Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Best of 2009?

Book: The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories 2009

Authors: various

Published: 2009 (Vintage Anchor Publishing)

Pages: 380 of stories

“Conventional” is a word that could go either way: good if it’s talking about anti-murder social norms, for instance, or bad when planning what to wear for a Parliament Funkadelic concert. For short stories, it falls in that maddening grey area of It Depends. Here, it goes mostly flat.

These are good stories. But are they as electrifying and eclectic as 2009 wants to be remembered? Hell, no. 2009 must’ve been a boring-ass year for short stories (oh God I’m so ashamed that I don’t know how false that is) OR the PEN/O. Henry Prize people treat experimental fiction like I do; with polite smiles and forced attention if they run into each other at a cocktail party.

But they’re the hosts of this weird soirée. They’re the host who knows hidden little things about everybody and how they would secretly fit together with other people’s hidden little things and so it’s their literary duty to nudge these into place so all of a sudden everyone has these epiphanies and goes home saying, “Wow, I had no IDEA we’d get along so well!” to their new best friends. They don’t do that in here.

Even the most lively piece, a chapter from Junot Diaz’s A Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (I just get more and more proof that book is worth obsessing over), I knew already. It’s still awesome, of course, and all the other stories were good and I enjoyed them, but I didn’t get jolted by anything new, and that’s the whole reason I buy anthologies like this.

Well. That’s one reason.

The second reason is completely selfish and always makes these sorts of collection worth it even if the stories are lackluster. Listed in the back are all the magazines and literary journals that submitted stories to the prize committed for that year. And not just the names, but the websites and the editor contacts and the physical mailing addresses. So I make a habit of going down these lists for places to submit my own work. (You know, when I’m getting low on rejection notices or contributor copies.) It gives me that sickening rush of ambition that’s a good motivation to get my submitting ass in gear to shape up and send out whatever I’ve got new from the past whenever of writing.

Two or six or nine months from now, this book will finish proving its worth to me. Until then, it will sit on my shelf in deceptive calm, much like me half an hour before a deadline.     

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