Saturday 17 March 2018

Picking from the long and the short in Kerry

Just as a brilliant picture can be worth a thousand dutiful words, so also a great short story can be worth a hundred earnest novels, and certainly I'd choose Chekhov's Lady with the Dog, Hemingway's The Light of the World, Maeve Brennan's The Springs of Affection or William Trevor's The Grass Widows over most fiction that's 20 times their length.

And so it was that, when drawing up the shortlist for this year's Kerry Group Irish Fiction Award, which is worth a cool €15,000, myself and fellow judge Kate O'Toole had little hesitation about including Claire Keegan's Foster from among the 41 books submitted for consideration.

Expanded and somewhat changed from the story that won the Davy Byrne's Irish Writing Award and that was first published in the New Yorker, the recently published Faber & Faber edition of Foster runs to 85 pages and a little short of 15,000 words.

So does that make it a long short story or a novella? Either way, it's about a sixth of the length of Emma Donoghue's Room, Neil Jordan's Mistaken, Joseph O'Connor's Ghost Light and William Ryan's The Holy Thief, all of which are also on our shortlist. But for Kate and myself, size didn't matter (as it didn't to Faber, either, who took the singular step of issuing it in book form), and we marvelled at its evocation of place, its psychological suggestiveness and the way it summoned up whole worlds of feeling.

This is the eighth year of the Kerry Group Award and the 40th anniversary of Listowel Writers' Week, with which the prize is inextricably linked. Previous winners have included Neil Jordan's Shade, Anne Enright's The Gathering, Joseph O'Neill's Netherland and John Banville's The Infinities.

So will Jordan triumph again? Or is it the year for O'Connor, Donoghue or first-time novelist Ryan? Or will a short story win out? We'll let you know on the June 1 opening night in Listowel.

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