Best Debut Short Stories 2020: The PEN America Dau Prize (Paperback)
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Who are the most promising short story writers working today? Where do we look to discover the future stars of literary fiction? This book will offer a dozen compelling answers to these questions.
The stories collected here represent the most recent winners of the PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers, which recognizes twelve writers who have made outstanding debuts in literary magazines in the previous year. They are chosen by a panel of distinguished judges, themselves innovators of the short story form: Tracy O’Neill, Nafissa Thompson–Spires, and Deb Olin Unferth. Each piece comes with an introduction by its original editors, whose commentaries provide valuable insight into what magazines are looking for in their submissions, and showcase the vital work they do to nurture literature’s newest voices.
Nafissa Thompson–Spires is the author of Heads of the Colored People, which won the PEN Open Book Award, the Los Angeles Times Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction, the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, and an Audie Award. She is also the recipient of a 2019 Whiting Award. Her work has appeared in The Paris Review Daily, Dissent, and BuzzFeed Books. She teaches creative writing at Cornell University.
Deb Olin Unferth is the author of six books, including the novel Barn 8, forthcoming in 2020 from Graywolf. Her work has appeared in Harper’s, The Paris Review, Granta, Vice, Tin House, The New York Times, NOON, and McSweeney’s. An associate professor at the University of Texas in Austin, she has received a Guggenheim fellowship, three Pushcart Prizes, and was a finalist for the National Book Critics' Circle Award. She also teaches creative writing at a penitentiary in southern Texas.
"Another slate of outstanding stories from emerging writers of short fiction . . . An anthology full of promise." —Kirkus Reviews
Remarks from the Judges
"The stories and writers here represent a wide range of voices at the levels of ethnicity, gender, and style. Many carry a very quiet confidence that is refreshing in our harried world, and I feel certain that we will see these authors’ names in print again soon." —Nafissa Thompson–Spires, 2020 Best Debut Short Stories anthology judge and author of Heads of the Colored People
"The short fiction I love best knows how to declare with beauty, 'I prefer not to.' It takes the page as a space to refuse what tends to be, unzipping barriers. This collection gathers stories from voices throwing rice at the moment the essential and the original meet." —Tracy O'Neill, 2020 Best Debut Short Stories anthology judge and author of Quotients and The Hopeful
"I love the stories we picked for this collection. I love their passion, invention, and wildness. I love that these are the artists' first published stories. Your first published story never quite gives up its place in the mind. It was the first one chosen—hooray! And yet there is always the nagging doubt ('Is it actually good?') and here we are, celebrating, saying, 'Yes, yes, it is good, so so good!'" —Deb Olin Unferth, 2020 Best Debut Short Stories anthology judge and author of Barn 8 and Wait Till You See Me Dance
“When I sit down with a short story, I’m hoping to be surprised, or unnerved, or waylaid. I want to feel that something is at stake: in the language and structure, in the emotional lives of the characters, in the consequences of their actions. The best stories are almost otherworldly in their dimensions, as if I have opened a small suitcase left on my front door, only to find three geese, a small child, a jewel thief, and her mother emerging. The stories here delighted and surprised and moved me—I’m so very, very glad that I got to read them and that now you do too.” —Kelly Link, 2017 judge, 2018 MacArthur Fellow, and author of Get in Trouble
"I was really inspired by what I saw here—not just the beautiful weirdness of the writers and their work, but the fact that the stories were published. It made me feel so hopeful.” —Carmen Maria Machado, 2019 judge and author of Her Body and Other Parties
“There were very well–written stories that didn't end up on the final list, edged out by the magnitude of feeling and creativity contained in the final twelve. I was particularly struck by the authors’ ability to hit it out of the park, first time up. When I read I'm always (like it or not) guessing what's going to happen at the end of the line, the scene, on the plot level. The stories we chose were those that forced me, a relentless overthinker, to stop thinking. Amy Hempel's first short story was ‘In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried.’ That story is great, and contains many of the elements she's famous for, but it is not like most of her stories. It's way longer, for one, and more traditional. As if she was only able to peel her inhibitions as she wrote more and more. I'm excited for these authors to participate in that same kind of peeling that helps voice grow more substantial, and I hope this honor gives them the confidence to get weirder and weirder, stronger and stronger.” —Marie–Helene Bertino, 2017 judge and author of 2 A.M. at The Cat’s Pajamas and Safe as Houses
“I was so blown away by the pieces we chose for this collection—there was a wonderful array of different styles and approaches in the submissions we received, but each of the stories we ended up choosing had something startlingly alive and bracingly imaginative within it. You can tell that these are writers working with total dedication to gift these fictive worlds to their readers, to make these surprising, vivid scenarios real. I am so wildly enthusiastic about what these writers are going to do next—and in reading this anthology, you get to say you've followed their entire career, from the very first short story on! You can't beat that.” —Alexandra Kleeman, 2018 judge and author of Intimations and You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine
“A lot of people talk about how so many short stories are becoming too workshopped, too MFA, too a certain kind of story. And I can say, after reading all the entries here, they are wrong. There are so many stories being told that are extraordinary and unexpected. I fretted over picking only twelve. But the stories that won were all stories that astounded us all.” —Nina McConigley, 2017 judge and author of Cowboys and East Indians