larry dark: series editor   An Editor's Dilemma  
o. henry cover

  Two stories I liked very much are not in Prize Stories 1997: The O. Henry Awards. The first, "Home," concerns an older woman with slipping mental faculties who doesn't want to move from the house she and her husband have long lived in to spend winters in the sterile adult care community her husband and their daughter have chosen for them. The language is beautiful and the point-of-view masterfully handled. I wasn't alone in admiring "Home": It's currently being adapted into an HBO film and was cited as one of the "100 Other Distinguished Stories of 1995" in Best American Short Stories 1996. The second story, "Triage," is told through a series of telephone conversations between a mother and her adult daughter. These high-minded discussions touch on theology and feminism, but beneath the surface lie unhealed wounds, the lingering bitterness of this particular mother-daughter relationship. Both of these stories were published in Doubletake magazine. Both were written by Alice Elliott Dark, who happens to be my wife.

What's the series editor of an esteemed literary annual supposed to do in this situation? Nobody said I couldn't put a story by my wife in Prize Stories--my editors at Anchor, first Charlie Conrad and then Tina Pohlman, left it up to me. Friends were divided on the issue, for the most part by sex. Most men felt that including a story written by my wife would reflect badly on the series, while most women felt that it would be unfair to exclude a deserving story just because my wife had written it and that if the story could stand on its own merits I should put it in.

When the winter 1995 issue of Doubletake arrived, I sat down to read "Home" just as I had been reading every other story in every other magazine I received. It had been a while since I'd read the story, so it seemed fresh, and I found that I liked it. I really liked it. And for a while I strongly considered including "Home" in Prize Stories 1997. I thought of every justification: Alice had published a well-reviewed short story collection (Naked To The Waist, Houghton Mifflin, 1991). She had been awarded an NEA grant. She had a story published in The New Yorker, "In the Gloaming," that was selected for Best American Short Stories 1994 and was included in Roger Angell's New Yorker collection, Nothing But You, and also appeared in many other anthologies. And this story was being made into a high-profile television movie directed by Christopher Reeve and starring Glenn Close. I even came up with an alternative to deciding myself: I could send 21 stories to the prize jury, rather than 20, and include one of Alice's and put her story in the collection only if any one of the three jurors voted for it as a first-, second-, or third-prize winner. This, however, would truly have been granting my wife's work a special status, treating it differently, and holding it to a higher standard. And whose story would I drop to accommodate Alice's?

The more I marshaled reasons to choose either "Home" or "Triage" (which I had also reread and liked very much) for O. Henry Awards, the more I realized that the need for such justification actually argued for exclusion. This was, after all, my first year as series editor. Did I really want to start out by choosing one of my wife's stories? I can be pretty cynical and I knew what I would think if someone else did this--I'd think that the editor's spouse had an unfair advantage, that favoritism played a part, no matter how good the story was. Not only did I risk calling into question my own editorial objectivity and tarring Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards with the brush of nepotism, but I realized that many people would also not view an O. Henry Award as a legitimate accomplishment for Alice. They would say she only achieved this honor because her husband was the editor. There would always be an asterisk implied. And though I was certain that both stories were on a sufficiently accomplished level to merit inclusion, how could I remain objective when it came time to winnow the number of stories down to 20 from the nearly 40 at the top of my list?

So, months before my deadline, I made the decision not to choose any stories written by my wife. Does this mean that I will never include a story by Alice Elliott Dark in Prize Stories as long as I am the series editor? The honest answer: I'm not quite sure.
o henry awards
Bold Type
Copyright © 1997 Larry Dark.