Canadian Short Fiction

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Historical Background

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Short fiction was being written in Canada before there was a Canada. At the time of Confederation in 1867, short fiction already filled the magazines of the new country. These early stories, however, differed from the modern short story, often being closer in form and content to other prose genres such as the sketch, anecdote, editorial, and essay—all of which were popular in journals such as The Literary Garland, Rose-Belford’s Canadian Monthly, National Review, and The Week. Today’s definitions of short fiction must be relaxed when one surveys fiction of these earlier times, for the parameters defining what is good short fiction change over time. The sensibility of the late nineteenth century, for example, valued sentiment over realism; much that was then considered excellent writing, appears nauseatingly sweet to the twentieth century reader. When one surveys the past of a genre, one must be aware that one is looking from a particular point of view, that of scholars distanced from the dates and places of publication of the original fiction and necessarily seeing a literary landscape changed from that seen by the original writer, publisher, or even the critic of earlier decades.

Canadian and American Short Fiction

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One feature of the Canadian cultural landscape that the writer of the millennium can see is its nearness to that of its neighbor, the United States. Canadian short fiction shares to some extent the history of the American genre. This survey will begin by establishing some of the basic points at which the two traditions run parallel or even converge. Later some points of divergence will be considered.

In both Canadian and American traditions, short fiction has its roots in sketch and anecdote and in the various prose forms that arose in the nineteenth century for the chronicling of personal experience. In both young countries short fiction found its initial home in magazines, sometimes in exciting, intellectual magazines, but often in cheap weeklies, tabloids, or Sunday-school papers. Not surprisingly, many writers of short fiction had previous or parallel careers as journalists, with the result that the demands of journalism (fact, brevity, popularity, and clarity) shaped early short fiction on both sides of the border. Developments in Canadian short fiction sometimes lagged behind those in American fiction, but in response to some trends, Canadian writers overcame the conservative influence of their colonial status to welcome similar literary innovations. Both Canadian and American short-story traditions, for instance, had strong local-color traditions in the last decades of the nineteenth century; these were regional in origin and very popular. Canada is and was a country divided into distinct regions—for example, the Maritimes, the Eastern Townships of Quebec, Southwestern Ontario, urban Montreal, the Prairie provinces, and so on. Short fiction from and about some of these regions developed just after its appearance south of the border, where writers such as Sarah Orne Jewett, Kate Chopin, and Mary E. Wilkins Freeman began to speak for and about distinct, marginalized parts of the continent in a new realistic voice. Such regional writing marked a stage in the development of the genre of short fiction toward naturalism and realism and has become a continuing, vital feature of Canadian short fiction, whose persistence has exerted a largely conservative influence on the development of the genre as a whole.

As the twentieth century unfolded, the international movement of modernism began to affect the writing of short fiction as well as poetry and the novel. Modernism is one area in the chronicle of North American short fiction where Canadian development temporarily parallels American. The friendship between Ernest Hemingway and Canada’s Morley Callaghan was one factor ensuring that...

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the revolution in writing begun by the older Hemingway would spread to the writing of the younger Callaghan. Later developments in short fiction, including the social realism of the 1930’s, the minimalist fiction of the 1950’s, the postmodern experimentation of the post-World War II era—all these affected both traditions, with the Canadian genre trailing by a few years. The distance between the two cultures closed up, however, in the mid-1960’s, when Canadian cultural nationalism surged forward on the creativity of the newly adult baby boomers, and Canada enjoyed a bumper crop of new writers, for whom short fiction was a popular genre.

At the turn of the millennium, both short story traditions existed in a new era of internationalism, in which good writers belong to global, not national traditions. Both story traditions also exhibit strong representation by “niche” writing of various kinds. The publication of short story anthologies containing specialized kinds of subject matter, subject positions, or ideological commitments testifies to the vigor at the margin of the short fiction tradition.

