PEN/ O Henry Prize Stories 2010

Before I checked out the O Henry Prize Stories 2010 edition, I really had no previous experience with the collection. I’ve always been a “Best American Short Stories” guy, but I wanted something a little different. After all, there are thousands of short stories published each year, and the “Best American” series cannot possibly lay claim to the only good ones…there’s obviously plenty of opportunity for other collections and anthologies to showcase some talented writers and some amazing work.

But this 2010 edition never really engaged me. Flipping through the table of contents and the contributor’s notes, we can easily see that the editors favored “The Paris Review” and “The New Yorker” (a majority of the stories seemed to come from these two publications), so I suppose I was immediately skeptical: why not just subscribe to “The New Yorker” and call it a day? And the writers themselves seemed mostly to be the usual suspects from the last fifteen years of marketable anthologies: Alice Munro, William Trevor, Annie Proulx. Excellent writers, certainly, but so…ordinary. So predictable.

In other words, while the work in this anthology was refined and accomplished, it just seemed to feel as if the editors were giving us what they thought that “The Best American Short Stories” would give us, scouring “The New Yorker” and finding recognizable names so that they could try to rival the other anthology series. And in the end, it didn’t feel like a unique effort; it felt like an attempt to copy “The Best American Short Stories” (even though some of the stories were very good).

So, from the standpoint of a new reader/initiate to O Henry, I just started to wonder why this even existed. It’s like the Los Angeles Clippers of short story anthologies; you’re never going to be the Lakers, so why even try? Be something completely different. There are a lot of great anthologies out there that find ways to be unique, that don’t simply challenge “Best American” to a duel.

To be fair to some of the authors, I truly loved a half-dozen of the stories here, and the authors are seriously not at fault. But the anthology itself just seemed desperate, and when you read the jurors’ essays at the end, you sense that desperation: one juror mentioned that the reader should check out her favorite stories, a list of 6 or 7, that these were daring, etc. But why does the juror need to mention 6 or 7 specific stories out of about 15-20? Isn’t that like a musician saying, “Check out these three songs on my album, but only listen to the others if you have time. They’re just fillers.”

Needless to say, I will likely subscribe to “The New Yorker” before I pick up another O Henry collection. It feels like an Oscar Bait movie, one of those films that seems like a good idea but really has no heart or soul.

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