I recently got the new O. Henry Prize collection and read the whole thing, cover to cover. I liked some of the stories, very much unliked others, but there was one thing I couldn't help but notice: pretty much every story has a death in it. The first one in the collection, which is by Annie Proulx, is about some 19th century western pioneers who die (miserably), the Wendell Berry story has people dying left and right, the William Trevor has a murder, the Daniel Alarcon has blind people falling to their deaths off a bridge, Peter Cameron's story (maybe my favorite in the collection) has another fatal fall, etc. One story is actually in the form of an obituary.
It got me thinking about a potential blog post! Because if I remember my favorite stories of years past, none of them were about death. Were they? I mean, Charles Baxter's "Gryphon" or "Saul and Patsy are Getting Comfortable in Michigan" didn't hinge on grief, nor did all those Ann Beattie stories full of yuppies and Cuisinarts (I love Ann Beattie, but it's true: so many of her stories have people making salads or pesto), or most of Raymond Carver's stories (the execrable "A Small Good Thing" being a notable exception), etc. So then I (re)read the O. Henry from 1989 (don't have the 1990) and guess what? Yeah, there are just as many dead people in those stories as in today's.
So -- feh. I guess killing off characters to give your story emotional weight is a long-standing tradition, not just some post-9-11 tic, or whatever. Not that I haven't done it myself (in practically everything I've written, ha ha) or that it's necessarily bad. It isn't. The deaths of other people are life-altering, powerful experiences, so of course we want to write and read about them. But it got so that by the time I was 2/3 of the way through the 2010 collection, I could feel the death coming up. And in some stories the ghoulish death scene feels tacked on, as if the writers and editors thought that a nice juicy death could turn a regular story into Literature.
So, did I come to any actual conclusions after reading all these stories? Not really. It's hard to compare old O. Henry stories with new ones, because the old ones were chosen by a single old guy, William Abrahams, who had a pretty conservative sensibility. It could have been at least partly his personal taste that make the 1989 stories seem sort of less colorful -- more intellectual and upper west-sidey -- than the new stories, which are, of course, more multi-culti. One of the 1989 stories that stands out is "Here and There" by David Foster Wallace. It's the best story in the collection by about 1000 times (and no dead people). Rick Bass's "The Watch" is also in that collection -- not a perfect story but an interesting one. It got me thinking about how around that time there began a flood of cartoony-realist stories, like those of T. C. Boyle, George Saunders, and Ralph Lombreglia, though Rick Bass himself went in the Western Regionalism direction soon thereafter.
I should probably say something more, though, about multi-culturalism, which is the most obvious difference between the stories of today and twenty years ago. Around half the stories in the newer edition are about non-American people. There is definitely a sense, these days, that we've come close to exhausting the literary possibilities American culture offers, and that it's time to pay more attention to other cultures. True enough! I do think, though, that some writers depend too heavily on novelty and write stories that teach us about other cultures/cuisines/climates but don't say much about the inner lives of other people. My main complaint about some of "other culture" stories in the 2010 anthology is that the writers stand too far outside their characters. Of course, plenty of American stories are the same, especially stories about Southerners, poor people, or outsiders. And plenty of other culture stories do inner lives brilliantly.
Because that's what it's all about, for me: the inner lives of human beings. Is that what it's all about for you? Or am I weird?