General interest magazines are scarce, and those publishing short fiction even scarcer. The old “slick” market, now almost entirely dominated by the New Yorker, is all but out of reach, at least for beginners. And the logical extension of such domination is that the New Yorker also dominates commercial compilations such as Best American Short Stories, a volume with an extraordinary history but never very representative even in the good old days.
The number of little magazines and literary quarterlies has grown in the new century but not because of the public’s appetite for short stories. With the popularity of the MFA degree, some sort of market is almost forced into existence. It’s as if new writers were refugees, straining to get into a Promised Land that’s already full. Thus the growth in quarterly-sponsored, fee-based story contests.
Writers compete against newly-minted MFAs, old pros, and those with no credentials as well, but really the principal difference between a contest and the classic over-the-transom system is that manuscripts are judged “blind.”
Just how blind are they? If Writer X has had an affair with the spouse of Editor Y, is Writer X’s story likely to win Editor Y’s contest? Probably not, and questions of contest integrity rise from time to time, in adjudicating periodicals such as Poets and Writers. Who cheats just a little, and who’s as fair-minded as Citizen Kane, writing an unfavorable review of his own wife, can’t be known.
Some writers win various contests, but maybe their manuscripts really are surpassingly good, and the contest system should be lauded for the discovery. No question, unknown writers also rise to the top, and generally the contest system is perceived to be honest. Shown not to be, it would slowly collapse.
Entry fees are modest, ranging from 10 to 50 dollars. They keep the publication afloat, demonstrate seriousness on the part of the writer, and perhaps cut down on the number of submissions. If you lay down money, the theory goes, you’ll get read. By graduate students, or maybe the secretary, as your story crawls up the pyramid toward the final judge.
However, even if you publish in The Virginia Quarterly Review, one short story will not affect much beyond your ego. That is, you and your mother will read it. So short story writers try to assemble coherent collections and win one of the book contests treated here. These are judged by well-known writers, offer cash rewards, and can be springboards to academic success, and rarely, commercial success as well. Sometimes, an agent pounces.
A cynic could say that all those literary magazines are propped up by the fees, reducing the necessity for subscriptions. As is often remarked, there are more writers these days than readers. But whatever the deficiencies of the contest system, the results represent an elaborate, multifaceted winnowing. Writers run an obstacle course first with individual stories and then their collections. The process is Darwinian, but it results in some extraordinary fiction.
Scouting for the Reaper, by Jacob M. Appel
This year’s Hudson Prize winner is a physician, attorney, and a widely published, often award-winning writer whose stories are old-fashioned in the sense that rather than being painfully literary, they are magazine stories. That is, they have plots. They have popular appeal such as one finds in the New Yorker stories of George Saunders, or found long ago in Collier’s. Whatever the method, Appel’s stories are clever and agile, with a wry, risky humor that creeps up on you. The title story is told from the point of view of a teenage girl whose father forces her to pose as a girl scout, in order to inspire more sympathy for his attempts to sell gravestones. In the marvelous “Ad Valorem,” a widow discovers that her husband’s trusted tax attorney cheated him for years. But when she musters the courage, and the documentation, to confront the man, she’s done in by his considerable charm, enabling him to continue cheating her. In “Choose Your Own Genetics,” a smart junior-high girl conducts an exercise in blood types and deduces that the man she’s been calling her father simply can’t be. Not every story is so brilliant: an homage to Kafka, “The Vermin Episode,” falls flat, perhaps because it’s too self-consciously literary. But on the whole this is a shrewd, inventive collection likely to circulate from most any library.
