Anchor Books The O. Henry Prize Stories
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Prize Jury 2017
  • David Bradley
  • Elizabeth McCracken
  • Brad Watson

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  • David Bradley

    David Bradley is the author of two novels, South Street and The Chaneysville Incident, which was awarded the 1982 PEN/Faulkner Award. He has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. His essay "A Eulogy for Nigger" was awarded the 2015 Notting Hill Editions Essay Prize. Bradley has taught at Temple University, the Michener Center at the University of Texas at Austin, and the University of Oregon. Born and raised in western Pennsylvania, he now lives in Southern California.

    Juror Favorite:
    David Bradley on "Too Good to Be True" by Michelle Huneven

    I do not claim that I can write a short story as it ought to be written. I do not even claim to know how a short story ought to be written, although for many years I was almost daily in the company of writers making the attempt.

    In those years, I taught fiction writing. As such, my essential duty was to critique short-story manuscripts by applying accepted principles laid down by masters of the art—Philip Sidney, John Dryden, Edgar Allan Poe, Mark Twain, George Orwell...and Strunk & White. Occasionally I envied a student's story. I never envied the struggle to make it short. Or perhaps I felt a twisted envy; that was a struggle I, as a writer, had never won.

    Truth told, as both a writer and a reader, while I had always loved story, I had loved the long, not the short, of it. My struggle as a teacher was to conceal this prejudice from my students. I taught that, according to Edgar Allan Poe, "there should be no word written...not to the one pre-established design," that dramatic unity was most fully achieved by a narrative that could be read at one sitting, and that while "undue brevity is...exceptionable...undue length is yet more to be avoided." I accepted the affinity some of them felt for the styles of Ernest Hemingway, Raymond Carver, and Amy Hempel (or maybe Gordon Lish) and tried to respect their aesthetics, even as I critiqued their sentence structure, especially as I understood that brevity was valued by editors in the markets where they dreamed of placing their work.

    Personally, while I agreed with Poe on intentionality, I found undue length less exceptionable than undue brevity; I'd never thought a tale more elegant just because I could read it between (or during) bathroom breaks. And it seemed to me the narrative defined the length of a "sitting"; a tale with words set in delightful proportion, I believed, could hold children from their play and old men in the chimney corner.

    Not that I did not appreciate clever conceits of compression or disliked any writing that conformed to minimalist principles. But on a dark and stormy night, while sitting by a roaring fire with a glass of bourbon and a book, what I wanted was an old-fashioned story, ´ la Chaucer, Rabelais, or Balzac, with a beginning, middle, and ending, with characters whose lives were not "complicated" but complex, who inhabited not a "narrative space" but in a certain place and time and, moreover, in a moral universe that arced, not always toward justice, but toward resolution—and a writer who was not afraid to clearly draw the curve.

    I admit all this because I know my aesthetics are unfashionable—all right, antiquated—and because I admire most of these stories...certainly more than one. I greatly admire "Secret Lives of the Detainees," which makes a moral statement with precisely drawn vignettes that both delight and instruct. I greatly admire "The Buddhist," which realizes the metaphysical, dramatizing a character's hunger and thirst for enlightenment...and the price he pays for it.

    But my choice is "Too Good to Be True." Here there be characters whose lives became real to me, though very different from my own. Here was the dilemma that summoned my sympathy, though by the grace of God I do not go there. Here was the story that twisted my emotions, raising and dashing my hopes. Here was the Point of View that made me look at what I did not want to see. Here was an ending that turned ambiguity into finality...and back.

    This was the story that kept me sitting longer than I wanted and haunted me even after my glass was empty and the fire was out.



    Elizabeth McCracken

    Elizabeth McCracken was born in Boston, Massachusetts. She is the author of the story collections Here's Your Hat What's Your Hurry and Thunderstruck & Other Stories, for which she won the Story Prize; the novels The Giant's House, a finalist for the National Book Award, and Niagara Falls All Over Again; and the memoir An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination. She's received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Liguria Study Center, and the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. She holds the James A. Michener Chair in Fiction at the University of Texas, Austin.

