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Write Turns: New Directions in Canadian Fiction

by Alison Acheson et al

This anthology showcases graduates of UBC’s widely praised creative writing program. All of the 15 authors in Write Turns are recent graduates of the course, all have had books published in the last five years – half with Canada’s biggest publishing houses – and most have received, or been nominated for, various literary awards. UBC’s remarkable success has added weight to the argument that good writing can be taught. On the evidence of this anthology, however, great writing remains elusive.

Given that all of the authors here have spent time in workshops and seminars, it is no surprise that the general level of technical competence is high. For better or worse, there are no inchoate cries from the gutter. Indeed, most of Write Turns’s story-rivers flow safely between heavily sandbagged banks, a sign that the authors have not yet graduated to a position of greater courage. Many of the stories also sacrifice their authority with narrative manipulations that feel like “extra credit” assignments.

The tension in Eden Robinson’s “Dogs in Winter” is cut by a frustrating, zigzagging structure, littered with cliffhangers. “Hagiography,” by Aislinn Hunter, degenerates into an annoying exercise in manipulation of tense. Both “Dispatch” by Madeleine Thien and “Associated Press” by Nancy Lee are marred by particularly fey applications of the present tense. In all of these stories, the authors get caught trying to convince the reader of the depth and truth of their scenarios.

Terrence Young’s “Too Busy Swimming,” on the other hand, is an excellent example of the potential invisibility of prose, of a story that seems to tell itself. Young patiently unfolds the story of a schoolteacher who must testify against colleagues accused of sexual misconduct.

Much more ambitious is Annabel Lyon’s “Black,” in which a nebbishy single father struggles to raise his increasingly morose daughter. Lyon knows how to turn corners within sentences, often to devastatingly funny effect:

“Was I christened?” she will ask.

“Absolutely,” he will say, wondering.

This sort of laconic prose minimalism is too often employed by writers trying to conceal their fundamental lack of talent, but Lyon’s restraint allows her to demonstrate a near-mastery of fiction that rewards as it progresses, dispensing treats while still in rapid motion.

The greatest find is Zsuzsi Gartner’s “boys growing,” a nasty peek inside the mind of a teacher carrying on multiple affairs with her young students. Gartner’s story is one of the only collected here that addresses itself to the nerve endings as well as the intellect. Gartner’s rendering of gnashing male adolescence alone is worth more than a dozen workshopped epiphanies:

“Small boys who didn’t get to sleep that night, their nostrils thick with blood sport, their trigger fingers, their everything, twitching. Bones growing faster then their skin. You could hear it – a terrible sound, canvas sails tearing on a tall ship at sea…”

Is there a UBC “school” of writing? Certainly, this collection is the antithesis of recent, Toronto-centric anthologies like Canadian Fiction’s Pop Goes the Story and Hal Niedzviecki’s Concrete Forest – two collections that are top heavy with attitude and bombast. In contrast, Write Turns suffers from a lack of wanderlust.

In the introduction, author Diane Schoemperlen writes that the stories collected here share “an intimate knowledge of corners.” While this is true, and while the excellent stories by Annabel Lyon and Zsuzsi Gartner demonstrate corner-knowledge that is not only intimate but piercing, there are too many Little Jack Horners here. What is also needed is an intimate knowledge of horizons.