Prize Stories 1990

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

The stories reprinted here--the very least of them competently written and the very best original in conception, brilliant in execution--fully attest (as William Abrahams notes in his brief introduction) the growing importance of college writing programs and of “little magazines” to contemporary American short fiction. (The part PRIZE STORIES plays in getting these stories--especially the fifteen originally published in small circulation periodicals--ought not to go overlooked.) Read individually the stories are all quite good. Taken together they suggest a number of significant trends: a predominance of women writers, a preference for discontinuity (though on a decidedly accessible scale), a lack of interest in racial matters and minority writers (other than women), an exploiting of autobiographical materials, and a preoccupation with the emotionally strained relations between fathers and sons, mothers and daughters. All are especially evident in the two top prizewinning stories, by Leo Litwak and Peter Matthiessen, which seem not so much the best in the collection as the most representative. Interestingly, the stories by two women writers of comparable stature, Alice Adams and Joyce Carol Oates, suggest, in the reductive feminism of the one and the predictable, even pretentious Gothicism of the other, their having been eclipsed by a number of lesser known women writers more in tune with the narrative and emotional complexities of the times (Claudia Smith Brinson, author of “Einstein’s Daughter,” being a case in point).

Deftly moving from comedy to terror in a paradoxical attempt to speak the unspeakableness of pain, third-prize winner “The Reverse Bug,” by Lore Segal, is certainly the most disturbing story in the collection and may well be the best. Very nearly as good though very different in approach are the stories by T. Coraghessan Boyle and Janice Eidus, which display the imaginative exuberance and wild narrative energy largely absent from an American fiction too often dedicated in the past decade to the simple and the small.