Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Laura Forman (editor): The O. Henry Prize Stories

If you bought The O. Henry Prize Stories (2007) in England, you would, I think, be able to claim your money back from the bookseller, under the terms of the Trades Descriptions Act: because this book does not, in my opinion, deliver what it offers on the label.

The problem lies in the use of the name O. Henry. Label this collection The Best Literary Short Stories of the Year, and I have no problem: apart from wanting to know whose opinion is involved in the word 'best'. But to stick O. Henry on the front cover is, in my opinion, misleading.

O. Henry is comparatively little known these days, but he made his name a hundred or so years ago as a writer of short stories of a particular kind. He was, as any standard internet biography will tell you, a master of the surprise ending, the twist in the tale, the plot 'which turns on an ironic or coincidental circumstance.' In short, he was popular, and commercial. And the stories offered in his name, at least in the 2007 edition, are by no means what I would call popular or commercial. Far from it.

It turns out that, in 1918, some eight years after O. Henry died, his friends decided to establish a memorial to him in the form of an annual collection of short stories. The first such book appeared in 1919, and, apart from the odd interruption, there have been similar collections ever since.

Currently, the year's 'best' stories are chosen by Laura Furman. Personally, I think that (given the title of the annual series) the editor might reasonably have been expected to be someone actively involved in the popular magazine business. But no: she's a Professor in the English Department of the University of Texas at Austin.

And so on. You get the idea by now. Authors and agents are not allowed to submit stories for consideration; magazines have to send in complete issues as and when they appear. Not every magazine, it appears, is regarded as equal; the criterion is 'the seriousness of the magazine's commitment to short fiction'. Hence the New Yorker is listed among the magazines scanned for good stories, but Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine is not -- and I doubt very much whether EQMM even bothered to add Professor Furman to their mailing list.

If you like the work of those who graduate from MFA degrees, then this book is for you. But O. Henry wrote stories which were amusing, light, good-humoured, sentimental, and popular. And if you're looking for some of them, forget it. Somewhere along the line, the O. Henry tradition was abandoned as something distressingly vulgar and common. In which case, it's rather naughty to go on using his name.

If you want more information about this annual series, it has its own web site. And if you want to read the great man himself, quite a number of the stories are now available online. My favourite is The Ransom of Red Chief. This is a story which, as I can testify from my teaching days, is much enjoyed by children. But I don't think kids would sit still for long if you tried reading them any of the 2007 stories which are offered with the same brand name attached.


Jon said...

I suspect one reason they don't attract any good stories is because good writers know that their work is valuable property, and are not about to give it away to a low-budget publication. Because - unless there's a prize of some kind which is not mentioned on the site - this seems to be what they are being asked to do. New writers need the publicity: established writers generally prefer cash.

Anonymous said...

My teeth hurt every time I hear this business about "serious" writers and "litahrary" magazines, as though all other writers are slugs and magazines primitive dreck.

David Isaak said...

Umm, Jon--

Whatever you think of the stories in this collection (I quite like some of them, and didn't care for others), I hardly think that William Trevor or Alice Munro or Ariel Dorfman can be described as "new writers." These people are veterans by any definition of the word.

And, no, these writers didn't "give it away". Trevor and Munro's stories were published first in the New Yorker, and there are other stories in this collection from Harper's, Atlantic, and McSweeney's--pretty much all of the prestige-and-pay markets in America.

I also don't understand how this is a "low-budget" publication. Anchor Books is a well-known and long-established imprint of Random House. And, again, no matter what you think of the stories, and whether or not they provide cash prizes, being selected as one of the O Henry winners has been prestigious in the US for nearly a century now.

And, no, I'm not associated with this publication in any way.

David Isaak said...

And, incidentally, I love O. Henry's own stories.

Anonymous said...

i'm fed up with this shite about literary fiction. Put Ian McEwan in the ring with John Le Carre or Charles McCarry, aged as they are, and they'd use their MI6/CIA unarmed combat skills to break his neck like a dry twig. That's all there is to it.

Maybe because there's generally no money at all in 'literary fiction' (i.e. crap), examplars of this art need a big ego credit in lieu of a cheque, and so practice the long-standing art of looking down their noses at anyone who knows about plot, dialogue, pacing, etc.

Booker Prize winners? Shakespeare would have stomped on them with a cry of rage.

David Isaak said...

Well, call me a fool but I think Le Carre IS literary fiction, whether the critics have realized it or not. I view him as having inherited directly from Graham Greene.

Anonymous said...

I liked some of the stories in this collection a lot, and though I have an MFA, I'm untrammeled by whatever they teach the short-fiction crowd because I didn't do ANY fiction.

That said, it's fun to go back to the first volume (available at my local public library!) and browse the stories. Some of them are unreadable today, in a way that O. Henry's stories rarely are. Some of them are excellent or at least good reading. They are all intended for a popular audience, and that's not a bad thing.

Anonymous said...

Le Carre is Kafka + excitement. Much as i like Kafka, reading him is like climbing a mountain; reading Le Carre is more like skiing. Not that i've done either, mind.