"A Celebration of Writing, and Reading"
Louis Black's notes on the first Chronicle Short Story Contest
By Robert Faires,
5:00PM, Wed. Jun. 14, 2017
In advance of the 25th anniversary of the Austin Chronicle Short Story Contest, I went digging through the back issues to see what was published for its debut. In the March 27, 1992 issue, there it was: the winning stories, the list of judges, and, best of all, the contest's origin story spun by Chronicle Editor Louis Black.
Assembled to select the winners of this new competition were an impressive septet of local literati: novelist Sarah Bird (who, at that point, had published Alamo House, The Boyfriend School, and The Mommy Club); journalist and author Robert Draper (at the time Associate Editor at Texas Monthly); novelist Elizabeth Harris (then a teacher of fiction writing at the University of Texas and recent winner of the John Simmons Short Fiction Award); novelist Rolando Hinojosa-Smith (then, as now, a professor of English at UT and deep into his 15-volume Klail City Death Trip Series); science-fiction short story master Howard Waldrop (who at the time had most recently published the novella A Dozen Tough Jobs); rock & roll historian Ed Ward (then the Chronicle's Books editor); and essayist and memoirist Marion Winik (then a regular contributor to NPR's All Things Considered as well as the Chronicle).
The authors of the five stories they selected did not go on to appear regularly on the New York Times Best Seller List. But then, the point of the contest was not to find America's Next Top Author. It was, as Black noted in his introduction, a way to give anyone, everyone, an opportunity to express themselves through fiction and for a few of those to connect with a broader audience through this publication. And that's just how it worked out. While First Place Winner Susanne Lepselter ("Animals"), Second Place Winner Tom Doyal ("Suppressing the Grief Response"), and one of the two Third Place Winners, Laura Marteney Long ("Slow Melt"), had substantial creative writing experience, the other Third Place Winner, Livia Pohlman ("The Borrowed Garden of Dignity"), and Fourth Place Winner Adriane Lee Hoard ("The Lonesome Miracle") did not. Pohlman had never written a short story before. Creating space and an opportunity for new writers like that is one of the forces that has kept the Chronicle Short Story Contest going for 25 years.
But back to the beginning. Here is Louis Black's introduction. I read it at the reception for this year's Short Story Contest reception, and the assembled writers and readers there found it moving. We hope that you do, too.
"The stories, at first, were mostly dreadful. Almost as soon as we announced the Austin Chronicle short story contest, stories began to arrive. The contest was not my idea. I think of fiction as a dangerous minefield for a weekly publication. Jennifer Scoville came up with it, everybody else signed on and then, when Michael Hall called up and suggested we do something with fiction, we welcomed him on board.
"The stories came quickly. One weekend we fretted as to whether we would even get 10, deciding 25 would be respectable. The next weekend, we had over 25. The week after, we speculated as to whether we would get 100 stories; soon after passing that number, we began to think about 250. Ultimately, we received 755 entries.
"We began reading them immediately, a large part of the Chronicle staff helping out. I was a reader. After the first four or five stories, I was on a rave for most of the next day, describing the stories in great detail to other readers, who in turn described theirs. The stories kept coming, the piles building up. Reading maybe the 30th story, I began to get the contest, to appreciate what it was really about. Because although the five top stories were chosen because of their success as stories (two of them tied for third place), the contest was more about writers and the idea of writing.
"About the 755 people who sent in stories and probably the hundreds more who started them but never finished. These were stories, stories from people’s lives. These were dreams, the idea of being a writer entertained. During the readings, any number of generic themes developed, and more than a few people worked out their inner demons on the page (murders, suicides, masturbation, voyeurism), making for some exceptionally unpleasant reading experiences. But most of the stories spoke of writers writing in their many individual, sometimes raw and unsophisticated, but just as frequently imitative, voices. In a way, publishing only five stories is cheating our readers out of the best part of this event – reading the dozens and dozens of stories, some good and some bad, but so many of them honest attempts. And I loved them all. The sheer mass of writing. So many of the stories had such individual resonance, they seemed to be loaded with private meanings, even if they weren’t always accessible to the judges. Reading the stories, I kept encountering myself as a would-be writer at 19, at 20, at 21, and at 35, 36, 37. Every mistake I ever made, every fictional misadventure I ever attempted, I encountered again reading these stories. And triumphs, as well, of rhythm, style, storytelling, and honest passion.
"Too often people are scared away from creative expression by the snobbish criticism it always engenders. This was a celebration of writing, and of reading. This was hundreds and hundreds of people taking a shot. One of the winning writers had never written a story before. There was an ambition evidenced in these stories, a literary determination that the telling of stories and the crafting of words is still a desirable occupation.
"Every story was read first by two Chronicle staff readers. Each assigned it a numerical score from 1 to 5. If a story received a total of 6 or more, it was passed on to the next round of judges. If it received less than a 6, it was read by, first, me, and then Michael Hall, and then either passed along to the judges or rejected.
"The judges were great. They really got into the contest, offering advice and suggestions, especially Marion Winik and Robert Draper, who did yeoman’s work. Elizabeth Harris and Ed Ward couldn’t make it to the final judges’ dinner, where Howard Waldrop, Marion Winik, Robert Draper, Rolando Hinojosa-Smith, and Sarah Bird argued intelligently and passionately about your stories, only reluctantly letting a favorite slide off; it was the most enjoyable conversation on writing I’ve heard in years.
"Here they are: five stories by five Austinites. We’ll do this again, soon. Thanks to everyone who helped make this happen.
"This contest and this section were coordinated and edited by Jennifer Scoville and Michael Hall."