Two Literary Lions Merge

Ranging from the economic challenges facing many publishing houses to the rise of the Kindle, and the sad farewell to literary legend John Updike, it’s been a particularly challenging year for the published short story.

Until now.

For the first time ever Anchor Books and the PEN American Center are partnering and making publishing history with this year’s PEN/O.HENRY 2009 PRIZE STORIES. As The New York Times notes, This partnership is historic for a number of reasons, not the least of it is that it marks the first time PEN has ever honored the short story, proceeds from the collection will be directed to PEN’s Readers & Writers Program and winners will be honored in PEN’s annual literary awards gala taking place next month.

On Tuesday, May 19th The PEN American Center will honor the PEN/O.HENRY PRIZE STORIES at their annual literary awards which take place at CUNY Graduate center this year. This award ceremony will be emceed by Billy Collins and will also publicly introduce the new President of PEN, Kwame Anthony Appiah. Here O.Henry Prize Story editor Laura Furman sits down with us and discusses the meaning of this historic partnership.

VB: How did this partnership come about? Why is the O.Henry collection a natural partner for PEN?

LF: It seemed like a natural partnership. The O. Henry Prize Stories has existed since 1919, and is not only an annual collection of prize stories but an institution in American literary life. The mission of the O. Henry has always been to encourage the art of the short story and, by extension, writers of short stories. Therefore, whatever we can do to lengthen our reach to readers is all-important.

PEN is, in the words of its mission statement, “An association of writers working to advance literature.” To this general aim, PEN administers prominent literary prizes each year, and, through the PEN Writing Institute, sends prominent authors to underserved inner-city schools to encourage reading and writing.

Now that our partnership is in place, PEN will use the PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories in its Writing Institute, exposing the short story to a new and young audience while educating new readers.

Each year, the twenty prize-winning authors in the PEN/O.Henry Collection will be recognized at the PEN Awards ceremony, giving wider acclaim to the individual achievement of excellence in the short-story form.

VB: Because of its partnership with the O. Henry Prize Stories, PEN is honoring the short story in its literary awards. Why now? What does this signify?

LF: PEN’s literary awards function as a way for both PEN and the O.Henry to bring attention to the short-story form. It’s an odd time now for the story, its writer and its reader. Because of graduate writing programs and the proliferation of writing groups of all kinds, there are perhaps more short-stories being written than at any other time. Yet the number of commercial magazines publishing short stories is small. Conversely, stories are published online and in print in little magazines sponsored by universities, foundations, and individuals.

The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories is a way of recognizing the writers, editors, and readers of short stories. It’s a way of saying, The world of the story exists in an enormous variety and number. There’s a lot of energy and effort in the world of the story, and we are recognizing and celebrating it.

VB: How will the Readers & Writers Program benefit from this partnership?

LF: PEN will use the PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories in its Writing Institute. This puts the book in the hands of an important young audience—a self-selected group of readers and, perhaps, writers. And as we know, all writers are readers.

As part of a reader’s education, the PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories first and most importantly provides the twenty stories themselves. Included are international and American stories, all originally composed in English.

Each author writes a special comment on the origin and inspiration of the story, and how the story was written.

Three jurors, different each year, are distinguished writers of the story who read all twenty in a manuscript which gives no identification of either author or place of publication. The jurors each pick a favorite, without consultation with each other or the series editor, and write an essay about the story.

Finally, the series editor’s introduction gives an overview of the twenty stories and of the story form.

The young audience in the Readers & Writers Program will be getting an education in reading and writing the short story from the PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories.

VB: How will PEN/O. Henry Prize winners benefit from this partnership?

Having a story included in the O. Henry Prize Stories has always been a mark of distinction, one that’s recognized widely by writers, editors, and readers. Inclusion has probably helped talented new writers attract attention and, one hopes, new readers. Perhaps inclusion also means, for the already well-published writer, an introduction to a new audience and a reminder to readers, a way of saying, “I’m still here.” For all the writers whose work is included, it’s a boost. A cheer for good work well done.

For the universities, foundations, and individuals who support the little magazines that publish the greatest number of stories, inclusion in the annual collection has been proof that their judgment is right and that their hard work is worth it. For those who work hard to edit and produce the magazines, having a story reprinted in the O. Henry Prize Stories has been an affirmation and cause for celebration.

With the new partnership, such recognition of excellence is widened. In the literary world, a PEN Award is much coveted and widely recognized as a sign of excellence. The creation of The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories gives the prize-winning stories and their authors a broad audience, one composed of readers, other writers, editors, agents, all those to whom literature is important.


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