Sunday, May 27, 2012

PEN/O. Henry: 2012—Favorite Stories, Kindle Problems, and a Footnote on Where the Stories were Published

Yiyun Li, “Kindness”

In her essay on why Yiyun Li’s story “Kindness” is her favorite in this year’s PEN/O. Henry Stories, Mary Gaitskill says that interpretation of any kind seems “disrespectful” to the story.  After having read the story three times, I would say, rather, that “interpretation” is unnecessary.  The very fact that most of Gaitskill’s essay is simply a summary of the plot and a description of the central character of “Kindness” suggests that there is very little else to say about it.  It is a tale about one Chinese woman’s lonely life—fit stuff for a novel, but not a short story.  I have written about “Kindness” earlier on this blog in my discussion of Li’s collection Gold Boy, Emerald Girl when it was nominated for the Frank O’Connor Prize.   I was not impressed by the story then; I am not impressed by it now.

 Li says in her author comments that she patterned “Kindness” after one of her favorite William Trevor novels, Nights at the Alexandra. She says as she wrote it, she imagined her narrator speaking to Trevor’s narrator, since both characters lead stoically solitary lives. Although the central character in “Kindness” seems an exemplum of Frank O’Connor’s famous characterization of the short story as the “Lonely Voice,” Yiyun Li’s story is not a short story at all—not even, as Daniyal Mueenuddin suggests in his discussion of what the story is his favorite, a “novella.”  It is just a novel that happens to be shorter than most novels, although it is indeed the longest piece in this year’s PEN/O. Henry.  

With all due respect, I suspect that Gaitskill and Mueenuddin’s choice of the story as their favorite this year primarily reflects their preference—and the preference of most readers—for the novel form over the short story, especially if the novel provides some information about a hitherto unfamiliar culture in a linear way.  Both Gaitskill and Mueenuddin emphasize that it is the voice of the character Moyen that holds the story together, with Gaitskill saying it is her “modesty that gives the story its quiet desolate beauty” and Mueenuddin arguing that it is Moyen’s subtlety, which he sees a form of “manners,” that draws us into sympathy with her.

I did not feel that in any of my readings of the story.  What Gaitskill and Mueenuddin admire as Moyen’s modesty and manners, I see only as the simplicity of a character who holds back from any engagement with others because of her timidity, naïveté, and fear.  More acted upon than acting, Moyen is a nonentity who goes through life passively, with little or no emotional reaction to those around her.  Gaitskill says “Kindness” is an “ordinary story.  It is terrible how ordinary it is.”  I agree that it is a very ordinary story, and that is why I do not care for it.  It may be the favorite story of these two writers, but that may be because they prefer novels to short stories. 

Alice Munro, “Corrie”

I have already posted previously on Alice Munro’s story “Corrie,” (Oct. 18, 2010—“Corrie”) and I have written about it in some detail in the introduction to my forthcoming book: Critical Insights: Alice Munro.  I quote two paragraphs from that blog post:

“The complexity of Munro’s short story is nothing like the complexity of a novel.  In a novel, we are interested in particular people in a particular situation at a particular time and place.  We make judgments on those people, as if they were like real people who live down the street or that we know from school or work.  If she were a character in a novel, we might say to Corrie, “Stupid woman, you are throwing your life away on that self-centered man, who will never leave his wife and come marry you.”  We might say to Ritchie, “You worthless bastard.  How could you ruin the life of this woman, while cheating on your wife?”

 But this short story does not lead us to make those kinds of judgments.  Instead, it allows us to contemplate not a particular affair, but rather the quintessential meaning of “affair.”  This is what Chekhov does so brilliantly in “The Lady with the Pet Dog,” a story that Munro knows is the classic “affair” story.  And “affair” is about secrecy, sacrifice, selfishness, retribution, and stasis.  This story does not embody a novelistic complexity about the evolution of experience over time, but rather short story complexity about the revelation of a secret that has sustained an intolerable situation for which someone always has to make payment.  We don’t have to get inside the head of Ritchie to see him scheme, nor inside the head of Corrie to see her suffer.  We only have to stand back a bit and watch this static universal drama reveal its dusty secrets.”

