A REVIEW OF
Scattered Lights: Stories
By Steve Wiegenstein
Longlist for PEN / Faulkner Award surprises, propels new Ozarks publishing house
By Steve Yates
Special to the Mississippi Clarion Ledger
USA TODAY NETWORK
Longlists chosen by major awards, such as the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, alert readers in a generous way to quality new books that might be otherwise missed.
Longlists can also open space to herald the presses, especially very new publishers, that take the risk to publish literary fiction.
There are ten books longlisted for the 2021 PEN / Faulkner Award for Fiction. Many of the publishers with books nominated are the powerhouses of American publishing—Knopf, HarperCollins, Riverhead (a division of giant Penguin/Random House), and Scribner (a division of Simon & Schuster).
But one publishing house with a book on the longlist, Cornerpost Press from West Plains, Missouri, will be new to many readers. West Plains may only have been of note to Mississippians as the home of country music star Porter Waggoner or more recently as the most likely real-world inspiration for novelist Daniel Woodrell’s constant fictional setting, West Table, Missouri, in the hardest heart of the Ozarks.
Founded in 2019, Cornerpost Press, with a staff of two, has published exactly three books—a book of essays by a beloved Dallas County Missouri journalist; a book of poems by Amy Wright Vollmar, also an Ozarker; and the career-spanning selection “Scattered Lights: Stories” by native Ozarker Steve Wiegenstein of Columbia, Missouri. “Scattered Lights” is now longlisted for the prestigious 2021 PEN / Faulkner Award.
Phillip Howerton, editor of the much noted anthology “The Literature of the Ozarks”, founded and runs Cornerpost Press along with his wife, Victoria Howerton. “This nomination is a complete surprise,” he said. “I’m not certain how ‘Scattered Lights’ found its way into the hands of these judges.”
“Scattered Lights” attained review attention in Columbia, Missouri, and in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, which reviewed the short story collection and named it one of the paper’s top 20 books of 2020.
“I have been especially pleased with this critical reception,” said Phillip Howerton, “because every reviewer explores the depth and complexity of the book’s themes and the elements of Steve’s craftsmanship.”
“Scattered Lights” contains twelve short stories spanning Wiegenstein’s entire writing practice. He began publishing the stories in the 1980s and his work appeared in The Nebraska Review, Kansas Quarterly, Louisiana Literature, and elsewhere. Some of the dozen included were published in magazines as recently as 2020.
John Mort, author of many works of fiction, including the award-winning “Down Along the Piney: Ozarks Stories” from Notre Dame University Press says Wiegenstein, “portrays ordinary, impoverished, small-town and country people in his polished, often elegant collection. Some are crazy; some are violent; some are no good. Mainly, these people are alive, and you’ll recognize them. They live in those little towns, those scattered lights you see looking down from an airplane, and they’re much like your grandmother, or your restless uncle who went off to see the world, or you.”
Despite the scramble and buzz of suddenly becoming a longlisted press of national literary renown, Phillip Howerton says the excitement won’t drive Cornerpost off course. “We plan to continue loving, publishing, and promoting two to three books each year. More important to me is the impact this attention may have upon the literature of the Ozarks. I hope that this will prompt a larger audience to recognize that Ozarks literature, history, and culture are much more complex than often imagined.”
The PEN / Faulkner Foundation began when National Book Award-winner Mary Lee Settle established the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. “Her goal was to create a national prize—juried by writers, free of commercial concerns—that would recognize literary fiction of excellence. The award was named for William Faulkner, who had used his Nobel Prize funds to establish a prize for younger writers, and PEN, the international writers’ organization,” according to the Foundation’s website.
The PEN / Faulkner Foundation announces the prestigious award each year as part of its mission to celebrate literature and foster connections between readers and writers. Finalists for the 2021 award will be announced in March and the ward will be given May 10 as part of the foundation’s 40th anniversary. Previous winners have included Phillip Roth, E. L. Doctorow, Ha Jin, John Updike, and Sabina Murray.
Steve Yates of Flowood is the author of five works of fiction, including the Juniper Prize-winning “Some Kinds of Love: Stories” and the Knickerbocker Prize-winning “Sandy and Wayne: A Novella.”