Short (Canadian) Fiction
- Rosemary Sullivan (Editor) and Mark Levene (Editor)
Short Fiction: An Anthology. Oxford University Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Robert Thacker
This book is an excellent one, just the thing for a majors course in short fiction or for an introductory survey, by way of more than one text, of the modes of literary expression. The editors’ choices are judicious: their coverage begins in the early nineteenth century with such stalwarts as Hawthorne and Poe, continues into the early twentieth with a good selection of Modernists, but they dwell most pointedly on a very wide range of contemporary writers—that is, those born since 1930. This rich selection of American, Canadian, British, continental, Native, and Commonweath figures is the anthology’s greatest strength.
Throughout, individual inclusions often surprise (for instance, H. G. Wells is here, as is Beckett) and many of the stories selected avoid the cliché (the Faulkner and Hemingway choices do; Crane and Fitzgerald do not). In shaping their offerings, Sullivan and Levene break their chronological treatment twice: after an enthusiastic and effective introduction to the short story, one that uses a wide range of apt quotations to good effect, they begin with Chekov’s “The Lady with the Dog” and, immediately following, Raymond Carver’s Chekov-inspired story, “Errand.” After each, the editors offer “reflections,” responses that allow them to extend their introduction into questions of specific influence and practice. The second variance is less effective; it is the third section, “The Novella,” in which that putative form is represented by Melville’s “Benito Cereno” and Gallant’s “The Moslem Wife.”
It is easy to find things to quibble about in any anthology—where, the reviewer asks, are Cather, Welty, Wilson, and Metcalf (my list)—but such points need not be belaboured. Sullivan and Levene made their choices; they are judicious, interesting, and defensible. Fair enough. And in their biographical introductions here the editors refreshingly wear their enthusiasms on their sleeves—many of these are punchy and delightfully well-informed, even gossipy (strangely, though, Michael Ondaatje seems to wander through them as some sort of lost oracle). Other introductions, though, are just perfunctory listings of accomplishments. (Guy Vanderhaeghe deserves better than he gets here, for example; probably not surprisingly, there is more than a bit of Toronto-centrism evident here.) More seriously, though, the editors also tend to quote without citation (Aritha van Herk, for instance, is quoted on Keath Fraser’s “resistance to ‘the canonical trend’ of Munro-dominated Canadian story” ; there are other such instances of unattributed invocation). Also, the stories are not themselves annotated.
What is most worth considering, though, is the presence of the Canadian story within an anthology titled Short Fiction. In 1928, Raymond Knister asserted “the fact that the short story has fared as well as or perhaps better than other forms in Canada is . . . largely owing to the nature of its appeal, which is elemental” (Canadian Short Stories, Macmillan: xvi). In recent years, this notion that the short story is preeminent in Canada has taken on the heft of a truism, even a shibboleth, illustrated most especially by the careers of Mavis Gallant and Alice Munro and frequently asserted by the absent John Metcalf on behalf of a successor group of younger writers. Gallant and Munro, of course, have long been prominent in what Sullivan and Levene aptly call “the cultural whack of The New Yorker” (8), and so have helped make this case. The editors appear here to have bought utterly into this notion since Canadians make up just 20 percent of those born before 1920 (and where the chronological approach they use somewhat incongruously sandwiches Callaghan between Hemingway and Beckett); between 1920 and 1950, though, Canadians make up over 60 percent of those included and, after that, it drops back to about 45 percent. Overall, just under 40 percent here are Canadians— Indigenous people, those born in Canada (both English-speaking and Québécois in translation), and immigrants.
My point in such counting is not to fault the editors for their inclusions—this is, after all, an anthology from a Canadian publisher presumably aimed at course adoptions in Canada. Doubtless the people at Oxford had some considerable hand in the coverage here. Rather, it is to foreground the method used—Sullivan and Levene do, as their publisher’s back-cover blurb says, “take their cue from Alice Munro’s metaphor [in her 1982 essay, “What is Real?”] of short fiction as a house with many rooms that can be navigated in many different ways: rather than impose interpretations, they open doors, encouraging critical thinking and a multiplicity of readings.” And Sullivan and Levene do, as I said, show themselves largely well-informed and enthusiastic shapers of the text they have constructed. Even so, I still wonder if this really is “Short Fiction.” Or is it “Short (Canadian) Fiction”? Or “Largely Canadian Short Fiction”? But even so again: This is an excellent book, one well-worth considering.
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MLA: Thacker, Robert. Short (Canadian) Fiction. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 4 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #183 (Winter 2004), Writers Talking. (pg. 172 - 173)
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