Register Wednesday | December 12 | 2018

The Urquhart Disaster

The tale of an anthology

 

Not that long ago you’d see them at book launches and fundraisers, faculty socials or gallery openings. They were usually—though not exclusively—male. And white. They wore ties. They tended to be a bit self-conscious, their movements jerky, eyes darting as if wondering what exactly they were doing there. Their awkwardness was partly due to the fact they didn’t get out much, trained as they were to sit still and think. However, looking back, I realize some of them were no doubt aware of being called sexist or racist, of being labeled as parochial and elitist—of being, in a word, the enemy. Knowing themselves resented, they exuded an aura of cagey bewilderment. And yet they were also needed, fielding as they did regular requests to speak at conferences, to teach a course at the last minute, to write an encyclopedia entry on a now-obscure author or the preface to some young turk’s first book. 

It’s stating the obvious, of course, to say that ours is a culture openly hostile to authority and deeply suspicious of anything resembling intellectual criticism. This means that while the connoisseur is perhaps not yet dead and gone, he is unquestionably on the way out.

There are two reasons for this. First, publicity and criticism have become indistinguishable. Hype and buzz now replace analysis as the mode by which we approach books, films, music, etc. And secondly, no one listens to anyone anymore, especially some downer or ‘neg-head’ who thinks themselves smarter than the rest of us and duty-bound to offer up their opinions. Who do they think they are? And who needs ‘em? Your average person is no longer willing to concede that someone who’s been working in his or her chosen field for decades might know more than they do. Depending on your point of view, not to mention how one feels on a given day, the resulting culture in our age of “nobrow” is either a colourful new realm of egalitarian diversity, or the collapse of an ordered and comprehensible landscape into a grey, glutinous mess.

Well, I have my good days and my bad days, and the day I sat down to peruse the new Penguin Book of Canadian Short Stories fell unfortunately into the latter category. After about half an hour with the hefty tome, I felt the waves of panic and dread rising up and found myself frantically reaching for the phone to call Iago. Iago was once a promising young writer – vastly talented and unnervingly ambitious – who abruptly gave it up a few years ago to get into advertising and computers. He’s stopped reading entirely, spends endless hours on the internet, has a cell phone grafted to his right ear. Whenever I feel the need of sober judgement, of a cold eye on my hot temper, Iago I call.

He answered with his habitual greeting for me: “Hey, Loser.” 

“You would not believe the people she left out,” I wailed.

“I got high and watched ‘The Hulk’ last night.” 

“Nothing from Norman Levine.”

“It was fucking amazing.”

“Or Clark Blaise.”

“Clark who?”

“Or Keath Fraser.”

“Right.”

“Or Terry Griggs.”

“Yeah,” sighed Iago. “It’s a shame, I know. Look, there are more people playing “Grand Theft Auto” this very second than will ever buy whatever book you’re talking about. No one cares, dude.”

“That’s no reason to ….”

“Hey! Loser! In about ten years nobody will be reading books! It’s over! Deal with it! Now I got ladies to text and shit to download and no time for some uptight assclown stuck in the 1970s. Get a life!” 

Chastened yet calmed, I hung up the phone. I felt better. Iago never lets me down.

It is generally agreed that this country’s strongest literary genre remains the short story. For whatever reason, Canada of late seems to churn out good story writers the way Norway produces crack ski jumpers. This suggests the country might also have its share of experts on the form – editors, teachers, critics; connoisseurs, as it were. So why did Penguin turn to Jane Urquhart, a writer who has never before edited an anthology, to oversee this important new collection? While she remains a popular and award-winning novelist, and author of the 1987 story collection Storm Glass, this hardly adds up to a convincing argument for editorial credibility. Urquhart herself raises the concern in her lengthy introduction, stating she agreed to edit the book with a sense “of curiosity and uncertainty” stemming “from the nagging suspicion that perhaps [she] was not the person best suited to the task.”

Well, I hate to be a ‘neg head,’ but she was right. (Urquhart even goes so far as to make the bewildering confession that her familiarity with the younger generation of story writers has been limited to and defined by her reading of their novels. This is sort of like the curator for a major sculpture exhibition publicly stating that since she knows little about current practice in the discipline, she chose work only by sculptors who also make paintings.)

