Critical Overview

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Mason's story "Shiloh" became the title story in her first collection of fiction, Shiloh and Other Stories, published in 1982. The volume was well-received by critics and earned nominations for a National Book Critics Circle Award, an American Book Award, and a PEN/Faulkner Award. Mason also won the 1983 Ernest Hemingway Foundation Award for best first fiction. "Shiloh" has been widely anthologized in literature texts, and critics have demonstrated an ongoing interest in the story.

In a review of Shiloh and Other Stories in Newsweek, for example, Gene Lyons compared Mason to Arkansas novelist Charles Portis, best known as the author of True Grit, for her simple, straightforward prose. In another review in The New Republic, noted novelist and short story writer Anne Tyler praised Mason as "a full-fledged master of the short story." She also wrote that although Shiloh and Other Stories was Mason's first book of fiction,' 'there is nothing unformed or merely promising about her."

Shiloh and Other Stories was not without its detractors, however. The most common negative comments concerned the characters' lack of development in the stories. Patricia Vigderman, writing in The Nation, suggested that the stones end with "a closeness that seems tacked on." She also charged that "Mason takes us into her characters' new Kentucky homes and then runs a made-for-TV movie. Her people's emotions come across merely as dots on the screen." In addition, some early reviewers, while lavish in their praise, nonetheless faulted Mason for the similarity of her stories. Robert Towers in The New York Review of Books wrote that "individually effective as they are, there is a degree of sameness to the collection.''

Beyond reviews of her book printed in the months after its publication, Mason's work has attracted significant scholarly and critical attention. In addition, current criticism is moving in creative and innovative directions. For example, Hal Blythe and Charlie Sweet in an article written for Studies in Short Fiction, have attempted to connect Leroy with the mythical Fisher King of the Grail legend. Other critics have concentrated on close readings of "Shiloh." Stewart Cooke examines the uses of bird imagery, connecting Leroy to a large roosting bird and Norma Jean to a bird about to take flight.

Mason has expressed some ambivalence toward feminist examinations of her work. As she commented in an interview with Lila Havens, she is more interested in the changes her male characters undergo. Nonetheless, in a 1989 article for The Southern Literary Journal, G. O. Morphew examined Mason's female characters and concluded that "the downhome feminists of these stories do not want what their city cousins want: equal legal and political rights, equal access to careers, equal pay, government support of child care, and so on. Mason's women simply want breathing space in their relationships with their men."

Because so many of Mason's stories concern characters caught up in cultural change, some literary critics have focused on this theme in Mason's work. Albert Wilhelm, a critic who has written widely on Mason's stones, studied this in an essay for The Midwest Quarterly. Wilhelm views the journey to Shiloh as a rite of passage in which the characters move from an old culture to a newly emerging one. In an essay in The Southern Literary Journal, Wilhelm wrote that "culture shock and its jarring effects on an individual's sense of identity" is the theme that "dominates the sixteen pieces in Shiloh and Other Stories.

Finally, Mason has been identified as a minimalist—that is, a writer who creates lean, focused prose filled with concrete details. Because of this categorization, her work has been compared and contrasted with that of Raymond Carver, Charles Portis, and Ann Beattie. Barbara Henning undertakes such a study in her essay in Modern Fiction Studies. Henning detailed the elements of Mason's work. She argued that both Mason's and Carver's characters "have managed to survive without protesting in a world with reduced economic and emotional possibilities. Their anxieties and disappointments are instead displaced through drug and alcohol use and through an even more deadening activity: a steady focus on the random details of everyday life."

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Essays and Criticism