Thinking About Penguins

When the Penguin Group decided on publishing the Penguin Book of Irish Fiction they entrusted the task of selection to Colm Toíbín. Toíbín is a fine stylist, author of the novels The Blackwater Lightship, The Story of the Night, The Heather Blazing, and The Master, and of a short story collection Mothers and Sons. The Times (U.K.) described him as a leading figure of European literature.

Penguin and Viking Penguin entrusted comparable huge anthologies of short American fiction and short British fiction to the highly respected novelist and short story writer Richard Ford and to Malcolm Bradbury whose glittering career opened in 1959 with Eating People Is Wrong and continued through subsequent novels and with the founding of the celebrated Creative Writing workshop at the University of East Anglia which produced such writers as Ian McEwan and Kazuo Ishiguro.

Had Penguin Group entrusted The Penguin Book of Irish Fiction to a popular practitioner such as, say, Maeve Binchy, there would have been a storm of protest and derision in the literary world. In Colm Toíbín they chose soberly and well.

Penguin Canada, with sad inevitability, chose to do a Binchy. They chose the path of touting “celebrity” and put this significant book into the popular hands of Jane Urquhart, a writer of whom Books in Canada said, kindly, “…known for her plushly lyrical novels.”

I use the world “significant” simply because the book is published by Penguin. Because of the history and widespread influence of the Penguin imprint all books bearing the Penguin colophon have undeniable cachet. The book will have national and international reach. It will represent to the world – simply because it is a Penguin book – Canadian achievement in story writing. This is a matter of concern and regret because the book flatly does not represent the best in Canadian short fiction. It seems to turn its back on language at high voltage. Litter glitter, little glam. A meat-and-potatoes version of our achievement.

In her Introduction, Urquhart confesses to uncertainty about being the person best suited to the task of selection simply because “…when it came to the younger and newer writers in Canada, it was most often their novels I turned to…”

Quite.

She trills on: “Perhaps the greatest gift given to me in my role as an anthologist was my discovery of these voices. To walk into the pre-novel fictional worlds of Dennis Bock, or Joseph Boyden, or Madelaine Thien is to find them at the beginning of their careers singing in a pure voice simply because they feel there is a need for music, a need for song.”

I would be hard put to it to paraphrase this uplifting drivel but it is not hard to hear behind it the old cliché about stories being the preparatory work before the summons to the serious, adult labour of novel writing.

Later in the Introduction she writes: “Originally, in an attempt to open up and make more interesting the definition of the short story, I wanted to include memoirs in this collection. In the end, however, I realized that unless I was able to put together a volume of encyclopedic length, this was not going to be achievable. Besides, as I continued to read I came to understand that the Canadian short story is more than sufficiently interesting all on its own…”

What appalling arrogance in Urquhart (and ignorance) that she desired to “open up” and “make more interesting the definition of the short story.” What naiveté, what groping dimness about short story history and development. How revealing that she would combine stories with memoirs – not an aesthetic idea in her head! Not a clue that short stories are the pinnacle of artistic form.

Here, in Canada, Jane Urquhart extols sweet singers “at the beginning of their careers” and slowly comes to realize – if, indeed, she really does – that “the Canadian short story is more than sufficiently interesting all on its own.” (italics added.)

In England, Malcolm Bradbury writing an introduction to The Penguin Book of Modern British Stories, displays more knowledge and understanding of the genre, displays more intellectual rigour.

“The short story has become one of the major forms of modern literary expression – in some ways the most modern of them all… The modern short story has therefore been distinguished by its break away from anecdote, tale-telling and simple narrative, and for its linguistic and stylistic concentration, its imagistic methods, its symbolic potential. In it some of our greatest modern writers, from Hemingway to Mann to Beckett, have found their finest exactitude and most finished stylistic practice.”

Perhaps Jane Urquhart hadn’t known this?

In his Introduction to The Granta Book of the American Short Story published by Viking Penguin, Richard Ford wrote:

“‘Some people… run to conceits or wisdom…,’ Barthelme’s oracular Miss R. states in ‘The Indian Uprising’, ‘but I hold to the hard, brown nutlike word. I might point out that there is enough aesthetic excitement here to satisfy anyone but a damned fool.’

