Prize Stories 2000: The O. Henry Awards marks a milestone 80th volume in this series, which, since 1919, has collected 1,483 stories by 925 writers originating in 226 different magazines. Accompanying this issue of Bold Type, you will find complete lists of stories sorted by year and by author, as well as a rundown of all the magazines that have published O. Henry Award winners, a list of notable authors, and a compilation of writers who have won the award three or more times.
The series was instituted in 1918 as a tribute to the writer O. Henry, who died in 1910. I'm not sure why it took 8 years to honor the memory of O. Henry or why the group that began this institution, the Society of Arts and Sciences, hit upon this idea. In any event, rather than a statue or a monument or a candy bar, the Society decided that the tribute should take the form of prizes awarded to the two best short stories published by American writers in American magazines over the course of a year. From this evolved the notion of producing an annual collection of the year's best stories, the first volume of which came out in 1919.
When I first started to put together a complete list of O. Henry Award winners, I hoped that the rolls of past honorees would reflect the legacy of the American short story, that the first- and second-prize winners would be by the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Edith Wharton, Sherwood Anderson, and other writers of the early period whose work has since been deemed to be of lasting value. I expected that, over the years, some great stories by great authors would be overlooked, but I believed that most would be represented by the accumulated collections. This didn't turn out to be the case.
The initial volume in the series, Prize Stories 1919: The O. Henry Memorial Awards, featured a first-prize winning story called "England to America" by Margaret Prescott Montague, which was originally published in the September, 1918, issue of The Atlantic Monthly. The second prize winner was Wilbur Daniel Steele's "For They Know Not What They Do," from the July, 1918, issue of Pictorial Review. Well, at least The Atlantic Monthly has endured (and is this year's winner of the award for the magazine publishing the best fiction). Margaret Prescott Montague never won another O. Henry Award. Wilbur Daniel Steele went on to win ten more O. Henry Awards between 1919 and 1931, placing stories in 11 of the first 13 volumes of the series. But does anyone still read his work? And no story by Edith Wharton ever appeared in any volume of the series. Anderson won three awards, Fitzgerald just two, and Hemingway only one. As it happens, none of the 15 authors represented in the 1919 volume can even remotely be considered to be of vital importance today.
Why is this so? In order to understand the rational behind the selections of the Society of the Arts in 1919, you have to look to the writer for whom the series is named, O. Henry, who contributed greatly to popularizing the short story as a form of entertainment for a mass audience at the beginning of the 20th century. Following O. Henry's success, short stories were published in a slew of weekly, biweekly, and monthly magazines, as well as some daily newspapers. Television, of course, did not exist in 1918. Movies didn't yet have sound or appear in color. It's likely that many of the stories the selection committee for the Society of Arts and Sciences considered for the first volume were not written for a sophisticated, literary audience. The criteria of excellence may have favored stories written to entertain rather than to provoke thought or produce a deeper, more lasting resonance. And the method of selecting stories by committee prevented a bolder editorial vision from emerging until Blanche Colton Williams started to take control of the process in the years that followed, cementing her role as the first series editor.
Over the years, the consciousness of The O. Henry Awards has evolved in a more literary direction and the record of fiction chosen has come to more closely match the list of stories and authors contemporary readers of literary fiction would expect to be honored by annual roundups of the best stories. Still, editors are fallible, choices are subjective, and great work is not always recognized in its time--all of which makes the record of the series and the lists of O. Henry Award winners interesting to examine and discuss.
The evolution of the short story over the course of 80 volumes of this series, from popular entertainment for a mass audience to literary entertainment for a much smaller readership, has been a mixed blessing, to say the least. In 1918, a writer could make a living writing short stories and selling them to magazines and newspapers. In 2000, this is not the case. Sadly, the more obvious, vivid entertainments of our age do not invite audience members to think in order to understand them the way short stories do. And while literacy rates have increased significantly, the rate of literary appreciation has not. The short story has become marginalized and is read by a much smaller percentage of the American public than it was when this series began.
On the positive side, the current audience, by virtue of being smaller and more educated, is also more sophisticated. Numbers may be small, but passions run high. For writers of short fiction, greatness is as hard to attain as it ever was, but I would say that as many accomplished stories are being written now as have been in any period since 1918. Prize Stories 2000: The O. Henry Awards demonstrates this, as exemplified by the sampling of stories and authors posted here on Bold Type. John Edgar Wideman's powerful first-prize winning story, "Weight," is a good place to begin. And prize juror Michael Cunningham's introduction nicely underscores the brilliance of Wideman's story. "Flush" by Judy Budnitz is another wonderful story from the collection. I'm also pleased to be able to include an audio file John Biguenet reading his sparkling story, "Rose," one of the shortest stories ever to be included in an O. Henry Awards volume. All three stories touch on the strained, sometimes tragic relationships between parents and children. I hope these few selections from the full collection of 20 stories will whet readers' appetites for more.
In the 1997 O. Henry Awards issue of Bold Type, I wrote about the dilemma of whether or not to consider stories by my wife, Alice Elliott Dark, for the collection. Because I have included a story of hers in this year's collection, I suppose I ought to revisit this topic briefly. Back then, in my first year as editor, I was worried about the series being tainted by accusations of nepotism. After reading thousands of stories a year over the course of five years, I am far less worried and feel more confident in my choices. It would be a mistake, in my view, to exclude a wonderful story by an accomplished author--Alice's "Watch the Animals"--from a volume of the O. Henry Awards solely because of my relationship to the writer. And it would be unfair as well to Harper's Magazine to remove the story from consideration for honors. My aim, after all, is to present a sample of the year's best work.
What lies ahead for the short story? I'd certainly like to see the pendulum swing back a bit toward a larger audience. It's shame that such a deep and accessible form of human expression has become marginalized in our culture and that the number of commercial outlets for such work has shrunk so much since 1918. Short story lovers can only mourn the end of Story Magazine and the editorial decisions that have seen women's magazines, such as Redbook and Mademoiselle, old standbys of the series, pretty much stop publishing short fiction. To reverse this trend, I think more of us who read and appreciate stories are going to have to advocate the form to those who don't and make editors aware of our interest. The quality and volume of work being written and published is certainly high enough to justify wider attention and appreciation. If you like short stories, spread the word. And I hope you will find satisfaction in this, the 80th volume of Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards.
John Biguenet's reading courtesy of Esquire Magazine. To see other readings from Esquire click here.
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