Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Refusing the Refuses

As it is in the interest of continuing the debate about short stories in Canada, and will prove, one hopes, that this Salon exercise has not been an orchestrated attempt to discredit both the Penguin and Urquhart brands -- conspiracy-theories in CannedLit, sadly, run rampant -- we turn our attention to Steven Beattie's Shakespherian Rag, a fine blog, one of the best in the country, and his 31 Days of Short Stories. Today, a contribution from fellow blogger and bibliomane Nigel Beale, who argues that Virgil Burnett is, at least by the evidence at hand, a much better writer than Clark Blaise, Norman Levine and Hugh Hood; and that, further, the only story worse than Hood's Williamstown is Clarkson's Ring Around October.

You can read his rather ... interesting post here:


Let's do a taste test, shall we:

First, Burnett.

"As he studied her from his place at the far end of the table, Roscelin felt his resistance to her beauty weaken and crumble, as if some temple in his brain had been exploded to dust by the advent of a new and superior religion. He would not, indeed he could not, restrain himself any longer. To do so, he admitted at last, would be to attempt to deny all the precepts of destiny."

A representative paragraph: there are much worse. I chose it because in a few short lines it pretty much gives you the entirety of Burnett's medieval tale (and tale, here, is the operative word. That or yarn. Nothing exemplifies the difference between a modernist short story and a 19th-century style yarn as does a comparision between Burnett, and, well, just about anyone else in the Salon {and the best of Urquhart's selections}.) Where Beale criticizes, for example, Blaise's use of alliteration (???), we get here crumbling resistance, inability to restrain oneself, and romantic destiny. Hmmm: no, no second-hand Gormenghast here.

Let's go with Hood now, the worst of our Salonists, by Beale's estimation. Finding a representative paragraph is not as easy here, as much of the story progresses via dialogue. But this paragraph, picked from a scan, comes close:

"There are no trees in the Town of Mount Royal; this is a fact. Here and there one finds a stunted shrub or two; but when they lais out the developments during, and just after, the war, they bulldozed down all of the trees, a bad mistake no one seems to regret. Without noticing it, the citizens live on an arid plain where the grass yellows in May. If the land were clear prairie they would see this; but admidst the ranch houses the desert effect is half-obliterated. That you can't sit in your own backyard in July because of the glare seems to be taken for granted by all but me. It takes me an hour and a half to drive two miles to work, because of a bottleneck at a level crossing. In wintertime, it takes much longer."

No fireworks here, admittedly. Just careful observation, and a layering of image, metaphor and dialogue, quiet technique, which adds resonance to a powerful story about, as much as anything, the final journey (to Williamstown or otherwise) we all must take. Certainly, at the very least, when compared to Burnett's medieval posturings, a much, much stronger story.

We won't even get into comparing Hood and Lucy Maud Montgomery. Really, what would be the point? So there's not much more to say. Beale says it all. Take the Constance and Williamstown challenge, and see for yourself

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