Anchor Books The O. Henry Prize Stories
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About the Editor

2010

I recently found confirmation in two different places of my long-held theory about why people read fiction: in an essay in The American Scholar called "Reading in the Digital Age" by Sven Birkerts and in Millicent Bell's book Meaning in Henry James.

According to both sources, neurophysiologists and literary critics agree that human beings are inveterate creators of narrative. Our brains are disposed to make a story. Given disparate descriptions, expository sentences, and lines of dialogue, the reader tries to put together a coherent narrative with a single meaning, in the words of Millicent Bell, who calls this a "reader compulsion." The reading mind goes beyond mere following of the plot—this happens and this happens and this happens—to seek what E. M. Forster describes as "value," which bestows meaning on plot.

Because of its intensity, the short story is demanding of its reader. In The Pen/O. Henry Prize Stories 2010, attention must be paid to grasp John Edgar Wideman's "Microstories," as a series of moods or declarations, or as one story. Damon Galgut's "The Lover" is a mélange of the present and the past, challenging the reader to distinguish between memory and wish, and to make the story of that combination. Annie Proulx's matter of fact, horrifying "Them Old Cowboy Songs" asks its reader to put together events happening simultaneously to different characters. Lore Segal's "Making Good" has a light touch with the complicated questions of forgiveness and rage, and the reader's job is to read between the lines of her masterful story.

Readers come to the short story exactly for such demands. Like the reader of poetry, the reader of the short story wants to pay full attention to a literary work in which nothing is random or irrelevant.

The short-story form is also famously demanding of its writer. If you'll look at the statements of our authors in The Pen/O. Henry Prize Stories 2010, you'll find that stories begin with a word, a gesture, a song—and that's the easy part. Each of our authors brings to The Pen/O. Henry Prize Stories 2010 an individual vision and definition of the form. For each—and from each—there is no such thing as the one-and-only short story; in skilled hands, it is never the same twice. In a lifetime of writing stories, such as William Trevor's, Wendell Berry's, Annie Proulx's, and Alice Munro's, the location, voice, tense, and atmosphere of the story vary enormously.

In a collection of short stories by a single author one finds similarities and differences among the stories, and so it is in The Pen/O. Henry Prize Stories 2010. Each story, whether by an author well-established or one new to the reader, represents a chance taken, an instinct tested, and the hope that the created world burns with life.

--Laura Furman
Paris, France
April 2010
(Copyright © 2010 Laura Furman)

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(photo © Ave Bonar)