    Juror Favorite:
    Elizabeth McCracken on "Secret Lives of the Detainees" by Amit Majmudar

    In the end, for me, it comes down to jokes. I loved so many of the stories in this year's O. Henry, as I always do. Since reading this year's collection I have thought particularly of "Mercedes Benz," whose characters are shockingly endearing and real, and whose shape winds like a road; and of "Night Garden," with its unforgettable dog and snake at the center, its sneaky revelations.

    But these days I am particularly drawn to the absolute realism of absurdity, and so my favorite story here is "Secret Lives of the Detainees," a story that is both charming and about terrorism, minutely moving and very funny, sad, funny, strange. Possibly I'd be a sucker for any story that opens with kidney stones and ends with poetry, but the story is something quite extraordinary, both incredibly intimate and, at the same time, about Our Historical Moment, since it is about four men who are being detained on suspicion of terrorism. Each story—it is, in a way, a tiny collection of interconnected stories—is about a different detainee: the man whom torture cannot touch because he is being tormented by his own urological system; the man whose hands cannot stop, no matter the work at hand; the poet whose pen name means "prisoner"; and my personal favorite, the actor Nadeem Nadeem, whose name is a "100 percent match" for Nadeem Nadeem, a terrorist. It's a story of opposites: funny but brutal, or funny and brutal: absurd, real, brilliant.



    Brad Watson

    Brad Watson was born in Meridian, Mississippi. His stories have been published in Ecotone, The New Yorker, Granta, The Idaho Review, Oxford American, Narrative, The Greensboro Review, and Yalobusha Review, as well as various anthologies including The Best American Mystery Stories and The Story and Its Writer. He is the author of the story collections Last Days of the Dog-Men and Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives. His novels The Heaven of Mercury and, most recently, Miss Jane were finalists for the National Book Award. Watson teaches in the MFA program at the University of Wyoming and lives in Laramie, Wyoming.

    Juror Favorite:
    Brad Watson on "Buttony" by Fiona McFarlane

    "They were like children in a fairy tale, under a spell," the narrator of this strangely beautiful, brief story says at one point. And so was I, reading about these children and their weary, mysteriously distracted teacher, Miss Lewis. The story beguiles you into something that feels almost dreamlike, a state in which the most pervasive feeling is a tingling, soporific sense of the strangeness of being. Of being a child. Of being a lonely schoolteacher, disappointed in life, who both loves to indulge and to exert control over her charges. Of being beneath the blue contrail-scarred sky under the beautiful blue flowers of a jacaranda tree, a magical tree. The strangeness of playing a game that is magically invested with the thrill of something much greater: the thrill of being chosen as someone special among many. The strange thrill of being anointed by a beautiful boy-child to be for a moment the one whom everyone else envies, even if in every other moment you are the plainest of the bunch. Yet there is something subtly sinister in the air of this story, even in its first paragraph, a thing you sense at the edge of your mind but which edges closer to the center in every one of its quiet, stealthy, measured moments. Here is Miss Lewis, who seems a bit intoxicated by fatigue and the "sleepy, silly midafternoon" and our sense that she takes an almost sensual pleasure in manipulating the children's emotional sensations. That she dallies with some kind of inscrutable danger. The grave, solemn, yet slightly impish nature of the preternaturally perceptive boy Joseph, a silent but mesmerizing child-presence whom Miss Lewis both adores and attempts to use in an oddly proprietary fashion. The collective "small, satisfied sigh" the other children make when Miss Lewis asks Joseph to collect "the button," the very ordinary-turned-magical medium used in their favorite game, a game invented by Miss Lewis herself—the whole business has the air of something both innocent and cultish. And in this way Fiona McFarlane captures something quite essential about the experience of childhood, as well as the illusion of the ostensible power adults hold over children.

    This illusion soon dissolves in the midafternoon air beneath the jacaranda tree in the yard outside the schoolhouse where other children, not privileged to be schooled by an inscrutably loving and needy and manipulative teacher who does not play by the rules, sit behind their desks toiling away at multiplication tables and geography maps, occasionally peering out the windows at the apparently lucky children in Miss Lewis's indulgent care.

    Until it all falls apart, and the story becomes a tale of all-too-realistic horror, and who is the one to have engineered it all? Joseph? Miss Lewis, herself? Or is it something about the very nature of being alive in our surreal, real world, conjured for us here so vividly in a mere twenty-two hundred words?