The Polarizing Nature of Short Stories and Southern Fiction...
In which we consider the three short story collections--all by southern women--that made the National Book Award longlist in 1956.
Hi, Y’all! Glad You’re Here—
Prior to 1956, only one short story collection had made an appearance at the National Book Awards—the 1951 winner, The Collected Stories of William Faulkner. I can imagine the difficulty in judging a short story collection for an award like this. Unlike a novel, where you are judging one story, one set of characters, one truly unified work, a collection of stories can vary in quality and style and subject matter. This is part of why I find it so intriguing that three short story collections made it onto the 1956 longlist—all by southern women. Why is it that the four collections to appear throughout this decade were all by southern writers? Also, how did the judges evaluate the merits of each of these books? Joyce Carol Oates has said that the effect of a short story “…is rarely isolated or singular, but accumulative; a distinguished story collection is one that is greater than the mere sum of its disparate parts.” If so, how do these collections hold up—are they greater than the sum of their parts?
The three collections of this year were A Good Man Is Hard To Find by Flannery O’Connor, The Bride of the Innisfallen by Eudora Welty, and The Black Prince & Other Stories by Shirley Ann Grau. All three of these collections explore (to varying degrees) southern life, racism, sexism, and they each manage to do it in a way that distinguishes themselves from each other. At first glance, it would seem that the last two lack a certain cohesion or focus that O’Connor’s has, though O’Connor shows less versatility in form and structure. But I’m also not sure if collections were considered in the same way that they are now.
Most collections I see nowadays are either “greatest hits” or focus on a particular concept/theme1. Adam Johnson’s collection Fortune Smiles isn’t one that I would say is really cohesive, but the quality of the prose is consistent, and he challenges the reader in how he approaches each story. Books like Florida by Lauren Groff and Sarahland by Sam Cohen explore the same themes from story to story—both look at climate and the landscape we inhabit, among other things. They have a through line, which it seems is more common in collections now than the ones I’ve read from the 50’s and before. We know that short stories aren’t widely read now, and I think it’s reshaping how collections are put together, that maybe publishers and writers feel that they have to be more strategic if they hope to sell a collection at all. Until more recently, I think people just waited until a writer had enough stories and then put them into a collection.2
So, if we’re not judging a collection based on how cohesive it is, and we’re not judging a book solely on individual stories, what do we do? I think we have to consider how these stories function alone, but also in how the collection as a whole speaks to the versatility and technical strengths of the writer.3
I’ll start with The Black Prince, partly because I feel that Shirley Ann Grau is the lesser known of the three. Her work here is consistently engaging and structurally surprising. Out of the three writers, I think Grau takes the most chances with her work. Not all of the stories work, but she tries something new each time and I enjoyed that. Her particular exploration of the south feels the most ambivalent, and you can see that she’s wrestling both with the nasty history of her setting and also with the way people of that time were attempting to navigate it. There are well intentioned stories dealing with racism that do not land well today, and I found myself cringing a few times—but I also feel like any story that attempts to explore these things isn’t going to age well, because the way we talk about these things change.
While both O’Connor and Grau received near universal acclaim for these collections from major outlets, I found Grau’s review from the New York Times to be particularly glowing. Orville Prescott went on to do a ‘Books of The Times’ article on it, though he did end his rave by saying that “…most readers seem to prefer a mediocre novel to a distinguished collection of short stories.” While I know that general readers have seemingly always had a preference for the novel, this comment does feel like a bit of foreshadowing to where we are now. In the 50’s, writers were still able to make a living off of short stories, selling one here and there as they worked towards finishing their novels.
Speaking more generally of Grau, I do think more people should look into her work. She later went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for her novel, The Keepers of The House. I haven’t read it yet, and I can already imagine that it is as flawed in the handling of its subject matter as some of her stories, but I couldn’t help but be struck by her talent.
Moving on to Eudora Welty’s collection, The Brides of The Innisfallen, I realized upon starting this one that I had never read her before. I mean, technically I started her Pulitzer-prize winning novel, The Optimist’s Daughter, a few years ago but for some silly reason sat it down only a few pages in. I’d always known she was considered a classic southern writer, but what I found so interesting about this collection is that half of the stories are set in other places. Several reviews remarked on this, with a few being more critical about her trying new locations and them feeling like those stories were failures. But I disagree.
The first story, No Place For You, My Love was a smart opener, as it’s still set in Mississippi, but instead of writing about those born there, the characters are out-of-towners. They remark on the place as some people do when they come from up north, with that subtle discomfort and those dry observations. I think it helps acclimate us to what Welty is trying to do here. All of these stories explore displacement in some way, in places so different from where she’s written about before. I’m sure it was a fun challenge for her, a stretching of those muscles.
Even still, several stories still take place in the south, and I wondered if part of the reason she had the characters be non-southern folk was as a way to comment on the south in ways she maybe felt incapable of before. I don’t think she writes so pointedly about racism or sexism or any of the things these other two were writing about, but it’s still there.
