Every year since 1918, the editors of the O. Henry Awards have selected the best of the previous year's short fiction. The 1998 anthology contains 20 prizewinning stories, three of which have been specially honored by jurors Andrea Barrett, Mary Gaitskill, and Rick Moody. It's a fascinating and diverse collection, more adventurous than its rival, Best American Short Stories , but like that series it provides an edifying look at the state of American short fiction. As it turns out, rumors of the form's death have been greatly exaggerated. For starters, we have first prize winner Lorrie Moore's "People Like That Are the Only People Here"--the harrowing but profoundly unsentimental story of a mother whose baby is diagnosed with cancer. Second prize goes to Stephen Millhauser's creepy little fable "The Knife Thrower," about a traveling showman whose performance mixes violence, eroticism, and art, and third to Canadian master Alice Munro's dry-eyed account of a young woman leaving her marriage, "The Children Stay." These stories have little in common but their reluctance to take either fiction or experience secondhand. They hold the world up to us, strange and new; they transgress.
By turns magical and troubling, the best short stories leave readers in a state much like that of the knife thrower's appalled but fascinated audience: "Long and loud we applauded, as she bowed and held aloft the glittering knife, assuring us, in that way, that she was wounded but well, or well-wounded; and we didn't know whether we were applauding her wellness or her wound, or the touch of the master, who had crossed the line, who had carried us, safely, it appeared, into the realm of forbidden things."
Established in 1918 as a memorial to O. Henry, this annual literary tradition has presented a remarkable offering of stories over its seventy-seven-year history. O. Henry first-prize winners have included Dorothy Parker, William Faulkner, Truman Capote, John Cheever, John Updike, and Cynthia Ozick, as well as some lesser-known writers such as Alison Baker and Cornelia Nixon. Many talented writers who were unknown when first chosen for an O. Henry Award later went on to become seminal voices of contemporary American fiction. Representative of the very best in contemporary American fiction, these are varied, full-bodied fictional creations brimming with life--proof of the continuing strength and variety of the American short story.
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