Anchor Books The O. Henry Prize Stories
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What does it mean to be included in the O. Henry Prize Stories? How does an author refine their art? We've given the authors of the winning and recommended stories free rein to share their thoughts on these questions and others, and the result is a rare treat.

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Comments Matthew Neill Null
"Something You Can't Live Without"
2011 PEN/O. Henry Award-winning Author

An overwhelming honor. Perhaps my favorite short story in American letters, Eudora Welty's "The Wide Net," won First Prize in 1942. That's most meaningful for me. Her story manages to be focused yet sprawling, dire and slippery as old Proteus, and so much fun besides. It expanded my conception of what the short story can be. Too often, we think of the form as polite, restrained, or minimalistic. "The Wide Net"—majestic, rollicking, and weird—explodes that idea. Welty's prose jabs and sings. Without apology, it calls attention to itself as language, but doesn't trample the characters or condescend. In twenty pages, Hazel and William Wallace live out an epic. What more could you ask for? In a small way, I offer up my story in humble tribute to Ms. Welty, a true master.

Writing Tips

When I went through a writing program, I had a class where the party line was, An Omniscient Narrator Is Wrong for The Short Story. You were to narrate stories in first-person or a tight third-person point-of-view confined to a single character's skull. Period. Other (heretical) approaches were labeled 'authorial intrusion.'

It was crippling. I didn't want to write.

There's nothing wrong with those other stylistic choices, but they didn't suit the stories I was trying to write. At the desk, I found myself craving the sweep of omniscience, its economic ability to encompass a cast of characters, history and landscape. Some of my favorite stories broke those so-called 'rules': "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings," Nathan Englander's "The Twenty-Seventh Man," Edward P. Jones's "Bad Neighbors," on and on. So I decided to follow intuition, rather than doctrine. I wrote "Something You Can't Live Without," among others. It felt great.

I had come from an oral culture, not a literary one. Growing up in West Virginia, no one put a book in my hand, but without fail, everyone knew how to tell stories—and damn good ones, too. (Edging ninety, my grandma can still hold court, with no more thought than breathing air.) Just tell a story that thrills. In the end, technical concerns are window-dressing for a more primal need. Don't let them distract you from your true aim. We need narrative to make sense of ourselves, to put our lives in greater context.

Applying arbitrary limitations (such as, I'm not allowed to make a radical leap in time, or I'm not allowed access to the thoughts of secondary characters) seems to me a sure fire way to bleed the life from a story, especially an early draft. Why practice abstinence on the page? Try everything. Fundamentalists say no. Molly Bloom said Yes.

About the Author

Matthew Neill Null was born in Summersville, West Virginia, in 1984. He is a recent graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, and his stories have appeared in The Oxford American and Gray's Sporting Journal. He is the 2010-2011 Provost Postgraduate Writing Fellow at the University of Iowa. He lives in Iowa.

Writer's Desk

I'm finishing a thick novel, set in the Allegheny Mountains, circa 1904. Between drafts, I've been fooling with a clutch of short stories, teasing them into a coherent collection that spans 1900 to the present.

Writer's Desk

Browse our archive of featured authors from this and other editions of The O. Henry Prize Stories.

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