Going Anywhere, by David Armstrong
Leapfrog Press’s 2015 fiction contest winner features 13 stories, 7 of which won contests in such literary magazines as Mississippi Review and Jabberwock Review. They are sharply observed character studies that often incorporate surreal elements. One of Armstrong’s best, “Their Own Resolution,” is the story of a young brother and sister who must adjust to life after their father declares he’s gay and moves away with his lover. Told from the point of view of one of the adults, the story would be routine, but the children’s perspective makes it deeply moving. In “Courier,” a home-schooled boy who has “never been anywhere, seen anything,” spies on the woman next door, gradually deducing that she’s his absent father’s lover. He steals a love letter and uses his father’s own language to rescue his sad, disintegrating mother. But it’s with “Butterscotch,” a sort of psychic horror story that originally appeared in Fantasy and Science Fiction, where Armstrong’s wide-ranging talents emerge most fully. A professional, childless couple in early middle-age conceives a child. The times are perilous, and the husband has his doubts, which seem to be embodied in the ashen, zombie-like figures that sometimes appear out of the woods. Speculations abound. Maybe, composed as they are of ashes, they are disembodied spirits from 9/11. As the wife’s pregnancy turns unusually difficult, and her mother scurries about with homeopathic remedies, all of which smell like butterscotch, the husband at last confronts the evil spirit of his doubt. Armstrong has a great future.
Desert Sonorous, by Sean Bernard
Some of Bernard’s Juniper Prize stories, all of which are set around Tucson, have a familiar, realistic structure. In “Hike,” Wanda lives with a much older man, comforted by a stable routine. Then the older man’s unstable daughter shows up, monopolizing his attentions like a rival lover, and Wanda takes steps to dispense with her. In “Vacation,” an EMT named Daniel falls for a gorgeous American Indian woman—gorgeous but reckless, irrational, and self-destructive. “Aliens,” however, is about actual aliens, researching humans, impersonating them, and approximating them; perhaps the story is also about how everyone is an alien in these latter days of drug-running and water shortages. The best of these sometimes quite experimental stories is in fact called “Water” and concerns a near-violent, disturbed man straight out of a Jim Thompson novel. He’s a water inspector in a time of apocalyptic drought whose job is to issue citations to violators and to creep about in the night searching for hoards of water. “Rattle” portrays a man estranged from his sly, embittered son, but the story descends into obsessive meditations on rattlesnakes. The story is fascinating but inchoate, and that describes the collection as a whole—powerful writing that reaches for something profound about our declining culture and that sounds a deadly warning, one that we can’t quite grasp.
Last Words of the Holy Ghost, by Matt Cashion
Cashion, winner of the Katherine Anne Porter Prize, joins the backwoods, Southern Gothic club that includes such eminences as Flannery O’Connor and Erskine Caldwell. The title story is simplicity itself: a teenage boy loses his senses, though not his virginity, to an underage temptress in a neighboring Georgia town and even comes to the Lord to qualify for her hand. Alas, she proves untrue. In “A Serious Question,” Charlotte Blanchard is a Yankee retiree on the Georgia coast, a neatness freak irked that life is never as neat as she wants. She goes about eliminating every threat to her routines, but she has one friend, a messy old man living as a ward of the Catholic church. When he’s remanded to a rest home, Charlotte is faced with an unsettling, messy dilemma. A lovely story in which compassion asserts itself despite all odds, but the gem of the collection is “The Girl Who Drowned at School That Time.” A student drowns on school grounds, and the district decides to drain the pond and hold a fish fry memorial. The tale is told by the school secretary, Jo, a local who hates the cretins she works with and longs to flee the town. Given the task of organizing the fish fry, she freezes, but the best of the local good old boys comes to her aid, and in gratitude, Jo sleeps with him. As church ladies and boozers stuff their faces with fish, and teenage boys kill turtles with baseball bats, Jo’s rescuer proposes, and she realizes she’s trapped forever.
A Curious Land, by Susan Muaddi Darraj
This year’s Grace Paley Award, aka the AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) Award, completely overcomes the effete image that sometimes demeans it. Darraj writes traditional, tragic love stories set among Orthodox Palestinians during periods of historical unrest, e.g., 1916, 1936, 1966, 1978, 1988, 1990, 1994, 1996, and 1998. Therefore, she charts the exit of the British and rise of the Israelis, and the Palestinians are on the bloody end of the stick, but Darraj keeps history in the background and instead portrays ordinary people in the impoverished village of Tel al-Hilou. In “Rocky Soil,” sweethearts are torn apart when a family woos an American visitor with their daughter, Eveline; the boy left behind, Emad, internalizes his jilting and becomes a miserly workaholic, holding several jobs, winning a degree in economics. Then Eveline, divorced, broken, and with a little daughter in tow, returns. Equally moving is “The Well,” about the middle daughter of three, Amira, who disdains the usual, vital path of marriage, apprenticing herself to a wise nun. She intends to become a nun herself, but when her aunt dies in childbirth, leaving her poor uncle with five children to care for, Amira realizes what God intends for her. A superb collection and a perfect selection for public libraries.
