Book Review:  The Best Short Stories 2021: The O. Henry Prize Winners Edited by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Jenny Minton Quigley

I was in the mood for reading some short fiction, and so I searched for the newest literary collection the library had. I knew it was likely to be a mixed bag, and that’s exactly what it was. Appreciation for short stories is subjective, of course, but for me these selections ranged from knock-it-out-of-the-park brilliant to barely readable.

It got off to a slow start, in my estimation. Not that the stories were all bad, but in the first half of the book they are almost all depressing tragedies, so much so that I almost set the collection aside. There’s enough tragedy in the real world; in literature I expect to read about the negative things, sure, but I also look for transcendence, for creative moments that help me rise above the vast darkness around us.

“Malliga Homes” by Sindya Bhanoo tells of a retirement home for the upper middle class in India, and how the elderly are abandoned there by their offspring. “From Far Around They Saw Us Burn,” based on a true story, tells of a fire in an Irish orphanage that costs the lives of many children. “Scissors” by Karina Sainz Borgo tells of starving women at a border crossing who have to sell their hair so they and their children can eat. These stories are all beautifully told, but they all leave readers in a dark pit of despair.

As I said, it wasn’t until I was about halfway through the book that I came across a story that supercharged me, imbued me with its energy, and reminded me why I read short stories. “The Master’s Castle” by Anthony Doerr concerns a somewhat mediocre man who becomes an optometrist and bounces from Bakersfield to Hawaii to Eugene to Pocatello. He eventually marries an alcoholic woman, and they have a son together. This all sounds like it has the makings of another tragedy, but Doerr rises above this by unexpectedly forging a strong relationship between father and son that helps them endure their hardships and make sense of their world.

Another unlikely story that turned out to be strangely absorbing is “White Noise” by Emma Cline. It is a character study of Harvey Weinstein just before his sexual harassment sentence was announced. While staying at a friend’s house in Connecticut, he finds out that Don DeLillo, author of the novel White Noise, lives next door, and as his days of freedom are about to come to an end, he imagines how he could adapt White Noise into a film.

Although many literary sources are listed in the back of the book, the twenty stories in this volume only come from ten different publications, especially The New Yorker and Granta.

And now I feel compelled to say a few words about some of those other magazines. I was dismayed to see that among the publications read each year for the O. Henry awards are many that have begun charging writers for submissions. Unable to draw enough readers, they have begun to rely on aspiring writers for their income. I wrote about this in length in the essay “The Egregious Practice of Charging Reading Fees,” which first appeared on the website of the Science Fiction Writers of America (now known as the Science Fiction Writers Association) and then on my website. In the essay I explain that the best magazines do not charge reading fees, only those who are faced with declining readership and financial difficulties. A side effect of the practice is that these publications will attract only privileged writers who can afford to pay to see their work in print and not struggling writers who can’t afford to pay magazines to look at their work. It seems this oppressive habit has only hit literary magazines; genre magazines have not succumbed to it. In fact, the Science Fiction Writers Association will not acknowledge or support any publication that charges reading fees. Prestigious awards such as the O. Henry prizes should certainly do the same. Let’s hope they get the message and see the damage being done to writers through this practice.

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