Suspend Your Disbelief

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Choosing the PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories: a guest post by Laura Furman

Editor’s note: As part of our continuing celebration of Short Story Month, we’re delighted to present a guest post by Laura Furman, editor of the PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories.

FWR_LauraFurmanPhotoEach year, I choose the twenty stories to be included in The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories. Once I’ve gathered them in a manuscript without attribution of authorship or publication, I send the stories to the three jurors of the year. They in turn read them and, without consulting either me or each other, pick an individual favorite and write about it. The emphasis in this part of the book’s life is on individual choice, which mirrors the world of publishing from the most obscure stapled-together journal to a five-minute-old webzine to the most celebrated of book publishers: one person has to choose a piece of writing, believe in it, and carry it forward.

The question most often asked about my choice each year of the twenty prize-winning stories is what criteria I use and what I’m looking for in a short story. The question is so logical and straightforward that I hesitate to answer it, for it implies another me, one with defined standards and a firm idea of what exactly every story must be. That other person can measure a story against the standards and her definition of the short story, and she can be confident that if the story fits, all is well. Maybe in another world there is such a perfect way to choose what gets published and celebrated, but not in this one.

In fact, I have no set criteria nor do I look for something specific in the many short stories I read each year. The stories I admire aren’t required to have certain kinds of characters, settings, plots, nor must they be told using particular voices or styles.

As a reader I have more hopes than requirements. I hope to be moved, for if I feel nothing then what good is all the skill and technique in the world? A good story feels new and tells me something I didn’t know or makes me aware of something I knew but wouldn’t acknowledge. That’s the power a story can have over its reader.
Also, I hope that the stories in each PEN/O. Henry collection will last beyond our momentary political, social, or aesthetic concerns. Reading a collection of stories is one thing, and keeping that collection to read again and again is another, even better fate for twenty winning stories.

It’s my wish to remain an open reader, ready to be astonished and moved, and able to recognize art, which is more than skill and technique.

Laura Furman has been series editor of The Pen/O. Henry Prize Stories since 2002. She is the winner of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts for her fiction and is the author of seven books, including her recent story collection The Mother Who Stayed (Free Press).

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