Authors: John Edgar Wideman
THE BEST OF THE DRUE HEINZ LITERATURE PRIZE
edited by John Edgar Wideman
UNIVERSITY OF PITTSBURGH PRESS
Published by the University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, Pa., 15260
Copyright Â© 2001, University of Pittsburgh Press
All rights reserved
Manufactured in the United States of America
Printed on acid-free paper
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
ISBN-13: 978-0-8229-7241-9 (electronic)
John Edgar Wideman
In 1992 I enjoyed the honor of awarding the annual Drue Heinz Literature Prize to a book of short fiction by Jane McCafferty. Now, in my capacity as editor of this anthology of stories commemorating the twentieth anniversary of the Prize, I must choose only one of Ms. McCafferty's fictions to include in this volume composed of a story from each winner. I'm pleased to report my task isn't easy. Even with Ms. McCafferty's assistanceâshe and most of the writers suggested two of their stories for the editor's close considerationâI find myself stymied, second-guessing myself as I attempt to conjure compelling reasons for admitting one excellent piece and omitting another. There are highly charged, memorable moments in most fictions selected by the authors. The dilemma presented by Ms. McCafferty's pair of very different narratives, each with its distinct virtues, both abundantly attractive, is the rule, not an exception. As my criteria for admission blur and morph, it helps to know readers will be well served whether I go with the long or the short one, the apple or the orange.
For the longest time I didn't exactly approve of short stories. The form felt gimmicky to me. Stories seemed to depend too much on special effectsâa quirky character's voice or a bizarre situation or pumped-up language or surprise endingsâeffects laid on to counteract (compensate for) a story's necessarily brief attention span. Stories, I thought, are quick hitters. They engage us for half an hour, forty-five minutes then move on. And so what? As reader I resented being teased, seduced, then biff-bam, thank you, ma'am, the encounter's over. Stories, I suspected, were just too small, too
premeditated, too falsely complicated and will-of-the-wisp to deliver authentic punch. As a writer I could see through to the bones of most stories, catching on pretty rapidly to the particular gimmick, the game being played beneath the surface reality of a story. The only reason for remaining on boardâaside from borrowing or stealing bits that workedâwould be a sort of crossword puzzle-solving doggedness and curiosity-let's keep plugging away to see how this author wrings the changes from the inevitable archetype of beginning-middle-end.
An O. Henryish “surprise,” such as Frank Stockton's famous lady-or-tiger ending, or the equally titillating convenient indeterminacy of a sumptuous Joycean epiphany, weren't these predictable, limited options built into the story-constructing kit all writers employed? And even if not, wasn't the market for stories so small and narrow that it exercised a subversive monopoly, determining not only who gets paid but also what kinds of stories are published, what version of reality (political, metaphysical) they contain? Are short stories, I wondered, the ultimate page turners, designed to distract, to occupy fragmentary, fleeting moments of leisure, offering a change of pace as you thumb through colorful, sexy ads, smart cartoons, profiles and photos of the momentarily, fashionably famous?
Maybe my attitude toward stories partly was sour grapes. For years I found it easier to publish novels than short fiction. When my stories eventually appeared, they were collected in volumes, most of them previously unpublished, a few printed in tiny magazines.
Since I'm an American of African descent, in some ways my case is always complicated. Yes and no. Could editors' lack of interest in my short fiction have been caused by my inadequate writing or was my difficulty finding outlets for my stories part of a more general pattern? Browse the major collections of short fiction from, say, 1980 through today and you'll discover how they reflect the apartheid prejudices of the society at large during that period. About twenty years ago, the
returned a story to my agent with a written comment that went something like thisâ¦.
Wideman, blah, blah, blahâ¦but we don't publish vernacular fiction.
Of course the editor who refused my piece could have replied,
We have a long and glorious history of outing vernaculars, but because of the race and class of our traditional readership and the exquisitely insulated, upper-middle class
lifestyle our advertisers espouse and pay us to represent, we aren't interested in your particular vernacular
. How race matters varies case by case, but it always does matter, and in this discussion of publishing habits an examination of race is instructive since race can stand generally as a sign of difference.
Difference appeals to the publishing industry when difference is commodifiable, when difference can be reformulated to smooth out risks that difference, by definition, entails. In other words, difference is acceptable only when it can be packaged to function as seamlessly as brand names function in the consumer economy. Gender difference, for instance, once somebody remembered (with Oprah's help) that women constitute the majority of fiction buyers, transformed publishers' lists so that female writers and women's stories now dominate. But what definitions of gender do the best-selling stories generate?
Of course it's never exactly simple. Women writers of extraordinary talent also have helped reconfigure the picture of what's published, sold, and read. Even if I'm willing, for the sake of argument, to entertain for a minute the possibility that for decades my stories and those of other African American writers just weren't good enough to break through into the few mass circulation magazines still offering fiction or into yearly anthologies of “best” stories, the meaning of “best” or “good” remains problematic.
Publishing practices produce more heat than light when it comes to maintaining standards for short fiction. The customary routes and reasons for books of stories coming out are not necessarily investments in either the health, variety, or quality of the form. Commercial houses launch modestly budgeted small printings of short story books as fishing expeditions to test the attractiveness of new writers, and occasionally books of collected fiction are organized to cash in on the reputations (or stroke the vanity) of well-known, veteran authors.
