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.