January 2nd, 2009

I win!

Yes! I have read The Penguin Book of Canadian Short Stories in its entirety: all the introductory materials, biographical and copyright notes, and every word of every story. Ask me anything; I’m full to bursting with Canadian short stories!

My relationship with this book is *intense*–I read it pretty steadily, if not quickly, for over a month, sprawling by a day into a second calendar year. The relationship is pretty physical, too; since my reading is done in myriad locales and often in transit, I’ve been carrying this book on my person quite a bit. Once it’s on you, you don’t forget about the PBCSS, for though the kitchen scale says it weights only two pounds, I suspect strongly that my kitchen scale is broken and it weighs six or seven.

Oh, it’s been epic, the affair of PBCSS and I: I ordered the first copy from the library, got curry on the pages, took it on a Via train, a Greyhound bus, several Go trains and busses, and more TTC subways, streetcards and busses than you can imagine. Then the library recalled the book, I ordered a new copy, got chocolate on the pages, got back on the trains and busses. To impress a writer I admire, I carried the anthology (and many other things) down 22 flights of stairs and across town. I read it in a bar, in bed and at my desk; I told everyone I was reading it (and no one cared). I used it to flatten wrinkles when I was to lazy to iron, to start a conversation and to end one.

And now I win, because I’ve read it all and I can STOP CARRYING IT AROUND.

Actually, I won by reading. I have no regrets–the PBCSS is not pure pleasure, but the vast majority of the stories contained therein *are* pleasures, and I really enjoyed reading them, even when my wrists were throbbing from holding the damn thing upright.

It’s not that I disagree with my comrades at the Salon des Refuses: it is deeply dismaying that so many brilliant story artists have been left out of the collection, and that they are so many of them stylistic innovators speaks of unhelpful blinkering. It was in fact only my reading of the Salon issues of *The New Quarterly* and *Canadian Notes and Queries* that made me want to read the PBCSS. Reading 20 brilliant and wildly different stories back to back, with appreciations and background notes was such a joyful education that I thought maybe I should think more about anthologies (which I hadn’t really thought about at all outside of school).

I read (I think) everything that was published about the Salon, almost always agreed with the agitators without anything interesting to add, got interviewed more than once without anything interesting to say (someday those tapes will surface), and finally I read the damn PBCSS. When I did, I was thrilled by the stories, but my feelings were truly hurt, and hurt on behalf of my heroes and mentors in the world of short stories, by some of the editorial comments. That this anthology was trying to “open up and make more interesting the definition of the short story” by calling memoir and novel fragments into the fold, rather than by paying homage to the artistry and innovation of people were actually working in the form made my hair puff up. But that’s already been discussed, many times in many places.

I did come up with some criticisms of my own that no one else mentioned, maybe because they are not interesting. Nevertheless, I’ll share them:
–who decided not to date the stories? and to put the bio notes at the end, in story order, *separate from* the copyright notes, which are then in alphabetical order? Call me crazy, but I care who the people are wrote these stories, when and where they were writing, and at what point in their careers these pieces were published! The bio notes also seemed not to have been proofread (the main text of the book was fine)–a weird oversight–there were actually a couple lines missing at the bottom of pages.
–why is there more than one piece by several authors? no explanation is offered, and while with Alice Munro none is needed, the others are…really random.
–how, I wonder, do Munro, Mavis Gallant and Merna Summers feel about being the only three of our “literary mothers and fathers” in the book’s last section who aren’t dead?
–alarming that the anthologist would suggest that short story writers are “singing in pure voice simply because they feel there is a need for music, a need for song.” You show me a writer of *anything* who doesn’t feel he or she has something to say, and I’ll show you someone who should get out of the business.
–Only *one* section of the book is introduced as containing stories that leave readers with “[o]ur view of the world altered, darkened or enlarged; certain faiths have been strengthened, others have been shaken loose…[and feeling that] something else, equally arresting and believable, is more than likely going to happen very soon.” What, one wonders, are all the other stories trying to do?

These are, I think, real issues, yet they won’t really matter to the average college English student, book-group member, auto-didact storyphile, who will look at the stories that have been recommended or assigned, read and delight, and then maybe read the next story and delight in that also.

Because, despite some questionable curation and a few duds, the vast majority of these stories are very very good!! Many I’d read before, but it’d been too long and I was thrilled to see “Gypsy Art” and “Joe in the Afterlife” and “The Lonely Goatherd” again, and so very many others. And there were so many to me *new* stories in this collection, “Vision” and “The Friend” and “Catechism.” It was such a joy to go from strength to strength like this, to find the stories lighting each other up. “And the Children Shall Rise”!! “Horses of the Night”!!

The reason, I think, that it’s so shocking that certain stories are included in the PBCSS for reasons of PCness or quirkyness and not quality is that *most* of them *were* chosen for quality, and the juxtoposition is jarring. Adrienne Poy’s “Ring Around October” is tepid, but hardly appalling, until you place it next to Caroline Adderson’s brilliant “And the Children Shall Rise.” Then you see a problem.

Despite its many flaws, despite the fact that I’m upset by some of the suppositions that the editorial notes make, I feel that most of the stories themselves succeed in what should have been the book’s goal: the glorification of innovative, intelligent, artful, heartful, tightly controlled and deeply resonant short story writing in Canada. I’m happy to be a tiny part of that project, and I look forward to the next, better, more comprehensive and respectful anthology that will come next from Canada’s wealth of talent. I hope the bruise on my hip from carrying this one in my bag will have healed by that point.

The starmaker says it’s not so bad

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So Much Love by Rebecca Rosenblum

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