Wednesday, May 2, 2012

2012 PEN/O. Henry Award Stories: Preliminary Remarks

Of the twenty stories in the 2012 PEN/O. Henry Award stories, I have already read the following six, either because of my subscriptions to The New Yorker and Harper’s, or because I purchased the books in which they appeared. Although I have discussed these stories in previous blogs, I will reread them and make some brief  additional comments:
Dagoberto Gilb, “Uncle Rock, “ The New Yorker & Before the End, After the Beginning
Yiyun Li. “Kindness” A Public Space” and Gold Boy, Emerald Girl
Steven Millhauser, “Phantoms,” McSweeney’s and Best American Short Stories, 2012
Alice Munro, “Corrie” The New Yorker
Jim Shepard, “Boys Town,” You Think That’s Bad
Mark Slouka, “The Hare’s Mask,” Harper’s

Editor Laura Furman prefaces the book, as usual, with a brief discussion of “How the Stories Are Chosen.”  Furman chooses the twenty stories from stories that have been written in English and published in a U.S. or Canadian periodical; unlike the Pushcart Prize stories, individual stories may not be nominated by editors.  

The three guest writers-this year Mary Gaitskill, Daniyal Mueenuddin, and Ron Rash—are sent the twenty stories with no author or publication identification and asked to write a brief essay on their favorite.  Gaitskill and Mueenuddin both chose Yiyun Li’s “Kindness,” a novella-length story from her book Gold Boy, Emerald Girl, while Ron Rash chose Alice Munro’s story “Corrie,” which appeared in The New Yorker.  It would be na├»ve to think that Mueenuddin and Gaitskill did not recognize “Kindness,” since Li’s book got quite a bit of attention and was nominated for more than one award this past year.  And I seriously doubt that Ron Rash, who has published in The New Yorker, would not have recognized the work of Alice Munro. But it would be cynical to think that these writers chose these stories because they recognized and admired who wrote them.

Four of the stories are from The New Yorker, three from Zoetrope, two from Ecotone, two from Threepenny Review, two from Harper’s, and two from the less-well-known  A Public Space. The other five are from New England Review, Santa Monica Review, Orion, McSweeney’s, and Subtropic. I have no idea if Furman read all the several hundred stories in the periodicals sent to her or whether she had a couple of editorial assistants; she thanks Mimi Chubb and Kate Finlinson, as well as the staff of Anchor books, but she does not say what role they played in the selection of the twenty stories. Nor does Furman say what criteria she, or her first readers, use to make the selections or what role Anchor Books had in the selection.  For example, she does she indicate if Anchor requests that she choose stories or authors that might  sell more books.  Nor does she indicate if she chooses stories with some variety for reader interest.  Does she choose solely those stories she “likes” best or those stories she thinks are the “best” stories?

It is not insignificant to have one of your stories chosen for the PEN/O. Henry collection, for publishers like to say on the back cover that an author of a collection is a “PEN/O. Henry Award winner,” not simply that a story was “included in” the collection.  And it goes without saying that if a writer has several stories chosen for the PEN/O. Henry collection, he or she has a better chance of landing a book contract for a collection of stories.

In her introduction to the 2012 PEN/O. Henry, Furman focuses on the predictable question that folks always pose at author readings: What is the origin of this story?  It is only natural that Furman would discuss this, for in the section of the book entitled “The Writers on Their Work,” the authors are obviously asked to talk about the origin of their stories.  This too is only natural when you think of it, since what else would authors talk about?  They cannot talk about what a story means, for authors do not like writing a story to illustrate a meaning.  In fact, they are often fond of saying they do not know what a story means.  Furman says there can be no definitive answer to a question about a story’s origin, “because the best stories are manifold and open to multiple understandings…. Not even the writer really knows where the story came from.  If that were known, why bother to write.”

As I read these twenty stories and comment on them during Short Story Month, I will also comment on the relationship between the stories and the author’s statements about their origins.

