Should Literary Awards Do More to Recognize Short Stories?

I sometimes hear that the literary world is too focused on short stories. We venerate obscure story authors the public doesn’t read, and our MFAs workshop fiction in 3,000 word chunks while failing to teach young writers how to structure novels. And yet when it comes to literary awards, short stories get the short end of the stick.

The major literary awards are either restricted to novels (e.g., Man Booker) or lump all adult fiction together in one category (e.g., the National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize, and National Book Critics Circle award). None of these has a separate category for short fiction, despite the form being a very different beast. In theory, it is nice to have short story collections compete with novels in these awards. It puts them on the same level and tells readers that they are equally important. But in reality, they rarely win. In the last 15 years, no story collection has won a Pulitzer Prize — unless you count the novel in linked stories Olive Kitteridge — only one has won an NBCC award (Edith Pearlman’s Binocular Vision in 2011), and only two have won an NBA (Adam Johnson’s Fortune Smiles in 2015, and Phil Klay’s Redeployment in 2014.) If these awards naturally favor novels, why don’t we have a separate category for short fiction?

This is actually how most genre prizes operate. The major awards of science fiction (Hugo and Nebula), fantasy (World Fantasy Award), mystery (Edgars), romance (RITA) and horror (Bram Stoker and Shirley Jackson Awards), all have an award category for short stories. All of them except the Edgars also have awards for novellas, and most have awards for novelettes (long short stories), story collections, and story anthologies. Every year these awards give recognition to multiple short stories and collections in their genres, recognition that is mostly absent in the literary world.

Some people might say that this doesn’t matter, since no one reads short stories anyway. But if we only gave awards to popular categories we’d scrap the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry in favor of the Pulitzer Prize in Adult Coloring Books. We give awards to poetry because the literary world thinks it is important to promote poetry. And short stories do get read. Short story-publishing magazines like the New Yorker and Harper’s have circulations that dwarf the sales of most literary novels, and two of the best-selling books of last year were collections by Stephen King and George R. R. Martin. Sure, short stories are not as popular as novels and it is rare for a short story collection to be a bestseller, but it is worth asking to what degree this is due to audience preference, and to what degree the literary world’s lack of story promotion hurts the sales. Prizes like the Booker and Pulitzer can provide very real boosts in sales, especially for obscure books. Paul Harding’s Tinkers had only sold a little over 1,000 print copies before winning a Pulitzer. It went on to sell hundreds of thousands. Giving Pulitzers and NBAs to story writers each year likely wouldn’t cause that dramatic of an increase, but it would boost sales to some degree. And the attending money awards — which range from $10,000 to $70,000 — would certainly help short story writers continue writing stories. (My landlord is constantly reminding me I can’t pay my rent with contributor’s copies.)

Giving multiple awards for fiction already fits perfectly into how most awards operate, at least when it comes to non-fiction. While each gives only one award for fiction, the NBCC gives non-fiction awards in four categories (General Nonfiction, Biography, Memoir, Criticism) and the Pulitzer Prize — in addition to many prizes for journalism and reporting — gives three categories of non-fiction awards (History, Biography or Autobiography, and General Nonfiction). Granted, I’m a fiction lover who writes fiction and works at a literary magazine that publishes short stories, but I certainly think fiction covers at least as much terrain as non-fiction. If even memoirs and biographies deserve separate categories, I have a hard time seeing why every form of fiction in every single genre could be lumped together in one gigantic amorphous fiction ball.

Lorrie Moore once said, “A short story is a love affair, a novel is a marriage. A short story is a photograph; a novel is a film.” Although novels and stories are both fiction, they really are different forms that occupy different places in the literary ecosystem. It’s a cliché that some writers are naturally built for either short stories or novels and many famous writers only really succeeded in one form or the other. The constraints and freedoms are different, and readers typical encounter the work in different ways. Categories are always porous — many books combine fiction and nonfiction or poetry and fiction — but short stories are unique and prominent enough of a form to deserve their own awards.

Short stories will always have a hard time competing with novels because novels are more easily viewed as being about one thing. They can be simplified in a way that satisfies critics and allows awards to say, “This is the big important book about X!” (for similar reasons, even short novels have a hard time competing against tomes). Story collections typically cover a wider variety of topics, characters, themes, and modes. What makes a great collection is very different from what makes a great novel. It’s no surprise that when story collections do win awards, they are often more like novels (e.g., the linked short stories of Olive Kitteridge or the unifying subject matter of Redeployment) or else function as a lifetime achievement for authors publishing a new and selected collection later in their careers (e.g., Binocular Vision).

I do need to celebrate the excellent The Story Prize, which was founded in 2004 and gives an award of $20,000. There are also several year-end prize anthologies (the Pushcart, Best American Short Stories, and the O. Henry Prize Stories) that do important work promoting short stories.

Still, the lack of short story awards from the major literary prizes is unique to the literary world bubble. As noted, the major genre prizes all include multiple categories for short fiction. The result is that genre readers are more familiar with short stories, and story writing is a more lucrative pursuit for genre writers. This is especially true as the genre world always pays for fiction, both in magazine form and in the robust reprint anthologies, while the literary world far too often tells story writers they are just lucky to be getting published at all.

If we want literary writers to continue writing short stories and readers to buy more of them, maybe it’s time to follow the genre world’s lead.

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