Canadian Short Story Writer Wins Nobel Prize for Literature

IDL TIFF file
Sombero Galaxy in Infrared Light, hubble space photo from http://www.ispace.com

The News Story

Today, October 10, 2013 it was announced that Alice Munro has received the Nobel Prize for Literature. For those of you who are not familiar with the writer, she is a Canadian woman, especially known for her collections of short stories. Alice was born in southwestern Ontario and still resides in the country, thus making her the first Canadian writer to receive the prestigious reward. Her short story collections are readily available in any bookstore, so acquiring some of her works is not very difficult.

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Recent photo of Alice Munro

What This Means for the Short Story Revival

First of all, let me clearly state the Ms. Munro has been writing short stories, all throughout her literary career and to my knowledge has not written any novels. This in itself shows true dedication to the craft, for until very recently the popularity of the short story was on the wane with a few brave souls predicting the ultimate demise of the genre. However, most recently, the short story seems to making a comeback. This recent phenomena seems linked to the rising success of ebooks, which now can be downloaded onto various and sundry electronic devices, such as cell phones and laptop computers.

Nonetheless, all this shoptalk on short stories seems mute, as the author has been writing short stories for many years and her success appears to be unrelated to current literary trends. Though it is plausible that the selection committee may have been slightly influenced by current book buying trends.

Appreciation Guide for Newbies

If you are a reader at all like me, you are well probably well aware of Alice Munro’s books, but for some reason never purchased or read one of her short stories. Fortunately, with the recent turn of events avid followers of her work have responded to her latest success by posting advice on which story to read first. Here is one such article posted over at Book Riot. Another such article can be found here.

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New Shoes

cover image for New Shoes
Cover image for my newly, self-published e-book, New Shoes

The Cover

Today, I self-published a new 3,000 word short story at Smashwords. Tomorrow, I will probably add the ebook to Amazon. The story was easy to write, but coming up with a decent cover was a challenge. I can’t say I’m really excited about this one, but it will have to do for now. I used a couple of free images I found at Morguefile to create this undersea collage.

The Story

The story revolves around a young Louisiana fisherman named Jacque LeBeaux and a bunch of trouble he has gotten himself into with some not-so-nice mobsters. I don’t want to say too much, because it will spoil the sea adventure tale….. But I will say that there is a lot of banter and dialogue that goes on between the main character and his captors. You’ll just have to download it and read it to find out how things turn out.

Poor Poe

Statue of the Raven at the Poe House in Philadelphia, PA
Statue of the Raven at the Poe House in Philadelphia, PA

Twas A Hot and Humid Sunny Afternoon

Last Wednesday was a torridly hot day in Philly. The heat was oppressive and the humidity was just as bad. Somehow I negotiated the sizzling mid-afternoon walk from the Philadelphia Free Library to the historic literary site. Once I walked in the front door of the early 19th century brick rowhouse I was glad I did.  The main reason being the fully-functional air conditioning system and the ice-cold drinking water that came shooting out of the basement fountain. Oh, the joys of visiting a federally funded building. After attending the University of Virginia and West Point Military Academy (he had to withdraw from each due to lack of money), Poe set out on his own literary career as a writer, poet, editor and critic.

Modest Housing

Not only did Poe experience many tragedies during his lifetime( both his mother and wife died of tuberculosis), but  he also moved frequently. During his life time he dwelt in four cities, Boston, Baltimore, Richmond and Philadelphia, but during his six year stay in the City of Brotherly Love, he moved four times. One of these residences, located at the corners of 7th Street and Spring Garden Ave., is now a National Historic Site administered by the National Park Service. Poe moved to Philadelphia to take on a job of editor of a prominent literary magazine. The attractive brick house sits on a quiet tree-lined in a working-class neighborhood, just a few blocks from the downtown high rises. A walk through the house is a step back in time and according to the historians, a trudge down the stairs into the basement, is like a glimpse into the creative mind that penned “The Black Cat”. Much can be learned about how people lived before the Civil War by walking through the various rooms of the Poe house. Most noticeable is the small-size of the rooms and especially the stairways.

The Short Story Perseveres

Saturn After Equinox,  Credit: Cassini Imaging Team, ISS, JPL, ESA, NASA
Saturn After Equinox, Credit: Cassini Imaging Team, ISS, JPL, ESA, NASA

Today as I was reading the Book Section of the Boston Globe, I came across a reading recommendation for the Complete Stories of Deborah Eisenberg. Unfortunately, it was just literary advice and contained no information on the writer.

Not too long Deborah Eisenberg, an American writer whose literary output consists solely of four short story collections, received the prestigious and financially beneficial MacArthur Fellows. While other writers have pursued the sometimes lucrative activity of writing fiction and personal memoir, Ms. Eisenberg has stuck to the task of writing the short story. Her literary efforts have been aided by a teaching position at the University of Virginia.

Her short stories have earned her much praise and respect around the U.S., but her writing is probably off the radar of the average reader. Still, much credit is due to the writer for staying the course with one area of writing without much concern as to how the literary world will react.

Short story writers in this country are a small and unique group, as all but a few branch out to other forms of writing. Those who have stayed the course with the short story comprise a very short but impressive list. The two short story writers that pop into my mind are Flannery O’Connor and Raymond Carver, who have earned a unique place in American letters because of their devotion to this challenging genre. Most writers have started out with a short story collection and then moved on to other literary endeavors.

For those interested in reading Ms. Eisenberg her titles include Transactions in a Foreign Currency (1986), Under the 82nd Airborne (1992), and All Around Atlantis (1997) and most recently Twilight of the Superheroes (2006). Unfortunately, I have not read any of these works, but do find the topic of the short story in America, a subject which dates back to Edgar Allan Poe, to be a very fascinating subject.

