Self Taut

The five finalists for this year's PEN/Faulkner Award included four short-story writers, among them Charles D'Ambrosio. "But look who won," he says: Philip Roth, "the novelist!" (Random House)
By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 13, 2007

Last night's PEN/Faulkner Award ceremony could be seen as a rare moment of triumph for the American short story.

Here were a couple hundred loyal supporters of the prestigious Washington-based fiction prize gathered at the Folger Shakespeare Library to celebrate not one, not two, not three, but four modern masters of a literary art form that remains less visible -- and far less commercial -- than its verbose, bulked-up cousin, the novel.

Deborah Eisenberg was being honored for "Twilight of the Superheroes," the most recent of her five collections. Reviewing it in the New York Times, Ben Marcus called its author "one of the most important fiction writers now at work."

When the PEN/Faulkner finalists were announced in February, Eisenberg says, she at first didn't notice that four-fifths of them had been cited for story collections. "I was just thrilled with the list, but it took me ages to realize that they were story writers," she says. "I just thought: 'Wow -- really, really, really superb writers.' "

Edward P. Jones, who couldn't be at the Folger last night, was being honored for "All Aunt Hagar's Children." Washington Post critic Jonathan Yardley began his review of Jones's third book and second story collection by asserting that "now there can be no doubt" that the Washington writer "belongs in the first rank of American letters."

"There's no getting around how good he is," says New Yorker fiction editor Deborah Treisman.

Amy Hempel was being honored for "The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel," the culmination of more than two decades spent writing only short fiction. A Hempel story will "make you laugh, and a moment later break your heart," novelist Chuck Palahniuk once wrote, going on to explain what reading Hempel makes other writers understand: "You will never write this well."

Finally, Charles D'Ambrosio, the least known of the four, was being honored for "The Dead Fish Museum," which the New Yorker's Treisman calls "his breakthrough collection." D'Ambrosio says he is so immersed in the world of short fiction that he "didn't think twice" about finding four story collections among the PEN/Faulkner finalists.

When first approached to talk about this seeming triumph, however, D'Ambrosio shot back an e-mail that offered an essential reality check:

"But look who won -- the novelist!" he wrote.

'Not Just a Test Run'

Look who won, indeed. Once again, a novelist did what novelists tend to do in prize competitions, which is to mop the floor with the authors of story collections. Even the fact that this year's PEN/Faulkner winner was Philip Roth, for "Everyman" -- "as a writer you aren't worth [much] unless you've lost to Roth," D'Ambrosio says cheerfully -- can't hide the sad cultural truth:

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