Tuesday, December 23, 2008

December Literary Meetings 2008: O. Henry

Claire and I always look forward to the December meetings of the Notting Hill Napoleons and the Omaha Chesterton Society, our two ongoing book clubs. They constitute an important part of our annual Christmas festivities.

The former club has been having December meetings since...oh, my...about 17 years now whereas our little Chesterton group has a mere 4 or 5 years behind us. Nevertheless, they both are fun and inspirational.

The Napoleons' book selection for December has only occasionally related specifically to Christmas. We covered Christmas Stories by George MacDonald and The Fourth Wiseman by Henry Van Dyke in our first year (1992) but have lighted since on but four Christmas selections: Snow by Calvin Miller, Skipping Christmas by John Grisham, A Redbird Christmas by Fannie Flagg and The Good Shepherd by Gunnar Gunnarsson.

I can recommend all of them except Grisham's.

This year our book was the Barnes & Noble edition of O. Henry stories. Now, I love O.Henry (I have since I was a kid) but the critics have been anything but kind to the gentleman over the years. A great deal of their negativity arises from the frustrated jealousy which literary critics so frequently feel for popular writers. Some too comes from the fact that O. Henry stories are wholesome, straightforward and...gasp...have morals!

And finally, critics of O. Henry often dismiss his dazzling plot designs as "contrived." Not bothering to wonder how many of these scribblers would die for the talent to themselves "contrive" a plot anywhere near as delightful as one of O.Henry's, the charge lacks both balance and historical consciousness. O. Henry was the first short story writer to truly succeed in the amazing plot twists, the paradox, the irony that made his stories the toast of America in the early years of the 20th Century. Even if there is cause for modern critics to disdain those "tired old formulas" (and I don't think there usually is), the complaint can hardly be leveled at the inventor of the form.

No, let the university profs get their erect noses out of joint as they sniff petulantly for traces of heroism, spirituality, tradition, patriotism, and happy endings, you go ahead and enjoy the quality literature represented by writers like O. Henry whose wit, whimsy, wisdom and outstanding storytelling skills are truly without peer.

I must now admit, however, that the discussion of O. Henry was a bit dodgy. First off, not everyone read the same stories. Second, the hectic nature of the holiday schedule had kept some from reading very many at all. And third, there were some of the Napoleons who just weren't as keen on O. Henry as others.

Fourth, and most important, there is a real trick to discussing a collection of short stories -- a trick that, if missed, ends up in a mere cataloging of likes and dislikes. ("I really liked this story. "Me too." "Oh yes, I liked that one too; here let me read one of my favorite bits.")

The meeting was still a lot of fun; you can't get interesting, experienced, principled people together in one room and fail to do so. Plus, there was the beautiful tree that John and Barb had put up, the deliciously rich desserts, and the enjoyment of good cheer and spiritual invigoration.

Another big plus, the selection for the book club of this master of the short story (well, co-master with Gogol, as the Russians believe) seems to have won over at least two new devotees of O. Henry. And that is one of the main strengths of a successful book club -- introducing members to new friendships with great writers.