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Prize Stories 2000: The O. Henry Awards (Pen / O. Henry Prize Stories) Paperback – September 12, 2000

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

An elegant salvo in the ongoing debate about the state of the American short story, this collection, celebrating the 80th anniversary of the famous O. Henry Awards, raises some questions about the uses of fiction. Where, as one of the prize jurors, Michael Cunningham, remarks, are the icy, intellectual stories of 30 and 40 years ago? Are we less cynical? Or so cynical that we crave an injection of feelings? Short fiction is getting longer and richer, stuffed with anti-Modern sensory detail and the complicated inner lives of its characters--more Henry James than Hemingway. (Only one New Yorker story made the cut for these awards.) Emotion is back in vogue, and with it the realistic, "well-made" story. In subject matter, death is in; sex is out.

Granted, some of this reflects the taste of the series editor, Larry Dark, who selects the 20 award stories from 3,000 or so contenders each year. First-, second-, and third-place winners are decided on by a panel of prize jurors--for 2000, Pam Houston, George Saunders, and Cunningham. Whether it confirms your suspicions about American publishing or seems more or less inevitable, many of these O. Henry stories are by well-known writers, among them Russell Banks, Mary Gordon, Andrea Barrett, and John Edgar Wideman. (Wideman wins first prize here for "Weight," which Cunningham describes as a combination of autobiography and fiction that "spill over into each other because the story's messy, deeply personal emotions require it.") Nathan Englander, an exceptionally well-placed newcomer, is represented with "The Gilgul of Park Avenue." There is a minor, posthumously published Raymond Carver story as well ("Kindling"), a fictional treatment of material that he had also addressed in a poem called "To Begin With."

Among the newer writers, Judy Budnitz ("Flush") and Kevin Brockmeier stand out for their unexpected observations and their devotion to the word. In Brockmeier's luminous love story, "These Hands," a male nanny forms a helpless, permanent attachment to his 18-month-old charge. Leaving her bedroom one night after putting her in the crib, he lifts a red plastic See 'n Say from the toyshelf and points its dial at the picture of a lion:

This, said the machine, is a robin, and it whittered a little aria. When he turned the dial to a picture of a lamb on a tussock of grass, it said the same thing. Dog and pony, monkey and elephant: robin--twit twit whistle. Lewis set the toy against a wall, listening to the cough of a receding car. He passed through the dining room and climbed the back stairway, wandered the deep and inviolate landscape of the house--solemn with the thought of faulty lessons, and of how often we are shaped in this way.
Although the O. Henry winners provide a generally representative sample of the best of recent American short fiction, this collection makes no acknowledgment of the tremendous boom in erotica in the last three years, or the persistence of literary experimentation by a few dark and wayward souls. --Regina Marler

From Publishers Weekly

In this 80th annual collection of fiction published under the O. Henry banner, editor Dark doesn't try to comment on the state of fiction but, simply and wisely, aims to present 20 superlative stories. He succeeds in nearly every case. The collection features rising stars like Nathan Englander and Andrea Barrett, venerated pros like Russell Banks, Mary Gordon and Allan Gurganus, and many newer voices. Though awarding first, second and third prizes to particular stories in such a worthy group may seem superfluous, it's difficult to argue with the choices. John Edgar Wideman's first prize-winning "Weight" alternates nimbly between cool-mouth slang and raw emotion in its portrait of a young man's relationship to his formidable mother. The second prize goes to "The Man with the Lapdog," Beth Lordan's quiet tale of marriage and accommodation, set in Ireland. Gordon's "The Deacon," the third prize winner, takes the reader deftly into the mind of Sister Joan Fitzgerald, a nun forced to attend to the spiritual needs of a man she doesn't like. Gordon's story begins a subtheme of religious experience and inspiration, followed by Melissa Pritchard's "Salve Regina," which translates the pain of adolescence through a young girl's fascination with the headmistress of her Catholic school. Scientific themes thread through several stories, as in Barrett's "Theories of Rain," where simple experiments with the natural world occur against a backdrop of 19th-century Philadelphia. The collection ends, fittingly, with a posthumously published story by Raymond Carver, whose impact on short fiction is difficult to overstate. The story, "Kindling," in which a lonely ex-alcoholic spends his days cutting wood for his landlords, revives common Carver themes of wandering and redemption through small, tangible acts. The book includes short essays by each of the three judges, Michael Cunningham, Pam Houston and George Saunders, and lists 50 other notable stories of 1999. (Sept.)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Product Details

  • Series: Pen / O. Henry Prize Stories
  • Paperback: 411 pages
  • Publisher: Anchor; 2000 ed. edition (September 12, 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385498772
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385498777
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.1 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,441,647 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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After years of languishing under late editor William Abrahams, the series takes another big step toward legitimately representing the vibrancy of American short fiction. Dark made some brave and striking choices last year, and continues to show himself an astute and thoughtful anthologist, one who has his finger on the pulse of what's exciting about the short story. His selections are almost uniformly excellent: Wideman, Lordan and Gordon are deserving winners, and stories by Russell Banks, Michael Byers, Andrea Barrett and Melissa Prichard are equally good. Hooray that these smart and wonderful writers are getting the attention they deserve! Equally exciting are some of the newcomers--John Biquinet's tiny but explosive "Rose," Jeannette Bertles "Whileaway" and Keith Banner's "The Smallest People Alive" among others. There are, of course, things to quibble with--the exclusion of Alice Munro's wonderful "The Bear Came over the Mountain," Stewart O'Nan's powerful "Please Help Find" and Tobias Wolff's lovely "Kiss," are perhaps the most surprising; and as much as I like Alice Elliot Dark's story, "Watch the Animals," I have to say that Mr. Dark, as her husband, might have easily replaced her story with one of the above pieces by Munro, O'Nan or Wolff and saved himself charges of nepotism. Perhaps the only major mis-step is the inclusion of the bizarrely popular Pam Houston as one of the guest editors.Read more ›
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In the 2000 O'Henry Prize Stories, 11 of the 20 winners (55%) either hold MFA's, Ph.D.'s or teach at universities. Most interesting, however, is the experience of reading 19 highly polished, academically clean stories and at the end of the series, run headlong into Raymond Carver, a bold non-academe, and author of story 20. The contrast is striking, particularly coming at the end of the book. I am left wondering--are we missing or losing some literary giants because academic credentials have become as critical to the practice of creative writing as they are to law or medicine--or journalism?
Of the twenty stories, Michael Byers's "The Beautiful Days" was my top pick. From the literary journal Ploughshares, it's the story of Aldo, a young man we've seen before, who tries to find but ends up losing himself.
Stories such as these are entertainment far superior to most of what entertains us today. If only good literature were also more popular, and less reliant on the good will of universities and academic institutions. The popular mags publish so little fiction anymore, and the literary journals have budgets that don't permit much promotion. "Best Of" publications such as the O'Henry Awards are not only good collections, but probably the top promotional vehicles for good writing today.
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The second prize winner here, "The Man With the Lapdog," is probably one of the most beautiful stories I have ever read. It's absolutely brilliant. Beth Lordan easily deserves first place for this piece, though the winner ("Weight," by John Edgar Wideman) is a wonderful piece of writing. Judging this must have been something else.
My other favorite was Judy Budnitz's "Flush." It's wonderful in that the ending is O'Henryish--a fitting award-winner indeed.
There's not a bad story in the bunch, really. This is a great buy--I plan to give many copies as gifts.
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