Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Short Story Month--May 2011--Puzzle the Prof Contest

A couple of years ago, Larry Dark, of The Story Prize suggested it might be a good idea to promote the month of May as National Short Story Month. Last year, Dan Wickett of the Emerging Writers Network tried to further this idea by posting responses by various writers, reviewers, and bloggers to two new books of short stories. This year, Erika Dreifus, a contributing editor at Fiction Writers Review has taken up the banner to promote May as Short Story Month by making it part of FWR’s Collection Giveaway Project, urging bloggers interested in the short story to participate.

Erika has suggested that bloggers post an entry on our blog recommending a recently published short story collection. The post can be long or short, a review or merely a rave. The one requirement is that the blogger, has read and loved the book in question. Then the idea is to offer a copy of the book as a giveaway to one lucky person. Bloggers would announce their winner on May 31, 2011, and arrange to send out copies of any books they are giving away. Bloggers can choose the winner through a drawing, or by the wittiness of his/her remarks, or by whatever criteria they choose.

Several bloggers have already pledged to participate in the Short Story Month Collection Giveaway, including Dan Powell at Dan Powell-Fiction and the good folks over at The Short Review.

Always happy to promote reading the short story in any way available, I plan to participate in Short Story Month 2011 as follows:

I have a nice new extra hardback copy of Antonya Nelson’s collection Nothing Right, which came out last year. I am posting below my review of the collection. I am also including, as part of the prize, a hardback copy of my own critical book, The Short Story: The Reality of Artifice.

Here is what I propose on the Reading the Short Story Blog as a competition for the two books:

Readers frequently complain that whereas novels are usually satisfying, complete narrative experiences, short stories are often hard-to-understand, inconclusive, or just plain puzzling. If you have read a short story that you feel is mystifying or hard to understand—a story that still nags at you because you can’t figure what’s it all about, I invite you to submit the story to me, along with a one-paragraph query about what puzzles you about the story. I will select the most challenging and interesting queries and try to pose reading suggestions or interpretative solutions to the problem. At the end of May, I will award the two books to the reader who has submitted the most challenging puzzle for me to solve. If the story is a fairly well-known one, I probably have a copy, so you just need to provide the title in your one-paragraph query. If it is online somewhere, tell me where I can find it. If it is a relatively unknown story, you will have to scan it and send it to me at my email address:

Below, I try to suggest what I liked about Antonya Nelson’s collection Nothing Right, which I hope to award to some quizzical reader at the end of Short Story Month, May 2011.

Nothing Right. By Antonya Nelson. Bloomsbury. 296 pages, 2010. $25.00.

Eudora Welty, a great reader and writer of the short story, once said that all of an artist’s stories tend to spring from the same source within him or her, that however one’s stories differ in theme or approach, they all carry a “signature” characteristic of the writer’s gift. The signature of Antonya Nelson’s stories in her fifth collection, Nothing Right, can best be determined by the answer to the question, “What is wrong?”

All of Nelson’s characters, mostly women, are lost, disengaged--looking for a mate, a child, or a family to give themselves an identity, a sense of belonging. Some succeed in finding themselves; some do not. In the title story, Hannah feels lost and alone after her divorce, especially since her favorite son went with his father and she is stuck with fifteen-year-old Leo, who is always getting into trouble, and whose ugly transformation to manhood disgusts her. However, his latest shenanigan, getting an older girl pregnant, gives Hannah an unsuspected source of identification.

Perhaps the most isolated character in the collection is Abby in “OBO,” (a classified ad acronym for “or best offer,”) who weasels her way into her professor’s home for the holidays to try to seduce his wife. In a similar story, “Or Else,” David, and a woman he has met, break into a Telluride vacation home of a family that once welcomed him but with whom he is now alienated. Both David and Abbey are “liars by nature,” but even as you disapprove of their behavior, you cannot help sympathizing with their desperation.

Two stories focus on sisters, one of whom needs the help of the other. In the most poignant, “Party of One,” Emily, suffering from cancer, goes to a cocktail lounge to appeal to a married man who is breaking her sister’s heart. In “People People,” Elaine provides a refuge for her brilliant, antisocial, obese sister when her attempts to have an affair with a married colleague fail. In “Shauntrelle,” Constance, recently divorced, looks for a home and finds it temporarily with a roommate named Fanny Mann, who is in Houston for plastic surgery procedures. They constantly receive phone calls and visits from strangers looking for previous lost residents, such as Shauntrelle, a name that Fanny Mann gives to Constance.

Although one may worry that Nelson is following a formula of her own making in these stories, as Eudora Welty has wisely said, a pattern in a writer’s stories is subjective, lying too deep to be consciously recognized, a pattern of which a new story is not another copy “but a fresh attempt made in its own full-bodied right …with its own pressure, and its own needs of fulfillment.”

Bearing her own unique “signature,” Nothing Right powerfully reaffirms Antonya Nelson’s mastery of the short story, which has been widely recognized since her first collection, The Expendables, won the Flannery O’Connor Award in 1990.


MG said...

Hi Charles, Excellent challenge! I'll encourage my students to consider entering the contest.

M L Poncelet said...

Charles, this sounds like a great way to mark the beginning of short story month! I wrote a collection of short stories, called Wave One and as well my blog contains all my recent short stories. I added your site to my blogroll - glad I found you!

Tawnysha Greene said...

How wonderful! I am hosting a giveaway at my blog, too! The link is here: