Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Penguin Book of Canadian Short Stories: some comments

I bought a while back a copy of The Penguin Book of Canadian Short Stories. It is compiled by Jane Urquhart who confesses, early in her introduction (lines 5-6) to an uncertainty that began at the time of her agreeing to select the stories for the anthology – a project that seems to have taken some two years. (The book was published in 2007.) The uncertainty arose from a nagging suspicion that she wasn't the person best suited for the task, since, "both as a writer and a reader, I – along with many others – had paid more attention in recent years to...the novel". She goes on to say that she'd read stories by Alice Munro, Mavis Gallant and Alistair MacLeod, but that "when it came to younger and newer writers in Canada, it was most often their novels I had turned to..." and then she comments, "Perhaps the greatest gift given to me in my role as anthologist was my discovery of these voices." (Intro, p ix) It seems close to reckless for someone who is, by her own admission, neither an avid reader nor frequent writer of short stories, to take on so formidable a task, if only because she should have been aware that many persons would ask, "But what on earth are her qualifications?" and would have wondered why, having been bothered by the question, she had not felt the need to arrive at a satisfactory answer. Coming into the project with that sensibility, I’d not have undertaken it. Had I decided to continue, I’d certainly not have made that confession! For Jane Urquhart to equip critics with the ammunition they need to make the case against her, and in her first paragraph, seems either insouciant, or more than a trifle arrogant. Only someone with a cultivated palate would make bold to select a portfolio of fine wines, and it wouldn't occur to a connoisseur of rum or of whisky to set about making judgments on wine, on the basis that they knew about liquor. The situations seem not unlike. Nor would anyone think that it might be possible to make oneself expert in rums or wines in so short a time! Why so disdainful of the short story? (I come originally from the Caribbean: rum and short stories are among our finest exports, and neither are taken lightly.) And if one's publishers aren't vigilant enough to send around the final list of choices and canvass two or three expert opinions, one is bound to trip up! (This lack of vigilance on the part of publishers happens, these days, a great deal more often than one would think. See my posts on "Beating books" and "More beating books".) I am a relatively recent convert (just over a decade) to Canadian Literature, but a quick scan of the TOC leads one to spot some glaring omissions and odd inclusions: no stories by Olive Senior or Diane Schoemperlen, for example, and a selection by Adrienne Clarkson, who, mystifyingly, appears in the TOC and on the back cover as "Adrienne Poy", in the acknowledgments as "Adrienne Clarkson", and in the author bios as "Adrienne Poy (Clarkson)". Also why represent some authors (e.g., Wayson Choy, Michael Ondaatje, L. M. Montgomery) with excerpts from a longer work? It certainly would be preferable to have all the contributors represented by bona fide short stories if one is about assembling the "definitive anthology of this famous Canadian genre", a description I take from Russell Smith's column punnily entitled, "Short? Yes. Sweet? Not even sort of" in today's Globe and Mail Review Section. At any rate, some folks are so unhappy about this selection – I shall not call it canon – of works that they take it on in recent issues of two well-known Canadian magazines, The New Quarterly and Canadian Notes and Queries. Mr Smith refers the reader to them if she wishes to "dig in to a feast of elegant nastiness". That’s to take it rather too frivolously, though such treatments of the matter will no doubt sell the collection as well as the two journals, which is all to the good. I think, if nothing else, the compiler's defensiveness about being a reader of novels, to the neglect of the short story ("I – along with many others – had paid more attention in recent years to...the novel") should have warned her off the project. I will take up in another post whether she should be allowed to get away with not offering her readers well-argued criteria for why she has chosen what she has chosen, especially if the anthology is to take its place with other collections published by this imprint (Paula Burnett’s Penguin Book of Caribbean Verse in English, for example), which, by rigorous selection of a representative range of literary works, have stood the test of time. That’s certainly something an anthology with this much money (notice, I do not say time) invested in it is expected to do. And I will, perhaps, if Massa God spare life and gi mi courage, tackle some other issues that arise from this one. For an old teacher who feels, as I've said many times, that, having buried God, our last salvation is in song and story, it is a matter of crucial concern.


Jdid said...

yes I would find her revelation a bit disturbing too

FSJL said...

I agree with you, in part. Her statement would seem to disqualify her as an anthologist of short stories, Canadian or otherwise.

Some excepts of larger works, however, are excellent short stories, and can be read as such.

clarabella said...

Hi jdid, fsjl: Hope you had a profitable Labour Day! The weather here in Toronto has been great. Pity we're spending a lot of it inside painting and renovating! I'm going to write a post on this shortly so this will be brief. I can see asking a distinguished person to choose an anthology of stories that he or she likes – Derek Walcott or Kamau Brathwaite or David Suzuki could compile a book of poems or stories that I'd very likely read. But, as fine a novelist as Ms Urquhart may be, she isn't as yet distinguished in that way. Walcott and Brathwaite would, I know, offer a rationale for their choices, and I'm betting that David Suzuki would as well. But that choice would be intended as a personal one, and the canonical remit for this selection makes it rather different. I still find it bizarre that the compiler would begin by telling us how badly equipped she is to do the job!