This year’s annual Story Prize ceremony, held on Wednesday, February 28, at The New School’s Tishman auditorium in New York City, marked the award’s third year and an evening that is fast becoming an established literary event. The distinguished finalists for the prize, which is given for a short story collection published in the previous year, were Rick Bass, Mary Gordon, and George Saunders, who each read from a story in their nominated collection, then sat for a brief on-stage conversation with Larry Dark, former O. Henry Prize Stories series editor and co-creator of the prize with Julie Lindsey.
As the crowd trickled into the auditorium, snippets of familiar industry chatter could be overheard— “I just finished my manuscript,” “Have you two met?”— and attendees ranged from the silver-haired to the sneakered, which made for comments like, “I took a class with you,” and “You chose my story for the Inkwell competition!” After the lights had dimmed, Dark delivered opening remarks evincing support of the short story form rather than a desire to set apart any single author. “Story collections seem to fly under the radar when it comes to prizes and awards. This is not because there’s something wrong with story collections, but because there’s something wrong with the radar.” At $20,000, the largest award offered for a collection of short stories, the Story Prize represents a significant attempt to remedy that malfunctioning radar.
Rick Bass was up first, reading an excerpt from “Her First Elk,” from his collection The Lives of Rocks (Houghton Mifflin). The selection reflected his keen interest in the natural world and the ways in which people move through it, bumping up against each other in unexpected ways. Wearing a muted tie, grey collared shirt, and grey suit with a pattern that actually evoked the striations of river-rock, he read with gentle purpose and kept the audience riveted to his vivid descriptions of a woman shooting an elk in an attempt to reconnect with her dead father. Afterward, when asked by Dark if he sees himself as a nature writer, he thoughtfully responded, “You can’t just love nature, that’s not a story, but maybe people are drawn to it because people are so heartbreakingly imperfect.”
Mary Gordon was next, reading a more humorous excerpt from “My Podiatrist Tells Me a Story About a Boy and a Dog,” from The Stories of Mary Gordon (Pantheon). Her collection was the only nominated book to span three decades and an entire writing career, including twenty-two new and previously uncollected short stories. Looking smart in a black jacket and skirt, black suede boots, and bright blue scarf, Gordon read with impeccable timing and had the audience laughing along with her conversational piece, in which a podiatrist tells his patient about a stray dog who turned out to be a wolf. In conversation with Dark, Gordon connected writing short stories to writing poetry: “In the wonderful pressure exerted by form,” she said. “I take a great deal of pleasure.”
After a brief intermission, George Saunders took the stage and read a titillating excerpt from “Jon,” from In Persuasion Nation (Riverhead Books), evoking the most raucous crowd response of the evening. Like many of the stories in the collection, “Jon” deals with the effects of advertising on individuals in consumer society, but also deals with the deepest matters of the heart. Set in an imagined near future, the story is narrated by a horny teenager whose voice sounds like a cut-and-paste ransom note snipped from ad copy and a dictionary of teenage slang. Saunders good-naturedly poked fun at himself and his influences, saying, “I grew up in one of those great ’70s households with no rules and eight TVs.”
The ceremony ended when, after an expectant hush, Lindsey announced Mary Gordon this year’s winner, and a flurry of squeals erupted from the crowd near Gordon’s seat. At the elegant reception held down the street at Marquet Café just after the ceremony, Gordon remarked, “I’ve never won an award before. I’m so excited.” That a writer of her stature had never won an award is, perhaps, commentary on the state of the radar. Scott Snyder, author of Voodoo Heart, which was included on the impressive short list for this year’s prize along with collections by Lee K. Abbott, Deborah Eisenberg, Joanna Scott, Charles D’Ambrosio, and Alix Ohlin, among others, voiced a common sentiment when he noted, “it’s an amazing thing to have someone give such a generous award for something so uncommerical.” Indeed, the evening was marked not by a sense of competition, but rather a generous spirit of celebrating a little-recognized form so deftly practiced by many of today’s most talented writers.