Anchor Books The O. Henry Prize Stories
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Prize Jury 2016
  • Molly Antopol
  • Peter Cameron
  • Lionel Shriver

  • Read about other jurors and their selected favorites.

    Molly Antopol

    Molly Antopol grew up in Culver City, California. Her debut story collection, The UnAmericans, won the New York Public Library's Young Lions Fiction Award and a 5 Under 35 Award from the National Book Foundation, was longlisted for the National Book Award, and was a finalist for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction, the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Award, the National Jewish Book Award, the California Book Award, and others. She's the recipient of a Radcliffe Institute Fellowship at Harvard and a Stegner Fellowship at Stanford, where she currently teaches. She lives in San Francisco.

    Juror Favorite:
    Molly Antopol on "Train to Harbin" by Asako Serizawa

    From the story's opening line—"I once met a man on the train to Harbin"—I was captivated. And by the end of the first paragraph, I was entirely invested in the narrator, an old man who had once been a doctor in Japan. I love Asako Serizawa's prose—direct and reflective, lyrical and unshowy—and the utter authority with which she writes about this time and place and her protagonist's profession: bacteriological work at a research unit in Pingfang during World War II, just as his country goes to war with China. For all of the research Serizawa must have done, I never once felt it, was never once reminded that I was reading a story—instead, I was utterly swept up in the world she had created.

    Weeks after finishing the story, lines and descriptions (but never scenes—stunningly, this story manages to feel propulsive and immediate even though it's told almost entirely in narration) kept coming back to me. The narrator's poignant relationship with his son, Yasushi. A horrifying depiction of prisoners strapped to planks and gagged with pieces of leather. The narrator's arrival in Pingfang, "still festive with wealthy Russians and a few well-placed Chinese."

    For such a short piece, "Train to Harbin" feels epic in its exploration of history, war, loyalty, and trauma. It is also intimate, raw and reflective, as the author examines the psychological effects the narrator's work in China have on him years later. This is a haunting, visceral, and ethically nuanced story, and I was struck by how Serizawa forces her narrator to wrestle with moral consequence on a deeply philosophical level. And by looking so intensely into the deeds of his past, the pain and remorse that define him ultimately become the vehicles that drive the story forward.

    In the end, what amazed me most was the story's structure. Rather than telling the story chronologically, Serizawa lets the chaotic nature of memory govern the way the piece unfolds. As the narrator of this heartbreaking and gorgeous tale tells us, "Perhaps it is simply the mind, which, in its inability to accept a fact, returns to it, sharpening the details, resolving the image, searching for an explanation that the mind, with its slippery grasp on causality, will never be able to find."

    Peter Cameron

    Peter Cameron was born in Pompton Plains, New Jersey. He is the author of two collections of short stories (One Way or Another and Far-flung) and six novels, including his latest, Coral Glynn. His novels The Weekend, The City of Your Final Destination, and Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You have been made into films. His short fiction has been published in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, The Yale Review, and elsewhere. He is the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. Cameron lives in New York City.

    Juror Favorite:
    Peter Cameron on "Winter, 1965" by Frederic Tuten

    I'm usually very wary of stories about writers, and a story about a writer writing a story is really pushing my boundaries. But I loved "Winter, 1965." Perhaps it was the setting of New York City half a century ago, evoked with such detail and immediacy, that charmed me: Another world, another time, but also achingly real and familiar. The way a snowstorm stills and softens the city is timeless, and its evocation here is beautiful, hushing and finally almost burying the story in its silence. And despite the winter chill, I liked the story's warmth and generosity, its wealth of character and lack of villains, its deft compression of time. As a reader, I felt gently welcomed into this story, and well attended to.

    I had exactly the opposite response to another story I admired in this collection, "Slumming" by Ottessa Moshfegh. Although not my favorite, this story startled me. I was impressed by its uncompromising honesty and its scrupulous avoidance of pandering to the reader's sympathies. "Slumming" stuck with me in an unsettling way, and it was good to be moved in such a different direction. It reminded me that stories can work in infinite ways. That the possibilities for good stories are endless.

