Sunday, September 18, 2016

Part I: O. Henry Prize Stories: 2016

One of my reservations about the O. Henry Prize Stories is that the twenty stories published each year seem solely the choices of the series editor—since 2003, Laura Furman, a short story writer and novelist who is now professor emerita at the University of Texas at Austin.  That means for the past thirteen years, the "winners" reflect her taste and judgment and hers alone. Best American Short Stories series editor Heidi Pitlor, on the other hand, chooses 100 of what she considers the "best" stories and then turns them over to a different guest editor each year who selects his or her choice of the 20 "best." At least with BASS, there are two different judgement calls.
My other reservation is that somehow the O. Henry Prize franchise has managed to publicize the stories that are chosen for the volume as "winners" of a "prize." There is no actual prize, only, as in BASS, republication in the yearly volume. Before Furman became editor, three guest "jurors" chose three stories to appear in first, second, and third place "prize winners." No actual prize was given. Now the three jurors are simply asked to pick their favorite and write a short piece about it.  Still no prize.  But if you do a search of the universities where most of the "prize winners" teach creative writing, you will find a puff piece in their newsletter or alumni review touting one of their faculty as a "winner of the O. Henry Prize."
I have spent the last week and a half reading the twenty stories in this year's collection, and I have that vague feeling of disappointment I often have with the O. Henry Prize stories. Granted, this is a result of only a first reading, and I always read every story I discuss more than once.  But one of the things that bothers me is that most of the stories in this year's volume only need one reading, for they seem to lack the complexity that the" best" stories embody.  And the subtitle of The O. Henry Prize Stories is "The Best Stories of the Year.
The first thing that strikes me about this year's collection is the large number of stories that rest on a "gimmick," or are "one note" tour de force stories that depend primarily on the novelty of the writer's concept or the facility of the writer's prose. I think there is a lot of good writing in the O. Henry stories this year, but not a lot of "good" stories. I suspect there can be bad stories with good writing, but not good stories with bad writing.

Elizabeth Genovise, "Irises"
One of this year's jurors, Lionel Shriver, picked this story as her favorite. Shriver, born in North Carolina, lives mostly in England.  Her story "Kilifi Creek," was in last year's O. Henry Prize Stories; I thought it was too easy and "popular."  But then what do I know? The story won the 2014 BBC National Short Story Contest. Go figure! Furman calls "Irises" very much a "woman's story."
Shriver says that the premise of Genovise's story is not one that she would usually find appealing—that the narrator is an unborn fetus whose mother, Rosalie, is planning to abort her—too precious, too politically partisan, complains Shriver. I guess the fetus pov did not bother her quite so much. (Sidebar: I just read a review of Ian McEwan's new novel Nutshell in the Sunday Los Angeles Times. It appears the McEwan also uses the fetus as storyteller gimmick, in a novel that imagines the events leading up to Hamlet—set in modern London).
However, in spite of her reservations about the politically partisan predictability of the theme, Shriver thought the first sentence--at least the second half of the first sentence, "I am eight weeks in the womb and my life is forfeit"-- had an "artful elegance" that "efficiently" reflects how little the mother cherishes the pregnancy.
I agree with Shriver that the quality of Genovise's prose is high and the style is mostly "cut-glass clear." Shriver says the sentences that stand out as particularly fine do so "because they marry formal grace with trenchant content." Indeed, what more could you ask for in a short story—a style that seems intrinsically at one with the content.  As Shriver points out, the tension in "Irises" is a universal one—between a reputable repetitive life and a risky romantic life. 
Rosalie's husband has never known "immersion in an art, never taken the artist's gamble," while she, having been thrown out of her career as a ballet dancer, "like a vagrant from a freight train," longs for a return. When she discovers she is pregnant, she cannot imagine trading in "the weightless grace of a dancer's body for the anchored solidity of motherhood." When she meets and is drawn to the drifter pianist Joaquin, who shares her addiction to the possibility of loss, a paradox that keeps them both alive, she decides to get an abortion and go away with him.
A great deal of finely wrought language illuminates the story, that is, until Genovise must resort to plot to resolve the tension between the weightless danger of the world of art and the heavy solidity of security.  In an unlikely bit of plot maneuver, Genovise puts Joaquin in the Museum of Science and Industry where he sees an exhibit of the development of a fetus and decides not to meet Rosalie at the train station, so she goes back to her staid husband and foregoes the abortion.
The final plot problem is how to resolve the fetus pov gimmick, which Genovise manages by fast forwarding to the pov of the now adult woman-who-was-a-fetus as she tells her mother she is thinking of leaving her spineless husband and her bully of a son, who make it impossible for her to write the poems she wants to write. And so it goes. As Furman says, very much "a woman's story."