I, like Ron Rash, single out “Corrie” as my favorite in this year’s PEN/O. Henry.  I agree with Rash that short stories are closer to poems than to novels and that “Corrie” is “constructed with the precision of a formal poem.”   Rash says that each time he reads the story he becomes more aware of how “integral each detail is to the whole” with everything from paragraph breaks to commas set down in its “essential place.”  In my opinion, that is how it should be in a great short story.  Rash is just right to quote Muriel Spark’s judgment, “The role of the artist is to deepen the mystery.” That is indeed what Alice Munro has always done so very well.

Other Stories in PEN/O. Henry

 I have only discussed half the stories in this year’s PEN/O. Henry.  I read all the stories, but some of them just did not teach me anything, and I would find it tedious to talk about them.  I do, however, recommend the following three stories:  John Berger’s “A Brush,” Mark Slouka’s “The Hare’s Mask,” and Anthony Doerr’s “The Deep”—all three which seem to me to be models of what the short story does best—create a universal complex human experience by the careful poetic use of language.

Reading Stories on the Kindle Fire

One final word about my experience reading these stories on my Kindle Fire:  I prefer the book to the pad for reading short stories.  In fact, now that I have read PEN/O. Henry 2012 on the Kindle, I will probably order a paperback copy of it for my library, for I just do not trust the existence of the stories on a hard drive or in the cloud.  I know that when I buy a book, I buy the words and ideas, not the paper pages and covers, but there is something very comforting to me to be able to look at my shelves and see those books lined up there.  I can trust that nothing short of flood or fire will destroy them, whereas a hard drive is volatile and vulnerable and a cloud is downright flighty and undependable.

Another problem with reading these stories on the Kindle are the highlighting and note taking functions.  I did purchase a stylus and have found highlighting is much more accurate with it. Taking notes on the small touch screen is also easier with a stylus, though I still cannot take notes on the Kindle as easily as I do in the margins of my books.

The most troublesome problem I have had is that after highlighting and taking notes on several stories, I opened my Kindle one morning to find all the highlights and notes had disappeared.  And I cannot seem to get them back.  I checked several discussion groups and discovered this is a common problem with the Kindle Fire.  I do not know why Amazon has not dealt with it. My highlights and notes are all available on the Amazon website at, but they exist there simply in a list; they no longer exist where I want them—in the stories themselves on my Kindle hard drive or in the cloud. This is a serious problem for folks like me who read short stories interactively rather than passively.  I appeal to Amazon to fix this.  If anyone out there has a solution to this problem, I would love to hear it.

Footnote on Sources of the Stories in PEN/O. Henry Award and Best American Short Stories

The Cumulative Indexes volume of the ten-volume fourth edition set of Critical Survey of Short Fiction that I edited recently for Salem Press includes the tables of contents for all the volumes of the Best American Short Story Series and the O. Henry Award series (named the PEN/O. Henry Award since 2009). The Best American Short Story series began in 1915; the O. Henry Award series began in 1919. (Note:  If you are interested, the first BASS volume of 1915 is available as a free Kindle download from Amazon.  If you do not have a Kindle, you can download a Kindle player on your computer and then download and read the stories in that first volume.)

I did a casual survey of the BASS and O. Henry volumes for the past twelve years just to see where most of the chosen stories were originally published.  You might be interested to know that approximately 50% of all the stories in the last twelve years in both annual volumes come from just eight different sources:  Here they are, in approximate percentages:

The New Yorker—20%
Tin House—6%

No surprise that The New Yorker accounts for the most prize-winning stories: 
They publish over fifty a year compared to usually no more than twelve in the others.
And they pay better than any of the others; thus, well known writers submit there.

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