In some respects the Canadian tradition in short fiction does diverge from the American. A major consideration is the presence of an early and continuing separate literature in French existing beside English-Canadian literature. Writers in French Canada (Quebec as well as French-speaking parts of Ontario, Manitoba, and New Brunswick) were producing short pieces as early as the 1830’s, although recognizable short fiction really began with the Abbé Henri-Raymond Casgrain in the 1860’s. Throughout this discussion it is important to remain aware of two traditions whose development is not always parallel. Another difference involves the lesser importance of the tall tale in early Canadian short fiction. When Mark Twain was harnessing the tall tale to create a new American voice in the humorous short tale, the Canadian short story was still in its parlor stage, still interested in morals, conduct, and gentility. The folksy voice of the tall tale never really entered mainstream Canadian short fiction, which vaulted this stage to embrace modernism. Neither did the English-Canadian short story owe much to the American tradition that produced Edgar Allan Poe: the detective, supernatural, or scientifically speculative tale never became popular. Also missing from the Canadian tradition is the contribution of African American storytellers and writers, such as the Americans had in Charles Waddell Chesnutt. Canada’s smaller population of free black persons was perhaps not numerous or concentrated enough to establish and express a folk culture whose forms and subject material could influence Canadian short fiction. Both national traditions, however, share input from First Nations writers of short fiction: myth, folklore, and other features of oral story culture have been transformed by writers of various tribal allegiances into a significant factor in the present and future course of short fiction.

Early examples of short fiction in British North America did include humor, such as the satirical and descriptive sketches in Thomas Chandler Haliburton’s Sam Slick stories. Appearing in The Novascotian between 1826 and 1835, the Sam Slick anecdotes demonstrate their author’s vivid grasp of the society and politics of the Eastern seaboard and his talent for salty dialect, satirical portraiture, and national stereotypes. Sam Slick became for a time synonymous with a type of North American humor, and the collection The Clockmaker: Or, The Sayings and Doings of Samuel Slick of Slickville (1836) was enormously popular. Similar brief humorous pieces occur in the Letters of Mephibosheth Stepsure (1862) by Thomas McCulloch, whose original appearance in the Acadian Recorder (1821) make them among the earliest examples of Canadian short fiction. Like Haliburton, McCulloch relied on nuggets of anecdote, broad dialect effects, national stereotypes, and local political events for his comic effects.

The ancestry of nonhumorous short fiction in Canada begins in the pages of the early journals of Ontario and the Maritime provinces. Here one finds examples of short prose narratives, primarily realistic, whose plots endeavor to show character developed through events. Early stories in this mode often took as their focus courtship and marriage and maintained a tone of moral instruction. Stories by Mary Anne Sadlier, Harriet Cheney, and Eliza Lanesford Cushing often had European settings or generalized pastoral surroundings. New Brunswick’s May Agnes Fleming published her early stories in the large magazines south of the border and went on to fame as a novelist. One writer whose career predates the Confederation and whose work is Canadian in setting, subject, and publication, is Rosanna Leprohon of Montreal. Her best story, “Alice Sydenham’s First Ball,” appearing first in the Literary Garland in 1849, transfers the Cinderella story to a contemporary ballroom, while teaching the folly of vanity and social pretension. Not a fairy tale despite its similar motifs, the story is handled with delicate irony; Leprohon’s narrator enters into a conspiracy with the reader to wink at convention even while outwardly observing its dictates. This sophisticated, layered narrative technique was rare in early magazine fiction and sets Leprohon apart from other writers such as Susanna Moodie or Mary Herbert, both of whom were editors as well as writers of genteel moral fiction. Collections of short fiction published before 1900 tended to advertise their content as “tales”: for example, Sadlier’s Tales of the Olden Times: A Collection of European Traditions (1845), or a later book with local settings, Acorn Leaves: A Series of Canadian Tales (1873), by Nell Gwynne. Inexpertly edited, this volume contains one gem: “Miss Vandyke,” which tells a realistic story of a young girl negotiating the boundary of puberty. Boggs’s Nora chooses between possible female roles, including the traditional ones of suffering motherhood, bitter spinsterhood, and femme fatale, and arrives, after a sort illness, on the far shores of early adulthood, with the more realistic potential roles of teacher, mother, and sister clearly delineated.

