As we prepare to unveil the shortlist for the 2013 CBC Short Story Prize, we're asking the readers for the competition what it's like to read hundreds of short stories in search of the best. Here's Toronto's Grace O'Connell on how great short fiction doesn't read like real life—but rather real-life-adjacent.
Tell us about yourself.
I live in a little apartment in Toronto and use my couch as an office. I write fiction, reviews, book news and whatever else I can get people to publish.
What's your day job?
I work as a freelance writer, which means I get to talk out loud to myself and keep the radio on in the background all day. My main gig is working as the Contributing Editor for Open Book Toronto, a book-centric website, but I also work with publishers and publications like Harlequin, Quill & Quire, and Taddle Creek.
What's your literary street cred?
There are tiny little pages of text fluttering through my blood stream. My heart wears reading glasses. When I bite my tongue by accident, I get ink in my mouth. Also, I wrote a novel called Magnified World that was part of Random House's New Face of Fiction program, and I've published short fiction in The Globe & Mail, The Walrus, The Journey Prize Stories, Taddle Creek and a handful of other places. I write a column on books for This Magazine and teach creative writing.
What are you working on now?
My new project-in-progress is very new, so I'll just say it involves video games, a search for a missing woman, fairy tales, and one really bad first date.
What do you like most about the short story as a form?
Oh, I love talking about this. For me, great short fiction doesn't feel like real life—it feels real-life-adjacent; real but a little bit strange, a little bit funny, a little bit heartbreaking. A great short story is more than the sum of its parts—I know I really love a piece of short fiction when I can't put my finger on exactly why I love it. That's different from long-form fiction (though I love both). But I think it's that amorphous quality to short fiction, all that activity in the negative space, that is so special.
When you’re reading hundreds of stories and trying to choose the most exceptional ones, what are you looking for?
I want a story that is utterly itself, that surprises me but then, after reading, feels like it couldn't have been written any other way. I don't want to see characters and events and phrases that could be plucked out and inserted into another story. I don't want to know that his heart is broken or that she's afraid of death or that he loves his kids. All of those things are fine to include in a story, but what is different, what is specific about this broken heart, this fear of mortality, this father's love? And how are you showing those things to be true, proving them to me, rather than just stating them? It's not just about description and movement, it's about specificity, it's about precision. Generalities have no place in short fiction.
What are some of the subjects/themes that people are writing about?
I read a surprising number of stories set in hospitals, and at one point I randomly got a run of about six or seven infidelity-focused stories in a row. And of course, the great big themes of love, family and death showed up a lot. But the quality of the stories had less to do with what was written about and much more to do with how it was written.
Has being a reader for the Short Story Prize changed anything about how you approach your own writing? Would you do anything different if you were to submit to the competition?
It does change your viewpoint, reading so many stories all at once. It makes you realise how drawn we are to writing about those big life events—births and deaths and divorces and war, and sex, of course. And how refreshing it is to read something really specific and unexpected; it might still be one of those big events (or not), but presented in a new way. I would strive for that quality. Also, I would make sure nobody cried on the last page.
Can you describe a couple of the entries that struck you as standouts?
The writing in "The Usual Suspect" stood out to me immediately, and then once I had my ears pricked up, the story surprised me too. There's such delight in being wrong about where you think a piece is going. It was an amazing one-two punch; interesting and surprising. And I really liked the ambiguity in "Words That Lurk"—it takes confidence to be successful while keeping some cards facedown. It asked something of the reader, and I appreciated that.
Grace O'Connell was a reader for the 2013 CBC Short Story Prize. Find out more about this year's competition here.
Photo credit: Derek Wuenschirs