An interview with Frank O’Connor Award judge, Chris Power

How did you end up judging this competition and what approach are you using? How do you sift through the entries and come to a final decision?

Pat got in touch via my editor at the Guardian. I’ve been writing a series called A Brief Survey of the Short Story for the last few years, which considers a different short story writer each month. When he contacted me my piece on Joyce had just been published. That had the biggest response of any edition thus far, so maybe that’s what brought me to his attention. You’ve made me curious now. I should ask him!

My approach is very simple: to read all the books and then pick the one I think is best. I’m sure that’s the route followed by the majority of people judging a prize. Some prize panels do seem, to outsiders at least, to have some sort of agenda, which often involves, say, reversing the prior character of its winners. The Booker seems to have fallen prey to this a little bit, meaning a book that might have won it in year x won’t even get on the shortlist in year y. That seems unfortunate to me, as the aim of a literary prize should be simply to reward the book the judges think the best of those eligible. But as far as the Frank O’Connor Award goes we were left to journey through the longlist in splendid isolation.

We got together in Cork earlier in the summer and agreed on four books straight away. There were some disagreements on which books should fill the remaining places, but guns stayed holstered and knives sheathed. The resulting shortlist is one I think we’re all very happy with.

What is it you’re looking for in the winning entry at this year’s Cork International Short Story festival?

Nothing more than I hope or wish for from any collection when I begin reading it: compelling, convincing writing that bears, in fact invites, re-reading. I believe that much good and all great writing transcends a reader’s particular prejudices or tastes; while opinions of an artwork are never objective, the quality of certain books is persuasive. They impress themselves on you.

It’s also important, I think, that collections are viewed in their totality. A few of this year’s entries included good stories alongside much less good writing. A successful collection, although it will typically contain certain stories that are more impressive than others, should also have a degree of consistency running through it.

The short story is often overlooked as a genre – do you think there should be more importance placed on short story writing and how could we go about implementing this?

I’d love to say I have an answer to the latter part of your question! Unless you go back to the days of the Saturday Evening Post, when Fitzgerald might earn $4000 for a story (which was, of course, exceptional), I think the short story is perennially overlooked. To the point, in fact, where it’s almost redundant to point it out. I know lots of readers who never even consider reading short stories, much as a lot of otherwise well-read people never read poetry.

But while it’s apparently very difficult to interest publishers in short story collections they do still publish them, albeit in modest numbers. And even then some pretty average, if not flat-out bad, collections make it into print. Short stories are very difficult things to write well, and I don’t see any evidence that there are reams of great collections out there that can’t get published. On the other hand there might be potentially great writers of short stories who don’t even bother, because all the light and heat surrounds the novel. But the problem doesn’t seem to be with the supply so much as the demand.

What do awards like this mean to Irish writers and writers on an international scale?

I’d hope they mean the same to all shortlisted writers and the eventual winners: an increased awareness of their work and a larger audience. I think all literary prizes have some value, but given the short story’s more marginal status it’s all the more important that prizes like this exist. The discussions and disagreements they engender are in many ways just as important as the awarding of the prize itself.

How do you see e-publishing affecting the future of the short story?

As seems to be the case with a lot of people at the moment, I don’t really know. I’m not persuaded by the argument that draws a parallel with iTunes, i.e. that novels are albums and short stories could be songs, and that owners of eReaders are going to download a William Trevor story to read on their morning commute. I agree with Lorrie Moore, who has said that short stories “require concentration and seriousness. The busier people get, the less time they have to read a story.” You can read novels in fifteen minute bursts, she says, but you can’t read short stories like that. That’s very true. The idea it’s a perfect form for readers with little time is completely false.

Do you have a particular favourite short story or short story writer; one that you always return to?

In 1993 I bought two collections, Forty Stories by Donald Barthelme and Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, that sold me on the short story forever. Not long before that I’d read The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber at school, and I often re-read Hemingway – the early stories in particular. It was only years later that I came to read Chekhov, who I believe is the greatest short story writer to have lived. The Russians can’t believe he’s better known for his plays in the Anglophone world, and I agree. I’ve actually resisted reading everything of his because I value there being still more to experience for the first time.

Others I wouldn’t want to be without include Kafka, Borges, Schulz, Gallant, Gogol, Walser, Munro, Carver. This is a very partial list. I could go on and on.

One of the great gifts of short stories is the opportunity they offer, purely in terms of time, to return to them again and again. Thus any list of favourites is mutable, as something that left little impression the first time around might later reveal itself as something else entirely. But I don’t want to cop out of answering the question, so I’ll say that Joyce’s The Dead and Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich are probably as close as you can come to perfection in the form.

Thank you, Chris, for agreeing to this interview and I look forward to finding out the result!


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