National Book Award winners, part 19: 1966’s The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter.

10 Jan

 (Wherein I read all the former National Book Award winners, so that you don’t have to.)

1.

In 1966, Katherine Anne Porter won the national book award for her Collected Stories. In the seventeen years since the national book award began, she was the first female author to win.

Since 1950—the first year of the award—Pearl Buck, Patricia Highsmith, Shirley Jackson, Carson McCullers, Harper Lee, Flannery O’Connor, Mary McCarthy, Lorraine Hansbury, Sylvia Plath and Joyce Carol Oates all published major novels. None of them won.

The story of women in American fiction is a study in rebellion against acute social control. The big names of Edith Wharton, Djuna Barnes, Kate Chopin[1] and Willa Cather are studies in steely determination and immense talent and drive. Many male authors back in the day slid into writing careers. The women had to hack their way in with bone-handled knives.

Until 1920, women were second-class citizens; they didn’t even have the right to vote. Higher education, publishing, most professions—these things and more were closed off to most women. Virginia Wolff famously said that “a woman must have money and a room of one’s own to write fiction.” Marriage was considered the major goal for women, and raising children the only honorable ambition.

Fiction in America was almost exclusively a man’s game. A handful of female writers broke through this gendered divide. The counterculture didn’t do much better; for all its vaulted transgressive morality, the Beat Movement was just as much a boys’ club as any Ivy League school[2].

Libertines, rebels, spinsters—most of the American female writers were outcasts, expatriates. The accomplishments of American female novelists were often overlooked in their home country. Gertrude Stein, a towering figure in modernism, became successful in France.

2.

Katherine Anne Porter’s life is the stuff of great fiction. She was born in a tiny town in Texas in 1890. It was a wilder time. Lives were stranger, less fixed. Expectations were low for a poor southern girl like Porter. And like many people of her time and station, Porter lived a hard life. Her mother died when she was a child. So did one of her brothers. Her father moved her here and there across Texas, Louisiana. In hotel rooms and boarding houses. She married at 16. She suffered at the hands of a hostile, abusive husband. She divorced at 25. She survived tuberculosis, barely survived the flu pandemic. She moved to New York City. She began writing. She wrote and wrote. Articles and stories. She had lovers, husbands, miscarriages and sadness. She carried bitterness like a stone in her heart.

 

The first female winner of the top fiction award. It only took 17 years.

The first female winner of the top fiction award. It only took 17 years.

Porter was famous in her lifetime for her novel, Ship of Fools. It follows a group of characters heading towards Germany in the 1930s. The writing of it took her over 20 years, but it was worth the wait. Fools was a monster bestseller, adapted into a movie, and it left Porter scalded by fame but also rich.

She didn’t write any other novels. The shorter form was better for her, easier.

3.

Porter is precise, controlled. She writes about small moments, little epiphanies. Some of her stories remind me of D.H. Lawrence. She isn’t flashy. Some of her stories feel plain. The conflicts are often subdued. I kept dipping in and out of the stories waiting for a shock of electricity. The shock never came.

This isn’t to say she isn’t a good writer, for she is. I just kept waiting for the prose to ignite. But she isn’t that kind of writer. She details the internal lives of her characters in quiet tones. Many of her stories are hushed. She details despair and disillusionment, often women realizing the fallow character of their husbands. She traffics in melancholy and regret. You can sense her lurking behind her stories, carrying around a lifetime of hardship and disappointment. To read her stories is to engage with a sad, lonely intelligence of the first rank.

Here’s a taste of her talent and style, the first paragraph of “Pale Horse, Pale Rider”:

 

In sleep she knew she was in her bed, but not the bed she had lain down in a few hours since, and the room was the not the same but it was a room she had known somewhere. Her heart was a stone lying upon her breast outside of her; her pulses lagged and paused, and she knew that something strange was going to happen, even as the early morning winds were cool through the lattice, the streaks of light were dark blue and the whole house was snoring in its sleep.

Now I must get up and go while they are all quiet.

 

I didn’t read all of her stories. I couldn’t. I won’t revisit her work. I (probably) won’t ever read more than the few pages I’ve already read of Ship of Fools. Porter is important for a lot of reasons, but I’m ready to leave her behind.

4.

It was a weak year for American fiction. Irving Stone, Vincent Starrett, Jerzy Kosinski, James Michener, Peter Matthiesson and Norman Mailer all published middling novels. Frank Herbert released his sci fi magnum opus, Dune. Kurt Vonnegut published another intriguing (and depressing) science fiction novel, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. Flannery O’Connor released her fantastic collection of stories, Everything That Rises Must Converge. Porter’s Collected Stories is as good as any of these books, except for O’Connor’s. I just can’t get excited about reading it.

The Nobel prize winners of today were cutting their teeth on the sixties. International fiction was ablaze with bright, young talents who we’re still feeling today: J. M. Clezio, David Lodge, Witold Gombrowicz, Raymond Queneau, and Iris Murdoch.

Now on to Bellow (boo!) and Malamud (yay!).


[1] The Awakening is one of my favorite novels of all time.

[2] Please read Harvey Pekar’s graphic history of the Beats. It’s fantastic.

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