Book awards and prizes for literature are marketing vehicles for publishers, distributors, and authors. The O’Henry Prize is almost 100 years old, having been reconstituted as PEN/O’Henry in 2009. The prize is awarded to 20 English language short stories published in American and Canadian periodicals. There are no nominations from each periodical. All short stories from each periodical published during the year are reviewed. The series editor of the Prize chooses the 20 PEN/O’Henry prize stories, which a panel of 3 distinguished writers then review to choose their favorites. Laura Furman has been the series editor of the Prize since 2002. A teacher, and award-winning short story writer the choices are, as with all prizes, subjective. In 2012 she chose published stories from The New Yorker (4), Zoetrope (3), Ecotone (2), The Threepenny Review (2), Harper’s (2), A Public Space (2), New England Review, Orion, Subtropics, Santa Monica Review, and McSweeney’s Quarterly Review. The 3 writers chosen for 2012 were Mary Gaitskill, Daniyal Mueenuddin and Ron Rash. The first two liked Yiyun Li’s “Kindness” and the latter, Alice Munro’s “Corrie”. 200 publications were reviewed in 2012, but only 11 had stories chosen that were awarded a prize. There were 5 “runner-up” stories from Granta, A Public Space, The Iowa Review, World Literature Today and Zoetrope.
Literature, like all art is subjective. There are likely 20 other “best” English language North American short stories for 2012. I suspect, that as in life, who you know, or who you are, plays a role in choice of the stories. The Prize book does need to be marketed and sold.
I think the Prize winning stories might be more interesting if there was a process for nominating stories, or the method of choosing recipients was altered. Bookstore patrons at large, a panel of editors chosen at random from the 200 publications, or readers of each publication for that publication, might nominate the best story for the year, from which a panel of distinguish writers could choose the 20 winners. The series editor could one prize winner from or independent of the nominated stories.
There are many ways to democratize this award, but it needs to happen. Given the volume of literature prizes, it would refresh this prize. Whether the prize should be expanded to all English language short stories, is probably unnecessary. Man Booker’s recent announcement that it will expand its prize beyond authors in the Commonwealth drew negative reaction from Jim Crace, a current short-listed author of the “Harvest”.
“Kindness” (A Public Space) was not the best story in this anthology. As a matter of form, at 70 pages it strained the form of a short story. It is a story of a solitary, emotionally neutered young woman in the People’s Republic of China, whose memory of rebuffed random acts of kindness are ultimately understood by her as kindness.
The best story in my opinion is Ann Packer’s “Things Said or Done”. It was published in Zoetrope. It is a comedy, that is serious. The first sentence ambiguously is, “By the way, my father says, ‘I’m probably dying.” You think drama, but it is dramatic. A divorced daughter, the progeny of her parents’ failed marriage, is chaperoning her hypochondriac father at her brother’s wedding to a much younger bride Cressida, while trying to deal with her estranged passive aggressive mother who finally communicates. Cressida is innocent here, although her father-in-law calls her Clytemnestra. The title of the story is taken from a passage of Yeat’s “Vacillation”. The subject is regrets, but you will not regret reading this. For those who are writers, Ms. Packer’s description of all her rewrites, is worth picking up this otherwise disappointing anthology.
There are a few other good stories.
“Nothing Living Lives Alone” by Wendell Berry (The Threepenny Review) is a story about the loss of our sense of “place”. It is simple but admirable in argument. Home is where there is some permanence. The regret stays with you.
Another worthy story is “A Birth in the Woods” by Kevin Wilson (Ecotone). A child is a brutal victim of his parents’ openness in child rearing.
“Eyewall” by Lauren Groff (Subtropics) is also well written. A woman rides out a hurricane with remembrances of loves lost.
“The Hare’s Mask” by Mark Slouka (Harper’s) is about how the Holocaust fear of a child is as an adult transferred to his child. It craftily transforms from a fishing story to its ultimate purpose.
Pleasant stories are “East of the West” by Miroslav Penkov (Orion) and “A Brush” by John Berger (Harper’s). The former is a Balkan tragedy, the latter a redemption through the art of giving, from the Khmer displacement. “Boys Town” by Jim Shepard (The New Yorker) is about the emotionally and economically displaced, exhibited through an unemployed, divorced Vet with limited visitation rights. It is an underbelly that continues to grow sores.
“Rothko Eggs” by Keith Ridgway (Zoetrope) is a conversationally written slice of adolescent girl existence. A coming-of-age tale.
A story about a rich country girl who has an affair with a married man, Alice Munro’s “Corrie” (The New Yorker) is well written but predictable. The series editor was surprised by the ending, but I don’t think most readers will be.
Set in the Depression, the compressed life of a heart ailing young boy is inflated by a young girl who in Anthony Doerr’s “The Deep” (Zoetrope) shows him early love and the wonders of nature.
Some stories satisfactory. Prizes unfortunately raise expectations.
“Uncle Rock” is a story of a single mom and her young son, who is coming to grips with a suitor of his mom. “The Vandercook” is a little more compelling, intertwining economic role reversal in a marriage with financial stress and racial prejudice. Understanding and passivity are reciprocals in this story. “Leak” is about a doomed love triangle.”Naima” is also about child rearing in Egypt, with the parent and servant being predictably reversed.”Mickey Mouse” is about an artist conscripted to create a Japanese equivalent of Mickey Mouse, for Japanese propaganda purposes during WW II.”The Woman Who Lived in the House, by Silvatore Scibota (A Public Space), to me are two stories. The first is of a marriage’s disintegration and the second about an infanticidal stray dog that adopts the divorced husband upon his return to Iceland. The connection of the two stories seemed forced to me. The first story was the more interesting of the two.
Finally, there are stories that should not be in this anthology.
I could not get through “The First Wife”, which given its 20 page length is a statement. It is a story about the doomed relationship of a movie star. There is nothing extraordinary about the writing. As an alternative, I’d go to the supermarket and read the tabloids on the checkout line. Marginally better, but tedious, “Phantoms” is a case study of the spirits in one town. It is actually written as if a case study. I think an author like Kathyrn Davis would have done better with this theme. Its faux journal style just does not work.