Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Short Story Trumps the Novel in National Book Award Anniversary Poll

The National Book Award is celebrating its 60th anniversary by conducting a poll to determine the “Best of the National Book Award in Fiction” since the award for fiction was first given in 1950. During that sixty-year period, seventy-one books won the award (Some years, an award was given for best fiction in paperback as well as hardback.) One hundred and forty writers from across the country then chose the six best of the best.

And the good news for lovers of the short story is that of those six, four, I repeat, four, were short story collections!

I am, of course, delighted with this result, although, since the choice was made by other writers, I am not surprised. Writers value, above all things, good writing, and, as I have always preached to my students and anyone else who would listen, the best writing is often to be found in the short story. It is no accident that the majority of passages selected for analysis in Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer are from short stories.

Short story writers, I think, are just more focused on the word and the sentence than novelists, who are more apt to think in macrocosmic terms of plot and character and perhaps be a little careless about the microcosmic elements of diction and syntax. The short story depends on form, on language, on rhythm to create a shimmering shape that rewards the careful reader with revelations about the subtlety and complexity of human experience that the novel often neglects or ignores.

If you would like to vote on which of the six books is the best of the best, go to:

The six nominated books are:

The Collected Stories of William Faulkner, 1951

Ralph Ellison, The Invisible Man, 1953

Flannery O’Connor: The Complete Stories, 1972

Thomas Pyncheon, Gravity’s Rainbow, 1974

Stories of John Cheever, 1981

Collected Stories of Eudora Welty, 1983

Over the sixty-year history of the award, twelve out of seventy-one awards for fiction have gone to short story collections. The remaining eight are:

Bernard Malamud, The Magic Barrel, 1959

Philip Roth, Goodbye, Columbus, 1960

The Collected Stories of Katherine Ann Porter, 1966

John Barth, Chimera, 1973

Isaac B. Singer, Crown of Feathers, 1974

Ellen Gilchrist, Victory Over Japan, 1984

Bob Shacochis, Easy in the Islands, 1985

Andrea Barret, Ship Fever, 1996

Since they announced this poll, The National Book Award has posted a blog each day, with comments by various writers, on the seventy-one books that have won for fiction. You can read the blogs at:

Visit the poll and vote for your favorite. Although I think Flannery O’Conner will win, my vote went to Eudora Welty, who is every bit as complex as O’Connor, just not obviously so.


ChrisG said...

Childish response: Ha ha! Put that in your pipe and smoke it, novel!

Semi-academic response: While this is undeniably good news for the short story (and, one hopes, heartening to those who practice the craft), part of me wonders if the National Book Awards people selected the short story collections of these four writers due to the sheer fact that they flat-out published so much (Faulkner and Cheever in particular). These are so prolific writers we're dealing with here. Now, far be it from me to question the NBA folks' motives, and maybe I'm just feeling a bit skeptical today, but I wonder how much of this is a cop-out on their part? Are they really recognizing the short story as a form practiced with great skill by some of the century's best writers, or are they merely finding a way to shoehorn these writers into their best-of-the-best contest? I hope the former.

Becky said...

Seems the list is over-represented by Southerners!