September 8 2008


September 8 2008

Short stories. Very long knive



Jane Urquhart's Penguin anthology has kickstarted a juicy literary feud


In the introduction to The Penguin Book of Canadian Short Stories, which she edited, novelist Jane Urquhart writes that she wanted to “open up and make more interesting” the definition of the short story.

Well, mission accomplished. Although perhaps not quite the way Urquhart had hoped.

“What appalling arrogance in Urquhart,” the prolific editor, author and anthologist John Metcalf writes in the latest issue of Canadian Notes and Queries, a wee literary journal. “What naïveté, what groping dimness about short-story history and development.” As for Urquhart’s decision to mix short stories with excerpts from memoirs in her collection, Metcalf piles it on: “Not an aesthetic idea in her head! Not a clue that short stories are the pinnacle of artistic form.” We seem to have stumbled across that rarest of events in the genteel precincts of Canadian letters: a literary feud. And Metcalf is not alone. He has brought armies.

Earlier this summer, in an unusual feat of co-operation, two literary magazines, The New Quarterly and Canadian Notes and Queries, published simultaneous special editions with near-identical covers. The goal was to showcase writers Urquhart left out of her collection last fall, to “tweak the beak” of the mighty Penguin. This jointly curated “Salon des Refusés”—named after a parallel exhibit for artists who were left out of the Paris Salon in 1862—has become the talk of literary Canada. It has sparked debate, brought unprecedented attention to the two spunky journals at its centre, goosed the sales of Urquhart’s own book and led to tension, even among the protest’s instigators, over the proper bounds of criticism and dissent.

In the beginning there was the anthology. Penguin publishes a lot of anthologies. There is a Penguin Book of Irish Fiction, a Penguin Book of the Sonnet and a Penguin Book of Modern African Poetry. Eventually, Penguin got

around to publishing a book of Canadian short stories. They chose Urquhart, whose novels, including Away, The Stone Carvers and A Map of Glass, have made her one of Canada’s most famous women of letters.

Urquhart admitted in her collection’s introduction that she wasn’t the obvious person to curate a short-story collection. “I—along with many others—had paid more attention in recent years to the short story’s fat, loud cousin, the novel.”

Her anthology garnered respectful reviews in newspapers’ book pages when it first appeared, but there was grumbling in shortstory circles about its peculiarities. (There are such circles. They are small, sparsely populated, and, as a rule, neither fat nor loud.) Memoirs and excerpts from novels mixed in with bona fide short stories? A book divided into five themes, as though some consideration besides literary quality had driven the choices?

Daniel Wells, the editor of Canadian Notes and Queries, emailed Kim Jernigan, the editor of The New Quarterly, and asked if she shared his concerns. She did, up to a point. Both found a lot to like in the Penguin anthology, including brilliant writers like Alice Munro, Mavis Gallant, Alistair MacLeod, Lisa Moore and Guy Vanderhaeghe. But both were baffled by some of the inclusions. What was Adrienne Clarkson doing in there, with a short story she published in Maclean’s in 1961, while she was still Adrienne Poy? “I love Charles Ritchie, but as a short-story writer?” Wells writes about the career diplomat and fondly remembered memoirist. “I did not know Claire Messud was Canadian. And Michael Ondaatje?”

Most of all, the two editors were amazed to think of all the writers they value most highly, writers whose work Urquhart had left out of the 700-page collection. Jernigan writes: “They include some of the masters of the story form (John Metcalf, Clark Blaise, Norman Levine), others who are juicing up the lan guage (Terry Griggs, Mark Anthony Jarman), reinventing how we tell a story

(Diane Schoemperlen, Russell ^k Smith, Douglas Glover, Steven Heighton) or exploring the concerns of a whole new generation of Canadians (Sharon English, Heather Birrell).”

So the two magazines decided to collaborate on a joint showcase of the left-out writers. Each chose 10. Most are still rather young and have stayed with small presses and literary magazines for most of their career. Two of the 20, Levine and Hugh Hood, are no longer alive, “writers whose reputations we’d hate to have die with them,” Jernigan writes.

The two special issues are gorgeous, with most stories accompanied by appreciative essays from colleagues and explanatory notes by the authors themselves.

The editors have already jointly staged in Toronto a panel discussion of the issues surrounding short-story writing, part of Pages bookstore’s “This Is Not A Reading Series.” . They plan more public events. For two journals whose circulation is normally lower than 1,000 copies Canada-wide, launching this project has been a formidable effort.