    Lionel Shriver

    Born and raised in North Carolina, Lionel Shriver has resided primarily in the United Kingdom since 1987. Shriver is best known for the New York Times bestsellers So Much for That (a finalist for the 2010 National Book Award and the Wellcome Trust Book Prize) and The Post-Birthday World (Entertainment Weekly's Book of the Year and one of Time's top ten for 2007), as well as the international bestseller We Need to Talk About Kevin. The 2005 Orange Prize winner, Kevin was adapted for an award-winning feature film starring Tilda Swinton in 2011. Both Kevin and So Much for That have been dramatized for BBC Radio 4. Shriver's work has been translated into twenty-eight languages. She writes for The Guardian, The New York Times, London's Sunday Times, the Financial Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications. Her more recent novel is Big Brother. "Kilifi Creek," which is included in The O. Henry Prize Stories 2015, won the BBC National Short Story contest in 2014. She lives in London, England, and Brooklyn, New York.

    Juror Favorite:
    Lionel Shriver on "Irises" by Elizabeth Genovise

    Ordinarily, I'd resist the conceit that Elizabeth Genovise asks us to accept in "Irises": that our narrator is an unborn fetus whose mother is planning an abortion. On the face of it, this premise sounds either precious, or politically partisan; perhaps we should brace ourselves for a pointed pro-life morality tale. (Typically, given the polarization of this issue, we pro-choice readers resist having our sleeves tugged.) Yet I didn't rebel at that first line, "I am eight weeks in the womb and my life is forfeit," owing purely to the elegance of that second phrase. "My life is forfeit" is such an artful, subtly archaic expression of impending doom, and so efficiently introduces the fact that the mother does not cherish this pregnancy and intends to be quit of it, that my defenses dropped just like that.

    I was not disappointed as the story unfolded. The quality of the prose is unflaggingly high, while the style is cut-glass clear. The sentences that stand out as unusually fine do so because they marry formal grace with trenchant content. The mother's husband, Dan Ryan, "shares his name with a Chicago highway that is always thick with cars coming and going to work, and like the highway he is predictable, practical, a man of straight lines." Later in the same paragraph, Dan's frustrated wife, Rosalie, forced to leave behind an exhilarating life as a dancer due to a knee injury and now facing unwelcome motherhood-cum-relocation from Chicago to a nowheresville farm in Tennessee, "sees the remainder of her life in a flash, like a child's flip book, the pages rushing forward and the pencil-thin illustrations slimming down her choices as the years go by." The metaphor is apt and evocative. With Dan, "She is docile with him, a sweetness emerging from some part of herself she hadn't formerly known. It alternately pleases and sickens her." That's in some ways very simple writing, but its meaning is dense, rich, complex.

    Though their interests conflict, all three principals in this drama draw on the reader's sympathy: the stifled wife, the good-hearted but limited husband, and the wife's passionate, talented lover Joaquin, a composer who plays the piano for the little girls' dance class she teaches in lieu of being able to perform. We identify with Rosalie's yearning for her more stimulating past—a past that her husband finds suspicious, alien, as much a rival as the lover about whose existence he is innocent—even as we know as well as she does that she can never return to it. Her aspiration to run off to a New Age West Coast cooperative with Joaquin seems unrealistic, and we credit her for the insight that "the singularity of his genius would only cause problems in a commune."

    The cuckolded husband works hard, tries to please, and doesn't deserve his wife's betrayal. Especially when getting cold feet right before he and Rosalie have arranged to flee together, Joaquin is sympathetic also. Lost in a museum, he stumbles across an exhibit about the development of the human fetus and suddenly takes on the enormity of what they are about to do. For inevitably in a story whose narrator is an unborn child on the way to the medical waste bin, we're torn about Rosalie's and Joaquin's intentions to dispatch the baby. We're queasy about Rosalie's reasoning, which seems a bit cavalier, just as her conviction that an abortion and a new life with Joaquin in a commune will ease her career disappointment seems delusional.

    The story's setup is classic, of course, and has a Chekhovian character, as in some ways does the prose. Yet neither the plot nor the writing feels hackneyed. The tension "Irises" explores is eternal: between the solid, reliable, repetitive life that Rosalie would reject and the riskier, more exciting, but perhaps impractically romantic life that she would embrace with her lover. (Indeed, I wrote a novel about that duality: The Post-Birthday World.) Besides, this story takes one of those sudden turns at the end that freshens our scenario, rescues the premise from any danger of cutesiness or political advocacy, and takes advantage of one of the most satisfying techniques that the short-story form affords: the dizzying fast-forward.

    More than one tale in this collection commanded my admiration, and my runners-up included "Exit Zero" by Marie-Helene Bertino, "Safety" by Lydia Fitzpatrick, "Slumming" by Ottessa Moshfegh, and "Winter, 1965" by Frederic Tuten—all hugely enjoyable. But Elizabeth Genovise's contribution crossed the finish line by a nose. Both as a whole and line by line, "Irises" is stunningly accomplished.