There can be no disputing the fact that Urquhart’s choices for this book are both baffling and deeply disappointing, the result of her evident lack of respect for the short story form and her need – like so many Canadian editors before her – to provide a “cultural context,” a thematic unity to her selections. In her introduction, Urquhart discusses her desire to “open up and make more interesting the definition of the short story” by also including excerpts from memoirs. But contemporary short stories in Canada already run the entire gamut of form, theme, and genre. In decades past there may have been a very narrow field of work to choose from but such is certainly not the case today. No imperative exists to “open up and make more interesting … the definition of the short story.” Given the literally hundreds of excellent and stylistically diverse stories to choose from, Urquhart’s task was difficult enough before she decided to needlessly complicate it with non-fiction works. But for some reason Urquhart decided memoirs were the key to the vexing question of “how to order the dozens of stories [she] had chosen.”

Thus, the book is divided into five sections, each governed by a unifying metaphor, each beginning with an excerpt from a diary or memoir, and in one case, a novel, and each prefaced by an additional page of airy Urquhart prose, as if by sheer volume of preamble and commentary, the bizarre structure of the book will be justified and appreciated. Evidently, stories by themselves are not enough. The result is we have memoir excerpts from authors who have never written a short story, an Alice Munro story that is truncated, stale offerings from Hugh Garner and Lucy Maud Montgomery, and, inexplicably, a sentimental minor effort from former Governor General Adrienne Clarkson. 

It’s intriguing to contrast Urquhart’s approach with that of other anthologists. Consider Clifton Fadiman, editor of the 1986 collection The World of the Short Story. Fadiman, a regular reviewer for The New Yorker and author of several volumes of criticism, was undoubtedly a literary connoisseur. Charged with an assignment even more challenging than Urquhart’s, to make a selection based on the entire canon of 20thcentury short fiction, he is nonetheless far less troubled by his task than Urquhart and his approach is much less complicated. Urquhart’s agonized introduction runs over six densely typeset pages (eleven if one counts the pieces which preface each of the five sections); Fadiman’s is just over two. Urquhart agonizes over how to organize the stories she has selected; Fadiman orders his by the author’s year of birth and feels compelled to justify even this contrivance, remarking that a completely random ordering, “the aleatoric mode,” is likely best for such a collection. Fadiman is comfortable with the fact that an anthology is, as he puts it, “a covert personal statement,” and unlike Urquhart he chooses to retain the pretense of covertness. The reader is not then burdened with an anthologist standing at his or her shoulder offering largely superfluous commentary on what they did and why they did it.

Not that commentary in itself is necessarily a bad thing. It’s instructive to also compare Urquhart’s selections with those of author and critic John Metcalf, editor of some two hundred story collections and more than thirty anthologies, in other words, a true connoisseur of the Canadian short story. His eccentric memoir Shut Up, He Explained, also published this past fall, includes his list of the forty best Canadian story writers of the 20th century. Metcalf discusses in detail the work of each author, using excerpts from stories to point out specific felicities, quoting from interviews, and citing reviews and critical commentary. Unlike Urquhart, Metcalf focuses on what each author has written, on the actual words and sentences on the page. He is not at all interested in justifying his selections for reasons other than literary excellence.

While some allowance for personal taste might be made (Fadiman’s “covert personal statement”), it is still more than a little troubling to see that thirty of the forty writers Metcalf cites as the best of the 20th century have been left out of the Penguin anthology. Among the more bewildering omissions are Norman Levine, Diane Schoemperlen, Douglas Glover, Mike Barnes, Steven Heighton, Terry Griggs, Ray Smith, Mark Anthony Jarman, Keath Fraser, Mary Borsky, Clark Blaise, and Hugh Hood. And when one considers how this book will likely be bought and read around the world, regarded by some as authoritative, and placed on innumerable course syllabi for years to come, the result is not just unfortunate or regrettable, but disastrous.

Penguin Canada, with their eye on commercial success instead of literary acumen, has let Canada down. And something should be done about it. We need someone in Canadian publishing to step up and respond to the Penguin book with an anthology. We need someone who will do away with all the hand-wringing and simply put forth a selection of excellent stories. We need, in other words, a connoisseur.