An Expensive Banquet of Joys
My guess is that if you know anything about creative writing , you know The Iowa Writer’s Workshop is the preeminent creative writing program in the world. If not, I’m here to tell you that it is. Directed by Frank Conroy, writers flock from all over the country to study with top staff and visiting authors (Kurt Vonnegut, Thom Jones, and John Irving, to name a few, have taught here). Just having that coveted name on a resume is a good way of getting noticed in publishers’ growing slush piles.
(Before I get too deep into the review, I must confess that I had not heard of Frank Conroy before the publication of his stylish novel Body and Soul about a young piano prodigy named Claude Rawlings. After reading that book, I was so impressed that I went back and reread his excellent, if thin, short story collection Midair, which shows a tremendous range of style and skill. It reminded me of everything I love about the short story as a form, its artfulness, its ability to transcend linear time and introduce us to settings in which a skillful writer can recast ordinary events in a new light. The book that put him on the literary map, so to speak, was his first, a memoir, entitled Stop Time, which he published at the age of 37. This should be inspiration for us all: that good writing—or perhaps, more accurately, the sale of good writing, can happen at any age.)
The Iowa University Press, which was founded in 1938, has grown from an irregular imprint to a Press which publishes nearly 35 titles a year. For the last 20 years, the Press, which often publishes books by local academics, has held a literary contest for the best short story collections—without a submission fee, interestingly enough. This award, according to The New York Times, is one of “the most prestigious literary prizes America offers”.
Judged by such prestigious authors as Oscar Hijuelos, Stuart Dybek, Ethan Canin, Francine Prose, Ann Beatie and others, this award introduces us to up-and-coming writers who will be those literati that shape our literary future, and I mean this quite literally. Because the form is so insular, successful short stories writers are often called upon to edit anthologies and judge contests. The gap between our best literary writers and what the public wants to buy is often quite large, and because of this many publishing houses have taken to “selling” their collections by using brand name authors (or at least those whose name alone commands respect). This trend of sales-by- recognition has become such a commonplace that many MFA programs now feature the names of their visiting writers more prominently than their own faculty.
But I digress (the only point being that such a collection, which highlights ten years of such awards, really shows us the effects of association: “that author was chosen by Ethan Canin, that one by” . . . etc.). This book, which really has little to do with the Iowa Workshop (other than the University publishing house and its editor), is full of wonderful stories—the kind of stellar writing that we’ve come to associate with our best writers. In David Borofka’s amazing story, “Hints of His Mortality”, a man who survives a plane crash has reason not to be grateful. In another story we follow a man obsessed with the Mansons. Lisa Lenzo’s poor white suburban boys who go tree stealing are confronted by a carload of gang bangers when they try to lift a tree from a black neighborhood.
In Don Zancanella’s wonderful story, “Thomas Edison by Moonlight”, we see a young protege of Edison enamored with the idea of studying with the famous inventor, even after being asked to dupe a crowd for him. Each story in this collection is exquisitely written, unpredicatable—a veritable banquet of joys. Half the fun of reading this book, in fact, is discovering the multitudinous threads of synchronicity that Mr. Conroy has given us, most often, as a result of one story’s proximity to another. Reading this book, it is easy to imagine a world where good writing sells, where the notion of story reigns supreme, and where the artful gesture is appreciated, even coveted. To our great peril, of course, this is not the case.
Okay, so I do have a quibble, and granted it’s minor, but the impact is important: it’s the appearance and price of the book. The short story as a form is much like poetry in that many of those who read it are writers themselves and this makes the market rather small, especially when you are talking about high-literature, as this is. At $24.95 I can only guess that the press has decided to cut their losses and stick it to those who are faithful buyers, that is, other writers—whether on the path to success or early-on learning the craft. I’m not sure this is a good move, considering that other short story collections with equally impressive credentials cost about half as much (The Best American Short Stories, the O’Henry Awards, Best New American Voices, etc). The cover, a rather boring navy blue with an orange and blue gradiant and the words “The Iowa Award: The Best Stories, 1991 - 2000” is designed as if the mere name of the contest alone were enough to sell this book. And I suspect it will be—but to a very select few, the few that, as Frank Conroy writes “are so hungry for freshness, originality, and the thrill of discovery that they will crawl on their knees through a snowstorm for a taste of the real thing.” That may be so, but with a better cover and a more reasonable price tag, there is no reason why this book can’t have a wider audience.
The fiction is truly outstanding. If you are one of those writers living on a shoestring budget, or if you are a reader in need of some of the best fiction around, go to the library, beg, borrow, or steal this book. It is well worth the read.