Great Canadian Short Story Debate

Last year, Penguin Canada published the Canadian Book of Short Stories edited by Canadian novelist, Jane Urquart.  From the beginning, Urquart’s selection was controversial, including as it did a short story by Adrienne Poy (Clarkson) and bits of memoir by Michael Ondaatje, never known as a short story writer and not included as such, in fact.  And other stuff.  And leaving out stories by such notable writers as Clark Blais and Elizabeth Harvor (and others, but even I wouldn’t leave these two out).  Now, Canadian Notes & Queries and Salon des Refuses has treated us with a debate on the subject of the Canadian short story, the short story form itself and the requisite “credentials” of the chooser, as well as the goals of the publisher.  It is SO worth having a look, be thee a Canadian, a writer or one of us who read as if our lives depended on it (and they do):

Here’s a tantalizing bit, from an essay by Daniel Wells:

Stories left out of an anthology, Jane Urquhart writes in the introduction to The Penguin Book of Canadian Short Stories, serve as a wonderful metaphor for unfulfilled desire. So, dear reader, welcome to this joint Salon Des Refuses of CNQ: Canadian Notes & Queries and TNQ: The New Quarterly: a statement of unfulfilled desire if ever there was one.  

This may strike the wrong note (or the right one, prematurely.)  After all, what this Salon is about above all else is the celebration of 20 of the best short story writers in the country, a celebration of the richness of a form many who read both journals have grown to love.  As Jane Urquhart rightly points out, the past forty years “have witnessed the publication of a staggering amount of fine literary work,” especially in the realm of the short story.  It is also true that some of these did find their way into Urquhart’s selection: after all, the book is more than 700 pages and 69 entries (though not necessarily stories: more on this later).  But it is also true that many of the most talented, most celebrated, most technically virtuosic, most wildly inventive, have not made the Penguin cut.  Had they, there would not have been a need for this Salon des Refuses. Which means that this is, in the first instance, at least, a reactionary gesture.

     When I first saw Penguin’s new anthology, a quick glance at the writers included on the back seemed promising.  Leon Rooke?  Present.  Caroline Adderson (unjustly left out of The Penguin Book of Contemporary Canadian Women’s Short Stories)? Check. Timothy Taylor?  Michael Winter?  Accounted for.  But then, almost as quickly, I began to notice who was missing.  Terry Griggs.  John Metcalf.  Elizabeth Harvor.  Douglas Glover.  Mark Anthony Jarman.  Diane Schoemperlen.  Clark Blaise.  Steven Heighton.  Sharon English.  Norman Levine.  Cynthia Flood.  Ray Smith.  Patricia Robertson.  Libby Creelman.  Mike Barnes.  Susan Kerslake.  Hugh Hood. The list goes on.  And on.

     I could understand, of course, some of these writers not making the anthology.  A few are not immediately obvious choices, belong to that realm of either/or, and not even a book as big as Penguin’s can include them all.  Some are only really known to aficionados and students of the story-form (though one would hope that the editor of a canon-making anthology such as the Penguin Book of Canadian Short Stories would be both, if not a highly-skilled practitioner in her own right); and there’s room in all of these negotiations to agree to disagree.  But all of them?  It was this I could not, still cannot, fathom.

     Other difficulties began to present themselves when I looked at who was included.  Who, exactly, is this Adrienne Poy?  I love Charles Ritchie, but as a short story writer?  I did not know Claire Messud was Canadian.  And Michael Ondaatje?  Even Michael Winter, on closer examination, was not included as a short story writer.  Memoir excerpts?  Bits from novels?  What, exactly, is going on here?

     What is going on here, Urquhart explains, is that she wanted to “open up and make more interesting the definition of the short story.”  Though she claims that as she continued to read this impulse left her – she writes: “I came to understand that the Canadian short story is more than sufficiently interesting on its own” – it seems to me that this remains the best explanation for the shape that this collection has taken. Either this, or less charitably, not fully understanding what a short story is.  (Claiming that it defies “all efforts to define it” is yawn-inducing claptrap. As is relying on the old editorial standby that time is the great anthologist.  Not in this collection it wasn’t, as I am sure Penguin Inc.’s cheques attest. )  And, indeed, Urquhart’s is a novelist’s sensibility, right down to the narrative nature of the stories’ organization.  It also explains her sense of these stories as belonging to “the pre-novel fictional worlds” of many of her inclusions, when these writers were “at the beginning of their careers singing in a pure voice simply because they feel the need for music, the need for a song.” When I am feeling less generous this sounds a lot like Urquhart painting the story as a lesser form, the novel’s backward and rather weak-minded country cousin, the domain of younger writers before they move on to the more serious work of novel-writing, and if this is so, one must ask if she was a fitting choice as editor.  At the very least it is evidence of one of her own editorial biases.  Few of her writers are known primarily as short story writers.  Most, whether for aesthetic or commercial reasons, have moved on to the novel, and among many of the younger writers gathered here it is apparent that the novel and not the story will be the domain of their lasting contribution. And this may provide part of the reason why, even at more than 700 pages, this anthology has proved so insufficient at showing the breadth, stylistic innovation, and richness of the short story in Canada. 

UPDATE:  And see the post by Katherine Parrish at AGORA

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