Monday, August 18, 2008

Salon Des Refuses

The Urquhart Disaster was what Maisonneuve called it, but that was just a prelude to a double issue of Canadian Notes and Queries (#74) and The New Quarterly (#107). Even The Toronto Star (Aug. 10, 2008) took notice, and quoted your not-so-humble correspondent, me. The Star even mentioned TDR's little survey of the short story in Canada, which concluded very unscientifically that Barbara Gowdy's We So Seldom Look On Love was the "best book of short stories in Canada since 1980."

What is the source of this discontent? The Penguin Book of Canadian Short Stories, edited by Jane Urquhart (2007).

What is the problem? The thick book fails to include many of the country's best short story writers.

Like who? Douglas Glover, Mark Anthony Jarman, Norman Levine, Hugh Hood, Diane Shoemperlen, Heather Birrell, Sharon English. [Where was John Lavery? Greg Hollingshead? Derek McCormack? Carrie Snyder?]

The double issue of TNQ and CNQ collect 20 short story refugees and also collect critical responses to the Penguin collection, including a typically bombastic piece from Kicking Against the Pricks author, John Metcalf. Metcalf calls the Penguin anthology "something of a travesty of Canadian achievement." If such a book had been published in Ireland, there would have been "a storm of protest and derision in the literary world." In Canada, however, Metcalf despairs for "the vast Canadian silence."

Ha ha ha. Good one, John.

Metcalf's comedy was absent from the Gladstone Hotel in Toronto on August 13, 2008, when the editors of TNQ and CNQ faced off with a panel of short story writers and critics to ... refute the Penguin anthology? That's what I thought was going to happen, but it didn't turn out that way.

TNQ editor Kim Jernigan began the evening by calling TNQ and CNQ the mom and pop of Canadian letters. TNQ is the mother (i.e., it's nurturing of new talent); CNQ is the dad (i.e., it is critical and curmudgeony). Rough stereotyping aside, there's something to this; although CNQ editor Dan Wells quickly jumped in, commenting that his magazine "celebrates, too."

Later in the evening Wells spoke of some of the editorial tensions between mom and pop. Wells was clearly the instigator of the joint issue; however, the soothing balm of mom Jerigan was all over the evening at the Gladstone. Vast Canadian silence? From one of the editors at the heart of the protest?

Jernigan even called Metcalf's focus on language (as performance) "a bit of an oversimplification." (Well, duh.) Jernigan made the point because she wanted to highlight the ability of good short stories to demonstrate psychological acuity, one of the many things that good stories do, as well as showcase keen use of language.

No one called Urquhart's anthology a disaster. There wasn't even much discussion of it. The panel, led by Jernigan, instead discussed short stories in general, anthologies in general, and their own writing process in general.

Without the expected fireworks, the evening was a bit of a let-down. Though it wasn't without insight.

The panel consisted of critic Stephen Beattie, writer Mike Barnes, writer Heather Birrell, writer Sharon English, writer and former academic Adrian Michael Kelly.

The conclusions included:

  • Short stories are harder to write than novels, but maybe not.
  • Richard Ford is a better anthologist than Jane Urquhart because he said he chose only the best stories, while Urquhart admitted in her introduction that she might not be the right person for the job.
  • Martin Amis said that in short stories you can't get away with cheating.
  • Carol Shields said Alice Murno's short stories don't end; they "soar off into mystery."
  • We need evaluative standards; we should only search out the best; there is no other point to reading.
  • There are two kinds of anthologies: popular and academic. Academic anthologies make money because they have a captive audience. Popular anthologies rarely have much shelf life.
  • Canadian literature is what people read in school.
  • Short stories are not a stepping stone to the novel. They are a different form.
  • Readers seems willing to accept challenging narrative strategies in film, but not in fiction. This is bad news for short story writers.
  • Short stories may be more true to life than novels, because they are episodic. In life, moments bump up against each other, as they do in stories but not in novels so much.
  • How come Canadians don't value their genre writers as much as their literary writers?
  • Readers have perhaps forgotten the joys of the story story, because short stories tend to remind us of life's ambiguities, and Oprah has grown rich selling the belief that all problems can be solved.
  • Short stories don't provide a quick fix, and this frightens people. This is bad news for short story writers.

Jane Urquhart, however, doesn't frighten people.

The Penguin anthology delivered (an odd, reactionary, themed collection), the country yawned; John Metcalf sighed.


Late addition: The editors of TNQ and CNQ should be congratulated for their combined issue. It is a collectors' item for sure. There is much for general and specialist readers to savour in the two magazines. Far more than many lit mags collect in their lifetimes. I realized that I hadn't said that earlier and wanted to say: Strong work. Thanks.

At the same time, it's imporant (I think) that the argument not become hyperbolic ("disaster") or personal ("Urquhart"). There is plenty of meat in the aesthetic debate. This is, I believe, where even Metcalf would like to hear the noise. It's appropriate. It's welcome.


Update: CBC Radio discusses the Salon Des Refuses (podcast) with Adrian Michael Kelly: Aug 20, 2008

Two related links:

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