Steven Millhauser Wins the 2011 Story Prize

A field of three is all dynamic tension: no sure thing, no dark horse. Which is what makes The Story Prize such a good competition—three short fiction collections, no particular agenda. With three nominees you can’t hope for an even distribution of anything, so it might as well just be about the writing.

This year marked the eighth annual Story Prize award, and Wednesday evening’s event at the New School’s Tishman Auditorium was, as usual, humming. The three finalists were Don DeLillo, for his first-ever short story collection The Angel Esmeralda, Steven Millhauser for We Others, and Edith Pearlman for Binocular Vision. Each author read from their work and then sat down to a one-on-one discussion with Story Prize director Larry Dark to talk a bit about process, inspiration, and the nature of short fiction.

The first prize of $20,000 and a handsome silver bowl, suitable for mixed nuts or hard candies (the bowl, that is—$20,000 is suitable for any number of other things) went to Steven Millhauser. “I am really surprised,” he offered, and went on to explain how he had backed into writing short fiction: “I began as a novelist and then turned to the short story. The reason why is a mystery even to me.”

Millhauser won the 1977 Pulitzer Prize for his wonderful tale of ambition gone weird Martin Dressler: The Life and Times of an American Dreamer. Although the subjects of his four novels and seven story collections range far and wide, all are concerned, in one way or another, with the secret life that pulses beneath the surface of the everyday. You might say that’s the fiction writer’s job in the first place, but Millhauser accomplishes it exceptionally well, always managing to coax a chill in bright sunshine. He’s also up for a PEN/Faulkner award for the same collection (along with DeLillo for his). But no matter how that one plays out, I’m pleased that The Story Prize’s panel of judges—author Sherman Alexie, translator and literature professor Breon Mitchell, and author and LA Public Library readings curator Louise Steinman—gave us three excellent short story writers to look at more closely, and recognized Millhauser for a long and pleasingly strange writing career.

(Photo of Steven Millhauser with the silver bowl by Beowulf Sheehan, courtesy of The Story Prize.)

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