 Geetha Lyer, "The Mongerji Letters"
You can expect fantastic stories to involve some sort of gimmick—a fact that often, unfortunately relegates many such stories to the realm of the "merely generic." Geetha Alyer's story uses the gimmick of the epistolary structure—an old, time-worn technique, albeit here we only get one side of the letter-writing—never the other side, for the communications from the other side are not words, but rather actual creatures that have been discovered by geographic explorations.  We know we are in for this leap of fantasy when we read the first sentence of the second paragraph, referring to a polar bear the sender has stuck in the envelope. It is an amusing concept, and the reader goes from letter to letter, smiling at the description of each new creature that springs miraculously from the envelopes and takes on actual physical life. But the story seems just to depend on the cleverness of the trick, not on any significance of the trick.
Furman observes that fantastical stories are based on some level on familiar human life and then tries to make a case for the "relevance" of the trope of the creatures in the mail. She says the story's tension is between the timelessness of the strange events and "our overwhelming sense that we are watching a dying planet." I don't see that "message." Lyer says the story came from the tactile desire to hold the world in your hands. That makes sense in a metaphoric way, but not when you think about it for very long.

Joe Donnelly, "Bonus Baby"
Furman says this  baseball story is in the mythic tradition of Malamud's The Natural in which the baseball players are great warriors. I am not sure the story carries that much weight.  Instead, what the story depends on is the moment-to-moment experience of the pitcher on the mound and his sense of perceiving himself in a significant situation—confronting the "mystery of the pitch, the enigma of the game, the loneliness of the mound, "the maddening mystery of baseball." Donnelly says the story was inspired by his imagining what it would be like to be on that mound attempting to come to terms with the self and with the game. What makes the story work is the plot suspense of the pitcher's going for a perfect game. Furman says the reader is with the pitcher every inch of the way. Yes, I agree; it's an experience that Donnelly creates quite nicely, but not with the mythic aura or existential weight that he and Furman claim for the story.
As a sad side note, I just read that William P. Kinsella, who wrote Shoeless Joe, the novel that became the basis for the 1989 movie “Field of Dreams,” died in Canada, at age 81. He built a fantasy world of baseball, and for a time there, all of us came to enjoy it.

Sam Savage, "Cigarettes"
Furman says this story is more tender than we might expect for a "meditation on cigarettes." She says it is about choosing and loving. Nonsense!  This is a two-page riff on smoking and has no place in a book claiming to hold the "best stories of the year."  Even if I had not been a smoker for most of my adult life and could not imagine my life without a pack in my pocket, and even if cigarettes had not killed my father and his brother, I still cannot justify this bit of puff, pardon the pun, as being anything more than a little play with language, a sort of MFA workshop assignment.
Even the stories by the best-known and most accomplished writers in this collection seem more like tour de force exercises than like complex stories that spring from something pressing in the writer's imagination and explored with a sense of discovery.

