, and a Best American short story award.

The collections I’ve chosen since then have been fairly varied. None of the collections have been a novel in stories but a few have had recurring characters: Melinda Moustakis’s Bear Down, Bear North and Linda Grover’s Dance Boots scatter recurring characters throughout their stories. Both collections build the additional framework of place and culture (Alaska, Ojibwe Nation) and so these recurrences vitally score a world that bores under your skin. The rough living of Moustakis’s Alaskan homesteaders provides the perfect conduit to a matching psyche. This dazzling collection led to a National Book Foundation “5 Under 35” award. Grover’s older Native American characters have been harshly robbed of their education, yet they refuse to have their stories stripped from them. The wise, humane tales in Dance Boots were rewarded with another major achievement: the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize.

Neither author had published many stories before (a story from the collection placed after winning has garnered Moustakis another accolade, still unannounced)—unlike the amazing Amina Gautier whose youth is belied by the several dozen story publications under her belt before her first book, At-Risk, won the Flannery O’Connor. I literally put down this manuscript after one paragraph and thought, This writer has got it—“it” being that intangible narrative authority you instantly know when you encounter it but which is difficult to articulate. Gautier’s opening paragraph had the confidence and flow of someone saying “once upon a time” to a circle of eager children. Like them, I scooted forward to listen to the compelling stories of adolescents “at risk” in very different ways.

Jessica Treadway’s winning narratives in Please Come Back To Me reminded me of Joyce’s Dubliners. The invisible hand of the master guides the reader as modest, polished scenes accumulate into something powerful and haunting—not shockingly larger than life but exactly as large as life and exactly as devastating. With exquisite subtlety, Treadway takes on the whole idea of memory, how even the tiniest prismatic distortion turns genuine into faux and causes anguished reappraisal.

Who is this person? my preliminary judge wrote about last year’s winning collection, Love, in Theory. I feel like could be reading Andrea Barrett? Am I? No, he was not. He was reading E.J. Levy. Levy’s book is so smart and so funny and so pithy that I found myself laughing and writing down sentences. There was no way to ignore writing like this. Thematically, its co-winner couldn’t have been more different. I went from Levy’s highly educated, self-aware characters to Hugh Sheehy’s serial killers in The Invisibles. True, a little blood was spilled on the page, but what drew me in (and even spooked me) was the way in which these unbalancing distresses were recollected in tranquility, as if the tales themselves were blanketed in snow. There was such great compassion and insight, as well as points of view I didn’t expect, from characters who usually go unnoticed in this world.

The 2012 winners are Jackie Gorman for The Viewing Room and Tom Kealey for Thieves I've Known. Their collections will be published in fall 2013. Gorman’s collection follows a hospital chaplain in a morgue. Despite the inherently tragic premise, the book is neither gloomy nor hopeless; it is perhaps the most philosophical and spiritual of the collections I’ve chosen. Kealey’s book has a recurring type of character: children. These children come from hard places, and I turned the pages with some trepidation. It is a great writer who resists the worst thing that can happen when it could be made to happen so easily. And so the stories lead toward their surprises.

After 30 years, the Flannery O’Connor short story series is still going strong and, if all the recent awards are any indication, a bright future lies ahead for the press and for the short story itself. It isn’t that these awards prove the merit of the stories. I know that they have merit. Anyone who reads them knows they have merit. It is more or less along the lines of my son’s remark to me at breakfast. The stories matter.

Nancy Zafris is the series editor of the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. Her most recent book, The Home Jar (Switchgrass Books), a collection of short stories, will be published in April 2013. For more on Zafris, please visit her website.