Some people claimed that Welty didn’t use her writing enough to comment on or address the greater issues of the south, but I think she just had a different approach. She had even said in an essay that when a writer tries to write about certain hot button topics in the moment, it would already be dated by the time it was out in the world. I think she was just trying to write in a way that possibly felt less tied to a specific moment and to attain something more universal.4
Now, out of all of these authors, Flannery O’Connor might be the one most people associate with the short story as a form. A Good Man Is Hard To Find is still considered a favorite by many readers and many think specifically of her work when discussing the Southern Gothic genre. I didn’t hear about O’Connor until 2013, when Karen Russell sited her as a major influence to her work. I think if you read Russell’s first collection St. Lucy’s Home For Girls Raised by Wolves alongside O’Connor’s, the influence is clear—I will say, I personally prefer Karen Russell, but I understand part of this has to do with modern sensibilities.
I’ve read O’Connor’s stories over the years—Good Country People is a favorite, and I know that makes me basic, but whatever—but I can tell that several things have shaped my reception of her work as time goes on. A while back, I came across this New Yorker piece, and it made me consider a lot about what I initially thought about her work and what I might have overlooked. When we are made aware of the bigotry of an artist, we slowly begin to see the reflection of that in their work. I do think she was trying to come to a deeper understanding of what she thought and believed by writing into it—I think many artists confront themselves in their work, using their own ignorance as a jumping off point to figure things out. And aside from that, I’ve had a lot of help in understanding the short story as a form, in being able to break them down and see the structure and the more technical aspects, and it made me rethink what her strengths were as a writer.
What made O’Connor’s work so successful was that it was entertaining. She had a strong and compelling narrative voice, and the subject matter of her stories was always surprising and thrilling. But while people mostly associate her with the short story form, I actually prefer her novels. I think she was trying more exciting things there, taking bigger risks. The short stories seemed to follow a formula, hitting similar notes with each one. While there were several stories in this collection that I really enjoyed, I found that they were too similar to each other when read back to back. I think in this way, the collection wasn’t entirely successful. Even still, her work is undeniably great and I understand its inclusion on this longlist.
While I have complicated feelings about Flannery O’Connor, I think the fact that she addressed the racist goings on in the south is part of what attracted people to her work—the same with many southern writers. So many of the other books we’ve discussed throughout the National Book Award project have been more focused on war or domesticity. Southern writers have a history of writing about faith, racism, classism, and more. The subject matter wasn’t always well handled, but it’s there more often than not. I think that’s part of what makes Southern Fiction so polarizing. One, that it talks about these things at all, and two, that your reception to the work is really dependent on whether or not you agree with the bigots.5
This is the first newsletter covering 1956, so I’m still not sure where these three collections land on the longlist, but I do think they were all worthy of recognition for different reasons. I did a lot of research about short stories that just didn’t make it into this piece—as I write this, this post is already three hours later than my normal posting time—but I did want to share a few last thoughts.
There’s a quote by David Foster Wallace (discussing Kafka) that I think might help people have a better understanding of how to view the short story:
Great short stories and great jokes have a lot in common. Both depend on what communication-theorists sometimes call "exformation," which is a certain quantity of vital information removed from but evoked by a communication in such a way as to cause a kind of explosion of associative connections within the recipient. This is probably why the effect of both short stories and jokes often feels sudden and percussive, like the venting of a long-stuck valve. It's not for nothing that Kafka spoke of literature as "a hatchet with which we chop at the frozen seas inside us." Nor is it an accident that the technical achievement of great short stories is often called "compression"-for both the pressure and the release are already inside the reader. What Kafka seems able to do better than just about anyone else is to orchestrate the pressure's increase in such a way that it becomes intolerable at the precise instant it is released
I don’t think people give short stories enough time, and I think we should start to reconsider how we view collections. Maybe collections weren’t initially intended to be read back to back, but more like how you read a child one bedtime story a night. I wonder how much more we would enjoy stories, especially from older collections, if we just read them right before bed. And maybe we should start reading some of these newer collections with the understanding that some of these stories do connect and that they should be discussed more closely to how we discuss novels. I don’t know for sure.
I don’t know what I think about a lot of this, which is why I’m writing it here. It’s moments like this where I wish that this were my actual job, so I had the time and the resources to do more research and discuss with more people and get more of my ideas down in a concrete way. But I am hopeful that some of you are reading this, that you have some thoughts and ideas about all of this that you want to chime in. What do you think of short stories? of collections? of southern fiction? Inquiring minds (me) want to know!
Until next time,
It’s kind of like how musicians release concept albums (think Lorde’s Melodrama, or Beyonce’s Lemonade) where even though each song stands on its own, it’s also telling an overarching story or exploring the same ideas.
As a side note, I could be wrong here—it’s been a bit difficult to find any information where someone specifically talks about this process. I’m just going off of the ways people talked about the books in reviews and the ways the writers talked about the stories on an individual level.
I know this is all so simple and probably obvious, but I also don’t think we talk enough about how to approach reviewing short stories or engaging with collections, and I just want to share everything I’ve either learned or continue to question. Anyway.
As a side note, there’s a scholar named Suzanne Marrs who wrote a lot about Welty and I always think it’s fun for people to read more about writers if they get a chance, so it’s worth checking out. I think there were at least three different books.
There’s a lot more to it than that, I know, but I also am planning on addressing some of this in depth in an upcoming newsletter.