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Last Word: John Metcalf on the importance of Canadian short fiction

metcalfA single-volume tasting menu of short-fiction writers will introduce readers to some of the most important voices in Canadian literature, writes John Metcalf

Short stories have for years been considered a minor form, despite the fact that Malcolm Bradbury described them as “one of the major forms of modern literary expression” and went on to say that in short stories “some of our greatest modern writers … have found their finest exactitude and most finished stylistic practice.”

In Canada, this very magazine wrote hesitantly that the publishing industry’s “perception of short stories as the publishing equivalent to the NDP – admirable and virtuous, if a little foolhardy and, well, not quite grown up – may be changing.” An equally dim evaluation, widespread and traditional, was expressed by Professor Sam Solecki of St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto. He wrote: “The short story resembles the miniaturist in painting or the composer specializing in preludes or the featherweight boxer: the interesting action is elsewhere.”

What a deficient judgment on James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, Katherine Mansfield, Eudora Welty, Richard Yates, Raymond Carver, Mavis Gallant, Alice Munro …

And I would add: Caroline Adderson, Clark Blaise, Cynthia Flood, Keath Fraser, Norman Levine, Annabel Lyon, K.D. Miller, Leon Rooke, Linda Svendsen … the list goes on.

These voices, the most important in Canadian writing, have very little to do with “the publishing industry.” They live on slim pickings in the world of art; they live in literary magazines, on blogs, and in the minds and hearts of those who can still tell a hawk from a handsaw. (What “the publishing industry” values was comically skewered in a recent review by Andrew Pyper, who wrote: “To complain about the style in a Dan Brown novel is like complaining about the food in a brothel.”)

Some might think that Alice Munro’s recent Nobel Prize would have trained the spotlight on Canadian achievement in the form, but I, living grubbily close to the ground, still note in my weekly trawl through the Ottawa Public Library Discards and Donations Shop, unblemished hardcover first editions of Munro for $1. The simple truth is that most readers want fiction to be the verbal and mental equivalent of Scotch or Lorazepam. They want ingenious plots. They want to “lose themselves in another world,” to “see what happens next,” and to “be taken out of themselves.”

The short story does not translate us to another world; it drives us deeper into this one; as Francis Bacon said of looking at Rembrandt and Velasquez, “they return me to life more violently.” The thriller is forgotten in days. “Hills like White Elephants,” “The Garden Party,” and “Walker Brothers Cowboy” will live with us for the rest of our lives.

The academic world has moulded our view of short fiction. The McClelland & Stewart paperback series The New Canadian Library – because it is available and cheap – has become the de facto canon, and the NCL generally ignores short fiction. During its first period, there weren’t many short-story collections reprinted; during its second period the NCL generally disdained the form.

Novels were easier to “teach”; stories were harder to explicate or pervert – delicate things, subtle, ambiguous, word perfect, literature’s chamber music. They intimidated teachers. Coarse thematic criticism bludgeoned them, and then Theory muddied limpid waters.

I wrote The Canadian Short Story mainly because no such book existed and because it has been clear for years now that the most accomplished writing in Canada, though largely unknown, is in the story genre. The book suggests something of the form’s history and offers ways of approach to 50 Canadian short-story writers whose work gives pleasure and deserves attention. I call these 50 The Century List. The flavour of each writer is introduced by necessarily brief quotations, the whole forming a menu dégustation and offered in the hope readers will be tempted to enjoy each chef’s main dishes.

The 50 writers in The Century List are the beginning of a tradition. I am not asserting the beginnings of a purely Canadian tradition; I am suggesting that we are at last joining on to the tradition of story writing in English. The idea that an hermetic Canadian literary tradition has existed, exists now, or can evolve is one of the nuttier nationalist fantasies. It seems so obvious to me that even if a purely Canadian tradition could evolve, it would be a sad, diminished, unnatural creature cut off from the stimulus of all other writing in English and therefore vastly undesirable. So rather than positing the birth of a native Canadian tradition I’m happier suggesting that some Canadian writing has moved out into the mainstream of writing in English and can now legitimately form a part of the inspiration and education of beginning writers and aspirants everywhere.

The Canadian Short Story is determinedly non-academic. It is intended as a glimpse from the wings, a backstage, dressing-room introduction to the actors and the play, an introduction to a world of profound pleasures and great achievement.

John Metcalf was named Editor of the Year at the 2014 Libris Awards. His new book, The Canadian Short Story, is published by Oberon Press.