posted: December 2, 2023
tl;dr: Another format change yields the most diverse volume of O. Henry stories ever...
I am still catching up on my pandemic-delayed and Major League Baseball playoff-delayed anthology reading. I’ve now made my way into 2022, starting with what is usually my favorite annual anthology, the O. Henry Prize stories, which in that year is called The Best Short Stories 2022: The O. Henry Prize Winners.
The O. Henry folks have again tweaked the format, in what I suspect is an attempt to catch up with or surpass the Best American folks. The 2021 volume gave the O. Henry anthology a new name but more importantly a guest editor from the literary world who makes the final selection of stories to include. This was a pure copycat move, as that is what the Best American anthologies (for short stories, essays, and other subjects) have done for many years. The guest editor format leads to variability from year to year, as some of the guest editors use their position to promote authors or genres or politics to their own liking.
In 2022 the O. Henry folks decided to include stories from anywhere in the world that have been translated into English. This considerably expands the geographic scope of the O. Henry series, making it global, in contrast with its Best American competitor. Ten of the twenty stories in the 2022 O. Henry volume were originally written in a language other than English, and two of my four favorites were translated stories. The O. Henry folks may be hoping that this provides them a sustainable advantage, as the Best American series presumably would need to change its name if they want to mimic this move. In my opinion, the inclusion of stories in translation did not measurably improve the quality of the 2022 volume, but it did make the subject matter and cultural aspects of the stories more diverse. Perhaps that makes the O. Henry series more interesting.
For the first time in several years, there actually was a story included in both the (2022) O. Henry series and the Best American Short Stories (2021) series: “A Way with Bea,” by Shanteka Sigers. However, it was my least favorite story in both volumes. I just do not get this story, as it leaves too much to the reader’s imagination. It presents a series of vignettes of a teacher and a student who may be succeeding or failing in school: it is hard to determine exactly what is transpiring. Perhaps some editors consider the story to be innovative because it presents a mere framework that the reader is likely to fill in with the reader’s own prejudices, thereby revealing them. Or maybe it's just not a very good story.
Here are my favorite stories:
“Fish Stories” by Janika Oza: It’s very hard to write a compelling ultra-short story, but Janika Oza succeeds brilliantly in a story whose text takes up a mere three printed pages. “Fish Stories” is a heart-rending story of how a small family is trying to cope with the death of a child years later. Oza has to make every single word count, and does.
“Apples” by Gunnhild Øyehaug, translated by Kari Dickson: A well-written story about a teacher-student romance that includes a story within it, which kept my interest level high from beginning to end.
“The Old Man of Kusumpur” by Amir Mitra, translated by Anish Gupta: A story from the other side of the world about the impact of belief and mythology on people who have very little else to rely upon.
“Warp and Weft” by David Ryan: This story may be a bit too smartly crafted, but it does present an interesting series of scenes, from different perspectives, showing how a variety of people are affected by a single unfortunate event.
Four of the twenty stories concerned the COVID-19 pandemic. Alas, they tended to use major events and situations from the pandemic, which made them seem like old news.