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Carnal Nation: Brave New Sex Fictions

by Carellin Brooks and Brett Josef Grubisic, eds

Short story collections where the criteria for inclusion are something other than excellence are dodgy propositions. They satisfy the editors and gratify the elected writers, but they rarely do either for the readers. Subject-based anthologies are particularly susceptible to sheltering fictions with limited shelf lives: work that is slight or just downright bad but which, by dint of editorial specificity, is given a brief reprieve.

Brett Josef Grubisic and Carellin Brooks charted a very circumscribed course when they chose the 32 pieces that comprise the provocatively named Carnal Nation: Brave New Sex Fictions. Not only are the stories about sex, they are also by Canadians of a particular vintage: “born between the early 1960s and 1970s.” Putting aside the question of whether anyone born in the “early 60s” can still be considered young, one has to ask where lies the intrinsic value in gathering such a bouquet. Will it say anything important about a particular generation? How could it? About a nation? Of course not.

Grubisic writes that the anthology can showcase “the literary manoeuvres of young writers who exhibit no reticence about addressing the often visceral facts of sex.” If ever there was a hypothesis with a predictable result, it would be that young – or youngish – writers will write more frankly about sex than did their literary forebears. But why bother publishing the results if they don’t measure up as stories, if they don’t demonstrate the restraint, elegance, and economy that make the form a challenge to write and a pleasure to read?

Call me a reactionary, but I think these values are still the underpinnings of the genre, and I am glad to report that they are amply on display in the stories by Derek McCormack, Annabel Lyon, Elise Levine, and Marnie Woodrow. Half a dozen of the others are a cut above average and worth the reading, but too many are flabby, or precious, or simply fatuous. And a surprising number, for all their bravery and newness, are informed by an annoying “look ma, I’m writing fuck on the washroom wall” prurience, and undeserving of the distinction accorded them by being placed in such a collection. These 32 writers would have been better served by an anthology that showcased their best work, rather than being shackled up together in this dungeon where nothing much is illuminated.