Short stories are always a crap shoot. They can be masterpieces; a little gem hidden in the pages of a magazine. They can be head scratchers; you finish wondering what the hell that was about! They can be be alternatively irritating, amusing and even boring.
I am by nature a cereal box reader -- you know one of those people whose basic requirement for what they read is that it be printed somewhere. I'm not picky about where. So it should come as no surprise that I always keep at least one short story collection on my Palm. It is there to kill those odd few minutes when I am waiting for something else to happen.
Every year I buy the O Henry Prize stories. And every year I have the same experience. . . There are a couple that I love, a few that I am more or less indifferent to and a couple I actually hate. And I am always mystified as to why these twenty stories are considered the best.
My reaction to the The O Henry Prize Stories 2008 isn't any different. For example, I loved Bad Neighbors by Edward P. Jones and hated A Composer and His Parakeets by Ha Jin. I found Folie à Deux some thing of a head scratcher. And finally (!) A Change in Fashion and A Little History of Modern Music made me smile.
I read them all. My reaction? The best short stories are VERY short on humor. Evidently to be considered for the best you must write serious (read often depressing) stories filled with angst. I would have to characterize most of these stories as high-minded snippets reflecting human pain.
I mean, think about these stories:
- The Transitional Object: grades and sex in Paris.
- Bye-bye Natalia: email correspondence between Ukranian girl and her Cowboy
- The Little Boy: how children survive an incompetent parent
- A Game of Cards: gin rummy and two life long friends
- Other People's Deaths: the etiquette of death
- Prison: surrogate parenting and sharing a womb
- On the Lake: Near drowning and parental guilt
Not exactly a bunch of happy people or funny subjects. And yet these stories have stuck with me all week. I find myself thinking about them at odd moments. Wondering about the characters and ruminating on the nature of humans and their experiences.
I suppose in the long run, that is what makes these stories prize winners.
Here's what the publisher says:
An annual collection of the twenty best contemporary short stories selected by series editor Laura Furman from hundreds of literary magazines, The O. Henry Prize Stories 2008 is studded with extraordinary settings and characters: a teenager in survivalist Alaska, the seed keeper of a doomed Chinese village, a young woman trying to save her life in a Ukrainian internet café. Also included are the winning writers' comments on what inspired them, a short essay from each of the three eminent jurors, and an extensive resource list of literary magazines.