This year’s O. Henry Prize Stories collection is a strong mix of twenty stories by writers who are familiar to me and writers I’ve never heard of before. The familiar names here are William Trevor, Louise Erdrich, Mark Haddon, Tess Hadley, David Bradley, and Stephen Dixon. The collection is dedicated to the Nobel winning storywriter Alice Munro. The rest of the authors were new to me.
One of the reasons I read these ‘Best of’ collections is to find new writers who appeal to me. That is the thing about short stories and fiction in general. I might think a story is wonderful, but you might not care for it very much, and vice versa. Even within my own reading my reactions to a story can vary due to a number of factors, but I always find enough stories I really like in these series to warrant the time spent. This year was no exception.
The author Laura Furman has been the editor of the O. Henry Prize stories since 2003. It is her job to select the stories to include. Each year there are three judges whose task it is to read all the selected stories and choose their favorite among them. Each judge this year picked a different favorite with Tash Aw picking the Mark Haddon story, James Lasdun picking a story by Kristen Iskandrian, and Joan Silber picking a story by Laura van den Berg.
As per usual, my personal favorite is none of the ones the judges picked. My favorite story is ‘Oh Shenandoah’ by Maura Stanton which is about the pursuit of a replacement for a cracked toilet seat in Venice, Italy if you can imagine. It is a perfectly executed story, pleasantly humorous but still with a meaningful point to it in the end. I was not familiar with Maura Stanton before, but after reading ‘Oh Shenandoah’ I will definitely be on the lookout for her fiction. Besides being a poet, she has also written one novel and two story collections before.
Of the twenty stories, three each were first published in the New Yorker and Tin House and two were first published in The American Reader. The others came from a variety of sources.
Stephen Dixon is a writer whose stories I have read several times as they appear in these ‘Best of Year’ story collections. His story ‘Talk’ is about a man sitting on a bench in a neighborhood church garden who realizes that he has not talked to anyone today in the twelve and a half hours he has been awake. The first eight pages are a long monologue about his potential opportunities for conversation. Aspiring writers might be encouraged that a good story could be written about such a prosaic subject, but very few writers could pull it off as well as Dixon does here. The story also got me interested in the ancient Babylonian epic poem Gilgamesh.
The following lines from Tash Aw sum up my thoughts about these O. Henry stories:
“We think we own our memories, we think we construct the narrative of our lives, but in fact we don’t. Things just happen – random events, sometimes boring, sometimes monumental, often just plain weird. We are mere observers to the strangeness of our own lives, the sequence of events that unfolds before us, leaving us bewildered, lost in a blurred landscape, just like the protagonist of ‘The Gun’.”