Sunday, September 14, 2008

Salon des Refuses Coverage: the controversy that won't die

Or so says the Globe and Mail. There are days, certainly, I agree. I am as surprised as anyone of the legs this has had, and the coverage it has received. Late at night google searches show the breadth of discussion, both off and online, and it is rather astonishing. And though I expect that this must be getting to the tail end of official coverage -- after all, this has been going on for more than a month -- we'll likely be hosting Salons in Vancouver, Montreal, Guelph, Toronto, Windsor and perhaps Winnipeg over the fall and winter. It's my hope that these events can broaden the discussion away from the Penguin book, to the broader implications of the Salon debates. More later on these events as they develop.

If you want a copy of the Salon, I suggest you go pick the issues up on the newstand as soon as possible. Indications are both issues will soon be sold out. And though I looked into reprinting it, I don't think it is financially justifiable at this point.

So, the Globe Back Pages, where Martin Levin asked John Metcalf to write on the Salon controversy. I expect we'll see some other Symposium style reaction to this essay on the same page a few weeks hence. Though perhaps not: no one on the Penguin side of things has reacted "officially" or "on the record" thus far (beyond a short initial interview with the anthology editor in Q&Q), and they may continue to choose not to.

I came across a blog yesterday where the writer reviews three collections by Salon writers, at least one of which he'd never read before. A fourth will follow soon. There's been additional evidence others are picking up collections by the Salonists, that this has succeeded in helping people discover these writers for the first time (For my part, Heather Birrell's Impossible to Die in Your Dreams' was a revelation, and I'll be reading more of her very, very soon). Which was the point of all this, in the end. So, whatever else may be said about the Salon as an experiment (and quite a bit has been, both for and against): mission accomplished.

The roar of the canon

It's the controversy that won't die. Jane Urquhart's Penguin Book of Canadian Short Stories has generated an uproar in the literary community, not merely over who's excluded (no anthology could contain them all), but, as John Metcalf argues, over what sorts of fiction should matter

The current issues of two literary journals, The New Quarterly and CNQ (Canadian Notes and Queries), offer 20 short stories by 20 writers left out of The Penguin Book of Canadian Short Stories, edited by Jane Urquhart. Both magazines title their issues The Salon des Refusés, in reference to the salon in 1863 that excluded, among other artists, Manet, Fantin-Latour, Pissarro and Whistler. The magazine editors felt that the Penguin anthology presented a distorted view of Canadian achievement in the genre. The Penguin anthology is important because of the cachet attaching to the imprint; the very name Penguin suggests authority, confers significance. This anthology presents Canada to the world; by this anthology, our achievement will be judged. It is a sorry book.

Urquhart, in her introduction, confesses that she had doubts about her qualifications for the job, and further confesses that she was not familiar with Canadian stories, her preferred reading having been novels. It shows. Among the many omissions are Hugh Hood, Norman Levine and Clark Blaise. To leave them out of a Penguin presentation is like omitting Ernest Hemingway, Eudora Welty and William Faulkner from an overview of U.S. short fiction.

Not only does she omit these monumental figures in Canadian short-story history, she also omits so many other, often younger writers, especially, it seems, those stylish innovators who perform with verve and sparkle: Patricia Robertson, Douglas Glover, Mike Barnes, Mark Anthony Jarman, Keath Fraser, Sharon English, Steven Heighton, Russell Smith, Diane Schoemperlen, Mary Borsky, Linda Svendsen, Cynthia Flood, Mary Swan, Patricia Young, Kathleen Winter, Terry Griggs ... As the names pile up, the list becomes, well, risible.

But the anthology is further distorted by the nature of some of Urquhart's inclusions. To include Adrienne Clarkson, Michael Ondaatje and Charles Ritchie - not one a story writer - is to edge toward the utterly bizarre. Too many of the selections indicate want of judgment, unfamiliarity, perhaps, with U.S. and British practice and achievement.

The focus of the two magazines is not, however, Jane Urquhart. She is merely collateral damage. The objection embodied in the writing celebrated by the two magazines is to Penguin Canada. Why did Penguin commission a tyro to edit such a weighty book? The answer must be to capitalize on her popularity, to exploit her celebrity. This is vulgar and irresponsible; it is an abdication of Penguin's responsibilities to our literature.

This brouhaha has been commented on by Russell Smith in The Globe and Mail, by Alex Good in the Toronto Star, by Paul Wells in Maclean's and by Adrian Michael Kelly on the CBC radio program Q. The Los Angeles Times is carrying the story on its website. Good wrote, "this 700-page tome has become the flashpoint for one of the sharpest literary debates this country has ever seen."

The point that ought to be made is that these Salon des Refusés magazine issues shouldn't be news at all. Our literature should be in constant turmoil, continual debate, dissent, passionate uproar. If our literature is important to us, its importance should be worth fighting about. Accomplished, demanding literature can only be strengthened and nurtured by austere, honed criticism.

The media interest in the Salon des Refusés has happened because, for the first time since the 1940s in Montreal, CanLit has woken from its habitual placid somnolence. This is the first time the editors of literary magazines have banded together to assert a different aesthetic, a different hierarchy. This is the first time editors and writers have said no! to a canon being imposed by a large and wealthy publisher.

Our pleasure at the attention being paid to the genre is, however, somewhat vitiated by the fact that the media's real interest is in the feuding, the supposed "nastiness" of Dan Wells's critical introduction in CNQ (Tweaking the Beak) and what Russell Smith described as the "stomach-curdling" criticism of my own essay (Thinking About Penguins).

There is, unfortunately, no consensus in Canada about our literature. The difference between commercial entertainment and work of literary value is scarcely understood. Our critics, such as they are, eschew evaluative judgments. Agents and publishing conglomerates dictate and define; publicity budgets are our arbiters. A benighted pedagogue at the University of Toronto actually requires students to read Ann-Marie MacDonald's Fall on Your Knees.

Why not Enid Blyton's Fun for the Secret Seven?

It is a world gone mad.

Concerning the short story in Canada, critic Philip Marchand wrote: "There is something both heartening and disheartening about the fact that so much of the strength of Canadian literary culture lies in the short story form. It is heartening because there are now many Canadian writers who are truly proficient in the art - so much so that whatever is enduring in our literature will be more likely found in their work than in over-stuffed prose epics such as Rohinton Mistry's A Fine Balance or Timothy Findley's The Piano Man's Daughter. ... The disheartening element in the situation, of course, is that few people actually read it."

There is, of course, a reason for the Salon des Refusés issues beyond the desire to castigate Penguin Canada; it is to celebrate what they spurned. What a feast of fiction awaits the reader, wonderful writers you may not have encountered before: the tight passion of Cynthia Flood, the enormous delicacy of Ray Smith, the meditative calm of Steven Heighton, the fragrantly nutty mind of Terry Griggs ... They are all here, worlds awaiting you.

Another 20 come easily to mind, among them Libby Creelman, Susan Kerslake, K. D. Miller, Robyn Sarah, Mary Borsky, Rebecca Rosenblum, all of them building the golden edifice that is the short story in Canada.


Kerry said...

I'm reading Heather Birrell's book right now thanks to the Salon. It's wonderful.

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