The 1880’s and the 1890’s

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It was not before the late 1880’s and 1890’s that good, nonhumorous short fiction began to appear in any quantity. The 1860’s and 1870’s belonged to the Sunday-school story and the women’s magazine story, distinguished by their prominent didacticism and formulaic endings. Examples include Mary Herbert’s “Light in The Darkness: A Sketch from Life,” and May Agnes Fleming’s “My Folly.” Later, however, the decade of the “new” woman produced two good Canadian story writers: Sara Jeannette Duncan and Susie Frances Harrison, both of whom received recognition in literary circles in America as well as in Canada. Duncan, a well-traveled journalist, brought new ideas, both thematic and technical, to short fiction. Harrison, also a poet, experimented with narrative forms in her short fiction, with new settings, both generalized and local, and with the new ethos of the liberated woman, depicted independently of conventional roles of wife and mother (for example, “The Gilded Hammock”). In Crowded Out! and Other Sketches (1886), Harrison uses a frame story, in which a male narrator complains of being crowded out, perhaps indicating her own sense of the silencing of the woman’s voice in literature, even in her own collection. From the same era comes Duncan, better known for her novels in the Jamesian international style. Like many post- Confederation story writers, Duncan exploited the new mobility of journalists by traveling, observing, and writing about experiences beyond the conventional women’s sphere. Stories such as “A Mother in India” or “The Pool in the Desert” show more developed characterization than Harrison’s, with more room for psychological roundness and a fine touch in depicting one of her favorite subjects: the hypocrisies of Anglo-Indian society.

Canada’s main contribution to the development of short fiction at the beginning of the nineteenth century was the animal story. Neither the traditional, allegorized beast fable nor the sentimental pet story, this new naturalistic fiction depicting animals in their habitats drew on the post-Darwinian fascination with evolution. Sir Charles G. D. Roberts, a New Brunswick man of letters, wrote the first Canadian story in this genre—“Do Seek Their Meat from God.” Balancing the lives of panther cubs against the life of a human child, Roberts’s story takes a dispassionate stance which was revolutionary in its day. His collections of animal stories include Earth’s Enigmas: A Volume of Stories (1896), The Kindred of the Wild: A Book of Animal Life (1902), and The Watchers of the Trails: A Book of Animal Life (1904). Another writer whose short fiction explores animal themes was Ernest Thompson Seton. Like many writers of this time, British born Seton lived in Ontario, where he became a skilled amateur naturalist and painter of animal subjects. His interest in the birds and small animals of Ontario, Manitoba, and New Mexico led to his first book of animal stories, Wild Animals I Have Known (1898), which uses American as well as Canadian animals and settings. Seton made his narrators into spokespersons for a varied palette of animals including wolves, crows, partridges, and rabbits, about all of whom Seton had made detailed observations. Seton saw himself as a mediator and translator of animal reality into human idiom, and his stories, including the famous wolf- hunting story “Lobo, the King of Currumpaw,” often depend on anthropomorphic effects such as sentimental or heroic action.

In the 1890’s popular short fiction continued to be written to various formulaic patterns of romance by Gilbert Parker, Edward William Thomson, and Alexander Fraser and, among women writers, by Isabella Valancy Crawford, Pauline Johnson, Lucy Maud Montgomery, and Nellie McClung. Each of these writers specialized in one area of experience, for instance, Johnson in the Native Canadian identity, Fraser in animal stories, Montgomery in comic analyses of Prince Edward Island society, and McClung in didactic temperance themes in prairie settings.

A writer less popular in his time but more esteemed now is Duncan Campbell Scott, whose In the Village of Viger (1896) has been chosen by W. H. New as marking a turning point in the history of Canadian short fiction. Its ten stories are reminiscent of the localized naturalism of the stories of Jewett to the south. Some of Scott’s brief pictures of village tragedy and triumph nevertheless hark back to older models, Poe, for instance, or the French writers of the fabliau. Despite their village setting and Quebec location, Scott’s stories can be seen as introducing a new era in Canadian short fiction, because they eschew nostalgia and folklore and concentrate instead on compressed studies of people and social structures of a small community at a time of change. Scott excelled his contemporaries in the depiction of character, especially of complex and abnormal psychological states. His best stories recall those of the American writer, Ambrose Bierce, and like his, foreshadow the changes that modernism would soon bring to fiction.

