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Prize Jury 2013
  • Lauren Groff
  • Edith Pearlman
  • Jim Shepard

  • Read about other jurors and their selected favorites.

    Lauren Groff

    Lauren Groff was born in Cooperstown, New York. She is the author of the novel The Monsters of Templeton and the story collection Delicate Edible Birds. Her fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, and Ploughshares, among other publications, and has been anthologized in the Pushcart Prize anthology and two editions of The Best American Short Stories. Her second novel, Arcadia, was published in 2012. She lives in Gainesville, Florida.

    Juror Favorite:
    Lauren Groff on "Your Duck Is My Duck" by Deborah Eisenberg

    A short story, done right, is a ferocious creature: razor-toothed and bristling and deceptively small for all its power. Think wolverine. Think barracuda. A reader, finding herself alone in a room with a great short story, should feel thrilled, unbalanced, alive.

    Such intensity is not for everyone; readers, we are told, have a hard time with short stories, preferring the long slow waltz of novels to the story's grapple and throw. A writer of stories will be told this a hundred times, by publishing houses and book clubs and friends and even family members who are a little bit abashed that they haven't read the writer's own stories. It's okay, we say, and shrug, because for the most part we are meek people who have a horror of unwritten confrontations, and only later do we shuffle off to our little word-hovels and weep.

    Any fierce lover and defender of the story form should take such statements personally. Frankly, it is not okay. One: the story is not a lesser form. It is merely a smaller form. Two: since when are readers some monolithic block of zombies who have no say in what they like? Maybe readers simply haven't been exposed to the story geniuses rampant on the earth these days, people like George Saunders and Lorrie Moore and Alice Munro and Mavis Gallant and—cripes almighty!—William Trevor.

    Or, for that matter, Deborah Eisenberg, whose "Your Duck Is My Duck" was a fever dream from which, a dozen reads later, I have yet to awaken. We judges are given the twenty stories in this anthology to read blind, which means we read the stories without the authors' names attached. But if you love short stories passionately, you read them passionately and in great quantities, and if you read them passionately and in great quantities, you begin to be able to see the individual writer's imprint on her story from her very first words. It was impossible to read "The Summer People," and not know that it was a story by the astounding Kelly Link, or to read "The Particles," and not know that the author was Andrea Barrett, who so often electrifies science in her fiction, or to read "Leaving Maverley," and not understand that the sharp sentences and elegant timeline could only have come from Alice Munro. There were a few among my favorites that I didn't identify immediately, the moving and memorable "The History of Girls," "Two Opinions," and "Pérou," by Ayşe Papatya Bucak, Joan Silber, and Lily Tuck, respectively. When I first read the collection, I simply couldn't choose from among the half-dozen stories that blew my mind. So I put the collection away. I went off to London. I locked the door of my subconscious and let the stories fight it out, a roomful of wolverines, all sleek and snarling and gorgeous.

    In the end, "Your Duck Is My Duck" is the one I saw when I opened the door again. It had stayed alive, and, by staying alive, it had changed me. The story bears Eisenberg's signature from the first words, her brittle humor and world-weariness and the astounding grace of her lines. She writes: "Way back—oh, not all that long ago, actually, just a couple of years, but back before I'd gotten a glimpse of the gears and levers and pulleys that dredge the future up from the earth's core to its surface—I was going to a lot of parties." See what she does! I want to shout. See Deborah Eisenberg's brilliance! Three words in, and our narrator is already contradicting herself; a few more, and we see her oddly self-puncturing bombast; then, boom, the final clause, like the punchline to a joke we won't quite understand until the end of the piece. Already, we've been whipped like a top, and we'll be jittery and teetering, just like the narrator, for the rest of the story.

