Anchor Books The O. Henry Prize Stories
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About the Editor

2012

Each Spring, it's a great pleasure to see the new PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories. Though I'm familiar with every single page, there's something about having all those pages together between the year's special colors that makes me happy. Our book, whether in traditional form or an ebook, is each year filled with wonderful stories, commentaries by the writers, and wisdom from the year's jurors.

Having work in the PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories means many things to the authors, but the most frequent comment from them is that being in the annual collection extends the life of the story. There are no actuarial charts for short stories. The closest thing to immortality a literary work and its author can hope for is inclusion in the canon, as we call the list of works considered essential to literature. Of course, there are debates about how to define the canon and different versions are established over time. For the moment, though, let's leave it there: the canon is a story's chance at lasting beyond the life of publication in a magazine, a website, a printed book, or an ebook. By this definition, the canon may not be Heaven but it's in the neighborhood.

What relation does the PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories have to the canon?

Since 1919, the PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories has been an annual publication that honors twenty short stories published in the previous year. The eyes of the book are fixed on the present time, not on judgments of the future or the past.

Of course, some of the writers who have appeared in the PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories since 1919 have gone on to become part of the canon, and some of our present writers will too. The great American short story writer Flannery O'Connor won six times and her O. Henry stories include "Everything that Rises Must Converge," which is surely canonical. Raymond Carver was a six-time winner, John Cheever won ten times, Alice Munro eleven times, Grace Paley three times, and Katherine Anne Porter twice.

But the PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories differs from the canon in an important way. If you go to the past winners' list, you'll find many canonized writers. However, not all the O. Henry stories by those writers came to be included in the canon.

For instance, my personal favorite story of John Cheever's is "Goodbye My Brother," a moving story with the writer's essential themes and voice. If I were forming a canon of twentieth-century short stories, I'd include it. But it wasn't an O. Henry Prize story. Some of the writers and some of the stories I've chosen will most likely be included in a future canon, but many others won't. What meaning does the future canon have for my time as series editor? The answer must be that it has very little to do with my job as I understand it.

Doing my job depends on keeping my head down and reading with open eyes and an open mind. Eyes open to read as widely as possible without assuming that only certain magazines are capable of publishing good fiction or that only writers I know are capable of writing wonderful stories. Mind open to read without cynicism and without pretending that I know everything there is to know about stories.

Yet I must believe in my reactions as a reader. I have nothing else to go on, and I'd like to keep it that way. There is a balance I try to reach between knowledge gained from all the stories I've read and what the particular story in front of me is doing, between the general and the specific. To do right in editing an annual, the editor must concentrate not on the future or the past but on the present to encounter best the fresh resonance of each story.

In the end, the canon represents choices made in hindsight, often very wise ones, but I must operate without hindsight. Over the course of its existence, the PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories has prolonged the life of some remarkable short stories, if only for an additional year, and contributed to the reputations of writers in various stages of their careers. What happens after that is beyond my purview. When choosing stories for this prize anthology, I have only one goal in mind: securing for readers the very best new work out there, canon-worthy and otherwise.

--Laura Furman
Austin, Texas
April 2012
(Copyright © 2012 Laura Furman)

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(photo © Ave Bonar)