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Tossed and turned: A literary tempest

By posted at 3:29 am on September 23, 2008 0

coverA literary storm has been brewing here in Canada in recent weeks over the publication of the Penguin Book of Canadian Short Stories. (Maybe “literary storm” is pushing it – but there are at least three people weighing in on it). Here’s what seems to have happened: Novelist Jane Urquhart, who was asked to edit the anthology, has put more than a few noses out of joint not just over who was or wasn’t included, but over what she feels constitutes a “short story.”

Now, any anthology is inevitably going to leave something out, displease some and enrage a few others, but Urquhart, who by her own admission isn’t an expert of short fiction, chose to include excerpts from memoirs, and, apparently, at least one chapter from a novel, all for the sake of pushing the boundaries of the definition of a “short story”. Which to my mind would be like taking Act 2 of a three-act play and putting it in the same context as distinctly one-act plays. The length isn’t the entire issue, in my mind. A sense of completeness is. A chapter or an excerpt from a novel may indeed have stand-alone properties, but by its very nature as part of a bigger thing, it is incomplete on its own. A finely-crafted short story, however, is complete. And a piece of a memoir? Despite recent memoir/fiction crossovers, a memoir is still a different animal than short story.

Why Penguin, in its attempt to publish a definitive collection, didn’t place this editorial task in the hands of a short fiction connoisseur, or, better yet, a panel of connoisseurs who could at least bounce ideas off of each other, is a mystery to me. But, if nothing else, this little tempest has gotten Canadian readers engaged (a few of them fuming, and another leaping to Urquhart’s defense). And with the fairly high-profile press given to the backlash, the omitted authors are getting at least some attention. Shame it had to be on the heels of exclusion from a major anthology.

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