The Best of Gival Press, by Robert L. Giron
Giron, the editor of Gival Press, has pulled together his contest winners from the past 11 years; each winner became the judge for the next contest. The writers range from the obscure to the widely published, and one winner, Tim Johnston, even has a current bestseller, Descent, from Algonquin. His 2008 story, “Water,” is a brooding meditation on grief and loss from the point of view of a widow slowly losing her ability to cope. In “I-95, Southbound,” Perry Glasser charts an old man who drives from Maine to North Carolina to visit his son. Glasser’s hyped-up, vituperative prose at first almost overwhelms the story but in the end seems well-matched to a journey through hell. The old man, lost, alone, bedeviled by painful memories and memories he can’t retrieve, is a walking indictment of tawdry American culture, but he’s human, too, and the reader’s compassion will flood to him. And you can learn all about salmon fishing off Kodiak Island in Daniel Degnan’s novellette,“Fat Tails,” a vivid, visceral tale that moves inevitably, assuredly toward tragedy as a family splinters and love dissolves. One is a little reminded of James Dickey’s Deliverance. There’s not a clunker to be found in this varied, arresting collection.
The Suicide Club, by Toni Graham
Besides this year’s Flannery O’Connor Prize, Graham has won the Grace Paley and the John Gardner awards. One can understand why: Graham writes in an immediate but layered fashion and has a knack for innovative narrative structure. The eight stories, set in Oklahoma, feature three principal characters who meet Wednesday nights with their facilitator, Jane. All four have survived the suicide of a loved one: Slater’s father; SueAnn’s young son; Holly’s boyfriend; and Jane’s father. They cannot recover. Their lives are never the same, but it helps to talk about it, and times marches on: Slater’s wife leaves, Holly tries to find a new love, and SueAnn begins to question her faith. Graham manages it all with precision, but she can’t restrain her hatred of Oklahoma, which from her flyover, West Coast perspective is completely characterized by big box stores, right-wing churches, and snuff-dipping good old boys. Satire is one thing, prejudice another, but without question Graham’s closely linked stories, amounting almost to a novella, are skillful.
What I Found Out about Her, by Peter LaSalle
The winner of the Richard Sullivan Prize also won Georgia’s Flannery O’Connor Award with a collection called Tell Borges If You See Him (2007). Indeed, “In the Southern Cone” is set in Buenos Aires and across the river in Uruguay, and LaSalle brings these places alive with his vivid, flowing prose. The story itself, about a graduate student researching Borges who flees from anti-Semitism, is full of promise but doesn’t quite deliver, as if LaSalle thought atmospherics were enough. The title story, a list of what the narrator knew about a one-night stand whom he learns has died, is also experimental and atmospheric but effectively wistful. LaSalle balances his international flair with an intimate knowledge of Austin in “The Saga of the Irish in America,” about the dot.com boom there in the 1990s and a brilliant engineer named Aidan. With limited opportunities in Ireland, Aidan becomes a hard-charger in Austin, but he’s stalked by a “friend,” Norman, from back home. Norman’s a con artist who succeeds effortlessly with women, where Aidan does not; but Norman needs straight-arrow Aidan to advance his slick agendas, until their last, unforgivable estrangement. The story shrewdly balances LaSalle’s many strengths—his international flair, his deep exposition of settings, a long-winded style that often turns poetic—with pathos.
