Tuesday, December 31, 2013

2013 O.Henry Award Stories--Part II

Laura Furman, the series editor for the O. Henry Prize Stories (formerly, and temporarily, the Pen/O. Henry Prize Stories {What was that all about?}) is, as far as I know, solely responsible for choosing the twenty stories that appear in the annual volume. I have no way of knowing if her choices are influenced by editorial pressures from the publisher to assure an overall attractive (i.e. profitable) volume. However, three writers are asked each year to read the twenty stories and to "write an appreciation of the story they most admire." According to Furman, the three writers receive the twenty stories in mss form with no identification of author or publication.

This year, the three are Lauren Groff, author of the collection Delicate Edible Birds, Edith Pearlman, author of the excellent collection Binocular Vision, and Jim Shepard, author of, most recently, the collection Like You'd Understand, Anyway.  Groff chose Deborah Eisenberg's "Your Duck is My Duck." Edith Pearlman chose Kelly Link's "The Summer People." And Shepard chose Andrea Barrett's "The Particles."

Groff has some good things to say about the short story as a form, noting that when it is done right, it is a "ferocious creature," adding "A reader, finding herself alone in a room with a great short story, should feel thrilled, unbalanced, alive." But Groff recognizes that such intensity is not for everyone, that many prefer the "long, slow waltz of the novel to the story's grapple and throw."  True that! Several people have said they do not like the 2013 Best American Short Stories volume; I suspect that those folks just don't really like short stories—merely my opinion, of course.

Groff echoes my own insistence that the short story is "not a lesser form" than the novel and suggests that maybe readers just have not been exposed to the "short story geniuses rampant on the earth these days, people like George Saunders and Lorrie Moore and Alice Munro and Mavis Gallant and –cripes almighty!—William Trevor," or for that matter, Deborah Eisenberg."

Groff admits that although she was given the stories to read blind, "if you love short stories passionately, you read them passionately and in great quantities, you begin to be able to see the individual writer's imprint on her story from the very first words." She says she knew "The Summer People" was by Kelly Link after only a few words, that the "The Particles" just had to be by Andrea Barrett, and that "Leaving Maverley" was obviously by Alice Munro.

Groff's choice of Eisenberg's  "Your Duck is My Duck" is a writer's choice of a writer's writer, for it is the unerring rhythm of Eisenberg's sentences that catches her, concluding that it is the kind of story you want to press into the hands of short-story doubters, because it is its own best defense of the form." Although I do not think this is one of Eisenberg's best stories, and it is not my favorite in the book, I do understand why it is Groff's choice.

Edith Pearlman, one of my very favorite short-story writers, says she has a "taste for the inexplicable and the semisurreal in literature and in life."  She found she could not resist Kelly Link's story "The Summer People," a fairy tale which she says "supplies Whys, not Because; endings, not wrappings-up; and it dispenses with that sine qua non of realism, motivation." This is a wonderfully compact definition of what the short story does so well, especially the form's dispensing with motivation, what Flannery O'Connor once called "what some folks would do, in spite of everything."  Pearlman quotes the poet Amy Clampitt who wrote, "who knows what makes any of us do what we do," an insight Pearlman says writing workshops should keep in mind. Amen to that.  Again, I would not have chosen "The Summer People," but again, I understand why Edith Pearlman did choose it.

It is certainly no surprise that Jim Shepard would choose Andrea Barrett's "The Particles."  Both are meticulous writers who scrupulously research their stories in books on history and science.  In answer to an interviewer’s question about whether “historical short stories” provide readers the pleasure of both fiction and nonfiction, Shepard replied:

They do feed the hunger that readers have for nonfiction in fiction. When I first started reading literary fiction, I was struck by how much I was learning – not only about the human heart, which is traditionally what literature is supposed to be about, but also about how the world worked and the way the world was. So when I read Ernest Hemingway’s [short story] “Big Two-Hearted River,” I felt I was learning not only about Nick Adams’s interior but also about fly fishing.”
Although Hemingway always creates such particularized experiences that he does indeed make me want to go fly fishing, I think the fishing information in “River” is only as good as for what Hemingway uses it—a means by which Nick tries to deal with the implications of his war experience.  Indeed, when one gets intrigued by mere “information” in a story, one runs the risk of neglecting the complex human experience the language of the story attempts to create.

In my opinion, Andrea Barrett, Shepard’s colleague at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass.,  does a more convincing job of integrating historical context into a complex human story than Shepard does. Barrett understands some basic similarities between science, history, and storytelling.  She knows that all three construct narratives—whether they are called scientific theories, historical accounts, or fiction--to reveal connections, relationships, the interdependence of all things; all are human efforts to understand, or perhaps construct, what makes life meaningful. Barrett once told an interviewer that after doing graduate work, first in zoology in the late seventies and then in history in the early eighties, she began to see a way to weave science and history together with her love of fiction.

What Shepard likes about "The Particles" is how the story "renders unforgettably that experience of falling in love with experimental science, as if 'tumbling down a well.'"  He also is quite taken by the fact that the story "pulls off the nearly impossible feat of seducing us into imagining fruit flies as fascinating." And within this context of science, there is the human story of the character Sam's inextricable relationship with his old friend and teacher, Axel. Again, although I have always admired Andrea Barrett's stories, this is not, in my opinion, one of her best—failing to hold together in that admirable way that many of her other stories do.  But, I am certainly not surprised that Jim Shepard chose it as his favorite in this collection; I can't imagine him choosing any other.

            I apologize for taking so long to get back to my discussion of this year's O. Henry stories, and for not getting to all of them that I read but, it is December, after all, and I have been blessed with visits from my three children and three grandchildren, and there were, you know, cookies to bake and candy to make, and a turkey to stuff, and, well, you know.  And truth to tell, I just was not as impressed with the O. Henry collection as I was with the Best American collection this year, so was not compelled to get right back to writing about it. You understand.  Tomorrow begins a new day and a new year, and, as my father always said, "If the Lord is willing and the creek don't rise," I will be back at my blog post in January 2014 to talk about the stories I am reading.  I just finished reading a fine little collection of stories by A. E. Coppard that I received from an editor recently.  A pleasure that I am pleased to discuss next week.  Have a safe and happy New Year's celebration and a new year that is everything you wish it to be.



Unknown said...

Thanks for another insightful discussion. I must look up that Pearlman quote about the 'semisurreal' . I find it intriguing too - not the full-blown surreal, but what just might be glimpsed at the corner of the eye.

I also enjoyed reading a bit about your Christmas. It's mid-summer here, of course. I felt pleased that the surf was good for the week our son spent with us, since he lives inland.

Charles E. May said...

Greetings, Dorothy. It is always good to hear from you. I hope the new year brings you all that you wish for and that you enjoy your summer. Actually, it is like summer here in southern California; my three-year old granddaughter and I enjoyed the beach a couple of days before Christmas.

I have just finished reading Eleanor Catton's "The Luminaries," which, as you know, won the Man Booker Prize this past year--a real coup for New Zealand literature, I reckon.

Lord! what a monster of a book! I read it on my Kindle, which, of course, has no page numbers, and each time I flipped back to check the percentage of the book I had read, my shoulders drooped.

I have to write a 2000-word review essay of it for the reference work Magill's Literary Annual. Wish me luck. I will send you a copy of the review if you are at all interested; however, I don't think it will be very interesting.

Be well, my dear, be well.

Dorothy Johnston said...

Thanks for your reply to my comment, Charles. I'm afraid I haven't read 'The Luminaries' yet. As you say, it's rather daunting! But I would love to read your review.