Monday, May 3, 2010

The Namesake: Will The Digital Age Favor O. Henry-like Storytelling?

O. Henry: Ripe for a comeback?
On Saturday, I attended a reception for the 2010 PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories, as part of the PEN World Voices Festival. It was kind of like going to an engagement party for an ex-wife you've gotten over. I was series editor of the O. Henry Awards for six years, the 1997-2002 volumes, before Anchor Books abruptly decided to make a change. But it's been a while now, and over the last few years, I've exchanged the occasional friendly email with Laura Furman, the current series editor. I even boxed up my collection of about 20 past O. Henry Awards volumes and shipped it to her. So when Laura sent an invitation to the reception, I gladly accepted.

It was a friendly meeting. The low-key party took place at Idlewood books on West 19th Street. Among the hosts were One Story editor (and Story Prize board member) Hannah Tinti and Tin House editor Rob Spillman. A few of the authors in the 2010 volume were on hand. I also saw A Public Space editor Brigid Hughes (another board member) and past Story Prize finalist and O. Henry Award winner Joan Silber.

One thing that hasn't changed about the O. Henry Awards is the series' ambivalent relationship with its namesake. Someone asked Laura Furman if the stories in the book are like O. Henry's, and she quickly denied any connection beyond the name of the series. I always answered the same way.

Literary fiction branched off from the kind of popular magazine and newspaper fiction that William Sydney Porter (aka O. Henry), published at the turn of the last century as other forms of entertainment appeared. And you're more likely to find his formula of clever plots and surprising twists in television and movie scripts than in stories appearing in one of the prestigious annual literary collections, such as the O. Henry Awards, Best American Short Stories, the Pushcart Prize collection, and New Stories from the South.

Of course, stories written as much for entertainment as for craft are still prevalent in genres such as horror, mystery, and romance, and many of them are excellent. However, popular fiction as a genre unto itself no longer really exists. But here (wait for it) is the twist: The digital age could offer such types of stories a second life. Radio, movies, and TV might have stolen a large part of the audience for popular storytelling, but digital platforms such as the iPad, Kindle, Nook, and Sony Reader have the potential to bring back the crowd pleasing, O. Henry-style story. These devices lend themselves very well to the short form and will be in the hands of a growing readership. So could popular short fiction mount a comeback in the digital age? I'd say, yes. How would that be for a surprise ending?

Note: May is Short Story Month in the blogosphere. This site is all about short stories, and we'll continue to post on our favorite subject throughout the month.