Sunday, August 29, 2010

O. Henry Prize Stories, Then and Now

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?


Jay said...

I read a few of these. I don't read much fiction, and my reaction was, "These are the best??" (though I did like Brad Watson's). But I do not get James Lasdun at all.

rmellis said...

I liked the James Lasdun all right ("Oh, Death") but I might have been biased because it seemed to take place in my neighborhood. I also like the structure: a mysterious narrator. But I can definitely see not liking it. Some stories seem to push three or four random buttons, and if they're not your buttons, the story has nothing to go on.

margosita said...

That is definitely what it is all about, for me.

And I agree about the death thing. I had that same impression when I read the collection. I found it a little baffling. Though it seemed in tone with this sort of year. The economy is in the tank, none of my friends can get a good job, hopeless is easy, thick black oil was spilling unchecked into the ocean. Hopelessness is a theme for 2010, in some ways. So maybe it was appropriate?

Anne R. Allen said...

Thanks for this thoughtful post. I haven't read the collection, but I subscribe to the New Yorker, so I've read a number of the stories.

I had to stop reading the Annie Proulx story because it was so unrelentingly gruesome and grim. I think it's possible to write about death without conveying a message of utter hopelessness. That may be the difference between 1989 and now. (And I do miss yuppies with Cuisinarts.)

I think we now reward writers who revel in sadistic details--as if cruelty were the only reality that mattered. Writers are creators, I'd like to see us create more hope.

Anonymous said...

See, I really kind of dig the Annie Proulx story, because there is no message, no moral. It's just about the bizarre turns of life lived in the margin. What I can't stand is the endless flogging of death as some kind of magical signifier or lurid metaphor.

I hate "redemption".

rmellis said...

But Anne has a point -- what if all a story does is give a little sadistic thrill? Some stories (and movies for sure) rely too heavily, imho, on torture, killing, and sadism. Not that these things don't exist and shouldn't be written about. But I feel genuinely nauseated when I get the sense that there would BE no story without the scenes of violence. Annie Proulx's story is making a historical point, so she gets away with it. But just.

Oh, and I'm aware that, as the author of a murder book, I'm a big fat hypocrite.

Anonymous said...

there is definitely a sense of loss in a lot of literature. Is America's future the sub-text to that, I wonder ? Is literature reflecting a crumbling empire ?

It's like one big group funk.

(Now I'm in trouble ! )


Anonymous said...

Group funk! May I suggest "clusterfunk"?

rmellis said...

Actually, I was originally going to talk about "loss," because the stories that don't have death almost always have a different kind of loss. But then I thought... couldn't pretty much anything be defined as a loss? argh.

There are so many ways to statistically examine the two anthologies: sex and ages of the writers? Which mags? Etc. Fun times!

bookfraud said...

i imagine you are "weird," but i don't trust any writers who characterize themselves as "normal."

i was hoping that you would identify a current trend in short fiction -- kill your protagonists -- but yes, the theme in general seems to go all way back to the greeks (and let's not forget "the dead," which doesn't feature a death but is all about said topic, literally and otherwise).

when i was in grad school, it seemed as if every other story i read in class was about budding sexuality in some form or another. before that, it seemed as if everything i read was about the immigrant experience. and before that, disease (and dying).

all of these "trends" (which i really imagined rather than truly identified) were all about loss, just that they were different vehicles to get there.

rmellis said...

Yes! I recently went through my old stuff and discovered that everything was about disillusionment, or the loss of illusions, I guess. What was up with that? I don't know, but I do know that I'm clean out of illusions now, and can't ride that pony any more.

I'd hope to find a trend, too -- maybe someone else can! But everything I came up with seemed to have more exceptions than rule. That's a good thing, I guess. Or... maybe it means short fiction has been kind of static for 20 years... I don't know.

Anonymous said...

This is making me feel old.

rmellis said...

Embrace your oldarity!

5 Red Pandas said...

I think it's difficult to do justice to death and I'd be reluctant to use it unless I absolutely needed the death in the story. That said, I have noticed that a good chunk of my fiction has to do with death and how it fits into life. I blame my mother! She's utterly frank about death and has been preparing me for the formalities of death my entire life. I also just came back from a country where they have a "month of the spirits" where people very publicly honor and (maybe more importantly) appease their ancestors by making offerings and burning ghost money. Death was on display and it was unavoidable.

As far as the O Henry stories go- someone chose those stories. I think it's important to remember that. It might just be that the editors had a real taste for death.

If death is a trend, well then at least I'm doing something right!

Larry Dark said...

You left out the golden age of the O. Henry Awards: 1997-2002!

Anonymous said...

Ahh yes...needless to say, I couldn't agree more!