Notes from the McSweeney’s Representative
Hi. This will be a new semi-weekly kind of column thing I’m hoping to write. I will do my best to maintain some sort of schedule. Thank you for your indulgence.
February 15, 2002.
We have some great news.
We’d like to congratulate Kevin Brockmeier on winning first place in this year’s O. Henry awards, for “The Ceiling,” first published in our Issue 7.
A.M. Homes’s “Do Not Disturb,” in the same issue, also was selected for the inclusion in the O. Henry collection, which honors the best short stories of the year. We are thrilled for Kevin and A.M., and we’re extremely happy that the authors allowed McSweeney’s to publish these stories in the first place.
The great thing about their inclusion in the collection, and Kevin’s winning of first place, was that the odds were stacked pretty heavily against him. I was one of three guest judges for this year’s O. Henrys, and I not only didn’t vote for his story — or A.M.’s — but practically impeded the success of either, in the name of impartiality.
I’ll explain the O. Henry selection process, because when I was asked to be a judge, I didn’t know it myself. It works like this: Larry Dark, the series editor of the O. Henrys, reads all the stories he can, published over the course of the year. From this pool he selects twenty stories for the O. Henry collection. The guest judges have nothing to do with this process.
Then, these twenty stories are sent to the three guest judges — in this case, Colson Whitehead, Joyce Carol Oates and me. The stories are sent blind; we have no knowledge of the authors or where they were first published. From these twenty stories the guest judges choose their three favorites.
I was sent the twenty stories, and while I hadn’t read even one of the stories before, I of course knew the origin and authors of the two McSweeney’s stories. In an extreme effort to avoid any conflict of interest, I didn’t vote for either of the McSwys stories among my top three. There were so many fantastic stories that picking three others was easy.
But even without any votes from me, Kevin’s “The Ceiling” won the top honor, which demonstrates, I guess, how strongly the other editors — including Larry Dark — felt about the story. Joyce Carol Oates, the story’s primary champion among the guest judges, will write its introduction when the collection is published.
My first choice was a story called “Scordatura,” by Mark Ray Lewis. This story, which ended up winning second prize (Louise Erdrich’s gorgeous “The Butcher’s Wife” won third) is a wonderful story, with an utterly original voice and structure. It’s one of the more striking and alive things I’ve read in a long time. And where was the story originally published? The Ontario Review, edited by Joyce Carol Oates.
It couldn’t be weirder, really, the coincidences at play here. I have never in my life spoken to or even seen, in person, Joyce Carol Oates, and of course had no idea where “Scordatura” was originally published. So my selection of “Scordatura” was about as blind as could be, just as her selection of “The Ceiling” was blind, because she couldn’t possibly have known its origin, given Issue 7 was only in very limited release at the time of judging.
I realize this is all pretty arcane. But these awards carry great weight, and I wanted to be very clear about how all this happened. So, that explained, I want to reiterate our congratulations for the award-winners.
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