The Early 1900’s

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Immediately after the turn of the century, humor was a dominant strain in Canadian short fiction. Stephen Leacock, an economics professor from Orillia, Ontario, began producing brief sketches, often monologues by a confident but misguided citizen, bent on misunderstanding the institutions of the new country and century. Literary Lapses (1910) contains the often-anthologized masterpiece “My Financial Career,” which pits a befuddled little man of the twentieth century against the banking establishment of urban Canada. Shortly after, Leacock’s Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town (1912), a collection of linked sketches unified by its setting, turned a gently satirical eye on the foibles of small- town Canada, while Arcadian Adventures with the Idle Rich (1914) displayed, in a connected series of stories, his criticism of an academic, urban world. Leacock epitomizes a movement in Canadian literature toward the subject of the small town, the voice of the little man, and a mood of sunny optimism mitigated by a quietly deprecating self-critical humor. Leacock’s brand of light satire survives in the short fiction of contemporary writers such as Stuart McLean and Bill Richardson. Much recent humorous fiction originates from Canadian Broadcasting Corporation radio scripts, after the fashion of the mid-century classics, W. O Mitchell’s Jake and the Kid stories. These were collected in 1961 and again twenty-eight years later (According to Jake and the Kid) in a volume which won the Stephen Leacock Award for Humor.

By the 1920’s, short fiction moved in the new direction indicated by the fresh currents of modernism. Young writers such as Raymond Knister set out to get the country into and the parlor out of their fiction and to capture the mind in motion. Short fiction, like all literature in Canada at this time, was still intensely regional in flavor. However, Knister and Callaghan began to be published abroad; early stories of both writers appeared in Paris magazines. Although Knister died before he could produce a major body of work, Morley Callaghan emerged into international prominence. His stories, though set in Toronto, were accepted as part of a new postwar literary movement. Callaghan is the premier short-story writer of the 1920’s, the O. Henry of Canadian literature. The comparison with O. Henry may be misleading, as Callaghan is a sophisticated writer, with serious literary aims and complex philosophical positions. Like Henry, however, he was brief, pithy, and popular. He wrote of the urban world and of a new generation which worked in the factories of industrialized North America and found love in its streets and bars. Some of Callaghan’s stories masquerade as American, but in his best he makes the landmarks of Toronto into the symbolic landscape of morally significant lives. In stories such as “A Girl with Ambition” and “A Predicament,” Callaghan chronicles the struggle of the lower middle class to make money, keep respectable, and maintain a sense of themselves as moral agents in a chaotic modern world. Callaghan flirted with the symmetrical-twist action of surprise endings—for example, in “A Cap for Steve”—but never exalted coincidence or crossed lives as O. Henry did. Often compared with Hemingway, whose friend he became at the Toronto Star in the early 1920’s, Callaghan has been overshadowed by the influential stylistic achievements of the better-known American. Hemingway spoke to and for the Lost Generation, whereas Callaghan, anchored by his Catholic faith in a country which found rather than lost itself in World War I, gives his characters the dignity of a meaningful universe, almost allegorical, in which to work out their minor daily dramas of moral action. Callaghan chooses closure over Hemingway’s hanging endings, a landscape immanent with meaning rather than the blank hills like white elephants and a universe that substitutes willed human action for Hemingway’s “nada.”

Female modernist writers of short fiction include Jessie Sime, whose collection, Sister Woman (1919) combines urban realism with a nascent feminism that has recently brought renewed interest in her short fiction, despite the sentimentality of some stories. L. M. Montgomery, many of whose stories date from this period, seldom departs from the premodernist mode; collections such as Further Chronicles of Avonlea (1920) are remarkable for their warmth of character and setting, rather than for any narrative experiment.

Modernism in French Canadian short fiction had a later onset, for reasons that are not quite clear, but may have to do with a certain cultural isolation of this, the major non-English language group in North America. Short fiction in Quebec remained fascinated with the gothic and supernatural folktale well into the twentieth century, and many collections seem closer to folklore, as writers retained allegiance to the conte and fabliau of the European tradition. In so doing they created for Quebec a strong sense of its cultural past as a rural people. Major modernist writers in French include Yves Thériault (whose multiple collections cross three decades), Alain Grandbois, and Anne Hébert. Even writers who adapted some modernist techniques of point of view, however, still often used them to interpret older, semigothic subjects, as did Hébert in Le Torrent (1950). The achievements of Canadian short fiction were summed up by the appearance in 1928 of the first Canadian short-story anthology, Canadian Short Stories, edited by Raymond Knister, and published in Canada by Macmillan.

