Short Fiction: An Anthology

by Sullivan
ISBN: 0195417607

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A Review of: Short Fiction: An Anthology
by Clara Thomas

Sullivan and Levene have given us an anthology well fitted for the tried and true "Desert Island" game: it would be a satisfying companion for any castaway enthusiast for the short story. Expansive and comprehensive, its selections, from a international range of writers, are designed to satisfy an equally wide range of tastes. In their Preface the editors describe their rationale: "We believe no contemporary anthology can be prescriptive. Teaching is, after all, a product of discussion, and multiple readings are not only possible, but also truthful to the experience of fiction." The collection's controlling metaphor is well illustrated by Rae Johnson's cover painting: "this is a house of fiction that readers are invited to enter at their leisure."
Short Fiction is a big book divided into three parts, "Introduction", "The Short Story", "The Novella". Part I contains an eight page introduction and, an interesting innovation, two stories by masters of the genre far apart in time, Chekov's "The Lady with the Dog"(1899) and Raymond Carver's "Errand"(1987). Each of them is followed by an editorial "Reflection" and since Carver's "Errand" is based on the circumstances of Chekov's death they provide especially intriguing opportunities for commentary. Part II contains some seventy-five stories, arranged chronologically, from Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Rappacini's Daughter"(1844) to Sherman Alexie's "This Is What It Means To Say Phoenix, Arizona"(1993). Part III contains Melville's "Benito Cereno" (1855) and Mavis Gallant's "The Moslem Wife" (1979). Each story is prefaced by a useful biographical sketch of its author.
Representation is international and it is particularly gratifying to a Canadian to find stories from a very healthy list of Canadian writers, some twenty-five in all, from Charles G.D.Roberts's "When Twilight Falls on the Stump Lots" (1902) to Dionne Brand's "Photograph" (1988). Of these, by my count, fourteen are women and that is a special pleasure to me, remembering as I do, the " bad old days" of teaching Canadian literature before Margaret, before Alice, before Carol and all the rest. Then Roberts's animal stories, although deservedly praised, dominated the field almost completely.
Short Fiction is primarily designed as a text for secondary and post secondary classes and for that reason its Introduction is of special interest. Sullivan and Levene preface their discussion with a number of comments from well-known short story practitioners, Alice Munro and William Trevor among them. Munro's suggests mystery at the story's heart: "It is the black room at the centre of the house with all other rooms leading to and away from it." Trevor defines the short story as "the distillation of an essence." These, and the several others quoted serve to demonstrate the editors' recognition of a baffling inability to pin down the form to any one definition. They also serve to indicate the editors' own elasticity of response. Their introduction goes on to give readers a useful, though far from prescriptive, discussion of historical roots and contemporary trends. The Canadian experience which they tentatively use as a paradigm is valuable: "A complex factor in the transformation of the Canadian short story from meagerness to magnificence was the extraordinary role played by CBC Radio, or rather by the way producer and program organizer Robert Weaver conceived and actualized this role." Recognition and study of the enormous cross-fertilization process constantly at work among cultural agencies is still at its beginning.
For general readers as well as students, the discussion of the ups and downs of the magazine market for short fiction is especially enlightening: "In 1919 there were at least six major venues in the United States; now there is really just one, The New Yorker, with short stories appearing periodically in Esquire, Harper's and The Atlantic Monthly. (In Canada the situation has always been terrible)." The editors should have excepted Robert Weaver and William Toye's Tamarack Review (1956-82) which was a lifeline to many of our best writers. However, their subsequent comparison of the experience of reading Munro's "The Love of a Good Woman" in The New Yorker and later in the printed collection provides valuable perceptions about the effect of a story's context on its reader, an important, often disregarded element.
"The case of the Novella" could be developed into a mystery on its own. Novella: A long short story, or a short novel? The editors do not attempt to pin down this vexed question, but they do give us two excellent examples to ponder: Melville's "Beneto Cereno" from the 19th century and Mavis Gallant's "The Moslem Wife" from the 20th. Likewise we are not offered an all-wise, all-seeing formula for either approach or response to the story. Sullivan and Levene impart a healthy appreciation of the artistry involved in the making of a short story together with the recognition of its connection to our own lives' narratives: "less in a straightforward process of personal identification and comparison...than in a subtle, fluid balance of our own presences and absences with those of the written narrative." Their entire introduction provides an informative entry to their richly furnished "house of fiction."

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