Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Salon in the Globe

Russell Smith, one of our Salonists, in the Globe on the Salon. A very balanced treatment.

I think that I should take a moment to clarify a thing or two, however. It is not, as Smith has said below, and that other bloggers and reporters have said, that we think the Salon stories are simply better than Urquhart's picks, or all of Urquhart's picks. That would have been ridiculous. There are many excelent stories in the Penguin anthology. Caroline Adderson, Annabel Lyon, Leon Rooke, Timothy Taylor, to say nothing of Alice Munro, Mavis Gallant, Alistair MacLeod. And, as Michael Darling pointed out in his review -- the only real review of the anthology in CNQ -- there are many others (Lynn Coady, Thomas King, Carol Shields). Our argument, really, is that there were many others that were left out, and more than a few very questionable choices and decisions (Adrienne Poy/Clarkson's story is highlighted in almost all coverage, but this is not the only one. Just as problematic is the use of biography as a framing device at the cost of excluding some of the salon writers Jane Urquhart evidently admires. (As I ask in my intro., does an Ondaatje memoir tell us, really, more about the short story in Canada than an inclusion by Norman Levine? Or are there other considerations here?) ). And that, as Russell rightly points out, we feel that many -- though by no means all -- of the most stylistically innovative writers in the country were left out.

Anyway, enough. Next up: Russell Smith

Short? Yes. Sweet? Not even sort of

August 28, 2008

If you haven't heard of the fun polemic raging around a recent anthology of Canadian short stories - a debate not only about what defines Canadian literature but also about what short stories are; in other words, an important debate - I'm not surprised. These things used to happen on the front pages of major newspapers (Yes, honestly: France's conservative Le Figaro published an avant-garde poetry manifesto on its front page in 1909), but of course they seem trivial and recherché now, like an argument among crochet enthusiasts.

I was bubbling about this the other night to a producer of TV news on the CBC who unabashedly yawned and rolled his eyes until I stopped. (To its great credit, however, the CBC Radio show Q did do a segment about it. You can get it as a podcast on their website; it's the first piece on the Aug. 20 show.) Anyway, now is your chance to go to the largest newsstand you can find and buy two Canadian literary quarterlies, and dig in to a feast of elegant nastiness.

The argument is over whether the massive new Penguin Book of Canadian Short Stories, published last fall as the definitive anthology of this famously Canadian genre, and edited by the famous novelist Jane Urquhart, is truly representative of our best writers. The two magazines in question are The New Quarterly, a journal specializing in new short fiction and poetry, and Canadian Notes & Queries, a magazine specializing in critical essays and reviews. (I think it was the parodically dusty name of the latter that so turned off my TV friend: The name reflects the journal's former incarnation as a research tool for bibliophiles. It is now much more interesting than it sounds.)

These two organs have published, in tandem, a joint response to the Penguin book. They have combined short stories and critical essays into what they are calling the Salon des refusés: The stories here collected are those that were not considered important or representative enough to make it into Urquhart's collection. The editors of the "salon" think these are simply better than Urquhart's choices.

I am, I admit, connected in one way or another to both these magazines, and one of my stories is included in their alternate anthology. Spearheading the angry response to the Penguin book (and angry it is, full of invective and accusations) is my first editor and literary mentor, John Metcalf; the editor of CNQ is Dan Wells, who published my last book. But I am also friends with Urquhart, someone I like and admire, which makes my reading of the withering attacks on her somewhat unpleasant. This web of connections is of course the plague of Canadian literature; it is precisely what has kept us from engaging in spirited debate of the British or French variety, and - at least I know Metcalf would argue - that has led to a standard of publishing and prize-giving which is undoubtedly mediocre.

Perhaps most woundingly, Metcalf, in his introduction to the CNQ issue (called Thinking About Penguins), calls Urquhart a "popular entertainer." He queries whether she is of the same calibre, as an artist, as the editors of the equivalent Irish and U.S. anthologies (Colm Toibin and Richard Ford, respectively). Metcalf derisively takes issue with every one of Urquhart's criteria for inclusion; questions her competence, as a novelist, for the task; and dismisses her understanding of the genre as "appalling ignorance." It's stomach-curdling stuff if you know everyone involved, and of course thrilling for the worst of reasons.

What is it that has made Metcalf, Wells and Kim Jernigan (the editor of The New Quarterly) so mad? Put very roughly, they see it as a conflict between the apologists of content and those of form. Urquhart has arranged her stories by theme - the immigrant experience, memoir, the family, myth and so on - and those themes do seem to have been chosen to be of interest to those who would try to understand something about Canadian history and identity. The best-known Canadian authors are all in there - Munro, Gallant, Atwood, Ondaatje (a strange inclusion, since his contributions are not short stories) - as well as dozens of other brilliant and varied writers (a total of 69, for almost 700 pages).

The objectors say that the majority seem to be chosen because of their great popularity, not because of their skill or innovation in this particular genre. Metcalf et al. point out that their own favourite short-story writers - linguistic gymnasts such as Mark Jarman, Douglas Glover, Terry Griggs and Diane Schoemperlen - tend to be published by small presses and literary magazines, and yet best represent the stylistic flair that is the hallmark of this, our most sophisticated, genre. And they have not been included. Some of Urquhart's selections, they argue, seem to have been made through not entirely artistic criteria: The story from the former governor-general Adrienne Clarkson is, for example, possibly a feel-good choice because of who the author is.

The only way for you to decide if this makes any sense is to go out and buy, first, the Penguin Book of Canadian Short Stories, which will give you a year or so of fascinating reading at a steady pace; and, at the same time, both The New Quarterly and Canadian Notes & Queries, which will do the same.

Why is this contretemps important? First, because this particular artistic genre is one in which Canadian artists excel, and is therefore an important Canadian contribution to global culture; and second, because it provides a glimpse into a much larger resentment, common among artists and intellectuals, about the political ways in which our official culture is created. You will find no more fascinating illustrations of subtly differing approaches to literature. And finally, the sheer pleasure of reading so many brilliant and exciting pieces of fiction, along with their analyses, may turn you off the bestseller lists forever.

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