Lovers of short stories often tout their length: optimal for commutes, waiting in line, reading before bed. These people are correct. The short form also demands a certain perfection the novel does not: its very limitations demand that each word work hard, contributing in perhaps a dozen pages or less a compressed yet complete world. Where the novel has room to sprawl, encompassing the occasional lesser word choice or writerly indulgences, the best short stories are lessons in the art of exquisite miniature, the world writ small yet exceeding its confines by enthralling, entertaining, even horrifying the reader.
The Pen/O. Henry Prize Stories 2011 offers some of the finest short fiction around today. There isn’t a weak story in the book, though inevitably readers will find some works more appealing than others. This is purely a matter of personal taste, and any lover of short fiction—any lover of good writing—is in for a treat, here.
The O.Henry Prize folks are staunchly old-fashioned in their selection methods: only print periodicals may submit work; these publications must submit entire issues, not individual stories. Only periodicals from the United States and Canada are eligible. Internet publications are not considered, which is a shame: however attached many of us may be to print publications, there is excellent literature published on the internet. Further, I write here in an online publication offering valuable commentary and insight into all aspects of culture.
This year’s jurors were A.M. Homes, Manuel Muñoz, and Christine Schutt. The jurors composed essays on their choices, fine reading for the aspiring or simply curious. More fascinating to me were the writers themselves, speaking about what motivated them to write about everything from a dystopian future (“Diary of an Interesting Year”) to the vagaries of love and avalanches (“Your fate hurtles down at You”).
Of the 20 stories in the book, I found several especially striking. Helen Simpson’s “Diary of an Interesting Year” is set in the uncomfortably near future. Humankind has ruined the planet and lawful society has disintegrated into illness, filth, starvation, and mayhem. The narrator, a young woman, receives a birthday gift from her older husband, once her professor: a notebook and ballpoint pen. She uses this valuable gift to record their escape from London and desperate, failed attempt to reach a better life. Reminiscent of Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood, the story is nightmare-inducing.
Judy Doenges, in “Melinda”, successfully gets inside the head of a teenaged methaphetamine addict. Like “Diary of an Interesting year”, “Melinda” is too real to dismiss, to frightening to forget.
In “How to Leave Hialeah”, Jennine Capó Crucet delivers a devastatingly sarcastic indictment of university diversity programs and their effects on students far from home. The narrator, a young Cuban-American, works her way out of Miami’s lower classes into the rarified, freezing air of Northern university life, only to encounter racism, ignorance, and identity crisis. As her new intellectual life leaves her increasingly alienated from her family, the narrator offers an unsparing account of living between cultures. “How to Leave” also pulls off that most difficult of tricks: writing well in second person. This story should be required reading for all MFA students…and all university diversity coordinators.
Several stories have gay or lesbian protagonists, a welcome addition to the many voices of short fiction. Chris Adrian’s “The Black Square” is particularly affecting: a black square opens on Nantucket; to enter it is to vanish. Whether one dies or moves into another, better dimension becomes hotly contested on the internet, attracting many to try their luck. Henry, a middle-aged man mourning the breakup of a relationship, travels to Nantucket with every intention of entering the square, only to find himself unable to act.
In Adam Foulds’s “The Rules are the Rules”, a homosexual priest loses his faith while being forced to hide his true self from his parishioners and the world at large. Lori Ostlund’s “Bed Death” is a small masterpiece of characterization. A couple travels to Malaysia to teach English. The local population thinks them spinsters, a notion they are careful to maintain. But the narrator is an angry, tightly-wound woman unable to adjust to Malaysian society. Increasingly irritated by her partner Julia’s easygoing acceptance of their surroundings, she becomes brutally critical. The couple drifts apart, the end of their relationship summarized in the title, a term lesbians use for couples who have stopped sleeping together.
In “Sunshine”, Lynn Freed creates a surreal revenge fantasy wherein a pedophile finally meets his match. Elizabeth Tallent’s “Never Come Back”, with its struggling millworkers and confused but well-meaning protagonist is reminiscent of both Andre Dubus and Raymond Carver’s work.
I came to The PEN/O.Henry Prize Stories after reading two badly written books. It’s no secret publishing is in dire straits these days, and the chase for the almighty dollar has led many publishing houses to release less than stellar content that may, nevertheless, sell, in an often futile quest to remain solvent. This made reading these stories a welcome shock, followed by despair. Today’s talented writers are forced to the margins: the shrinking “little magazine” market, struggling independent publishing houses, the occasional New Yorker coup.
As writing becomes a less viable profession, most young writers are forced to take “real jobs”, meaning many of today’s brightest talents never get the opportunity to fully hone their craft. They, like the rest of us, are too busy trying to survive. The PEN/O.Henry Prize Stories series are a pleasure, but also an ominous reminder of just one more thing our collapsing support of the arts and humanities is putting in peril.