The short story is not, despite reports, Canadian by birth or naturalization. Still, every so often you’ll hear us claiming custody, ready to point to some quasi-demographic mirage showing that Canadians produce more extraordinary writers of short stories per capita than any other NATO power, Commonwealth country, and/or nation now or previously imperially affiliated with Spain, Portugal, or Persia.
Certainly there are Canadian storytellers of transcendent talent. To celebrate them properly – which is to say, to read them all – you’d need a year: a long season each for Alice Munro and Mavis Gallant, the rest to absorb the work of Bronwen Wallace and Keath Fraser, Carol Shields and Timothy Findley, and a dozen others. What does it mean, such wealth? It’s impossible to say, except that for a country that’s not as a rule, nationally boastful, we’re all too pleased to believe that when it comes to peacekeeping and short fiction, the job’s best left to us.
For something more like truth in the matter, there’s the testimony of Joan Harcourt. During the early 1970s, she joined John Metcalf in editing for Ottawa’s Oberon Press an annual anthology of previously unpublished work, New Canadian Stories. “I learned,” she wrote at the end of her tenure in 1977, “that this country is full of people shrouded in arctic light, trapped in their Canadian loneliness, sometimes writing badly about it, sometimes well,
What Metcalf saw by the same light wasn’t so hopeful. He later remembered manuscripts arriving by the hundred: “nearly all of them were atrocious.” With Harcourt’s successor, Clark Blaise, Metcalf changed New to Best and started to draw on the short fiction being published in small literary magazines across the country. The anthology had duly found its way back, in a way, to the place it had begun in 1971, when David Helwig and Tom Marshall edited Fourteen Stories High: Best Canadian Stories of 71 for Oberon.
It’s some years since Metcalf moved on from Best Canadian Stories; the uncompromising, intelligent force that he exercises on Canadian literature now emanates from the Erin, Ontario publishers, The Porcupine’s Quill, where he’s senior editor. (For readings by writers who’ve benefitted from that invaluable force, from Terry Griggs to Steven Heighton, see The Porcupine’s Quill Reader from last fall.)
And Best Canadian Stories? It too lives on, joined since 1980 by a companion volume in the image of New Canadian Stories called Coming Attractions. (In its day, Coming Attractions has heralded the emerging voices of Rohinton Mistry, Charles Foran, and Caroline Adderson; this year’s edition features Lewis DeSoto, Murray Logan, Kelley Aitken.)
The arrival, late in the fall each year, of these two Oberon collections is always cause for fanfare, although it rarely gets as much as it deserves – somehow, books from Oberon fade all too quietly into the bookselling background. This year’s rendition of Best Canadian Stories is edited by Douglas Glover, whose own fiction (short and long) uses the language so powerfully. He offers up nine stories from writers of low renown (Chetan Rajani) and medium (Dave Margoshes and two newly minted novelists, Claudia Casper and Thomas Wharton). But then Best Canadian Stories has never been much interested in respecting reputations (this may be John Metcalf’s fierce legacy) if the writing attached to them doesn’t measure up.
In his foreword, as editors of anthologies must, somewhere, sometime, whether to themselves or out in the open, Glover makes his case for choosing the writers he chooses. It has nothing to do with mapmaking: he’s not specially interested in compass readings of the national mood, geography, history. Why, he’s not even interested in “honest” stories that do, as he puts it, “what stories ought to, that is, reflecting back to us an image of the life we live.” No, as Glover sees it, he reached for the off-centre, to prose that takes its chances: “the strange, cracked stories, the voices that [strain] against form, that [body] forth a notion of mystery, complexity, and soul not necessarily contained by the world or any representation of it.”
Among them, there are some remarkable performances, starting with Margoshes’ “A Book of Great Worth,” a lovely, elliptical story lit and shadowed by the flames of the Hindenburg crash, the yearning of a mute Montreal girl, and the glow of a mysterious book written in an unknown language. Notions of mystery, complexity, and soul rise from Kathryn Woodward’s contribution, “The Colour of Dust,” the story of a Canadian woman in an African village, and from Casper’s “Dad’s Place,” with its haunted landscapes, family and foreign.
Stories like these surprise you with their insistence ; they’re voices with which you’re conversant long after you’ve finished with words on a page. The best short fiction lodges its characters, phrases, images, and questions in the imagination. Surely that’s what stories ought to do: add to our knowledge, our wonder, our curiosity, whether or not they reflect us in our arctic light, or refract it into previously unseen, unexpected patterns.
There are other sources for extraordinary short fiction: McClelland & Stewart’s annual Journey Prize Anthology is always worthwhile, and you can’t go far astray if you keep in regular contact with the literary magazines, the Fiddleheads and Malahat Reviews, that feed the anthologies in the first place. Still, whether or not it makes superlative sense, each year Oberon’s Best is better.