Professor Chaon Writes His Way to Book Award Nomination
by Douglas Diesenhaus

On Nov. 14, Professor of Creative Writing Dan Chaon will find out if he is the recipient of the 2001 National Book Award for his collection of short stories, Among the Missing. Presented by the National Book Foundation, the Award’s purpose is “to enhance the public’s awareness of exceptional books written by fellow Americans, and to increase the popularity of reading in general.” Chaon’s nomination as a finalist in the fiction category was announced last month. On Wednesday, he will attend the ceremony, hosted by comedian Steve Martin, at the Marriott Marquis hotel in Manhattan.

Chaon’s first book, Fitting Ends and Other Stories, was published in 1996. In response to the enhanced exposure his work has been receiving, Ballantine Books, publisher of Among the Missing, will be re-releasing Fitting Ends with an additional three new stories around the end of next year. His work has appeared in many journals and anthologies, including The Best American Short Stories, The Pushcart Prize, and The 2001 O’Henry Awards, for which he won the second-place prize for his story “Big Me,” a piece that appears in Among the Missing. Ballantine will also publish Chaon’s forthcoming novel, I Wake Up.
Among the Missing had received critical acclaim since its release in July, but the nomination for the Award forced the book and its author into the limelight. Chaon’s book is unique in that, out of the five nominees, including Jonathan Franzen, Louise Erdrich, Jennifer Egan and Susan Straight, his is the only one that is not a novel.
“I’m proud because it’s rare for short story collections to be nominated,” he said. “At the same time, I think that the book has a kind of thematic cohesion that I think makes the stories hold together as a unit, so it’s not radically different from the experience of reading a novel.”

While the media exposure has only recently become more intense, students who have taken classes with Chaon have known of his devotion to both the craft of writing and to his work as a teacher since he first arrived at Oberlin. The incredible support from his students contributed to the creative writing department’s decision last year to retain him in a permanent position on the faculty. Students who have read his new book are showering Chaon with even more praise. “His stories are as thick and sad and beautiful and funny as he is. I feel completely lucky to have had him as a teacher, and even luckier that I forced him to become my friend, too,” said senior Emma Straub, who has a concentration in creative writing.
Other students have taken their devotion to more extreme levels. “I admire Dan so much that I’ve even started to dress like him,” said senior Edan Lepucki, a creative writing major.

The loyalty felt by many of Chaon’s students was evident even before the recent wave of publicity, so much so that many of them seem to consider themselves members of the Cult of Dan Chaon. At his reading on Oct. 15 in King 106, where he read the story “Big Me,” Chaon was greeted with cheers and raucous laughter from the throng of satisfied students. There is even word that one or more students are compiling a collection of Chaon’s classroom quotations, perhaps with a book-length complilation of his witticisms in mind.
“If they are collecting quotes from Dan, they should also try to get a lock of his hair because I’ve heard this can be useful in gaining power over a person,” said junior Christina Congleton, also a creative writing major.
For his part, Chaon feels comfortable with students who interact with his classes in this way. “One of my concerns as a teacher is trying to find a balance and comfort level in the classroom, because the process of workshopping student’s writing can be so stressful. I want people to be able to have fun, and laugh a little bit, and hopefully that makes the enormous amount of work that we’re doing less of a drag,” he said.

However, some students take a slightly different view of Chaon’s celebrity status. “I only hope that this wacky compilation of quotations doesn’t bring all the ‘media hype’ and ‘buzz’ about Mr. Chaon into a state of absolute ridiculousness,” senior creative writing major Kayla Blatchley said. “He really does deserve sincere recognition, and not just the giggling squeals of over-anxious undergraduate co-eds with too much time on their hands.”

Another student commented on Chaon’s practice of telling stories about his own life in class. “On the outside, Dan is funny open, and infinitely kind, but on the inside he’s greedy for love, running a sick popularity contest for which he’ll do anything to win,” senior creative writing major Ryan Miller said. “Obviously, this type of person draws a crowd, especially if he can tell a good story. My favorite is either the one about him pretending to be blind for several days when he was a child, or when he told his son that they were cooking the cat for dinner. These stories don’t appear in his book, but the ones in there are good too.”
As is usually the case, though, some feel left out of all the fun. “I tried several times to gain admission to the CDC (Cult of Dan Chaon) but was consistently rejected,” senior Molly McDonald said.
Meanwhile, the strange but true reality of Dan Chaon has only become stranger. Recently he posed for a photo shoot for the Jan./Feb. issue of Book magazine with eight other writers.
“They shot us up against a white background, like a Gap ad…one young woman’s job was to find an apple crate for me to stand on, since I was the shortest person there. All the other writers were tall and thin and beautiful,” Chaon said.
Chaon has dealt with the critical acclaim and student support with aplomb, according to Blatchley. “Upon any congratulations or mention of success, he blushes up like a schoolgirl,” she said.

Even so, Chaon seems to be taking all that has happened to him in stride. “I take writing and the art of fiction very seriously, but I don’t take myself particularly seriously as a Writer,” he said.
Next Wednesday, the many who have benefited from Dan Chaon’s teaching will hold their breath as the announcement of the award is made. Regardless of who wins, though, Chaon’s impact has clearly been felt passionately at Oberlin.
“If I could be any person, place or mineral, I’d be Dan Chaon,” Ryan Miller said. “He’s a pretty good person to be.”

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