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NINETY YEARS ago, The O. Henry Prize Stories was created by William Sidney Porter’s friends and colleagues to honor him and the form in which he wrote.
Since 1919 there have been a few years without the publication of an O. Henry Prize Stories collection, but still, in an industry where many books enjoy the longevity of a mayfly, lasting for ninety years is a superb accomplishment.
Our annual collection is an institution among writers and readers, who look for it each spring. For a writer beginning what might or might not be a career, inclusion is both recognition of the particular story and warm encouragement to keep writing. One of the collection’s first stated goals was to “stimulate younger authors,” but even for writers who have long and distinguished careers, inclusion in The O. Henry Prize Stories is meaningful and even “gladdening,” as one of this year’s authors, John Burnside, said.
The O. Henry’s recognition of quality extends to the magazines that publish the prize story. The New Yorker, committed to publishing fiction since its beginning, has a large readership, and a smaller journal such as the New England Review only a fraction of that num ber. What matters in the long run is that a magazine continues to publish excellent fiction in its pages, stories that readers are challenged by and sometimes love.
For its readers, our prize collection is a faithful yet exciting friend. Each spring The O. Henry Prize Stories offers a renewed engagement with the immediacy of the short story. This is what O. Henry’s friends and colleagues hoped when they conceived the unique idea of publishing a book annually to draw attention to an outstanding group of short stories and short-story writers.
In the ninetieth year since its founding, the O. Henry Prize differs from its first iteration. Instead of a committee choosing the stories, as in 1919 and for many years following, the series editor does so alone. Since 2002, the criteria for stories have widened; now the prize is open to any story if it’s originally written in English and published in a North American magazine, regardless of the citizenship of the writer. The prize stories thus come from a broader range of voices and countries—witness our current group of authors, who live in Scotland, England, South Africa, Singapore, and Canada, as well as the United States. The original system of awarding first, second, and third prizes was eventually abandoned. All twenty stories are equally prized, though separate recognition comes to the stories picked by the jurors as their favorites. There have been nine series editors, and each has tweaked the book’s form. What hasn’t changed is fidelity to the mission of The O. Henry Prize Stories stated by its founders ninety years ago, “to strengthen the art of the short story.”
Starting with this 2009 volume, the collection is to be retitled The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories in recognition of a new alliance with the PEN American Center.
PEN is an international organization devoted to the stimulation, support, and sustenance of writers and literature. Bernard Malamud, the story master to whom this year’s PEN/O. Henry is dedicated, was president of PEN from 1979 to 1981, and he wrote: “I believe in a fellowship of writers, more or less formally constituted, aware of how deeply and complexly we are concerned with, and foster, a literature as a civilizing force in an unstable world; a literature that gives flesh and bones and perhaps a brain to the politics that assails us; a literature that entices us to understand and value life.”
PEN American Center, founded in 1920, lives out its ideals in a number of ways: by defending writers who are imprisoned or in danger of imprisonment because of their work; by offering coveted awards for writers, editors, and translators; by supporting public discussion of current issues of literature and freedom of expression; and—most relevant for The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories—by “mentoring teens through the PEN Writing Institute, which brings underserved public school students and professional writers together to discuss literary craft.” The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories will be used in the Readers & Writers Program to strengthen the art of the short story and to stimulate younger authors. And readers, young and old. We hope for a long and happy working life with PEN.
For the 2009 collection, our three jurors are A. S. Byatt, Anthony Doerr, and Tim O’Brien, all authors of past O. Henry Prize Stories. All three have very different concerns and hallmarks as writers. Tim O’Brien’s canonical stories of American soldiers in the Vietnam War and its aftermath have defined that war and its era for many readers; the ways in which war haunts its veterans as effectively as any ghost has long been a subject for O’Brien. But subject matter has only so much importance in any story. O’Brien generously calls his favorite “a very wonderful story about war, though in exactly the same way and to exactly the same extent that ‘Bartleby’ is a wonderful story about office life.” Byatt’s work reaches brilliantly into the life of the mind, and she creates a fictional world where the imagination controls the commonplace, another kind of haunting. Byatt’s essay explains a great deal about her own view of the short story, as well as of her also demonic favorite. The troubled, shape-shifting relation of Doerr’s characters to the natural and man-made world is central to his work. The loving, detailed attention to the tangible that’s the hallmark of Doerr’s fiction stands in contrast to the big, emotional nar rative he chose as his favorite. The three jurors served in the usual O. Henry antijury, without consultation with one another or with the series editor.
