- T. Anne Archer et al. (Editor)
On the Threshold: Writing Toward the Year 2000. Beach Holme Publishing (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Heidi Harms (Editor) and Joan Thomas (Editor)
Turn of the Story: Canadian Short Ficition on the Eve of the Millenium. House of Anansi Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by John Orange
If these two anthologies that claimed to anticipate the change of the century are any standard of what is about to happen in Canadian writing, then the selections in On the Threshold and Turn of the Story are oddly prescient. Each one contains twice as many women writers as men. Taken together, the short story entries are, on average, twelve pages long. A large number of the stories and poems deal with parents and grandparents (a few cases of uncles and aunts) who are dead or about to die. Only two writers, Steven Heighton and Kent Nussey, make it into both anthologies. How can these things be explained? Demographics? Shorter attention spans among contemporary readers? Pervasive pessimism or depression?
Actually, one need not press for answers to these questions, since it is clear that both anthologies are only kidding about the millennium part of the titles. The editors seem to realize that the change of the year means little or nothing beyond superstition, so they do not try to harvest, for example, stories that are about cataclysmic change or about New Year’s Eve parties. Most of the entries have little or nothing to do with the end of the century—at least not explicitly, and so far as it goes not implicitly either. There are entries here and there in the collections that hint at a quiet apocalypse, but that can be expected of any collection of stories from any age. The introductions to both books state that the reason for the collection was that it seemed to be a good idea to collect writings "on the end of the millennium" (Threshold), or to "honour an exciting national literature that hardly existed a half-century ago" (Turn). The rationales never get very specific and begin to sound like excuses to put some short stories together. The pretext is not that important when it is all said and done, unless readers are misled by the titles.
Readers might be more interested in the selection process, or standard, that the editors used to choose their entries. T. Anne Archer and her friends in what they whimsically called the Foxglove Collective (apparently for Explorations Grant purposes) are not much help in explaining how they went about it for On the Threshold. They thought about the idea in 1993 and invited submissions, which they received in the hundreds from all over Canada. They then read each submission, discussed it and "Somehow, the manuscript gets selected and put in order." That’s it. The rest of the short introduction reveals little else except for some general themes such as looking to the past to explain the present, or changes in family life, or defining "our place in time through space and landscape."
The collection is made up of fourteen stories ranging from two to eighteen pages in length and thirty-one short poems. One might expect experimental or avant-garde pieces in such short entries, but there are none here. It may be that the millennium signals that all the experiments have been tried and that there is nowhere else to go. In any event, the poems are often filled with rhetorical questions, giving them an amateurish quality, and the short stories are too truncated to either develop or reveal character sufficiently to make them interesting. Rachel Wyatt and Ann Copeland handle the mini-story pretty well, as does Joan Givner, but even here the reader is likely to desire more of the good writing rather than the liqueur size glass being offered. If these poets and story-tellers are what we can expect in the next decades, this collection will not instill any great excitement.
The editors of Turn of the Story used as their selection criterion stories that "extend our peripheral vision, articulating what lies just beyond the boundary of consciousness or memory." They looked for "quirkiness, irony, mordant humour, idiosyncrasy." They also found that they had a preference for well-crafted stories that nevertheless seem artless, as well as a hyper-real style. None of this has anything to do with the end of the century, of course, and the claim that many of the stories contain anxiety because we have fewer mechanisms to ensure continuity seems more of an excuse than a reason for inclusion. Nor are the artists all new, emerging, or predictors of things to come. The collection includes writers like Atwood, Brand, Harvor, Shields and Vanderhaege. There are two translated stories from established Quebec writers (Bissonnette and Proulx), making the collection a truer "cross-section of Canadian writing at a vibrant point in its evolution." The "emerging" writers in the editors’ list are Steven Heighton, Lisa Moore, Connie Gault, Mark Jarman, Kent Nussy, Michael Winter, Leo McKay, Kristen den Hartog, Greg Hollingshead, Olive Senior and Lynn Coady. If anything, this collection establishes the continuing tradition of short story writing in this country, both stylistically and thematically. One can feel a good deal of influence in the syntax, diction, and themes of the newer writers who very often sound very much like their elders.
The editors apparently felt that "fiction was losing out to Information and analysis"—i.e. non-fiction—so they responded by choosing stories that are pretty straightforward narratives about common themes. That is not to say the texts are unengaging. In fact, this anthology is very good reading. There is enough variety of subject matter and style to make each story a fresh experience. The editors’ attempts to connect the stories to the change of the century are brave if only half convincing. It is enough that the stories are well constructed and smoothly written. The stories that start and end the collection, by some of best known writers—Atwood, Vanderhaeghe, Brand, Shields—are not their best. The stronger stories start with Bonnie Burnard’s "Evening at the Edge of the Water" and from then on through Mark Jarman’s "Burn Man on a Texas Porch" to "Mad Fish" by Olive Senior, the stories vary in pace and content enough to keep any reader interested. One does not need the excuse of the change of the century to read good writing.
- Seclusion and Compulsion by Sue Sorensen
Books reviewed: Listening with the Ear of the Heart: Writers at St. Peter's by Dave Margoshes and Shelley Sopher and Writing Addiction: Towards A Poetics of Desire and Its Others by Kenneth G. Probert and Béla Szabados
- Worthy Tribute by Samara Walbohm
Books reviewed: Life and Works of Ethelwyn Wetherald by Dorothy W. Rungeling
- Two Budding Talents by R. W. Stedingh
Books reviewed: Pool-Hoppping and Other Stories by Anne Fleming and Comfort Me with Apples by Sara O\'Leary
- Quelques bonnes nouvelles by Stéphane Girard
Books reviewed: Mégot mégot petite mitaine by Johanne Alice Côté, Le Bonheur est une couleur by Aurélie Resch, and Enfance et autres fissures by Marie Cadieux
- The Best Defence by Greg Yavorsky
Books reviewed: Celtic Highway by Trevor Carolan and Almost Unseen: Selected Haiku of George Swede by Randy M. Brooks and George Swede
MLA: Orange, John. Writing 2K. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 13 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #169 (Summer 2001), (Blais, Laurence, Birdsell, Munro, Jacob, Chen). (pg. 126 - 127)
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