Sunday, May 29, 2011

Winner of 2011 “Puzzle the Prof” Contest & Some Thoughts About Short Story Month

I am happy to announce that Ray Embry is the winner of the First Annual “Puzzle the Prof” Contest for Short Story Month 2011.

Ray was taking a course at Southern Oregon University’s version of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute that studies the annual Best American Short Story collection. In the 2010 edition, edited by Richard Russo, the story “The Cousins” by Charles Baxter provided a puzzle for the class with Baxter’s introduction of an apple at the end of the story. Ray points out that the narrator steals the apple and then informs us that he could have paid for it, “but shoplifting apparently was called for. It was an emotional necessity.” Then Ray notes that the narrator has it with him when he gets home. “There it is, deliberately and repeatedly,” says Ray, adding emphatically, “What the hell is it doing there?”

Ray’s query provided me with the most challenging and most interesting puzzle, for responding to it forced me to develop a full-length “reading” of the story that tried to account not only for the apple, but all the other details as well. After I posted my response, I did a search for others who might have discussed the story (which was chosen for the 2010 Best American Short Stories and the 2011 Pushcart Prize, and also appeared for the first time in book form in Baxter’s 2011 Gryphon: New and Selected Stories). I discovered that it had been puzzling to several other readers as well. The story thus seemed to me to be a good example of a work that was recognized immediately as a very fine story, but that no one seemed able to explain why it was so brilliant.

My own interpretation of the complexity of the story has no claim to validity, for, in my opinion, the truth value of an interpretation can only be measured by the extent to which the interpretation accounts for the details of the story and the extent to which it is satisfying to readers of both the story and the interpretation. My own reading of “The Cousins” derives from my experience with thousands of stories and lots of theoretical thought about the short story as a form during the forty years of my career as a reader/teacher/critic. I doubt that anyone else would have developed such a reading of the story, for obviously no one else has precisely the same experience with short stories as I do.

As a teacher, the problem the story and my reading of the story poses for me is that whereas I can develop such a reading and offer it to my readers for their consideration, I am not all that confident that I can “teach” others to read stories in the same way. For, in my opinion, my job has always been not merely to teach readers how to interpret a single story, but rather how to help readers know how to read the next story they might happen to read. I have no way of determining the extent of my success in that task. It’s a humbling experience to admit that doubt.

Now that I have retired from the classroom, I continue my study of the short story and my efforts to provide some suggestions about reading short stories on this blog. I thank all those who take the time to visit the thoughts of a guy whose only claim to expertise is that he has “read and written about a lot of short stories.”

I am sending Ray a copy of Antonya Nelson's very fine collection of stories Nothing Right and my own modest study of the short story entitled The Short Story: The Reality of Artifice. I thank Ray and the others who participated in "Puzzle the Prof" for 2011.

A few words about Short Story Month, 2011:

As far as I can determine, this is the third year that various devoted bloggers have promoted the idea of Short Story Month. It does seem that the number of bloggers enthusiastic about the idea of Short Story Month has grown in those three years. However, as far as I can determine, the idea has not mushroomed beyond blogs. That is, I know of no mention of Short Story Month in newspapers, print magazines, television, radio, etc. (Although I did see a mention on National Public Radio’s blog, I have not heard anything on the air about the month). There has been no nation-wide campaign among writers, publishers, libraries, and teachers to promote the reading and appreciation of the short story.

On the other hand, National Poetry Month, which has been celebrated during the month of April since 1996, is a success primarily because it is supported by the Academy of American Poets, a nonprofit organization that has been around since 1934. The Academy’s website,, receives over a million visits a month. National Poetry Month is supported by grants from the National Endowment for the Arts; by public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts; by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs; and by the National Council of Teachers of English and the American Booksellers Association. The Academy of American Poets sends out thousands of posters to libraries, teachers, and booksellers, media kits to newspapers across the country, and sponsors a number of events. As a result, National Poetry Month gets quite a bit of publicity. There was even an article in Oprah Magazine (and we know what influence she has), about National Poetry Month, recommending a number of poetry collections.

The question is: Will Short Story Month, informally supported by several bloggers (including myself) over the past three years, ever get the kind of energy, money, and gravitas to become National Short Story Month? As far as I know, there is no short story equivalent of the Academy of American Poets to originate and support such a nationally recognized celebration. And lacking that, I do not know who, or what organization, has the “star power” or the financial wherewithal to make it happen on the same scale as National Poetry Month.

I am open to any suggestions and am happy to join in any effort to get the short story the kind of recognition and readership I obviously think it deserves.

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