Byatt and O’Brien chose the same story as their favorite—Graham Joyce’s “An Ordinary Soldier of the Queen”—and both writers speak eloquently of the choice (see pp. 381 and 386). Joyce’s skilled combination of the moving ordinary and the frightening extraordinary gives the story its energy. “An Ordinary Soldier of the Queen” contains elements of both the demonic and the realistic war story; its narrator could hardly be more reassuringly a savvy military man, but his tortured perceptions of his shattering wartime experience make him a tragic figure.
Anthony Doerr chose Junot Díaz’s “Wildwood” as his favorite, for reasons he gives beautifully in his essay (see p. 383). “Wildwood” is narrated powerfully and seductively by a young woman who is hellbent on getting away from her mother, an all-too human demon, and on escaping her mother’s sexual ideas by leaping into her own destiny, guided in equal parts by love and fear. The story’s larger-thanlife mother and the narrator’s own disasters and escapes will be recognized by many women, though most of us don’t have stories to tell of such mythic proportions.
The twenty PEN/O. Henry stories are gathered over a year’s reading, May to May. When they come together in a single volume, they develop a semifamilial relationship not apparent when they’re individual stories written by authors far-flung and published in, this year, fourteen different magazines. For the reader, resonances are heard of subject matter, if not of voice or technique; these remain individual.
Some of this collection’s stories are about the experience of being a child or the impossible relationship between child and parent. Others concern love, thwarted or triumphant. Others concern disasters, imagined or real. Two are about stories themselves and how we live through them.
In Nadine Gordimer’s “A Beneficiary” the daughter of a famous actress must cope with her capricious mother’s final secret. In doing so, she must make decisions about her own identity in a way that separates her forever from her mother.
L. E. Miller’s “Kind” might be read as a companion piece to “Wildwood” and “A Beneficiary,” for it brings the perspective of age to a young, unformed woman’s experience of mirroring—or choosing not to mirror—an older woman. In “Kind,” the narrator is on a plane when she meets by chance the daughter of someone from her distant past; she remembers the woman who taught her at least two shades of the idea of “kindness,” that is, similarity and active sympathy.
In Paul Yoon’s lovely Korean War story, “And We Will Be Here,” the past haunts the main character in her overwhelming wish for the return of a brother orphan who, when they were children, became everything to her. She knows nothing about herself, not even her date of birth, but she clings, as one would to family or to self, to this boy—another identity-less being—who is gone forever.
The founding disaster for the heroine of Yoon’s story is that she has no family; on the other side of the world in postapartheid South Africa, the adult daughter in Alistair Morgan’s “Icebergs,” an accomplished and successful artist, is doing her best to rid herself of hers. “Icebergs” is narrated by the daughter’s lonely widowed father, himself adrift without his wife, captive of a pricey home meant for their life together in retirement. The daughter shatters his unhappy peace and breaks with the security and stability he offers her.
Candy, as a nurse’s aide in a VA hospital, looks on terrible wounds and deprivation, while the reader of Marisa Silver’s “The Visitor” wonders when Candy will feel something aside from clinical interest. Throughout the story, Candy wants to pry a reaction from her latest patient, a soldier who “was three-quarters gone. Both legs below the knee and the left arm at the shoulder.” Her own mother proved graphically to Candy that love was weaker than an addiction to drugs. The heroic figure in “The Visitor” is Candy’s grandmother, never a visitor to her emotions, willing to make impossible decisions. The story sticks closely to Candy’s point of view while simultaneously pulling the reader far enough away to see what made her the way she is and what might spring the trap.
Karen Brown’s story “Isabel’s Daughter” circles around the child of the title but lands on the character of the narrator. It’s possible to see all first-person fiction as being about the narrator in the end; in this case the sweeping generalization seems true. The delicacy with which Brown handles the narrative gives the reader the ability to see the child’s life through two different perspectives at once.
Two stories about mothers illustrate the grip of love; in both, the mothers knowingly distort the child’s fate. Caitlin Horrocks’s character in “This Is Not Your City” has left her country, language, family, and friends behind to better her life and her child’s. But her bargain with the devil—an arranged marriage with an old man about whom she knows nothing and whose language she doesn’t understand—teaches her daughter not about love or survival but about selling herself. In one arresting moment, the mother borrows her child’s underwear to pose for a provocative photograph in order to find a new life. Yet the lesson of survival proves stronger than the example of self-degradation, and perhaps in this case maternal love will conquer the child’s righteous anger.
