Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Richard Poirier's Short Story Legacy

Richard Poirier, who died at the age of 83 on Aug. 15, is probably best known for being the founder of Library of America and of Rutgers' Raritan Review, but he was also series editor of Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards from 1961-1965, a title I, too, held for six years, from 1997-2002. In between the two of us came William Abrahams' amazing 31 year reign as series editor.* I met Abrahams once but never Poirier.

In 1998, my then-assistant Scott Conklin and I compiled a complete list of stories included in every O. Henry Awards volume, starting with the first one in 1919, and I had the list posted on the Web, sorted by name and year. The alphabetical list also includes the name of the series editor who selected each story. So my own labors allowed me to get a quick sense of Poirier's short story legacy, via his work as O. Henry Awards series editor. I discovered that:
  • Stories by Donald Barthelme (1964), Bernard Malamud (1964), Mary McCarthy ('65), Leonard Michaels ('65), Joyce Carol Oates ('63), Reynolds Price ('61), Thomas Pynchon ('62), John Updike ('61), and Joy Williams ('65) earned their first O. Henry Awards during his tenure. **
  • He also included fiction by Gina Berriault, Hortense Calisher, John Cheever, Arthur Miller, Flannery O'Connor, Tillie Olson, Kathryn Anne Porter, Philip Roth, William Saroyan, Terry Southern, Wallace Stegner, and Peter Taylor, among others. Olson's "Tell Me a Riddle" and O'Connor's "Everything That Rises Must Converge" are among the enduring stories that appeared in O. Henry Awards volumes from 1961-66.
No doubt, Poirier missed the boat on numerous other great writers and stories. I know that in my time I did--that's par for the course. But even without all of his other accomplishments, Richard Poirier contributed to American short fiction through the writers and stories that he did introduce to thousands of readers in his six-year stint as editor of the O. Henry Awards.

* Abrahams also co-edited with Poirier in 1965 and 1966.
** Oates would go on to appear in O. Henry Awards volumes 29 times (25 times under Abrahams who was her editor at Dutton), Updike 13 times, Malamud 5, Barthelme 4, Michaels 4, and Williams 2.