    But what is most thrilling about "Your Duck Is My Duck," what makes it so deeply "Eisenberg-y," is how seductive and light the story feels for most of its gallop. Okeydoke, we think at first, this is a story about self-obsessed rich people, and for most writers, that would be enough. But Eisenberg is canny and wise, and we come to understand at the end how the story is about so much more, about everything, about the end of an empire and the obscenity of great wealth and millenarian anxieties and the insanity of creating art in the face of the horrors that Eisenberg hints are to come. This is the kind of work that is alive, and that, in turn, sparks other stories to life. This is art. This is the kind of story you want to press into the hands of short-story doubters, because it is its own best defense of its form.

    Edith Pearlman

    Edith Pearlman's short stories have appeared in many prize anthologies, and in 2011, she was the recipient of the PEN/Malamud Award for excellence in short fiction, honoring her four collections of stories: Vaquita, Love Among the Greats, How To Fall, and Binocular Vision, which was a finalist for a National Book Award, the Story Prize, and a Los Angeles Times Book Prize. It received awards from the National Book Critics Circle and the Boston Authors Club, as well as the Edward Lewis Wallant Award given by the University of Hartford. Edith Pearlman lives in Massachusetts.

    Juror Favorite:
    Edith Pearlman on "The Summer People" by Kelly Link

    I have a taste for the inexplicable and the semisurreal, in literature and in life, and so I warned myself when I began reading these twenty stories (which turned out to be as masterful as expected) to be wary of indulging that taste. And two realistic stories did attract me. One is "Sugarcane" by Derek Palacio, whose protagonist, a doctor in post-Batista Cuba, is obsessed with sugar itself, which represents all that is sweet and rare and addictive and ultimately monotonous. The story is about abstractions like love, loyalty, and deception. It also reveals particulars of life on the island: the annual burning of sugarcane fields to chase out vermin, the saddling and calming of a mule, and a nearly fatal baby delivery, which, like the story containing it, lingers in the memory for a long time.

    In "The Visitor" by Asako Serizawa, set in Japan immediately after World War II, there are only two characters—a woman and a demobilized soldier—but the woman's absent son, Yasushi, who fought alongside the visiting soldier, is also achingly present. Yasushi's history seeps into the conversation and reminiscences and gives the story urgency. In seemingly straightforward sentences (with deft side metaphors, allusions, and unexpected adjectives) the story behaves like a scorched flower, slowly dropping its browned florets to reveal the next circle of unpleasant facts or perhaps fabrications or perhaps distortions, always deepening our sense of war's corruption of its warriors. Another memorable tale.

    But in the end, despite these worthy temptations, I recognized as my favorite "The Summer People" by Kelly Link. Its setting is an unnamed semirural area of woods, waterfalls, pastures, meadows, and hollows where rich people have summer houses and the local population serves them. The teenaged heroine, Fran, abandoned by her mother, neglected by her father, laid low by the flu and dosing herself with NyQuil, feverishly takes care of summer houses and shops for summer people. She acquires a fascinated sidekick. Two unsupervised adolescents accomplishing adult tasks tickle our interest, especially Fran with her ungrammatical backwoods locutions; her kindness; the intelligence she isn't sure she has. So far, so realistic.

    The particular summer people of the title, though, are not rich vacationers—they are a seldom-glimpsed crowd who live all year round in a house in the wooded mountain, where they make wind- up toys and other devices, and also dispense whiskey and medicine. They do need services, though, and they will not release whoever is currently taking care of them and their premises (the caretaker is Fran, just now). be bold, be bold, but not too bold, warns a sign within the house.

    This is a fairy tale, except that no one is heroic or wise or cruel—not even Fran's alcoholic father and his crooked cronies. There is trickery; there are spooky goings on; there's a pair of magical binoculars. But be not too bold could be said by any anxious parent you know, and NyQuil can be bought in your local drugstore. These things anchor the fantastic to the real.

    Yes, a fairy tale. It supplies Whys, not Becauses; endings, not wrappings-up; and it dispenses with that sine qua non of realism, motivation. (Conversely, "Sugarcane" lets us in on the doctor's need for sugar, "The Visit" the mother's ambivalent search for truth). But "who knows what makes any of us do what we do?" the poet Amy Clampitt bravely wrote—an insight that writing workshops might keep in mind. Clampitt could have been referring to the characters in "The Summer People." And who knows what made its writer create this tale? To gladden my heart, maybe.

