"The world which is being pictured by the story writers of today . . . is, by and large, and vividly, this day's, this troubled minute's, world." So Wilbur Daniel Steele wrote in the introduction to the 1943 edition of "The O. Henry Prize Stories." Created 90 years ago as a memorial to the twist-as-ending master whose real name was William Sydney Porter, the idea was to spotlight 20 or so works each year while singling out a top three.
Coming of age during a time that saw the American short story explode as an art form -- and a marketable one, at that -- winners have included William Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor, Cynthia Ozick and Roark Bradford, who took an unlikely first-place seating over Ernest Hemingway.
In 2003, Laura Furman took over as editor and did away with the concept of the short story as racehorse. "If readers' attentions were directed only to the top three stories, then why were the other 17 even included?" she says.
Furman selects the 20 stories each year, reading submissions from the New Yorker to the Atlanta-based journal Five Points. "You're just as likely to stumble over Caitlin Horrocks' first published story as you are Paul Theroux's one-millionth," she says. She then asks a panel of three jurors -- this year it's A.S. Byatt, Tim O'Brien and Anthony Doerr -- to write appendix essays on the one they enjoyed most. The authors whose work has been selected for the book are asked to write an essay on their story's creation, which might seem insular or geeky, but the kind of person who buys a story anthology is precisely the kind of person who'd enjoy a few words on craft from Nadine Gordimer or Ha Jin.
To be sure, the tales in "PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories 2009" (Anchor: $15 paper) don't adhere to any single theme or style, but the standouts manage to mix hints of the fantastical or the hyper-real into complex character studies. Graham Joyce's "An Ordinary Soldier of the Queen" is a Gulf War tale that takes an abrupt turn when the title character finds himself lost in a sandstorm. Andrew Sean Greer's "Darkness" imagines an apocalyptic world reminiscent of José Saramago or Julio Cortázar, in which an elderly couple makes its way out of a Manhattan without power. E.V. Slate's "Purple Bamboo Park" takes us to Beijing, where a housekeeper is trapped in a hellish Sunday afternoon outing with her employer family.
No anthology can be the perfect arbiter of exceptionalism, but even the most dedicated reader can have trouble keeping up with the lit scene. Those who still cling to the promise of the short story can be glad that, for the moment, there is still someone willing to do the heavy lifting.
Ducker is a writer in Los Angeles.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times