As a fiction writer, and one well-published in literary short fiction, I’ve been aware of O Henry forever, but this is the first time I picked up one of the collected volumes of short fiction awarded the annual O Henry Awards.
The one I picked up was the 1988 volume, and I was lucky in that it contained stories by Raymond Carver (the grand prize winner), Joyce Carol Oates and John Updike. It’s tempting to say that these stories were the highlight of the book, just to prove that I know good fiction when I read it, but that wouldn’t be the case. Other than the Carver, which did stand out because it was very much different, the others were about par for the book–even the Updike’s narrative style became familiar with the passing of the pages.
The thing that surprised me about these stories is how familiar they felt. Except for a few notable exceptions (the Carver again) these stories deal with life on a very small scale, looking at petty infidelities, tempests in the teacup of a small community and sordid little prejudices.
Yes, they can deal with the less-attractive side of the human condition, but they are also comfortable. The people are not just like the ones you see on the street and at the laundromat, but they might actually be those same people. It wouldn’t be the first time a writer put a real-life person on a page without telling anyone. Dipping into this book for a story at a time was like visiting an old friend or wearing a well-stretched pair of shoes.
As a reader, I enjoyed it, much as you might enjoy an afternoon on a rocking chain on th eporch, but as a writer, I found the whole thing a bit puzzling. The stories were well (often masterfully) written, but there seemed to be little point to them, and the endings were far from satisfying in most cases.
I tend to remember Hemingway, who never wrote about trifles. He went deep into important things even in his short fiction. The work sticks with you.
And that is also what I try to do when I write any sort of ficion. I see no reason for literary fiction to be an exception. I read or heard somewhere that the only two things worth writing about are love and death, so that’s usually where I focus. Readers and critics will define whether my attempts are successful or not, but at least I try. Hell, I even titled my first literary collection Love and Death.
But these stories deal with neither. They deal with anecdote and unremarkable people (there is only one story about a murderer in the whole thing, and he is only an accidental killer) doing mainly unremarkable things and giving us the tail, tame end of the journey Joyce and Woolf started in stream-of-consciousness narrative.
It certainly works from a reader’s perspective, taking me to a comfortable world of others’ creation. I wonder if this is what the writers intended. I also wonder how I’d have felt if I read these same tales in 1988. Might the confort factor be brought on by rose-tinted remembraces of the Howard Jones decade? Perhaps. Most modern litfic fills me with either annoyance or ennui, but perhaps if I reread in 2050, I might feel nostalgic about how everyone was going on and on about pronouns and health care woes. Who knows?
Anyway, I recommend this one as a pleasant read without the sharp edges that Hemingway’s work still has even after more than just thirty years. You will enjoy the stories calmly, and often marvel at the writing… which is always a good thing.
Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer. Quite a bit of his literary short work is collected in Love and Death. It isn’t comfortable and is full of sharp edges. You can buy it here.