The table of contents in the Penguin anthology of Canadian stories can be read as a social register
In the autumn of 2006, shortly after becoming writer-in-residence at the University of Guelph, Jane Urquhart sent me an email message asking if we could meet for coffee. The invitation came as a surprise: I don’t enjoy Urquhart’s novels and had stated this in print. When we met, Urquhart told me that her project at the university where I teach was to compile The Penguin Book of Canadian Short Stories. She asked for suggestions and took notes as we spoke. We met for coffee a second time that fall and exchanged a few emails. I liked Urquhart’s civility and what I perceived as her rural Ontario frankness. She reminded me of the women who had taught me primary school in the Ottawa Valley.
In 2007, when The Penguin Book of Canadian Short Stories was published, Urquhart sent me a copy. As I examined the table of contents, I felt a dull thunk in my chest. Even at a cursory perusal, the anthology’s weakness was evident; but what troubled me more was the sense of calculation in the names selected. The Penguin logo guarantees that this anthology will become the standard reference for Canadian short fiction; yet, although the book is too long at 696 pages, some of the country’s major short story writers are omitted. Ungainly excerpts from novels and memoirs stand in for stories; some of the stories are uncharacteristically weak: “The View from Castle Rock,” for example, is subpar Alice Munro. Urquhart includes famous people who are not short story writers (Adriennne Clarkson, Charles Ritchie, Michael Ondaatje), people who have barely lived in Canada but happen to be married to influential Anglo-American book reviewers (Claire Messud, who is married to James Wood), colleagues of Urquhart’s husband (Virgil Burnett, Eric McCormack), writers who have invited Urquhart to literary festivals (Leon Rooke), writers who teach in the English Department at the University of Guelph, which has awarded Urquhart, in addition to her writer-in- residency, an honorary doctorate (Janice Kulyk Keefer, Thomas King, Dionne Brand), and successful younger novelists whose apprentice work was in the short story form (Dennis Bock, Joseph Boyden, Madeleine Thien, Anita Rau Badami). The sections in which the stories are grouped are arbitrary and confusing. Urquhart treats the “short story” as any narrative shorter than book length, apparently failing to grasp that since the early twentieth century, thanks to Anton Chekhov, Katherine Mansfield, D.H. Lawrence and others, the short story, in its compression and suggestiveness, has evolved into a different way of using language than the novel. The Penguin Book of Canadian Short Stories blends intellectual woolly-mindedness with steely-eyed careerist calculation.
In the summer of 2008, The New Quarterly and Canadian Notes & Queries published a joint double issue refuting Urquhart’s anthology. The two magazines presented stories by twenty writers excluded from the Penguin anthology alongside essays criticizing Urquhart’s choices. (I wrote the introduction to Douglas Glover’s work for this project.) The tnq/cnq publication sparked a media controversy.
Many have asked how it was possible for Urquhart, who has participated in Canadian literary life for decades, to have omitted such consistently influential figures in the development of the Canadian short story as Clark Blaise, Douglas Glover, Elisabeth Harvor and Norman Levine. Some of Urquhart’s other omissions are surprising, but these four, in my view, are inexcusable. One explanation, I think, is that the Penguin anthology must be read as a social register prepared by a bestselling Canadian novelist during a period of accelerated commercialization. Urquhart’s table of contents lists people of cultural influence, people who have done her favours, foreign critics whom it would be wise to cultivate, and up-and-coming novelists (not short story writers) with whom she wishes to maintain friendly relations. The result is a diagram of how a successful literary career is constructed: the stroking of big egos and new stars, the payoffs, the striving for the next break—all expressed in code through a long list of names. While condemning the anthology as literature, we should be alert to the insights it offers as cultural analysis.
The twenty writers collected in the tnq/cnq riposte to Urquhart exemplify an older variety of literary formation, now passing out of existence: the artistic school, or guild, united around a patriarchal authority figure (in this case the Ottawa critic John Metcalf) and an artistic credo (Metcalf’s “aesthetic underground”). Everywhere in the world, guilds are vanishing before the onslaught of transnational companies such as Penguin. Guilds value craftsmanship but can be chauvinistic and cliquish. Both the strengths and weaknesses of this less commercial form of artistic life are evident in the tnq/cnq response. The double issue contains fine stories by writers who understand the possibilities of the short story as a distinct literary form; but it is weakened by the inclusion of Metcalf cronies such as Ray Smith and Keath Fraser, whose pompous prose no sane reader could criticize Urquhart for having omitted. The tnq/cnq pose of representing “aesthetic values” against the heartless commercialism of the Penguin corporation is also dubious because one of the exasperating traits of globalization is that the corporate world sucks up good and bad art indiscriminately. The Penguin anthology, in fact, includes writers who were mentored by Metcalf, such as Caroline Adderson, Annabel Lyon and Michael Winter; it also includes stories of undeniable aesthetic worth by writers who launched their careers in a corporate environment, such as David Bezmozgis. The tnq/cnq double issue, on the other hand, features writers such as Bharati Mukherjee and Steven Heighton, who were nurtured by the Metcalf guild but have gone on to be published by conglomerates.
We should be grateful for the tnq/cnq polemic because tepid Canada offers few opportunities to develop a public language of intellectual debate; because this debate shines a light on how the short story collection, once our strongest literary form, has been relegated to a trick that glamorous young writers perform once before settling down to commercially correct big-theme middlebrow novels; because, finally, this spat illuminates the clash, common to all spheres of cultural activity, between craftsmanship and corporate slickness, and the increasing difficulty of telling these forces apart.