Stratford native wins prestigious Rea literary prize

June 15, 2017 GMT

The decline of print outlets over the past few decades has taken its toll on the short story, as well as many other types of writing.

“Thirty years ago, there was an array of magazines and other outlets, so you would have a fighting chance. Those are gone now, so it’s all about the love of the form,” Stratford native Jim Shepard says of his longtime devotion to concise fiction, a pursuit that recently won him the Rea Award for the Short Story. The prize puts him in the rarefied company of John Updike, Grace Paley, Donald Barthelme and Joyce Carol Oates.

“It is humbling to look at that list — it really is,” Shepard says of the previous recipients of the Rea Award

The $30,000 prize is awarded each year by the Duncannon Foundation in Washington, Conn. Michael M. Rea created the prize in 1986, and it is overseen by his widow, Elizabeth.

Shepard’s love of the short story form keeps him going, but he can only afford to do that because, “in financial terms, I have another job.” While the writer publishes acclaimed collections, such as “The World to Come” (Knopf) in February, his day job has been teaching at Williams College in Massachusetts.

Many journalists will tell you it is harder to write a short news piece than to go on at length because each word and sentence matters more when you have fewer of them. Shepard, who has written novels as well as short stories, says the same thing is true of fiction.

“I think it sort of is harder to write short,” Shepard says, adding with a laugh, “Within reason of course. ‘War and Peace’ is still a hell of an achievement, to say the least.

“In a novel, you can toss it all in. With the kind of short fiction I admire — resistance to anything not doing multiple things at once — I admire the density.”

That “density” can be one of the challenges readers face with collections, the writer agrees, where each new story demands a different emotional connection.

“I think there is a perception that you have to work a little harder (reading short stories) because of the density,” Shepard says. “And you have to stop and start with each story. On a continuum with poetry at one end and novels at the other, I think short stories would be closer to poetry.”

The writer believes publishers who claim to be baffled by the smaller sales of short story collections, in comparison with novels, underestimate that readers “want their imaginative investment to pay off over a longer period.”

Shepard’s collections have been well reviewed — The New York Times raved about “The World to Come” — but the writer thinks serious fiction of all kinds is increasingly marginalized.

“Literature is not diminishing — people do it as wonderfully as I remember — but its hold on the cultural imagination is shrinking. Newsweek and Time were always proudly middlebrow, but they had book sections where they felt as though they had to review (Jorge Luis) Borges and William Gass — a feeling of ‘We’ve got to deal with this.’ Look at a magazine from 1970 and you’ll have a sense of how far we are from that now,” Shepard says.

In a separate interview, Elizabeth Rea says she has kept the award a low-key affair, continuing her late husband’s tradition of calling the winner right after the judging panel has made its decision.

Shepard’s work is distinguished by the fact that he uses elements of nonfiction and history in his stories. “He has a unique vision of story writing,” Rea says. “All of this factual material that he turns into fiction.”

In his New York Times Book Review piece on “The World to Come,” Craig Taylor echoed Rea’s praise of the factual underpinnings of Shepard’s work.

“His stories come bearing enough unimpeachable detail to ensure they never sink into the mush of a half-baked world. This diligence, Shepard once noted in an interview, isn’t drudgery, and you can almost imagine him peering at later drafts, ready to joyously crush an anachronism and add a period flourish. The results often end up resembling journalism, as if a newspaper’s account of a train wreck suddenly became encrusted with enough background and context to switch genres and become fiction.”

Rea says her husband created the Rea Award simply as a means of supporting a form of fiction he loved.

“He just wanted to encourage writers to continue writing short stories,” she says.

Shepard hopes reading can survive in an age full of so many media distractions. He thinks it is important that people still find the time and space in their lives “to get lost in books.

“I think immersion is part of a relationship with the arts,” he says of the contemplative state we need to be in to fully absorb a work of art.


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