Stories left out of an anthology, Jane Urquhart writes in the introduction to The Penguin Book of Canadian Short Stories, serve as a wonderful metaphor for unfulfilled desire. So, dear reader, welcome to this joint Salon Des Refuses of CNQ: Canadian Notes & Queries and TNQ: The New Quarterly: a statement of unfulfilled desire if ever there was one.
This may strike the wrong note (or the right one, prematurely.) After all, what this Salon is about above all else is the celebration of 20 of the best short story writers in the country, a celebration of the richness of a form many who read both journals have grown to love. As Jane Urquhart rightly points out, the past forty years “have witnessed the publication of a staggering amount of fine literary work,” especially in the realm of the short story. It is also true that some of these did find their way into Urquhart’s selection: after all, the book is more than 700 pages and 69 entries (though not necessarily stories: more on this later). But it is also true that many of the most talented, most celebrated, most technically virtuosic, most wildly inventive, have not made the Penguin cut. Had they, there would not have been a need for this Salon des Refuses. Which means that this is, in the first instance, at least, a reactionary gesture.
When I first saw Penguin’s new anthology, a quick glance at the writers included on the back seemed promising. Leon Rooke? Present. Caroline Adderson (unjustly left out of The Penguin Book of Contemporary Canadian Women’s Short Stories)? Check. Timothy Taylor? Michael Winter? Accounted for. But then, almost as quickly, I began to notice who was missing. Terry Griggs. John Metcalf. Elizabeth Harvor. Douglas Glover. Mark Anthony Jarman. Diane Schoemperlen. Clark Blaise. Steven Heighton. Sharon English. Norman Levine. Cynthia Flood. Ray Smith. Patricia Robertson. Libby Creelman. Mike Barnes. Susan Kerslake. Hugh Hood. The list goes on. And on.
I could understand, of course, some of these writers not making the anthology. A few are not immediately obvious choices, belong to that realm of either/or, and not even a book as big as Penguin’s can include them all. Some are only really known to aficionados and students of the story-form (though one would hope that the editor of a canon-making anthology such as the Penguin Book of Canadian Short Stories would be both, if not a highly-skilled practitioner in her own right); and there’s room in all of these negotiations to agree to disagree. But all of them? It was this I could not, still cannot, fathom.
Other difficulties began to present themselves when I looked at who was included. Who, exactly, is this Adrienne Poy? I love Charles Ritchie, but as a short story writer? I did not know Claire Messud was Canadian. And Michael Ondaatje? Even Michael Winter, on closer examination, was not included as a short story writer. Memoir excerpts? Bits from novels? What, exactly, is going on here?
What is going on here, Urquhart explains, is that she wanted to “open up and make more interesting the definition of the short story.” Though she claims that as she continued to read this impulse left her – she writes: “I came to understand that the Canadian short story is more than sufficiently interesting on its own” – it seems to me that this remains the best explanation for the shape that this collection has taken. Either this, or less charitably, not fully understanding what a short story is. (Claiming that it defies “all efforts to define it” is yawn-inducing claptrap. As is relying on the old editorial standby that time is the great anthologist. Not in this collection it wasn’t, as I am sure Penguin Inc.’s cheques attest. ) And, indeed, Urquhart’s is a novelist’s sensibility, right down to the narrative nature of the stories’ organization. It also explains her sense of these stories as belonging to “the pre-novel fictional worlds” of many of her inclusions, when these writers were “at the beginning of their careers singing in a pure voice simply because they feel the need for music, the need for a song.” When I am feeling less generous this sounds a lot like Urquhart painting the story as a lesser form, the novel’s backward and rather weak-minded country cousin, the domain of younger writers before they move on to the more serious work of novel-writing, and if this is so, one must ask if she was a fitting choice as editor. At the very least it is evidence of one of her own editorial biases. Few of her writers are known primarily as short story writers. Most, whether for aesthetic or commercial reasons, have moved on to the novel, and among many of the younger writers gathered here it is apparent that the novel and not the story will be the domain of their lasting contribution. And this may provide part of the reason why, even at more than 700 pages, this anthology has proved so insufficient at showing the breadth, stylistic innovation, and richness of the short story in Canada.
More than anything else, now, what I have are questions. Here are a few of them. Did Jane Urquhart read the stories of Blaise, Griggs, Heighton, Metcalf, Mukherjee, the Smith(s) and find them wanting? Did she read them at all? Did she think that the stories of Virgil Burnett, Eric McCormack, Adrienne Poy (Clarkson), Sam Selvon and W.D. Valgardson were better? Do the Ondaatje and Ritchie memoir excerpts really add more to an understanding of the short story in Canada than would the inclusion of a story by, say, Norman Levine? By Diane Schoemperlen? Is it not the job of an anthologist and editor, in some measure, to preserve what needs preserving, to remember what is in danger of being forgotten? How did Urquhart select or discover the authors she included? (She mentions reading dozens of anthologies over the last two years: how many of her selections were first discovered in other anthologies? Is this a problem? Does it run the risk of sustaining institutional biases?)
