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Urquhart, Penguin, Salon des Refusés and the dearth of good Canadian Short Stories

Photos by NB

Steven Beattie over at That Shakespeherian Rag recently invited me to contribute to the 31 Days of Short Stories series he’s running throughout the month of August. Here is the start of the essay I sent him. It’s about Jane Urquhart’s Penguin Book of Canadian Short Stories and the Salon Des Refusés of excluded stories featured in the latest issues of Canadian Notes and Queries (74) and The New Quarterly.

How ironic that John Metcalf in his CNQ essay Thinking about Penguins, would call out Jane Urquhart’s inability to weigh relative merit; say of The Penguin Book of Canadian Short Stories "[it] flatly does not represent the best in Canadian short fiction;" and accuse its editor of favoring friends, at the expense of quality.

Ironic because after a blaze of bombast and insult (Urquhart ‘trills,’ and is variously called ‘appallingly arrogant,’ ignorant, naïve and dim about short story development and history), Metcalf does the very same thing, championing stories that are truly awful, and criticizing those that offer genuine delight. It is he who has the weight problem. Short of possible friendship, I can see no reason why Hugh Hood’s gruelingly uninspired Getting to Williamstown deserves even one syllable of praise. It stinks.

I have over the past several years enjoyed and respected Metcalf’s stiff, name-naming critiques of various sacred Canadian literary cows. Though I continue to enjoy his writing and agree with much of what he has said in the past about work he dislikes, after reading examples from authors he cites here as great, I must seriously question his critical judgment. In one breath Metcalf accuses Urquhart of including the inferior in her collection, in the next he lauds, and calls for the inclusion of stories that, in my opinion, are equally as poor. In fact, none of the stories he calls worthy are as good as the Penguin collection’s Constance by Virgil Burnett.

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The experience last week of reading a small selection of Canadian short stories confirms in me both the belief that great writing is exceedingly rare, and the suspicion that current discussion around Urquhart’s book, though welcome, is largely hollow: akin to time spent trying to decide each morning which pair of identically coloured, equally drab grey wool socks to wear under the pant leg.

This Salon des Refuses exercise, laudable as it is in its intent to critique what passes for excellence in the Canadian short story, fails in its execution; fails to present alternatives that are discernibly better than what is ‘officially’ on display. In so doing it smacks of the petty and personal.

Read the rest at That Shakespeherian Rag.

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