Saturday, December 27, 2008

Phil Marchand weighs in on the Salon des Refuses

One last bit on the CNQ Salon in this morning's National Post:

Let us Compare Anthologies...

In the literary world, as in the everyday world, the end of the year is an occasion to make resolutions for the future - to try to get certain things right.

What do we need to get right?

An anthology of short stories

Let us begin with the object of this year's finest literary kerfuffle, the publication of The Penguin Book of Canadian Short Stories, edited by novelist Jane Urquhart. A hefty book, weighing in at 700 pages, Urquhart's anthology featured 60 writers. Because of the importance of the Penguin brand name, and because of the sheer number of contributors, the anthology attracted close attention, particularly from writers not included. Goaded by critic and noted short-story author (not included in the collection) John Metcalf, some 20 of these banded together for public readings under the rubric Salon des Refus├ęs, after the 1863 exhibition of painters rejected by the Paris Salon.

This is a matter of no small importance. Much of Canada's finest literature is in the short-story form, and publication of a first-rate anthology of short fiction would be like the appearance of a new literary classic on the Canadian landscape. It would solidify our sense of possessing a vital literature.

Over the years, attempts have been made. In 1929, the novelist Raymond Knister produced Canadian Short Stories, featuring such stalwarts of early Canadian literature as Charles G.D. Roberts, as well as the likes of Henry O'Higgins and Walter McLaren Imrie, long since forgotten. This was followed by the late Robert Weaver's 1958 Canadian Short Stories and a 1978 anthology titled The Best Modern Canadian Short Stories, edited by Ivon Owen and Morris Wolfe. This last was a brave effort, but a sentence from the editors' introduction such as, "The central character in Dave Godfrey's The River has to leave the city and step again into a river he frequently visited as a youth before he can truly understand that life is a process," indicates just how mildewed was some of the lumber they had to work with.

In 1990, Michael Ondaatje weighed in with his anthology From Ink Lake. Many of his choices were unexceptionable, but he displayed a fatal taste for eccentricity, including part of a memoir by diplomat Charles Ritchie, a long-winded speech by an Ojibway Grand Chief named John Kelly and incomprehensible musings by the late pianist Glenn Gould titled The Search For Petula Clark. (Sample sentence: "The principal motivic cell unit of that ebullient lied consisted of the interval of a minor third plus a major second, alternating, upon occasion, with a major third followed by a minor second.")

Urquhart, unfortunately, has adopted the same licence for eccentricity in her anthology, including an excerpt from that same Ritchie memoir, as well as two excerpts from Ondaatje's semi-fictional memoir, Running in the Family, and a short story by Adrienne Clarkson, who can no more write fiction than I can play the oboe. Also, 60 writers are too many. Such quantity indicates that Urquhart has an uncertain grasp of quality - even assuming that her 60 are superior to Metcalf's 20, which, by the way, I do not believe. Writers in the history of Canada capable of writing a great short story are simply not that numerous.

In fairness, the difficulties of compiling an anthology are formidable. The number of Canadian published short stories with literary pretensions is stupendous, and a sizeable portion of them have genuine merit - with the growth of creative writing courses in this country, crudities and excesses in short stories are often shaved off by reasonably competent instructors, and the end result looks quite presentable. To separate the great from the good in this mass would be daunting. My own view is that you would need two editors. A model might be the 1950 anthology Poets of the English Language, edited by W.H. Auden and Norman Holmes Pearson. This means that a Canadian publisher would have to find a scholar with the brilliance of Pearson and a first-rate literary artist with the breadth of appreciation for different literary approaches possessed by Auden.

Good luck. We may be faced with an impossibility at this point, but we can't give up the task - it is too important to get this business of a Canadian anthology of short stories right.

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