Friday, April 10, 2009

O. PENry!

The New York Times recently ran an Arts Briefly item about Anchor Books partnering with the writers' group PEN and renaming its annual anthology of twenty short stories culled from literary magazines The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories.* The item didn't provide many details, so I decided to contact Series Editor Laura Furman to find out more, and though she's at the American Academy in Rome for the month (lucky her), Laura was kind enough to quickly get me some answers from Anchor.

What does each side hope to gain from the partnership? The mission of the O. Henry Awards 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 an international organization devoted to the stimulation, support, and sustenance of writers and literature. To this general aim, PEN administers prominent literary prizes each year (including PEN/Malamud for short fiction), and, through the PEN Readers & Writers Program, sends prominent authors to underserved inner-city schools to encourage reading and writing. PEN will use The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories in its Readers & Writers Program, exposing the short story to a young audience while educating new readers.

Does this change anything else about the series?
Editorially, the annual collection remains the same and is independent of PEN. The stories will still be selected by the series editor, Laura Furman.

Will PEN be involved in any way beyond lending its name?
Yes. In addition to using the book in its outreach programs, each year the twenty prize-winning authors in the PEN/O. Henry collection will be recognized at the PEN Awards ceremony (which last year was on May 19 at the Walter Reade Theater in New York), giving wider acclaim to the individual achievement of excellence in the short-story form.

It sounds like it's primarily about branding, but I think the additional recognition from PEN will be good for the contributors to The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories, especially those just starting out. On the other hand, the title of the collection has always been a problem. The competition, Houghton Mifflin's Best American Short Stories, has an unbeatable brand with the perfect name, while readers sometimes find the O. Henry Awards title cumbersome and confusing. The new partnership could exacerbate that problem slightly by lengthening the title (only by three letters and a slash) and adding another element to parse. But, overall, the association with PEN can only be a plus for the series and help to raise its profile. And it should be a nice addition for PEN, as well, connecting it further to short fiction.

*In the spirit of full disclosure, I was series editor from 1997 to 2002 of what was then called Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards. The series dates back to 1919.