“The Nursery” by Kirsten Sundberg Lunstrum is a story that grows on you, especially in repeated readings, until its full quiet horror is apparent. The idea of mothers as monsters reminds us of Medea, perhaps of Joan Crawford and her hangers. The mother in Lunstrum’s story doesn’t believe in the possibility of trust, and relies only on security she can provide. When she betrays her son, she’s left with her life of raising plants that will mature in other people’s gardens.
E. V. Slate’s main character in “Purple Bamboo Park” is a woman who provides child care, but it is the caregiver who’s more vulnerable than the child here. Slate’s moving story is about power and how differences of class, money, and education—but mostly money—make a helpless child of an adult.
Manuel Muñoz’s “Tell Him about Brother John” is a layered story about the nature of love, how it pulls you toward it as strongly as it pushes you away. The narrator grew up on Gold Street in California’s Valley, Muñoz’s fictional locale as Winesburg, Ohio, was Sherwood Anderson’s. On his annual visit home from Allá, from Over There, he’s told to visit Brother John, abandoned as a boy, who lives next door. John also escaped to Allá but returned to Gold Street, battered and brokenhearted. He is open about his pain, which the narrator in his closed, closeted heart can’t bear. In the narrator’s complex life on Gold Street, it isn’t being gay or Mexican American or living Allá that creates his palpable sense of danger, it’s being human and having a heart ready to be broken again, and of acknowledging the truth about his life or his neighbor’s.
“The House Behind a Weeping Cherry” holds a world of exploitation, helplessness, and forbidden hope. Ha Jin’s love story about a factory worker and a prostitute has a weird cheerfulness as they rise above the enormous difficulties of their lives. The story shows us the rarity of freedom and what some few individuals do to try to bring it to their lives.
In Judy Troy’s “The Order of Things,” adulterous lovers who are interwoven in their community and families plot to join their lives. Troy’s story is as much about spiritual faith as it is about romantic and sexual love, though it’s convincingly about those emotions too. Troy’s clear, straightforward prose ensnares the reader in the lovers’ complex perceptions and decisions.
The title of Mohan Sikka’s “Uncle Musto Takes a Mistress” sets a comic tone, and the characters’ melodramatic emotions and relationships are written broadly enough that for much of this young writer’s fine story the reader sits back in amusement. Then the story’s comedy reverses course; what was comical or silly seems poisonous and destructive. A harmless, even useful love affair becomes the cause of division and isolation in a family.
John Burnside’s “The Bell Ringer” brings to its reader a taste of desire and of disaster. In a small community a lonely woman decides to come together with others in the ancient activity of music making, in this case, bell ringing. Perhaps it is her initial willingness to join one group that opens her to other possibilities for communication and even intimacy. Part of the story’s strength lies in the writer’s respect for his character’s compromises and her range of feeling. The beauty of the story lies also in the writer’s language and his ability to describe both characters and place so that we’re involved emotionally before we know it.
In Andrew Sean Greer’s “Darkness,” three old friends are fleeing a disaster; two are lovers, the third an acute observer of human behavior. The story’s form of short sections imitates the characters’ journey and reveals the internal shortcomings and triumphs of human love and friendship.
Viet Dinh’s “Substitutes” begins before the fall of Saigon. Narrated in first-person plural, the story traces the changes Communist rule brings through the substitute teachers the students endure. Their most significant lesson is about their own future, and how they must learn to behave in order to survive peace.
Paul Theroux’s “Twenty-two Stories” and Roger Nash’s “The Camera and the Cobra” demonstrate the place of stories in our lives. In the latter, a new doctor is posted to an Egyptian village on the edge of the Sahara and the Great Bitter Lake. He brings with him a camera through whose lens he learns to understand his position as a doctor and the ever-changing, ever-stable nature of the world around him. In a new place, assuming grave responsibilities, the doctor uses his camera to contain and reframe his experience. One disease looks like another. A fox and a hawk are mistaken. He asks, “Was this, after all, how life had to be, with events—even lives—overlapping like crabs and presenting as each other?”
Paul Theroux’s “Twenty-two Stories” can be read as twenty-two separate offerings or as one whole with twenty-two pieces. The reader is free to choose how many stories to make of this one, and to find the places of congruence and difference, framing and reframing the experiences Theroux so economically delineates.
What is obvious for Theroux’s story is true of all the stories in The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories 2009. It is up to the reader to participate—to decide what each story is about, or how many things the story is about, and to discover how the writer created the singular world that is the story. In the end, the art of the short story is sustained by its reader.