Monday, October 13, 2008

The Salon des Refuses continues: a response in the Globe

A last word in the Globe on the Salon des Refuses, as Wayne Grady takes issue with John Metcalf's piece a few weeks earlier, accusing him of being a "lazy critic." Hmmm. John Metcalf responds below.

It's quite obvious where my own sympathies are in this, so I'll not bother to say anything but the following: I'm not sure how "lazy" a critic Wayne Grady may be, but he's certainly sloppy. Though I don't have a copy of Urquhart's anthology near me at this time, I'm pretty certain Charles Taylor did not appear in it anywhere. Perhaps he meant Charles Ritchie? And Metcalf did not "select" any of these stories: for better or wose, that was done baseball style between Kim Jernigan and myself. If Metcalf had done the selecting, the Salon would have been considerably different, especially on the TNQ half of the equation. That is not a minor point to get wrong, and I suspect it means Grady did not bother to look at the Salon des Refuses in the first place before penning his rather weary squib. As for the bit about Blyton, or rather Grady's not getting it, that says something else entirely.

But ... enough. Metcalf needs no defending here. As I'm sure you'll see, he can take good care of himself.


The Penguin Book of Canadian Short Stories is a rich overview of the state of literature in Canada today, as well as a fascinating introduction to the social and intellectual history of this country


Recent issues of literary journals The New Quarterly and CNQ (Canadian Notes and Queries) offered short stories by 20 writers left out of The Penguin Book of Canadian Short Stories, edited by Jane Urquhart. Both magazines titled their issues The Salon des Refusés, holding the view that the Penguin anthology presented a distorted view. In a Sept. 13 essay for Books, John Metcalf supported that view. Now, Wayne Grady, who edited the first Penguin anthology, comes to the defence of a new and inclusive definition of what constitutes a short story. Metcalf, meanwhile, holds his ground.

John Metcalf, by listing 20 writers not included in Jane Urquhart's Penguin Book of Canadian Short Stories - his self-styled Salon des refusés - commits the lazy critic's error of castigating a book for failing to do what it never set out to do in the first place, and then questioning the judgment of its editor because she didn't produce the book he would like to have seen. His diatribe, therefore, amounts to little more than a fit of unseemly name-calling and name-dropping.

This is tiresomely familiar Metcalf: He did the same thing 28 years ago, when I edited the first Penguin Book of Canadian Short Stories and left him out of it. It was sad then, and sadder now, to watch him flail about in a slough of despond, and take so many other writers down with him. I can't speak for them, but if I had been left out of such an important literary anthology, I wouldn't thank John Metcalf for pointing out that fact to the world.

Midway through his fulmination, Metcalf does rise above vitriol long enough to make a valid point: "Accomplished, demanding literature can only be strengthened and nurtured by austere, honed criticism." One measure of the success of Urquhart's anthology is that it has sparked just such an occasion for a re-evaluation of the changing nature of the short story in Canada. Such a debate would have been welcomed in Metcalf's appraisal: Unfortunately, after voicing the need for it, he sinks back into self-promotion without telling us why his choices would have been better than Urquhart's. Bafflingly, he even manages a swipe at Ann-Marie MacDonald and Enid Blyton, who aren't in the Penguin book either.

The fact is that the new anthology includes 66 writers from an incredibly wide range of styles, themes and accomplishment, whereas, in presenting his list of refusés, Metcalf seldom looks beyond the small coterie of writers he himself has edited and published.

But let us revel in what the Penguin book is, rather than roll in what it is not. Urquhart divides her selections into five parts, each arranged behind a totemic story that establishes a theme she feels is crucial to the Canadian literary experience: thus, Alice Munro's The View From Castle Rock introduces the theme of immigration; Michael Winter's This All Happened speaks to the "immediate and contemporary view of who we think we are"; Michael Ondaatje's Lunch Conversation deals with matters related to family, and so on. Along the way, Urquhart includes stories by the giants of the genre - Munro, Alistair MacLeod, Mavis Gallant - and also celebrates the work of more recent arrivals, such as Vincent Lam, Madeleine Thien and Lynn Coady.

She includes work by writers of creative non-fiction - Charles Taylor, for example - an acknowledgment that such work now belongs in any modern definition of "story." She includes self-contained excerpts from longer works, an innovation introduced by Ondaatje in his 1990 anthology, From Ink Lake. The result is a rich overview of the state of literature in Canada today, as well as a fascinating introduction to the social and intellectual history of this country. Twenty-eight years after the first Penguin anthology, this one was long overdue and fulfills its mandate superbly.

As has been known since Noah, no collection can include everyone. In Inuit legend, Noah sails his ark into Hudson Bay after the flood. The Inuit note that there are no polar bears on board, but rather than writhe in righteous indignation, they help Noah survive and enjoy the animals he brought to them: They find the giraffes particularly tasty. They know that the Ark is what it is, and the Arctic is what it is, and that there is room for both.

So read the refusés, by all means. But for a broader, deeper and less biased viewpoint from which to survey the ebb and flow of our literature, read the Penguin anthology first.

Wayne Grady is the editor of 10 anthologies of short fiction and nonfiction, including the first Penguin Book of Canadian Short Stories and, most recently, The Desert: A Literary Companion.



A story is a carefully crafted work of art that is discrete and entirely self-contained. It ... demands an aesthetic response. It does not offer itself as lessons in history or sociology

To set the record straight, not one of the 20 writers celebrated in the current issues of CNQ and The New Quarterly was selected by me; these writers were chosen by Dan Wells at CNQ and Kim Jernigan at The New Quarterly.

Grady refers to his editing the first Penguin Book of Canadian Short Stories 28 years ago. His credentials for doing so were as tenuous as Jane Urquhart's now, credentials seemingly derived from his editing Harrowsmith, a magazine devoted to husbandry and mulch.

Grady seems to approve of including in a book of short stories "creative non-fiction" and "self-contained excerpts from longer works" - in other words, chunks of novels.

The resulting "rich overview" provides, he claims, "a fascinating introduction to the social and intellectual history of this country." And this is precisely where he and Urquhart get it all wrong, for she too thinks of her anthologizing as "a national narrative." Both editors think of themselves as using stories for some non-literary purpose, and both see that purpose as nationalistic.

Neither seems to grasp that a story is a carefully crafted work of art that is discrete and entirely self-contained. It is a performance. A story demands an aesthetic response. It does not offer itself as lessons in history or sociology. A story does not follow the flag.

The writers in the Salon des refusés issues of CNQ and The New Quarterly write with a crispness that is a relatively recent development in Canada. Some tend toward the minimalist while others are positively baroque. What marks them all, however, is a dedication to language. These writers are not the "coterie" Grady imagines. They are where the excitement lies; they are the heat in the kitchen. These writers are the polished vanguard leading us into ever more astonishing and engaging literary possibilities. A pity that Urquhart and Penguin Books were deaf to their voices.

John Metcalf's most recent book is the literary memoir Shut Up He Explained.

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