Well, it is Independence Day in America and I am celebrating with my family by braving the barbecue grill—complete with corn on the cob, baked beans, roasted spuds, and piled-high hamburgers. That will mean extra time on the Wii exercise board tomorrow. I prepared for the day, ironically, by watching the first episodes of two PBS series last night on the telly—“Queen and Country” and “Michael Woods’ History of England.” I will sit in my yard tonight and watch my neighbors set off illegal fireworks in the cul-de-sac to celebrate the fact that America is the country that put the “post” in postcolonial. Ah, land of the Free!
Meanwhile, in the lovely city of Cork, on the west coast of Ireland—our postcolonial partner--the winner of the Frank O’Connor Award for the Short Story will be announced. I would love to be there. The last time I was in Cork—four years ago—I was so sick I thought I would die and thus spent more time in bed coughing than at the pubs drinking, as any good visitor to Ireland should.
I have no idea what instructions the judges for the Frank O’Connor Short Story Award are given. All I know is what the O’Connor website states—that the aim of the yearly prize is to “reward an individual author’s commitment to this most exacting of forms and encourage the publication of collections of stories in book form as distinct from single stories in periodicals.”
Self-styled the world’s greatest cheerleader for the short story, I think that is a most admirable aim. But if this is meant to be guidance for the judges, then does it not seem somewhat ambiguous? Are the judges really to choose one book out of six that most reflects an author’s commitment to the short story? Or are they instructed to choose the book they think is the “best” of the six shortlisted stories?
If the former, does that mean that Etgar Keret, the author (according to his promotional material) of six best-selling short story collections, has made a stronger commitment to the form than Sarah Hall or Lucia Perillo, for whom this is their debut collection? If the former, is the “best” collection of the six the one that best reflects the “exacting” nature of the short story?
Since the winner receives 25,000 Euros, which is roughly equivalent to 31, 570 American dollars (“the single biggest prize for a short story collection in the world”) and since one of the stipulations of the prize is that the publisher of the winning book put a “Winner of the Frank O’Connor Short Story Award Prize” sticker on the cover, thus insuring increased sales of the book, these are not trivial questions.
I have done my best to discuss the six books honestly—laying bare my personal biases and underlining my critical criteria. If you have read my essays on the six shortlisted collections, you may be able to determine which one I would choose—were I a judge. But since I am not a judge, it little matters which one I think shows the strongest commitment to the short story or reflects the generic characteristics of exactness.
If I were to group the six collections in order of my admiration and pleasure, I would rank Dark Lies the Island, The Beautiful Indifference, and Suddenly a Knock on the Door in the top half. I would, sorry to say, put Happiness is a Chemical in the Brain, What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, and The Trouble with Fire in the bottom half.
If I were a judge, which one of the top three would I choose as winner of the Frank O’Connor Award? It would depend on the criteria the contest sponsors had stipulated and the other judges and I agreed upon, for it seems to me that you cannot engage in the joint judging of a work of art unless everyone is applying the same criteria. If I were asked to pick the collection I like best, it would be Dark Lies the Island. If I were asked to choose the one that shows the strongest commitment to the short story, it would be Suddenly a Knock on the Door. But if I were to choose the collection that, in my humble opinion, best reflects the poetic exactness and complexity of the genre, it would have to be The Beautiful Indifference.
I hope all the attendees at the Cork Conference have a grand time celebrating the short story, and I extend my best wishes to the six shortlisted nominees for the prize.