Laura Furman: “The Most Wonderful Group of Stories I’ll Ever Find”

furman.jpgLaura Furman became the current editor of the annual O. Henry Prize Stories collection in 2002. When this year’s edition came out, I asked if she’d let Beatrice readers in on the selection process, and she graciously agreed. In addition to her experience as a founding editor for American Short Fiction, Prof. Furman is also an accomplished short story writer, novelist, and memoirist in her own right, so her insights into what makes for a good story are more than welcome here!

Every morning when I drive my son to school through downtown Austin, I pass the little yellow cottage where William Sydney Porter, best known as O.Henry, lived with his wife and daughter. It’s now a museum, pressed on one side by the convention center and the other by a towering hotel. Its fretwork is preserved; inside are artifacts of the writer’s life and work, as well as donated furnishings illustrating the period. The writer of “The Gift of the Magi” is commemorated in Austin and elsewhere, but his most important monument may not be his stories, which many readers still love, but the O.Henry Prize Stories, founded in 1918 by his friends to honor him and to “strengthen the art of the short story.” Rather than being relegated to literary history, O.Henry will always be associated with the current masters and promising talent in contemporary writing.

There are intimidating aspects of being series editor of the O.Henry, the job I began in 2002. The editorship carries with it a responsibility to the writers of the many short stories submitted each year, to the magazine editors, and to the readers of the annual collection who expect a variety of excellent, challenging, and moving stories. My principal mission is to believe in writers and the original ways the best of them find to face the ancient challenge of telling a story.

In January, I begin reading. Bookshelves line two walls of my long university office, and starting with the new year, the shelves on the east side begin to fill with magazines. Over 350 Canadian and American journals—monthlies, weeklies, quarterlies, annuals, and those of irregular publication—send their issues to the O.Henry. (All stories written in English, regardless of the writer’s citizenship, are eligible for consideration, so long as they’ve been published in a North American magazine and submitted to the O.Henry.) Some weeks, I’ll read ten to twenty stories, others as few as five, but I try to read steadily. By summer, I’m hip-deep in stories, and Fall is a rush to read and to eliminate. The stories are re-shelved on the west side of my office, Maybe, No, and Yes. Some stories travel between Yes and Maybe, and will end up in the very short list of Recommended stories or even on the No shelf.

As a reader of so many short stories, it’s important to protect my capacity to be involved and to be touched. Selecting such a small number–twenty winners and perhaps fifteen on the Recommended list–out of so many is overwhelming in the abstract but not so in the particular. The simultaneous tasks of reading and judging are a balancing act between staying receptive to the story and keeping a certain critical cool. Time, also, is on my side. Some stories I read and re-read over a period of almost a year. Some stories leap into my heart and stay there. When the reading gets difficult, a few questions help put the choice in perspective: “What is there? What is hidden? Can the story be reread many times, each time revealing some new aspect? How does it display the possibilities of the form?” Just as every writer must recognize her individuality and capacities, so must every editor. Clearly, some stories will never appeal, not because of genre or subject matter, but because one editor’s great story is another’s source of boredom or irritation, and this is a fact of life. A good deal of instinct is involved in writing, and the same is true of the kind of reading I do to edit the O.Henry. Each year, I make a special effort to read writers whose work has never especially moved me to be sure that I broaden my personal horizons. Some of the stories I’ve chosen are first publications, though sometimes I don’t know that when I choose them. In such cases, I have to trust myself.

By the second week in November, all the submissions are in, and by the third week in December, I’ve made my choices. The stories have been read and re-read, considered and reconsidered, and looked at coldly. This is the messiest period of the reading year, and it’s a relief when I’ve made the big decisions.

Every year, a panel of three distinguished writers are asked to be O.Henry jurors. I send the jurors the stories in manuscript form, without identifying the authors or publications. Belying their group title, the jurors work separately; each chooses his or her favorite and writes about it. In doing so, the jurors often define what is most important about the short story. In the 2005 O.Henry, Richard Russo wrote that Elizabeth Stuckey-French’s “Mudlavia” “burrowed deepest” under his skin: “Which stories burrow under our skin, of course, has a lot to do with who we are and how as readers we allow ourselves to be approached.”

Since taking on the editorship of the O.Henry, I’ve begun to teach a course at the University of Texas at Austin in the short story, and to use the O.Henry as a textbook. In general, my students haven’t heard of either the famous writers or the unknowns, and this reminds me that literature is only a small part of most lives. It’s thrilling to watch a story take hold, and to see students embrace characters as passionately as they do their friends and family. Perhaps the short story, and the O.Henry, will become part of their lives.

Part of what keeps me going as a reader is my love of certain writers. They are my touchstones, and their work helps me balance the excitement of recognizing a fresh voice and guessing on the lasting quality of that voice. Each year, I dedicate the O.Henry to a writer whose work has made a difference to the short story with a very short essay of appreciation; in the 2003 O.Henry it was the incisive Canadian writer Mavis Gallant, and in 2005 Anton Chekhov, whose work I always experience as new and surprising. By dedicating the O.Henry to such writers, I hope to encourage readers to think beyond the new and to revisit or discover the masters of the story.

One unexpected pleasure of editing the O.Henry has been the reaction of the writers: no one expects an O.Henry. Giving such an award to twenty writers each year has been a source of satisfaction: for writers, the O.Henry means affirmation and encouragement for their work. A story’s inclusion in the O.Henry isn’t just a boost in prestige for its author, it means a second life for the story. A book lasts longer than a single issue of a magazine, and the O.Henry is a book that’s kept and cherished by its readers.

For some O.Henry writers, composing the short statement about the genesis of the prize story turns out to be difficult, for others it seems like a breeze, and some prefer not to comment at all. Often readers turn to the statement after reading the story to keep hearing the writer’s voice. The statements are a good way for readers to check their own responses to a story and interpretations of it. It’s always interesting to find out that a work of fiction might have been inspired by a magazine read in a dentist’s office, the persistence of a character from one story to the other, or a ghostly absence in an isolated country spot. Another way for readers to stay with the O.Henry writers is to visit our website where we have interviews of current writers and an archive from past years. Our website is another part of the O.Henry, and the staff at Anchor has worked along with me to make the prize collection and its history more useful and accessible to readers.

Each O.Henry volume is a surprise—the stories that make it into the collection and the similarities among them, animals one year, music another—and so is the enthusiasm and conviction I feel each year that this is the most wonderful group of stories I’ll ever find, and that everyone in the world should sit down and read them right away.

Copyright 2005 by Laura Furman

4 April 2005 | guest authors |