Two Legs, Bad, by Pat Mayer
Mayer’s clever title comes from Animal Farm: “Four legs good, two legs bad.” And her two-legged creatures are pretty bad, or at least they are so far out of the mainstream they are almost unrecognizable as humans. In “The Destroyer of Worlds,” Mayer portrays a cheerful and philosophical pyromaniac. In “Hunger,” her desperate young man zeroes in on a one-legged temptress. These are backwoods and Bayou stories, somewhat reminiscent of Carolyn Chute except for Mayer’s lush, startling prose. In the brutal “Bear, Part One: Mongrels and Monsters,” she tells of a pair of sadistic nurses who descend upon the feral children of the Bayou to shave their heads and disinfect them, and the friendship that develops between the relatively civilized Bear and a “Deep-In” monster, Charley; the two show up again as grown men in “What the Dog Said.” Wondering if he should go halves on a boar, the simple Charley looks for a sign and gets it when his dog says, “Mama.” Bear, sworn to secrecy, spreads the word, thinking to make a joke, but the dog speaks once more, and the joke’s on Charley. Mayer is full of wry asides such as “A humorless woman is a miserable companion, and casseroles can’t make up for it,” or, “Let the gloomy bitch sue me, what’s she gonna get? My trailer?” Mayer, winner of the Tartt First Fiction Prize, is that rarest thing, an original, and readers can only hope she’ll produce a novel.
Reptile House, by Robin McLean
In “Cold Snap,” the winner of BOA’s Short Fiction Prize traces a newly divorced woman’s efforts to survive when her little town, used to cold weather, experiences a winter so cold it might herald a new ice age. Though narrated in a matter-of-fact style, the story is a kind of magical realism, as is “The Amazing Discovery and Natural History of Carlsbad Caverns.” The title is literal in a way, but the story, ostensibly about two murderers who venture into the desert near Carlsbad, becomes a dark-but-playful meditation on history and myth. Trying to impose metaphysics on the antics of two moose hunters, in “No Name Creek,” seems less successful, but a bus ride with a sad, obsessive, always mistaken loner, in “The True End to All Sad Times,” succeeds in capturing a familiar slice of urban life from a prescient angle. In the title story, set in Chicago, a hen-pecked husband dreams of freedom even as he snips the cord on his wife’s latest baby. Carl’s life is boring, but he entertains Walter Mitty-like fantasies, such as becoming a long-haul truck driver. When he leaves the hospital he strikes out to the west, past O’Hare and toward the unknown plains, but it seems the city is a prison, and beyond it, Carl’s idle dreams will turn to horror. That’s McLean’s singular talent: she upends the ordinary with the outre, showing us that the ordinary is not what we imagined.
King of the Gypsies, by Lenore Myka
Myka, from Buffalo, New York, served with the Peace Corps in Romania, and her experiences inform this year’s winner of the G. S. Sharat Chandra Prize. “Real Family,” for instance, is set in the U.S. but concerns a couple’s attempt to deal with their adopted Romanian child, who seems at best to be sociopathic and, at worst, demonic. The story may remind readers of John Steinbeck’s famous “Johnny Bear.” Naturalism informs the title story, about a pensive boy whose mother gives him over to an orphanage out of economic necessity, but naturalism, like demon-possession, also turns to horror. John Denver’s “Leaving on a Jet Plane” and a slick pimp seduce pretty teenager Lidia, in “Day of Lasts.” Thinking she’s bound for Paris and a life of luxurious celebrity, Lidia hits the familiar stops of her drab life for the last time. Myka reveals Lidia’s likely fate in “Palace Girls,” which unrelentingly portrays a suicide among prostitutes, desperate, ignorant girls doomed to a hotel that has declined even from its shabby, paranoid origins during the Communist era. Myka is not kind to Romania; after reading her, a potential tourist would say, “I don’t want to go there.” But her Romania, this hopeless, dangerous, enervating place, is the dark heart of anywhere, Denver or Bakersfield or Baltimore.
This Angel on My Chest, by Leslie Pietrzyk
This year the most venerable and lucrative ($15,000) of short story prizes, the Drue Heinz, goes to 16 linked stories, all of them about women whose husbands die suddenly at the age of 37. Pietrzyk’s own husband died suddenly at 37, which lends poignancy and will cause the reader to wonder which events reflect literal truth and which are invented. Some of the stories are experimental: a creative writing exercise, a list, and a moving, angry multiple choice quiz in which the answer is always “D.” But at base Pietrzyk is a fairly traditional writer, as in “The Circle,” the story of a group of widows and one widower, meeting for the first time with their harried grief counselor. This Angel on My Chest is much more than a self-help book, but it does record characters dealing with the loss of a loved one, and would surely comfort the bereaved. It’s a book librarians could easily recommend.