Dispatches | August 16, 2012

Author Seth Fried was the judge for this year’s annual Peden Prize, an award given to the best short story published in the previous volume year. Please enjoy this post from Seth on how he made his selection of A.R. Rea’s “The Silver Bullet”. He is mildly comfortable with the idea that you’ll appreciate his sense of humor. Or not…

When you judge a fiction contest, there is a standard procedure that adheres largely to common sense. As judge, you print out the pieces being considered for the prize, and then carefully read all of them until you find that one special story containing an elusive and unnamable quality which causes you to suspect that its author might not mind splitting the prize money with you. It was with this in mind that I, Seth Fried, set out to judge The Missouri Review’s prestigious William Peden Prize, which honors the best short story to have been published in TMR in a volume year. The award has previously been given to such fiction greats as Robert Olen Butler and Wally Lamb; it is also associated with a $1,000 prize. And while I only felt comfortable extorting half that amount from the winning author, I was still thrilled to be chosen as this year’s judge.

However, my role in determining the winner became more complicated once I began to take a look back at all the remarkable fiction that TMR published last year. As I read one affecting and brilliantly crafted short story after another, I started to get the queasy feeling that typically accompanies the realization that I am taking something seriously. And because I am only capable of two emotions (extortion and self-doubt), I immediately began to despair over my inability to discriminate between one piece of superbly wrought fiction and another.

TMR is one of the best curated magazines in the country, and so the quality of the work was not really up for debate. The problem I was faced with was this: What criteria does one use in order to distinguish great work from great work? Should I select a story just because I particularly enjoyed it? Or should I select a story because I found it challenging? After all, it is not the sole purpose of art to be delightful; it is also supposed to help us grow as people. Should I prefer a story that stimulated me intellectually over one that stimulated me emotionally? Should a piece get special consideration if it managed to make me laugh? Should I be more concerned with the author’s use of language or ideas? Should I single a story out because it is an insightful reflection of our times or because it could be read in any time, place, or context and still be as effective?

These are the questions that I struggled with while I entertained the possibility of not rigging the Peden Prize. I most likely would have buckled under the weight of them if it weren’t for the fact that I inevitably came across a short story called The Silver Bullet by A.R Rea, which is one of the most poignant, energetic and stirring short stories I have ever read.

Set in Colorado in the 1980’s, Rea’s story depicts the McKinley family as they cope with impending bankruptcy. The family hears of a local radio promotion that promises $2,000 to the first person who can find a keg, the silver bullet, that has been hidden somewhere in the Colorado wilderness. Motivated to find the keg out of desperation and a downtrodden sense of ingenuity, the family embarks on a quest that is equal parts farce and tragedy.

Even when I subjected this story to the list of criteria above, it was apparent that I couldn’t think of one negative thing to say about it. I both enjoyed Rea’s story and found it challenging. The Silver Bullet is delightful, but its far reaching sadness and the flawed nature of its characters makes the experience of reading it unsettling in an essential way. Like Sherwood Anderson, Rea is able to transmit to the reader an intense affection for her characters no matter how deeply flawed they might be. The story was stimulating on both an emotional and intellectual level in that Rea’s touching description of the McKinley family was also an incredibly thoughtful examination of what it actually means to be passionate, to live in the moment, and to love. The story made me laugh, the language was somehow both evocative and precise, and the ideas driving the story shed important light on what it means to be a person. Finally, though Rea is only depicting a single episode in this family’s history, she is also able to evoke a lifetime of hope and disappointment that makes this quintesstianlly American story seem universal.

All that said, I would still have no problem extorting half the prize money from Rea, if it weren’t for the fact that I see it as rather fitting that she should receive a prize that is, in a material sense, comparable to the one offered to the protagonists in her story. It links Rea to her characters in a way that I find encouraging. Just as a reader gets the sense that the search for the silver bullet and its prize is indicative of so much more for the McKinley family, I am hopeful that Rea receiving this year’s Peden Prize will be just one victory in a long and celebrated career.

Seth Fried is the author of The Great Frustration. His short stories have appeared in numerous publications, including Tin House, One Story, McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, The Kenyon Review, The Missouri Review, and Vice, and have been anthologized in The Better of McSweeney’s, Volume 2 and The Pushcart Prize XXXV: The Best of the Small Presses. Visit him online at sethfried.com