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A reader, given a moment with a writer, will often pose the question: “Do you have a reader in mind when you write?”
The question is as interesting as the many answers it inspires, for the thrust of the reader’s question is, “How did you know me?”
Sometimes a story matches an incident in the reader’s life; at other times the congruence is to an emotional, spiritual, or intellectual experience. The short story, even more than the novel, creates an instant and lasting relationship between writer and reader, perhaps because we experience the story and its characters as we do life. Our understanding of the lives of others, even those we think we know well and whom we love, comes over time yet in intense glimpses, revealed most often by stress or loss, the twin capitals of the short story’s dominion. The peace of daily life, even the dullness of it, is what is decimated in the short story and replaced by the nightmare or sometimes the consolation of understanding another’s existence or our own. The realization, often called compassion, that everybody else lives in their own unique and solitary universe, can feel shattering, liberating, even amusing, depending on how the reader comes to it. Through our experience of the short story, we are better than we are in life, more ready to be empathic, more ready to see why another made the choices he did.
The writer, whose imagination and voice have given us this brief and intense experience through language alone, often becomes a source of curiosity for the reader, who wishes for further clarification. Do you have an ideal reader? Did I get it? Did you write it for me? The literal answer has to be no, but literal answers aren’t everything.
Years ago, when I had the opportunity to publish a story by Hortense Calisher in American Short Fiction, I asked her so many questions about the manuscript that she finally declared, “Posit an intelligent reader.” The intelligent reader, she meant, can tolerate waiting for full information and can survive the absence of data. The reader of fiction doesn’t have the same expectations as a newspaper reader. The intelligent fiction reader, in fact, wants to suspend judgment and disbelief, to take a vacation from daily attention to gain another kind of attention through the story. As a writer, teacher, and editor, I’ve come to see that, in fiction, mystery is as important as transparency.
I cannot answer all the questions that readers will have about the twenty stories included in The O. Henry Prize Stories 2003. Neither can the writers and neither can our three jurors. As intelligent, perceptive, and interesting as the remarks about the stories by our jurors and writers are, there is no such thing as a final understanding of a good short story. Authors can’t know everything, and any good work of art lends itself to revisiting and reinterpretation. In The O. Henry Prize Stories 2003 two of the three jurors were most taken with the same story—and for quite different reasons.
At its best, the experience of reading a short story is an immersion into the complete world of the story. Mavis Gallant, to whom The O. Henry Prize Stories 2003 is dedicated, asked readers of her selected stories not to read her book straight through. “Stories are not chapters of a novel,” she wrote. “Read one. Shut the book. Read something else. Come back later. Stories can wait.” Sometimes, though, the hunger to read trumps everything else, and the reader goes straight on to the next story and the next. The stories in this collection are arranged so that the reader can move from the beginning to the end of the book with pleasure.
Finding the twenty stories for The O. Henry Prize Stories 2003 meant reading many times that number. I’m an incorrigible reader, so even when a story was not of the quality of a prize story, I often finished it to find out how it ended. After a thousand or so stories, my habit was bent if not broken. Any tedium associated with the necessity of sorting through so much material was balanced by the thrill of finding a prize story. Some of the stories I chose the moment I finished them; some needed two or three readings and comparison to other excellent possibilities. A list of fifteen additional recommended stories appears on page 342. In a vast ocean of published prose, they and their writers are worth remembering.
This year we have welcomed all English-language writers who appeared in North American publications, regardless of citizenship. This means we can include Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, A. S. Byatt, and William Trevor, whose work rightly belongs in the O. Henry collection. The venerable O. Henry is enriched by the inclusion of such wonderful writers in our common English language.
The longest story in The O. Henry Prize Stories 2003 stretches the conventional idea of the short story. Some might argue that it should be called a novella, yet in the time of Henry James’s “Turn of the Screw” and Anton Chekhov’s “My Life,” “Train Dreams” by Denis Johnson wouldn’t have been thought especially long. The shortest story in the 2003 collection, “Kissing” by William Kittredge, would now be called a short short. Both stories evoke decades of personal life and human history. Both achieve a world unto themselves. The O. Henry’s mission is not to build walls around the short story, but to demonstrate how generous and flexible the form can be.
Although the twenty stories in this collection are very different, some qualities and concerns are shared. There are folkloric, larger-than-life elements in “The Thing in the Forest,” “The Shell Collector,” “Swept Away,” and “Train Dreams.” “Meanwhile” uses every means of communication possible, including e-mail, to illustrate the shapes love can take in extremis. “Two Words,” “God’s Goodness,” and “Lush” are also moving portraits of love molded by a crisis of physical deterioration. In “The American Embassy,” “Bleed Blue in Indonesia,” “Burn Your Maps,” “What Went Wrong,” and “The Story,” we see characters living with the aftereffects of war and repression, though the thrust of those stories is not primarily political. In “Election Eve,” national politics serve as a convenient metaphor for the main character’s contentious marriage. A number of stories revolve around the effect of a particular moment or action in a character’s life, such as the stunning accident in “Irish Girl” and the foolish benevolent act that brings such desperate trouble to the carver’s family in “Sacred Statues.” Other stories offer the pattern of the main character’s life, like that of the dancer in “The High Road,” who understands at last how to suffer for love. As ever, Alice Munro in “Fathers” gives us the short story as a meditation on the past, the considered reflection of a character on the formation of her heart and mind. “Fathers” has in common with “The Thing in the Forest” middle-aged characters wondering who it was that they were so long ago. With the death of one man in “Train Dreams,” a history of the world is obliterated.
In 1926, there was a horse race for The O. Henry Prize Stories between “Bubbles” by Wilbur Daniel Steele and “My Mortal Enemy” by Willa Cather. “Bubbles” is a readable tale of horror, seen through the blankly innocent eyes of a much-deceived child. “Bubbles” is dated in its idea of human character in a way that older (and better) stories, including “My Mortal Enemy,” are not. The stories were neck and neck when the committee of judges learned that Cather’s tale was to be published in a separate volume and was therefore unavailable for inclusion. It now seems inconceivable that there was much of a contest between “Bubbles” and “My Mortal Enemy.”
All of which is to say that times change and so does taste. I don’t know any more than the 1926 judges did what will last. We live in times when some predict the demise of the book entirely. We’ll value the songs we love now and let the future sing for its own supper.