So who consistently presents stories to the public because stories are “good,” that is, not chosen primarily by considerations of fashion, politics, brand name popularity, prejudice, or bottom-line financial concerns?
The answer, given the mixed motives and arbitrariness of any definition of quality, is nobody. Another answer is that some folks, a precious few, keep trying. Keep on attempting to present a wide range of stories whose value resides in their ability to teach, to give pleasure, to challenge our
certainties about what stories should beâabout who we should or could be. Such an effort is what's crucial about the Drue Heinz Literature Prize Whether or not the volumes of short fiction in the series measure up to some universally acknowledged standard of quality, the Drue Heinz Prize competition is organized to facilitate and honor the goal of publishing a wide variety of fiction that elaborates, interrogates, and extends the definition of quality. Of course the University of Pittsburgh Press would love to sell oodles of the prizewinning book each year and valiantly endeavors to achieve a wide audience. However, because of the generosity of the Heinz gift, the competition is neither driven by nor dependent upon commercial success.
Though only one African-descended writer has garnered the Drue Heinz Prize, the rules and spirit of the contest clearly promote equality of opportunity. As a hedge against the possibility that a single, monolithic standard of aesthetics or politics might narrow the evolving definition of quality, each year a different senior judge is empowered to select a manuscript of storiesâfrom a group of anonymous entries-for publication and a cash award. The University of Pittsburgh Press occupies an enviable positionâfree at last, free at lastâprivileged to search out, then share with the reading public, stories that don't claim to be the best, but a volume chosen by someone visibly committed to writing good stories, someone whose contributions to the genre are on record, a fellow sufferer of the new prizewinner, a coworker in the communal, collective effort.
Each judge is granted the responsibility of picking and choosing a favorite, but then must substantiate his or her abstract preferences with concrete, specific examples of what good stories should be: Here are stories I like. Read on. See if you like them, too.
The idea is intoxicating. It's like the idea of public spaces open to all artists where art can meet the people and discover its audience, shape its audience without the self-serving mediation of vested interests accountable to no one.
may be a more accurate word than
, but as I said, the Drue Heinz Prize keeps trying, has tried for twenty years, and this volume of twenty memorable tales is confirmation and celebration of that effort, that dream and ideal of endowed, protected public space and public access.
One last comment. I've changed my mind about the possibilities of the
short story form. Powerful works of short fiction like the ones in this book lured me into re-engaging, re-imagining the form as reader and writer. I no longer conceive of short fiction as finger exercises for the deeper plunge of long work. The older I grow, more I write, the more I'm confronted by curious readers with the question,
Is that story fiction or nonfiction, sir?
âthe clearer it becomes to me that genre is a chimera. Every new story, like every new life, contains the exciting, desirable potential to expand the definition of life or story. Good writing is good writing, a tough, exhausting hustle, ultimately, always seeking to achieve the impossible. As Alberto Giacometti famously lamented,
you always fail
. In this context genre is irrelevant. From the writer's point of view the division of literature into classes and kinds only multiplies pitfalls, resistances, and incompatibilities between language and vision. Genre is seen best as a work-in-progress, a label tentatively attached until somebody smart enough, resourceful enough undermines its authority. At least as pernicious as beneficial for writers, the idea of genre exists primarily for the convenience of marketing, reviewing, for those who insist on hierarchies of artistic kinds, those who divvy up academic or scholarly turf. Writing of any sort consists of setting down one word after another, making something that doesn't exist until it's expressed with the medium of written language. The effort of making is at some level play, like patting clay, beating a drum, or tapping your toes, singing, or spreading paint with your fingertipsâplay that's a gift to the artist the artist passes on, from the one to the many to the one. Serious play that reminds us we're all in this together, this life, and what we make goes into the collective project to brighten and lighten, to glorify and transform the unavoidable pain and burden of being alive.
Writing is creative play, is sharing the pleasure of making, is respecting and lavishing care on the thing made. The serious side of that play can consume a writer's life yet, simultaneously, doggedly preserve the vitality of language. Whether on the small scale of story or in the roomier expanse of a novel, if a writer demonstrates the power of language to create something out of nothing or rather out of itself (strangely also and not also the writer's self), out of words, their history and tensions and texture and indefinably new/old, oral/written cycling presence, then the writer has achieved mightily. Language stays alive. A present, beckoning, personal resource is
bequeathed to the reader. In addition to their practical functions of exchanging information and conducting business, words are preserved as a medium for imagining and entering the silent emptiness surrounding each of us, between us. This emptiness a good writer seeds with words that become real in the reader's mind, this space where the writer desires to express and represent what's real to him or her through the artifice of language is identical in many ways to the featureless, intimidating interior, the private expanse where we construct the narratives of ourselves and of difference, where we figure out the
So here's a gift of twenty narratives from twenty writers, each author a Drue Heinz winner, each story part of a prizewinning collection. They provide confirmation in print that one tentative definition of being human might be: the storytelling animal. Though most authors suggested a pair of stories to choose from, the final selections are mine. I submit them as evidence that the communal process of short story writing continues to expand the notion of just what kind of creatures we might be. If you read attentively, you'll probably find yourself here, but also there's the more intriguing possibility of losing yourself, entertained for a while by the play, the discipline, the weight and freedom of being other.