“And I might point out that there’s giddy pleasure, illumination and solace too, not only in the word but in its dynamic relations to the ones all around it. As we read, we can sense the precarious nature of any literary construction, its barely containable excitation of words which mimics our own suffusion in experience, and whose eventual style, like a ballerina’s line, is an expression of the manner by which chaos is conditionally and beautifully held at bay.”

But I suspect, given the dry crackers of many of Urquhart’s selections, that “the hard, brown, nutlike word” is not where her fancy lingers.

The anthology is structured into five groups of stories, “…works brought together by thematic or, perhaps more accurately, atmospheric connections.” The stories in Group One are concerned with “the act of immigration.” Group Two contains stories where “the awareness of shared rather than told experience is vibrantly alive.” Group Three “includes stories in which family, tribal, or social anecdotes and situations… play a role.” The stories in Group Four belong in the “realm of fantasy and illusion.” Group Five features “authors looking back towards our past.”

Urquhart clings to her confusion of “story” and “memoir” by prefacing each Group with an extract from a memoir.

“I would need something, I realized, to establish an atmosphere or tone for each of the five sections that were beginning to take shape, and I knew from my reading that there were five excerpts from memoirs that would beautifully communicate the atmosphere of the stories that might follow them…”

The “memoirs” are by Alice Munro, Michael Winter, Michael Ondaatje, Wayson Choy, and Charles Ritchie.

Two of the “memoirs” aren’t.

“The View from Castle Rock,” set in 1818, if a memoir, would make Alice Munro about two hundred years old. Urquhart describes the story as “semi-fictional family memoir”; have those words any meaning?

Alice Munro herself was perfectly clear about The View from Castle Rock. In her Foreword she wrote:

“During these years I was also writing a special set of stories. These stories were not included in the books of fiction I put together, at regular intervals. Why not? I felt they didn’t belong. They were not memoirs but they were closer to my own life than the other stories I had written, even in the first person. In other first-person stories I had drawn on personal material, but then I did anything I wanted to with this material. Because the chief thing I was doing was making a story. In the stories I hadn’t collected I was not doing exactly that. I was doing something closer to what a memoir does – exploring a life, my own life, but not in an austere or rigorously. I put myself in the center and wrote about that self, as searchingly as I could. But the figures around this self took on their own life and color and did things they had not done in reality. They joined the Salvation Army, they revealed that they had once lived in Chicago. One of them got himself electrocuted and another fired off a gun in a barn full of horses. In fact, some of these characters have moved so far from their beginnings that I cannot remember who they were to start with.

“These are stories.”

Michael Winters’ “semi-fictional, diary-like observations of the daily life of a writer living in St. John’s (an extract from This All Happened) is, in fact, a chapter from a novel which was nominated for the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize.

How anyone could mistake Winters’ burnished fiction for “memoir” is disturbing.

Ondaatje’s two autobiographical fragments, while highly polished and intricate and teased, are autobiography. Urquhart refers to them as “fictional autobiography.”

The two “stories” by Ethel Wilson that follow the Ondaatje pieces are not stories; both are extracts from The Innocent Traveller, a novel about Topaz Edgeworth.

Of the Michael Winter section from This All Happened she wrote: “The sharpness of observation in this piece seemed to me to be echoed not only by the realism of each of the stories that would follow it but also the sense I got from their skilful rendering that this really had happened, that in some way or another these stories are emotionally and physically true… The awareness of shared rather than told experience is vibrantly alive in this section’s stories…”

I’m not sure what all this means. Urquhart seems profoundly confused about fiction and non-fiction. I draw back from the naiveté of “shared rather than told”; it is difficult to pierce the mental fog. I’d always rather thought of “skilful rendering” leading to a conviction of verisimilitude as “art.”

The thematic groupings absolve her from any chronological or historical concerns. She says, correctly, “as the last couple of decades in Canada have witnessed the publication of a staggering amount of fine literary work, stories from these decades have taken precedence in terms of numbers over those from the past.”

Good.

But I wish she had taken the a-historic opportunity to have tossed out the deadwood. I would have got rid of M.G. Vassanji, W.D. Valgardson, Vincent Lam, Adrienne Clarkson, Timothy Findley, Stephen Leacock, Charles G.D. Roberts, Sinclair Ross, Morley Callaghan, Lucy Maud Montgomery, Hugh Garner, Ernest Bucklet, and Virgil Burnett.

