"We do not want to make our work more 'accessible'¨repellent word¨rather, we need to teach readers how to read us better.."
This somewhat antagonistic quote on the cover of The New Quarterly's Wild Writers We Have Known: A Celebration of the Canadian Short Story and Story Writers, is from John Metcalf's opening address to a three-day symposium that took place as part of Academy Stratford in September, 2000. A project shared with Porcupine's Quill Press, The New Quarterly, a periodical charting "new directions in Canadian writing," has recorded the readings and discussions from this symposium in a special double issue of the journal. It presents nine stories by what are termed the new generation of story writers (each has at least one book to their credit) with critical readings of that work by nine writers at "mid-career." The second half of this volume contains transcripts of panel discussions on various aspects and concerns among those who write short stories.
The stories themselves are a delight: rich, expressive, complex. They range in situation and voice from the tragi-comic adventures of a greenhorn prospector in Carolyn Adderson's Gold Mountain, to the horrific lyricism of Mark Jarman's Burn Man on a Texas Porch; from the intimacy and near-claustrophobia of Michael Crummey's That Fall to the strangeness of Annabel Lyon's Song where the compass of the truth widens with each attempt to pin it down ("It happened like this" is a constant refrain throughout the story). Each story is followed by a corresponding critical reading, where for example a seasoned writer like Keath Fraser takes a look into the strategies and tactics used by a newer writer like Elise Levine, in effect offering a critical review of the collection that the story is taken from.
The panel discussions are unfortunately less than forthcoming on 'how to read.' The process of creating these stories, and the concerns faced by the writers, turn out to be empty of clues for readers trying to navigate the difficulties of the form. If there are rare insights into the secrets of 'decoding' these stories, they are outweighed by the banality of information like where stories come from ("I have a notebook") and the nature of inspiration ("Óthe idea comes to you. You cannot find it, it finds you"). Even aspiring writers coming to this issue of The New Quarterly in search of a strategy will have a sense that they've heard all this before.
Not one of the discussions really focuses on what the short story's classic trait is: compression. How a writer distills the story to its absolute essence, and does it without telegraphing to the reader that a writer is at work, is better handled in the 'critical readings.' Douglas Glover's examination of the devices used by Mark Jarman in the "Burn Man" story; what a free-floating ending means in Keath Fraser's discussion of Elise Levine's work; Diane Schoemperlen's idea of connections replacing more transparent plot lines in Annabel Lyon's Song: these, more than the panel discussions, give readers additional and useful tools for understanding where the short story is going and what the writer is trying to do.
What makes this compilation so aggravating to go through is a definite dismissive undertone towards the reader. It surfaces again and again, largely through the doleful musings of John Metcalf: "Each new generation of writers has a hard double task¨ to escape from the shadow of its elders and to teach its audience how to read it." "Too few readers have educated themselves sufficiently to receive these writers and make their work genuinely felt in what passes for our literary culture." "I mean, to think about an audience for literary fiction is suicidal. Because there isn't one." "Give them a page of Annabel Lyon and they'll commit suicide." And finally: "If people say, 'Oh well, this is difficult for the reader,' well, bugger the reader. I mean, they should work harder."
Other writers continue in the same vein. An audience member from one of the panel discussions asks, "At what point in the story, when you are writing and rewriting and editing, are you consciously thinking about us, your readers?" and the reply from the panel is a resounding "Never." Russell Smith, in talking about aspects of form in the stories: "Óreaders must be challenged. If readers have a hard time of it, that's too bad because readers need that kind of bracing difficulty."
I agree that the reader who wants to appreciate the vision that a good writer presents has some responsibility to the story. We need to move beyond expecting a traditional "narrative arc" (the plotted rising of tension towards the final redemption of character, the round and fully resolved ending), to experience what the language, the voice, the brevity of the story itself has to say. It is a rewarding effort when the story is well done, as each of the stories in this issue are. But the other side of the coin is the responsibility of the writer¨not to specific readers necessarily, but to the fact that the story is intended to be read. That responsibility is to the clarity of the story, to the craft and invention in form and language that makes the story unique and indelible, to the way the story is to be understood. It demands some sense of connection with a reader, however anonymous, just to make certain that the story is, indeed, told.
That sense of responsibility towards the art and its public is fully evident in Telling Stories: New English Stories from Quebec. This is a collection of the short fiction that won, or received honourable mention in, the CBC-Quebec Writers' Federation annual short story competitions from 1999 to 2002. These 43 stories are by new Quebec writers; only six have had a book published, mostly in other genres. The stories are indeed "short," limited by the rules of the competition to 1200 words, about the length of this review.
With so little room to manoeuvre, compression is vital. All of these pieces concentrate on one telling moment, an event in which an entire past becomes distilled, as in Ken McDonough's "Car Trouble", where a man's lifetime of predictable order and safe commitments is denied by the death of his sister, or in Matthew Anderson's "Encomium" (one of my favourites in the anthology), where a minister with a special and loving talent for graveside eulogies gets to experience the receiving end of what his life's work really means.
To manage such brevity, the delivery of the story becomes key. Style and voice are the elements being played with in the rhythmic rocking of Celia McBride's "Backseat Baby" ("Late night high times headlights home" where she learns "Sometimes knowing ruins everything"), in the cyclic repetitions in Nick Carpenter's "Staring At Miracles", and in the witty dialogue-only chatter of Marjorie Bruhmeller's "Willa And Iris On The Monday Before Christmas."
The language in any short story, but especially in these very short ones, needs to be tight and expressive. Marla Becking's "Pneumonia" sends us reeling into the shattered heart of grief which, like the word pneumonia itself, "cannot be sounded out." In Suzanne Alexakis' "Professor Hopkins Goes Swimming", an English teacher, nearing retirement and trying to attract the amorous attention of the new art teacher, realizes he "has lost much ground to the relentless temporal treadmill. And so he must look for ways to cock up the mechanism now and againÓ" The crimes and punishments in Anushree Varina's "Tamarind", and the bizarre and surreal game of hide-and-seek in Mark Paterson's "Saturday Night", show that these writers have taken the necessary care to offer their worlds in ways that do not leave the reader stranded at the side of the road.
Clearly, I must be what one of participants in the Stratford symposium calls an "uncommon reader" because I don't find the strategies, techniques, or delivery used by the writers in either The New Quarterly or Telling Stories all that difficult. The stories in both collections are not typical Good Housekeeping stories where virtue's triumphs are always traced in a linear plot line and the normal inner voice of characters. That's what gives them their fresh and vivid colour. But I am in no way considering committing suicide rather than reading another Annabel Lyon story. In fairness to Mr. Metcalf, a respected editor responsible for seeking out and championing many of the writers who have enlivened the short story beyond the staid, traditional narrative form, I whole-heartedly agree with his view that there is unlikely to be a mass audience for literary work of any stripe, and perhaps there shouldn't be, apart from the need to have enough readers to ensure that the publication of the writing can continue. "The story form has its own demands, its own being," he says, and with it comes the need on the part of both writers and readers for a bit of "faith. Faith in each other. Faith in the genre itself." That faith would not be misplaced if it were to be extended to the readers themselves. ˛