Robert Coover, "The Crabapple Tree"
Furman  notes that this story reads more like a tale from Grimm than a chapter from Winesburg, Ohio. Of course it does, for, as Coover says in his brief comments in "The Writers on Their Work,"  he wrote it to set the Grimm brothers story "The Juniper Tree" on the American prairie. Retelling fairy tales is the way Coover made a place for himself in the so-called postmodern realm of metafiction in 1969 with his short story collection Pricksongs and Descants, featuring such fairytale retells as "The Magic Poker" and "The Gingerbread House." "The Juniper Tree" is a particularly gruesome Grim story, and Coover is obviously having a lot of fun  playing with it, as if to say, "Look, I can still do this, nothing up my sleeve, just the magic of the fairy tale."  By the way, this is the only story in this year's O. Henry Prize Stories from The New Yorker. Furman says the subtext of the story is the "power and anarchy of regret."  More fun than power, it seems to me.

Wendell Berry, "Dismemberment"
I hate to put Wendell Berry's piece in this category of tour de force exercises, for I love his writing for its clarity, its poetry, and its honesty.  But this is less a story than a redo of an old piece that Berry says first appeared in his novel Remembering—how Andy Catlett lost his right hand in a corn picker in 1974 and then, triumphed with a great deal of determination,  ingenuity, and the kind "by God, I can do this" grit that characterizes the Kentucky folks I grew up marveling at.  I love this piece, but it is less a good story than just damn good writing. In her obvious way, Furman notes the piece's "unity of language and thought" that characterizes all the best short stories.

Ron Carlson, "Happiness"
And I love this piece, but it is not a story, but rather a paean to a fishing trip, in which Carlson describes everything in loving detail—including a long list of food stuffs. Furman says that although happiness might inspire, it doesn't last--a truth she says that is not stated but "implied by the aesthetics of the story."  I am not sure how the "aesthetics"--which might be described as a lingering over everything that is pleasing and purely pleasure—suggests this. What implies that happiness does not last is that by its very nature the events described in the story are limited to a certain place and time. Carlson says he recalls the events in the story as giving him a feeling he identified as "happiness," and he wrote the story immediately, afterward wanting to stay close to each small event. It's a joy to read—good meticulous, loving writing, but not a story with any significance or exploration of human complexity.  I am surprised that since Furman called the first story in the collection "very much a woman's story," she did not call this one "very much a man's story."

More comments on The O. Henry Prize Stories 2016 nex


The Story Prize said...

Professor May, a few factual points about the O. Henry Awards. Going back as far as William Abraham's 30-year tenure as series editor of the O. Henry Awards, the series editor has always chosen the twenty or so stories in each volume. That includes the period during which I edited the series, the 1997-2002 volumes. The choices are, as you know, a matter of taste and judgment.

Until 2002, the O. Henry Awards designated first-, second-, and third-prize winners, a practice that dated back to the origins of the series in 1916. The original concept then was to give an award in O. Henry's honor to the author of the year's best story. But the organizers decided to also produce an annual volume of short stories. In those days, and for many years, a panel of three judges selected the top-prize winners from among those stories, a practice I brought back in 1997. For the thirty years before my time, Abrahams had chosen the twenty stories AND the top-prize winners.

There was, in fact, several hundred dollars worth of prize money for the top three stories. And during my time, we created actual, physical awards to present to them, the last of which was a beautiful cast metal trophy in the shape of an O, with a color different finish for each prize. The authors of all twenty stories are considered to have won an O. Henry Award, with inclusion in the volume and the honorarium serving as the prize.

I don't know what happened after I left, but I imagine the publisher was happy to eliminate the top prizes and save paying out the additional prize money each year. That, in my opinion, was unfortunate because the top prizes connected to the history of the prize. The series did, however, keep the judges. That's probably because the publisher felt that having the names of the judges on the cover might bring the series more attention. Currently, as you point out, all they are judging is each one's personal favorite among the twenty.

Charles E. May said...

Thanks for this information, Larry. I did not know there was ever a cash prize for any of the stories. I guess that means yours is the only American Prize with a generous cash award. I know the British are more lavish with prizes for the short story; indeed, it seems the short story is enjoying a revival of interest in England. Thanks again for taking the time to post this. My readers will appreciate it. --Charles