War Dances

War Dances by Sherman Alexie
War Dances by Sherman Alexie

Several weeks ago I walked over to my local library branch and checked out the new literary effort by Sherman Alexie. Considering this was just a few days after he had received the prestigious Faulkner/Pen award, I was surprised to find that the book was still on the shelf, but there it was. I guess I should draw some kind  of conclusion about the reading habits of people in my hometown, Portland (ME) or the popularity of Alexie or the importance of the award, but I don’t know what to say so I’ll let in go.

However, the book was a very interesting read and perhaps a bit of a disappointment after having recently read The Autobiography of a Part-time Indian. For those who enjoy good old-fashioned storytelling, then “Autobiography” might be just the book for you. It’s an engrossing story and it is easy to speculate how this recently published novel might have swayed the jury.

Stylistically, War Dances is just the opposite. It is a mixture of poems and short stories that jumps all over the place in location and meaning. Still the seemingly unrelated potpourri of written material comes across very well and still gives the reader a lot to ponder and enjoy.

After having read the book, I was a little puzzled that the book earned an award. Not because of its content, but for the reason that the text covered so many different events. I guess some modern juries are more willing to take a chance with unorthodox writing than I realized.

Sherman Alexie Wins Pen/Faulkner Award

Sherman Alexie, photo coutesy of Wikipedia Commons

“I think white folks should be ashamed that it’s taken an Indian to save part of their culture.” Sherman Alexie, while appearing on the Steve Colbert show.

Today it was announced that Sherman Alexie has won the prestigious Pen/Faulkner Award for fiction, which comes complete with a $15,000 financial attachment. His most recent literary effort called “War Dances”, a collection of short stories, essays and poems is the chief reason for the presentation. The Pen/Faulkner award is the largest peer chosen prize offered in the United States and Mr. Alexie is the first Native American recipient of the award.

Sherman is the author of many novels, short stories and poems. In fact, his last book, which was entitled The Absolute True Autobiography of a Part-time Indian received a national book award for Young Adult fiction. This novel is the straightforward, first-person account of a young teenager, who decides to leave the reservation to attend high school in a nearby farming community in eastern Washington. The book is unique in the large number of drawings and illustrations that accompany text, yet overall effort falls way short of being classified as a graphic novel.

Sherman Alexie is not a newcomer to the book world, for he has been trailblazing around the U.S. for at least the last decade promoting his books and talking to audiences of all sizes at bookstores in all parts of the country. In a recent appearance on the Steve Colbert show (see the video) Sherman talks in detail about his experiences on the road and the current struggle of the printed page to keep its audience. He describes his book tours, “I was a storyteller around a fire…. it was a metaphorical fire inside a bookstore.”

Then Alexie goes on to describe his last book tour, where he was promoting the same publication that earned him the Pen Award; “I went to a lot of afternoon matinees. The local media for books is gone.” Keep in mind that “War Dances” was published in 2009 and that this last book tour occurred within the last six months.

On a more positive  note, check out this Globe and Mail article, entitled “The Book Isn’t Dead Yet.”

Then again the Brits have always been bigger readers than the Anglos in the U.S. and Canada.

Will The Short Story Survive

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USS_Annapolis after surfacing through three feet of Artic ice, credit: photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Tiffini M. Jones, U.S. Navy

Over at Absolute Write the subject of short stories came up and there was a link to an online site that had an interesting premise as a title, “Why Book Publishers Love Short Stories.” Here’s the link, if you want to go there and share Alan Rinsler’s optimism. Alan is an editorial consultant in New York City and here are a few of  his observations about the current status of publishing vis-a-vis the short story.

There’s a robust market for books of stories,

Literary journals publishing short fiction,

Book publishers take chances on new writers,

Short story collections can sell very well,

The short story as dress rehearsal.

Had enough?  I have and those are just the sub-headings; there’s a lot of comments and opinions still left in the article. My first reaction was this guy’s off his rocker; everybody knows short stories don’t sell, but then just the other day I was in the local independent bookstore, where they list and display all the best selling books for that particular store and the number one book was Olive Kittredge by Elizabeth Strout. And it’s a collection of short stories and it’s been at the top of the list for months.

OK!  First, let me explain a few things. I live on the coast of Maine and that’s where all these stories take place – in Crosby, Maine. But still Ms. Strout is also doing pretty good on the NY Times Bestsellers list and I think she picked up a Pulitzer Prize for fiction too boot. Not bad for a collection of short stories.

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Titantic bow as seen from MIR 1 submersible: credit NOAA

And then there’s Jimmy Buffett’s collection of short stories. That book is called Tales from Margaritaville. And if you think the title has just more than a faint resemblance to a song of a similar name you’re right. Being a famous songwriter didn’t hurt, but seems I remember somewhere that not only did Tales of Margaritaville make it to the top of the NYT Bestseller list, but so did his A Pirate Looks At Fifty. Quite a feat because both books were at the top of the list at the same time. (no it wasn’t a tie, one was fiction and the other was non-fiction). The last somebody fulled a stunt like that was over a hundred years, back at the turn of the century when Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain did the same thing. Now that’s a pretty good accomplishment for a pop star and if you think Buffet’s writing’s a fluke check out his reading list. It’s available if you thumb through the Pirate book.

Don’t forget about the short stories that became a movie. That list includes Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Rear Window based on a It Had To Be Murder by John Michael Hayes and the Pit and the Pendelem by Edgar Alan Poe.

So now that I think about it, the short story might be a little more important than one realizes. Even though only a few of the big NY magazines still pay good money for a short, they still  act like a proving ground for mainstream fiction writers.