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Stories for Real Readers

The 2010 PEN/O. Henry Prize stories include intense gifts.

Book Cover Though throughout my reading life I would occasionally read short fiction, it wasn’t until I spoke with writer/Florida State University creative writing program head honcho Mark Winegardner that I saw short stories in a different light.
In my world—forget me as a college professor and a writer—just the people I run into, I am disproportionately around people who are just as likely to read a book of stories as a novel. I realize that the culture at large doesn’t behave that way. Serious readers—people who are really, really passionate about American fiction or fiction period are disproportionately story readers. The people who are there for you for your story collections are your real readers. The people who say, “Aw, that’s just a book of stories, I’ll read his next novel.” Those are the dilettantes.
Essentially Winegardner’s stance is that short stories represent a writer’s best and most serious work—in part because stories are harder to write than novels. For what it is worth there are not usually short-story sections in bookstores—luckily for the above-mentioned “dilettantes,” there are a number of annual story anthologies that usually represent an excellent sampling of current short fiction.

One of these is The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories 2010, edited by Laura Furman (Anchor) and juried by Junot Díaz, Paula Fox, Yiyun Li, with 20 stories that include works by James Lasdun, Ron Rash, Alice Munro, Annie Proulx, Jess Row, William Trevor, Brad Watson, and others.

Series editor Laura Furman expounds:
For the reader, the short story is nothing less than a brief and intense residence in another world. This other place offers escape from yourself and your own world, as well as the rarest of gifts—the possibility of becoming someone else. Each crucial element of fiction—character, place, time, event—offers the opportunity for intimacy and compassion. These two words, so quiet and loaded, contain difficult and threatening emotions, but they are also the emotions that in the end make us feeling beings. The short story, while you’re reading, includes you as a witness and imaginary participant, and allows you to suffer and rejoice.

The reader’s entrance into the new world depends, mysteriously, on the language used to tell the tale. Unless the teller’s voice is true, the reader won’t have the courage to go to Pakistan, to a hollow or gorge or prairie, to a village in Malaysia, certainly not into the mind and heart of a character quite unlike the reader.
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