The O. Henry Prize, named after the famous author whose real name was William Sidney Porter, has been awarded to short stories since 1919. The website states the current requirements are they “must be published in Canada or the United States, and originally written in English.” The New Yorker proved to be a hotbed of literary talent this time, producing a quarter of the 2009 Prize Stories. Starting this year, the collection is now titled The PEN / O. Henry Prize Stories to acknowledge the alliance with the PEN American Center, “an international organization devoted to stimulation, support, sand sustenance of writers and literature” since 1920.
The selection process remains the same with author Laura Furman, the series editor since 2003, choosing the 20 Prize Stories out of the submissions. They are then given without identification to each member of a three-person jury who independently choose their favorite. This year’s jury was comprised of A.S. Byatt, Anthony Doerr, and Tim O’Brien, all past honorees as writers of an O. Henry Prize Stories. Byatt and O’Brien each picked Graham Joyce’s “An Ordinary Soldier of the Queen” as their favorite. It is very intriguing because the story goes through a metamorphosis in front of the reader’s eye, Joyce’s words working like a magician’s hands. It opens seemingly as a war story about a British soldier who served in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, but then becomes possibly a ghost story or something else. By the time, the reader gets to the end, the opening sentence changes its meaning. Doerr selected Junot Diaz’s “Wildwood,” a powerful, passionate, and vivid tale about a young Dominican woman struggling to completely break free from her aggressive and domineering mother, a seemingly impossible task for a daughter. I was impressed a man could reveal such insight into the dynamic. The jurors provide comments regarding their selections, and the 20 authors offer reflections, both of which are included at the back of the book.
Although I disagreed with last year’s choices, I had no quarrel with the jury’s selections this time. They had a very tough task because the 2009 Prize Stories are of very high quality. The brilliance of these works stems in the fact that they allow the reader to see many different perspectives, and that doesn’t just mean globally. The setting and social customs of India in Mohan Sikka’s “Uncle Musto Takes a Mistress” and Bejing in E.V. Slate’s “Purple Bamboo Park” can be just as foreign to someone with limited travels as the parental perspectives of mother to son in Kirsten Sundberg Lunstrum’s “The Nursery” and father to daughter in Alistair Morgan’s “Icebergs” are to a childless adult.
In her introduction Furman writes about the goal of the O. Henry Prize Stories being “to strengthen the art of the short story.” The discipline is certainly well fortified by the practitioners and their pieces collected herein.