    Jim Shepard

    Jim Shepard was born in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and is the author of six novels, including most recently Project X, and four story collections, the most recent of which is You Think That's Bad: Stories. His third collection, Like You'd Understand, Anyway, was a finalist for a National Book Award and won the Story Prize. Project X won the 2005 Library of Congress/Massachusetts Book Award for fiction, as well as an Alex Award from the American Library Association. His short fiction has appeared in, among other magazines, Harper's, McSweeney's, The Paris Review, The Atlantic Monthly, Esquire, DoubleTake, The New Yorker, Granta, Zoetrope: All-Story, and Playboy, and he was a columnist on film for the magazine The Believer. Four of his stories have been chosen for The Best American Short Stories and one for a Pushcart Prize. He's won an Artist Fellowship from the Massachusetts Cultural Council and a Guggenheim Fellowship. He teaches at Williams College and lives in Williamstown, Massachusetts.

    Juror Favorite:
    Jim Shepard on "The Particles" by Andrea Barrett

    Although it begins with as flamboyant a narrative hook as you're likely to find—our hero barely able to swim and thrashing about the cold Atlantic alongside a ship that's just been torpedoed— Andrea Barrett's "The Particles" at first seems as unassuming as its main character, the hardworking if moony and mopey Sam. Some of that restraint seems to be generated by the story's expert management of its macro and micro modes: as it processes along, its length making the reader wonder where the short story stops and the novella begins, it unfolds, in turn, the opening of the Second World War, the modern history of genetics, and the dismal and mostly on-hold chronicle of its protagonist's emotional life.

    Even as the story never loses sight of the longing and disappointment at the heart of Sam's relationship with his old friend and teacher, Axel, it provides a visceral (and really, epic, if such a term can be applied to the quotidian life of a scientist such as Sam's) sense of his lifelong absorption in science itself. The story renders unforgettably that experience of falling in love with experimental science as if "tumbling down a well," the voices of other kids outside diminishing and then silent. It allows us to feel the exhilaration of concepts made visible. It's marvelous on that moment when the whole world starts to shimmer under the spell of that intensity of curiosity. It even pulls off the nearly impossible feat of seducing us into imagining fruit flies as fascinating. (In that regard, I'm now with Sam. That courting male who holds out his wing and dances right and then left before embracing his bride: "who wouldn't love that?")

    The story's wonderful too, in its offhanded way, on just where the politicization of science leads us: its account of Trofim Lysenko's dismissal of all of formal genetics at a conference in 1936 in the Soviet Union—"A theory of heredity, to be correct, must promise not just the power to understand nature but the power to change it"— resonates uncomfortably with anyone who's been unfortunate enough to follow the climate-change debate in the United States over the last ten years.

    There's something unassuming and appealing, too, in the way in which this world's judgments are apportioned: "In the distance a shape, which might have been the guilty submarine, seemed to shift position." The sufferings of the many are rendered with a distance that seems both compassionate and clear-eyed: "A little string of emptied lifeboats tossed in the swell beside the tanker, the boat closest to the stern still packed with people." And lives are lost almost out at the very edges of our vision: struggling figures, too small to identify, dotting the water in the distance after their lifeboat's been tipped, or an old woman caught in the gap between her lifeboat and a destroyer's hull, a space that disappears when the boats collide.

    But for all the suffering around him, the perversity of Sam's inner stubbornness never recedes. Nothing he experiences—his lost love Ellen, his professional failures and humiliations, the Stalinist purges he just evades, or the trauma of the torpedoed Athenia itself—has the force of his estrangement from Axel. But of course his primary disappointment is with himself. Much of the story's power comes from its evocation of how, for all of Sam's humility and gratitude for what he has been able to experience, life has often seemed to him to have been centered elsewhere: wherever his mentor—and with him, the promise of scientific intimacy, and the white-hot core of genetics—resided. No matter what contrary evidence the story so poignantly provides.