Are there other considerations than the stories themselves at play here? Is this really just a question of subjective differences – you have your taste and I have mine – or is something else, at least in part, going on?
More generally, why do we preserve what we preserve, value what we value? Celebrate what we celebrate? How does a canon get formed? Why and how do editors get selected? (Was Jane Urquhart your first choice, Mr. Davidar, or did Alice Munro, Alistair MacLeod or Margaret Atwood turn you down first? How different, better, would this anthology have been if it had been handed to an editor who came to the task with a better understanding of the story?) Does any of this matter?
This Salon double feature allows us to answer, in part at least, some of these questions. To the latter question, does this matter, I would say that it most certainly does. Witness, for perhaps the first time in Canada, that two literary magazines have put aside their temperamental differences (the C of CNQ, Kim Jernigan said to me over coffee one morning in Guelph, meaning contrarian and curmudgeonly; the N of TNQ, I countered with a curmudgeonly harrumph, nurturing) and coordinated their editorial to celebrate and promote writers we both admire, in response, in reaction to another publication. That we have decided to playfully (and not so playfully, as the essayist preferred) tweak the beak of that most flightless of all birds, the Canadian Penguin. It allows us to collectively make the case for the short story as the pinnacle of Canadian literary achievement, as so much more than Urquhart’s “pre-novel fictional worlds,” the novel’s slim, only seemingly demure and wickedly intelligent cousin.
CNQ’s half of the Salon gathers stories by Terry Griggs, Cynthia Flood, Douglas Glover, Mark Anthony Jarman, Patricia Robertson, Clark Blaise, Bharati Mukherjee, Ray Smith, Hugh Hood and Diane Schoemperlen. Each story is framed by an appreciation and author commentary. Add to this John Metcalf’s Thinking About Penguins, Michael Darling’s review of Urquhart’s anthology, and Adrian Michael Kelly’s notes on reclaiming an anthology of the heart, and what you have is another rather explosive acronym: TNT. TNQ brings together Mike Barnes, Patricia Young, Elizabeth Harvor, Russell Smith, Steven Heighton, Norman Levine, Heather Birrell, Sharon English, John Metcalf and Keath Fraser in similar fashion, alongside an interview with Jane Urquhart concerning her editing of the Penguin anthology. Then there’s the reviews, appreciations, virtual anthologies, and in both issues, an introduction to the work of a brilliant new short story writer, destined to be included in many future anthologies of Canadian short fiction – or, perhaps, future editions of the Salon Des Refuses – last year’s Metcalf-Rooke Award winner, Rebecca Rosenblum.
To borrow from Adrian Michael Kelly, what this Salon is, in the end, is a first attempt to reclaim an anthology of the heart. This is not your usual helping of Can(ned)Lit; rather, this is FreshLit, a smorgasbord of almost apocalyptic richness and talent, with not an overly starched helping to be found. Though it might be interesting to try the usual thematic editorializing, what links these writers together – in both the CNQ and TNQ half of the Salon – is their playfulness, disregard for the rules, devotion to language, their collective challenge to the reader: KEEP UP. Whether it be Cynthia Flood’s shaping of a story through a school marm’s journal entries, as constrained in its fashion as any Oulipo shenanigan (and certainly all these stories, as are all worthwhile stories, should be considered graduates of the workshop of potential literature) or Douglas Glover’s, Terry Griggs’s or Mark Anthony Jarman’s headlong rushes of fantastic (and fatalistic) anarchy, each writer here is pushing and shaping the form to his or her own ends, sticking a sock in the blowing end of those trumpeting the death of the short story. The death of the short story? Not in these pages, and not in many others either, should you only care to look. And if after reading the stories in this Salon Des Refuses you are not compelled to go searching for more of the same, digging up copies of Terry Griggs’s Quickening or Ray Smith’s Century or Mike Barnes’s Contrary Angel, well, then, I’m afraid that your case is hopeless: there’s nothing else we can do for you.
What else? In keeping with the one thing Jane Urquhart notes all short fiction anthologies have in common: mea culpa. Even with 272 pages between us, Kim and I could not included everyone we would have liked to. I feel very bad about not including the work of Susan Kerslake, whose collection The Book of Fears is a knockout. Mary Borsky, K.D. Miller and Libby Creelman could have also replaced almost any other writer in CNQ’s half of the Salon without any sense of loss. The same could be said of Mary Swan, the author of a gorgeous novella and collection of stories. And how is it that I could have overlooked something from Mordecai Richler’s The Street? Lorna Jackson and Kathleen Winter were excluded, in part, because they were Biblioasis’s own. Then there are those story writers I have been meaning to read and have not yet, or at least not enough: Robyn Sarah, Steven Henighan, Linda Svendson, Zuszi Gartner. My intention, when we first conceived this Salon, was to read these writers and others, but the few months we had to assemble this issue proved insufficient. The twenty between the two journals, however, can act as stand-ins, as evidence of the richness of the short story in Canada, both inside and (in particular) outside Penguin’s anthology.