A week ago, I was fortunate to be part of the ceremony honoring the 2021 PEN/Faulkner Award in Fiction finalists. It was a terrific ceremony, and you can watch the entire thing on this YouTube link.

Awards like this always inspire paired feelings in me. First, of course, there’s pride. I work hard at my writing, and it’s very gratifying to have a panel of judges, accomplished writers, literary critics, and teachers of writing, declare that it’s good. So I want to brag and holler.

But then I think…really? I’ve entered lots of contests, and not gotten a whiff of recognition. So you know there’s always an element of fortune involved. Were the finalists’ five books really the best out of the 419 entered? A different panel of judges could well have selected others. So any recognition needs to be taken with a significant dose of humility as well.

Today, though, I’m casting doubts aside and just basking in the enjoyment of being named a finalist. Perhaps in another year Scattered Lights would not have been selected, but this year it was, so I’m celebrating. Here’s the judges’ commendation, words which touched my heart and which I will cherish. They inspire me to keep working, and to keep trying to improve.

“In the last five years, it has seemed at times as if we are a nation of two permanently estranged tribes, doing little more than sending up angry flares at each other. But in Scattered Lights, a quiet, probing, masterful collection of stories set in his native Ozarks, Steve Wiegenstein tacitly rejects that binary and, in doing so, returns to a fundamental promise of fiction, that politics dissolves in the particular.

“Wiegenstein’s signal strength as a writer is in his characters – a girl reflecting with awe at herself on a kiss, a widow who refuses to take her predetermined place in a town’s society, a middle-aged man whose dispiriting new job suddenly and unexpectedly decides him in favor of courage and happiness. In all of these instances, the characters’ inner lives precede whatever lesson they may represent. Wiegenstein steadfastly and honorably refuses to invite catastrophe or revelation on his characters for the sake of a reader’s cheap excitement.

“Instead, he presents us with dozens of distinctive and real people doing their best, or not so best, but intermittently asking the same questions all of us do – why are we here, who loves us, what do we owe each other, what does it mean to be good? In the process, the pared, beautiful prose of Scattered Lights comes to seem less a style than an ethic – not to intrude, but to observe; not to judge, but to comprehend. The project founded on a final faith, present in great writers of short fiction, from Chekov to Grace Paley, to another of this year’s finalists Deesha Philyaw, that art is where our higher selves can meet, free from the transient furies of the news. The sooner we begin paying attention to each other as people, Wiegenstein argues, the more people we suddenly begin to see, no matter where we’re from.”