The O. Henry Prize Stories 2019 is an excellent collection, one that will creatively and intellectually stimulate even the most demanding reader.
The O. Henry Prize Stories is an annual highlight, a collection of the 20 “best” pieces of short fiction from the previous year. The O. Henry Collection is arguably one of the two most prestigious collections of its kind, the other being the Best American Short Fiction series, and where Best American skews a bit more traditional, The O. Henry Prize Stories have often been a bit more varied, more global and featured a more intriguing blend of writers. This year is no different, with writers at as young as 25 and as old as 78 who are originally from places as diverse as Kansas, Thailand, China, Nova Scotia and Hawaii. And their stories are set all over as well, covering areas such as Spain’s Basque Country, Hawaii’s Happy Valley, Laos, Turkey and beyond.
This is the 100th edition of The O. Henry Prize Stories and though the series has changed much over the years it seems to have finally settled into its current form, in which the series editor (Laura Furman, who has had the job since 2003) chooses the 20 winning stories from a group of those nominated by a select list of literary magazines. Then three guest jurors (Lynn Freed, Elizabeth Strout and Laura Vapnyar) are invited to choose their favorite story of the collection and to write an essay about that story’s merits. This gives The O. Henry Prize Stories a sort of double appeal in that it serves as both a tantalizing collection of short fiction and an excellent work of literary criticism. Furman gives her thoughts on each piece and, pleasingly, the authors of each story are also invited to write a paragraph or two about their own story.
All of the stories in this collection are well-written and the prose and language are wonderfully varied. Standouts include John Keegle’s wildly imaginative “Synchronicity,” Bryan Washington’s eye-opening “610 North, 610 West,” Sarah Hall’s clever, curious “Goodnight Nobody” and Moira McCavana’s hardy, hearty “No Spanish,” but all of the stories included have earned their place in the collection, which doesn’t always seem to be the case with “best of” collections in the literary world, some of which seem to grant entry on reputation alone. It is also great to see how many female authors are included here, as many of these collections unfairly skew male.
As with any “best of” list, the person choosing can really only work with what has been produced by others. Still, there are a few too many stories about writers and/or universities and a disproportionate amount of them are set in or around New York City. Of course the reason for this is likely that more short stories are written about writers and set in New York City, but for a series so varied it’s a shame to see that these old clichés live on in this edition. The stories are also on the whole pretty heteronormative, which again could be attributed to the pool from which they are chosen but doesn’t reflect the movement of the industry – or entertainment at large – as a whole. And while the publications from which the stories are chosen are all excellent, there is so much short fiction out there coming from such a variety of sources that it would be great to see O. Henry find a way to expand its gaze. In doing so, they might also find some stories that are formally more experimental. Short fiction is branching out in so many interesting directions that it would be great to see some non-traditional forms break up the action here. Also, there is an odd amount of violence against animals within the collection’s pages, which is disturbing but which may also simply point to the way in which society is moving. Finally, it is odd that in a collection named for the kind of the surprise ending, hardly any of the stories end with a surprise!
The O. Henry Prize Stories 2019 is an excellent collection, one that will creatively and intellectually stimulate even the most demanding reader. The variety is heartening and striking, particularly regarding the ages, origins, cultures and genders of the writers and their characters. Most importantly, the stories themselves – and the writing about those stories – are thought-provoking, entertaining and vital.