One other preliminary note about my reading these stories:  Last year, I said that although I used a tablet reader to read “disposable” fiction, i.e. novels and biographies, I always bought actual honest-to-god books for short stories, which are never disposable because I read them again and again and often write about them.  However, my wife bought me a Kindle Fire for my birthday in February, and I am enjoying using it—to watch an occasional film on Netflix, to listen to modern jazz on Pandora, to check the weather in a place I plan to visit, etc. 

When Amazon listed the publication of PEN/O. Henry 2012, last month, I started to order the book, but then suddenly decided to get it in a Kindle edition.  The price difference between the paperback and the Kindle edition was not that different—about a buck.  Unless I bought another book to bring the total up to $25.00, I would have to pay a few dollars shipping.  Moreover, I wanted the book immediately rather than having to wait for three days because I was going out of town for a week.  So I ordered it as a Kindle edition.  And sure enough, I had it immediately.

So this is my first experience in reading short stories in a tablet format.  As I am reading these stories I will comment on this experience for those of you who are firmly committed to books, as I am, or who are contemplating shifting from beloved books to technological tablets.

I have just started reading the stories, but have notice a few aggravations and a few pleasures already.
I like being able to read in bed without bothering my wife with the light on, for the Kindle Fire has a lighted screen.  However, I do not like it that I cannot read while sitting in the backyard, for the Kindle screen reflects sunlight. I like being able to listen to modern jazz or classical music on Pandora while I read. 

I have found that I have no reluctance to pick up the Kindle and read a story, whereas sometimes I don’t really feel like reading a book.  I don’t know what that means.  

I like being able to highlight text on the Kindle, but I despise trying to write notes on the on-screen mini keyboard.  Maybe if I was used to texting, it would be easier; I don’t know. 

I don’t like the fact that the Kindle does not provide page numbers, either the original book page numbers or Kindle page numbers (which change if you change the font size).  I will probably have to order a copy of the book if I plan to write about the stories in an article or book, for I cannot document page numbers otherwise.  I also like to flip ahead when I am reading a story to see how many pages are left; it is not as easy to do that with the Kindle, for I have to rub my finger or tap each page to get to the end, and since no page numbers are listed on the table of contents, I cannot check there either.

As I write about these stories this month, I will make more comments about reading stories on the Kindle Fire.  If you have your own experiences with using a table reader, please comment. In case you want to read along with me, I plan to discuss the stories in order as they appear in the book, writing about three or four in each post. I would appreciate hearing your comments on the stories also.  The PEN/O. Henry collection is only about ten bucks in either paperback or Kindle edition—a real bargain regardless of which you choose.


Anonymous said...

I'm so glad to see this - I just started this volume myself, so I'll enjoy seeing your comments.

Right off the bat I can tell you I'm perplexed by "Phantoms." It hit the trifecta - BASS, Pushcart and now PEN/O - and I just don't "get" it. Fine, there are ghosts or something in this town, and it's amusing, but I don't see why it's so acclaimed.

Oddly, I just learned that Seth Fried just won his second Pushcart for "Animacula" which is similar in format - a scientific report on microorganisms with unusual properties - and I loved it.

I'm eager to see what you have to say about some of these. "The Hare's Mask" was one of my favorites from BASS; "Uncle Rock" fell flat for me; and "Boys Town" was overly effective, in that I found it uncomfortably disturbing - but I can't really blame the writer for that, now can I.

Looking forward to your commentary.
--Karen Carlson

Charles E. May said...

Thanks for your comments, Karen. I love Millhauser's work, but was not so sure about "Phantoms" when I first read it. I will look at it again, however. I have not got the new Pushcart yet, but will order it. I will comment on "Uncle Rock" in a day or two and the rest in the next couple of weeks. Thanks for reading my blog.

J. C. Phalene said...

I look forward to reading your reactions to the 2012 PEN/O. Henry Award short stories in the coming weeks.

Also interested in more of your thoughts on reading them in ebook format on a Kindle Fire.

Stories said...

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