It has also opened serious rifts between the two magazines’ editors. “It’s been a stressful and incredibly traumatic—well, yeah, traumatic-alliance,” Daniel Wells said in an interview. (Wells is no relation to the reporter of this article.) Canadian Notes and Queries and The New Quarterly have different temperaments. The New Quarterly is gentle, nurturing, celebratory. It makes friends easily.

CNQ can do the nurturing thing, but its burgeoning reputation has more to do with its ability to get fierce and snarky. The journal’s cumbersome title reflects its original mandate. It was launched in 1968 by William Morley, who ran the rare books division of the Queen’s University library. Morley used it to list rare books for sale and queries about other books. When the Internet threatened that mandate, CNQ shifted into literary criticism, first under Douglas (now George) Fetherling and then, from the late 1990s, under Metcalf.

You don’t want to mess with John Metcalf. Since he moved to Canada in 1962, he has become one of Canada’s foremost editors, a highly regarded story writer in his own right, and a ferocious critic of writing that isn’t up to his standards. These days his position as senior editor of CNQ is largely ceremonialDaniel Wells selected the authors and stories for the Salon des Refusés issue-but Metcalf’s opening essay makes the case against Urquhart’s anthology with singular fury.

“Who is Virgil Burnett,” he asks about one of Urquhart’s chosen writers, “and what has he written? His written work includes Towers at the Edge of a World: Tales of a Medieval

Town (1983) and A Comedy of Eros (1984).

“What sort of stuff is it?


On another: “[Hugh] Garner wrote one halfway decent story, ‘The Yellow Sweater,’ but by no stretch could he be described as an artist. He was a pleasant enough man when sober.”

Metcalf has edited dozens of anthologies and nurtured many careers. It is possible to imagine that in another world he could have been called on to edit, say, a Penguin anthology. “Are there sour grapes in this?” he writes. “You bet!”

But Metcalf, Wells and the rest of the CNQ claque insist their protest is over literary standards, not a feud between insiders and outsiders. In other countries, Metcalf writes, the choice of “a popular practitioner” such as Urquhart to edit a definitive story collection would have sparked “a storm of protest and derision in the literary world.” Not here, he fears. “What I despair of is the vast Canadian silence.”

And yet vast Canadian silence has been in short supply. The CNQ-New Quarterly protest has touched a nerve, with coverage in the Toronto Star and on the CBC, a level of debate Canadian letters rarely see. The Not A Reading Series event, at the too-cool-forschool Gladstone Hotel on Toronto’s Queen Street West, startled organizers by drawing nearly 200 people.

If that crowd came for a fight they were disappointed. Kim Jernigan ran most of the night’s discussion with the chipper determination The New Quarterly has brought to this collabora-

tion with its snarlier confreres at CNQ. In her issue, Jernigan calls Urquhart’s collection “a nifty gathering, fascinating in its arrangement.” The magazine features a non-confrontational interview with Urquhart, who says, “I was aware from the beginning that people were going to be upset and this disturbed me.” The Gladstone event featured three authors, two critics, and Daniel Wells champing at the bit while Jernigan led most of the discussion down nurturing, non-confrontational paths. “I sort of feel like, ‘In this corner of the ring... ’” Jernigan said. “It’s been feeling that way,” Wells replied. Jernigan said her role in this little adventure was “a bit of advocacy... not so much a different set of writers as adding to it.”

The CNQ crew, which finally started speaking up in the event’s closing minutes, were much less bashful about making trouble. With the early Adrienne Clarkson story and the Ondaatje memoir, “space was taken up” in the Urquhart book “that could have been better spent,” said Adrian Michael Kelly, a Calgary critic and novelist who has an essay in CNQ’s Salon issue. “And I don’t think anyone should apologize for saying that.”

“In order to have a vibrant culture,” book blogger Stephen W. Beattie said, “you need to have an honest discussion about that culture. And that implies tough criticism.”

Both Urquhart and Penguin have preferred to lay low through all of this. In response to a request for comment, Urquhart, through her agent, turned down an interview request from Maclean’s. The publisher sent this quotation from Penguin president and publisher David Davidar: “We’re proud to be the publishers of The Penguin Book ofCanadian Short Stories edited by Jane Urquhart. Jane is an exceptional writer and editor and her anthology has made the bestseller lists and been well received critically. We have no doubt that it will remain in print and delight readers for a long time to come.” And indeed it might. But it will no longer go unchallenged. M

Metcalf piles it on: 'Not an aesthetic idea in her head!’ he writes about editor Urquhart