Sunday, November 07, 2010

Decline of a once-great anthology

kw: book reviews, story reviews, anthologies

This is the first of a few posts, reviewing the latest incarnation of the premier short story collection, currently named The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories: The Best Stories of the Year, this year edited by Laura Furman, selected by prize jury members Junot Díaz, Paula Fox, and Yiyun Li. I could not find out much, but apparently the O. Henry collection is now sponsored, or co-sponsored, by Pen America Center, which began as an anti-censorship organization and sponsors creative writing worldwide.

I suspect that Wm. S. Porter would be rather puzzled by some of the stories included in this year's volume, as I have been increasingly puzzled over the years as trends in American literature have shifted. While I may sum up in my last post on this volume, for now I'll just make comments as today's five stories seem to warrant.
  • Them Old Cowboy Songs by Annie Proulx: As close to a total waste of words as I've seen anthologized, this ugly, tragic story goes nowhere, and nobody learns anything. It epitomizes the "what's the point?" attitude of so many today. This surprised me, because I have liked other work by Proulx.
  • Clothed, Female Figure by Kirstin Allio: A nanny, reading letters from a former charge, letters she does not answer, comes to terms with her own past, at least a little.
  • The Headstrong Historian by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: A window into some little-known history, the "pacification" of the Ibo (or Igbo) and other tribes of Nigeria, told as the experience of three generations that produce a historian who will tell history honestly. This touched me particularly because of Ibo people that we know.
  • Stand by Me by Wendell Berry: I've always liked Wendell Berry's writing. While this may not be his finest hour, it is a sight better than the first two stories. It is about caring because you are there to care.
  • Sheep May Safely Graze by Jess Row: This one puzzled me. A man grieving the death of his young daughter contemplates a murder, which forces him to consider who he really is. But there is less here than meets the eye. It seems the author is trying novel-building techniques in a story much to small to support them. With a better story plan, he could have told this story in half the words, or told twice the story.
Fifteen stories to go. Maybe two or three more posts. I hope they didn't put "the best" first.

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