Sunday, December 11, 2005

One Of The Masters

There would certainly be no argument that in an art form as subjective as writing, there are many standouts who hold the esteemed title of being the "best" in each individual genre or category. As such, when it comes to the category of the short fiction, where we as writers have a tersely limited amount of time to get our stories out of the gate and off the ground before completing a full story "arc" and conclusion, for me, no one has ever done it better than William Sidney Porter, more widely known to his admirers over the years, as O. Henry.

Unlike many famous novel-length authors, William Sydney Porter (1862-1910), was an American writer who was far more noted for the numerous short stories he wrote during his career. Born in Greensboro, North Carolina, Porter left school in his mid teens. In 1882 he moved to Texas, where he worked in various jobs, including as a bank teller in Austin from 1891 to 1894 and as a journalist in Houston from 1895 to 1896.

In 1898 he was convicted of embezzlement committed during his years as a bank teller, and he subsequently served a three-year term in prison. Porter then settled in New York City, and for the remainder of his life he contributed short stories to the popular magazines of his day. His stories about working people are characterized by colorful detail, keen wit, and great narrative skill. Their signature feature is the use of coincidence and ironic twist of circumstance to produce a surprise ending to the plot. This device, for example, used in one of his best-known stories, The Gift of the Magi (1906), has held the attention of an enormous audience down to the present day. The best-known collections of Porter's hundreds of stories include The Four Million (1906), The Gentle Grafter (1908), and Options (1909).

And certainly, the famous "O. Henry" plot-twist ending that is now one of many standard techniques in short fiction writing, is one that many have admired since first laying eyes on this author's work when it was required reading back in grade school. The art of grabbing the reader by his or her shirt collar from the very first sentence, then carefully navigating their journey, while never allowing them to see exactly where they're being taken -- until they get there. A totally unmatched experience for the mind's eye, and all done within a short space of reading time, i.e., what we have come to know as the modern day "short story." Delicious!

Thank you, William Sydney Porter. For being one of the true innovators of a lasting art form.

Along these same lines, the O. Henry Awards are yearly prizes given to short stories of exceptional merit. They were first awarded in 1919 and recognizes an annual collection of the year's twenty best stories published in American and Canadian magazines, written in the English language.


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