Who is Virgil Burnett and what has he written? His written work includes Towers at the Edge of a World: Tales of a Medieval Town (1983) and A Comedy of Eros (1984).

What sort of stuff is it?

Awful.

No, I mean subject matter.

Second-hand Gothic Gormenghast fantasy.

“She was a fair woman, very pale, since she never left the palace, never exposed herself to the sun or open air. She had a strong waist, stately hips that sloped to full flanks, and neat breasts that rose from her fine torso like twin domes of blue-veined marble. Her head might have been a model for a cathedral sculptor, and her hair was as remarkable for its mass as for its colour, a blend of amber and topaz. It hung down her back to her thighs, like a voluptuous, silky garden of Babylon.”

Give me, as they say, a break!

Burnett is better known as an artist and illustrator. (Not surprisingly.) He is a Professor Emeritus of Fine Arts at the University of Waterloo and lives in Stratford, Ontario. As does Jane Urquhart with her artist husband Tony Urquhart. Who also taught in Fine Arts at the University of Waterloo.

I had a presentiment I was not going to sympathize much with The Penguin Book of Canadian Stories when I noticed that Urquhart had included Hugh Garner.

“…I decided to begin my collection with stories that were impossible for me to forget, stories that haunted me.” One of these was Hugh Garner’s “One Mile of Ice.”

In Malcolm Bradbury’s introduction to The Penguin Book of Modern British Stories, as quoted earlier, he writes: “The modern short story has… been distinguished by its break away from anecdote, tale-telling, and simple narrative.” “On Mile of Ice” is nothing but simple tale-telling.

Garner wrote one halfway decent story, “The Yellow Sweater,” but by no stretch could he be described as an artist. He was a pleasant enough man when sober.

Well, that’s just your subjective opinion.

True.

Others think differently.

True.

Hugh Garner won the Governal General’s Award for Fiction.

So did Igor Gouzenko.

My central objection to Urquhart’s editing is that she seems to have little idea of comparative weight. To represent Virgil Burnett but to exclude Norman Levine. To represent Adrienne Clarkson but to exclude Clark Blaise. To represent Lucy Maud Montgomery but to exclude Hugh Hood.

As a large generality, I’d say that the difference in aesthetic, and therefore in editing practice, between Jane Urquhart and myself is that she hankers after what the oracular Miss R. in Barthelme’s “The Indian Uprising” calls “conceits of wisdom” and I favour rather the “hard, brown, nutlike word.”

But any aesthetic surely should have included – at a minimum – Mike Barnes, Clark Blaise, Mary Borsky, Libby Creelman, Cynthia Flood, Keath Fraser, Douglas Glover, Terry Griggs, Steven Heighton, Hugh Hood, Mark Jarman, Norman Levine, K.D. Miller, Bharati Mukherjee, Patricia Robertson, Robyn Sarah, Diane Schoemperlen, Ray Smith, Russell Smith and Linda Svendsen.

Are there sour grapes in this?

You bet!

But more importantly a feeling of looming despair. I started these thoughts by saying that had Penguin Group entrusted the Penguin Book of Irish Fiction to Maeve Binchy rather than Colm Toíbín there would have been a storm of protest and derision in the literary world. The Penguin Book of Canadian Short Stories is something of a travesty of Canadian achievement. It was edited by a popular entertainer largely innocent of the field. The anthology’s omissions include some of the country’s best-known story writers.

“… a storm of protest and derision in the literary world.”

What I despair of is the vast Canadian silence.

One Response to Thinking About Penguins

  1. Robin Collins says:

    Well, this is a refreshing read even now. Four and a half years later and no comments? Even if one were to disagree with some of the critique about writers that were included (but should not have been, in John’s opinion), he is certainly right about the omissions (many of whom I have not read, but will now, unfortunately not in the Penguin Anthology.) Let’s hope there’s a new anthology in the works, updated, with some of the dullards gone. There are some brilliant new story writers finally getting their due — Alexander MacLeod being one of them, although his group of stories appeared in publication after 2008.

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