The Mid-1900’s

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The middle decades of the twentieth century in Canadian short fiction were dominated by realism, in particular by the prairie realism of Frederick Philip Grove, Sinclair Ross, and W. O. Mitchell. Grove’s stories of heroic battle with land and climate in Over Prairie Trails (1922) have a Manitoban setting, while Ross’s more varied and human depictions of the difficulties of farm life are set farther west, on the Saskatchewan prairie. Both Ross and Grove set stylistic standards for natural description and content standards for gritty realism; together they laid to rest any lingering myth of the bountiful prairie farm. Another prairie writer however, W. O Mitchell, brought humor and a lively speaking voice to the realistic prairie story, while Margaret Laurence’s later stories captured life in the fictional Manitoban prairie town of Manawaka. The linked stories in her collection A Bird in the House (1970) provide one of the best places to begin an acquaintance with Canadian short fiction.

An urban realism flourished too at this period, notably in the short fiction of Mordecai Richler, whose stories of a Jewish boyhood in Montreal are still often anthologized. On the West coast, Ethel Wilson wrote with sophisticated irony of the lives of middle-class people, avoiding a self- conscious Canadianness, while crafting exquisite dialogue and set pieces of natural description.

Several Canadian writers of midcentury began to write their short fiction both from and about life overseas. Europe was the chosen home of Mavis Gallant, whose stories of exile and alienation anatomized the clash between cultures and generations from Paris, through the Riviera to Eastern Europe. Residing in Paris, Gallant wrote prolifically, publishing most of her stories in The New Yorker. Her first collection, The Other Paris (1956) shows her command of an ironic, detached tone, her eagle eye for hypocrisies of language and action, and her uncompromising way with social and literary falsity. Several subsequent titles, My Heart Is Broken: Eight Stories and a Short Novel (1964), The End of the World and Other Stories (1974), The Pegnitz Junction: A Novella and Five Short Stories (1973), From the Fifteenth District: A Novella and Eight Short Stories (1979), and Overhead in a Balloon: Stories of Paris (1985), display Gallant’s mastery of both very short stories (fifteen hundred words) and the longer genre of the novella. Home Truths: Selected Canadian Stories (1981), a Governor General’s Award winner, brings Gallant’s subject back to Canada. It contains a group of linked stories which are among her very best; the Linnet Muir stories tell of the growth to intellectual and artistic independence of a young woman in wartime Montreal. Her eleven collections and The Collected Stories of Mavis Gallant (1996) testify to her satirical touch, her fine control of nuance in tone and dialogue which give her stories a polish rare in previous fiction. Her internationalism and her historical perspective are also unusual and contribute to the power of her stories. Also writing from exile was Norman Levine, whose One Way Ticket (1961) speaks of the distortions implicit in writing from and about a condition of self-imposed artistic exile. Levine used fragmentary structures, fractured points of view, and a clipped prose style, whether in describing street life in Ottawa or cultural life in the hubs of Europe. His other collections are Thin Ice (1979) and Champagne Barn (1984).

Gallant became Canada’s first international achievement in short fiction since Callaghan, and she was followed promptly by two other talented writers: Alice Munro and Margaret Atwood. Beginning with Dance of the Happy Shades (1968), Munro has produced multiple volumes of short fiction, including her Selected Stories of 1996. Her short fiction claims a new subject territory (small-town southwestern Ontario from the wrong side of the tracks) and a new narrative approach. Envisioning her fiction spatially, Munro sees her stories as rooms or houses, into which she invites her reader on leisurely narrative tours toward surprising closures. This digressive narrative technique has been a hallmark of her short fiction and is as visible in early stories, such as “How I Met My Husband” or “Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You,” as in the title story from her 1998 collection “The Love of a Good Woman.” In addition to nonlinear narration, Munro’s fiction is also distinguished by its attention to domestic detail, to the small household and toilet objects that deck the lives of her female characters. In her hands, lamps, shoes, hats, potholders, and jelly jars are transformed by a scrutiny both relentless and compassionate into metaphorical keys to character and significance.

Margaret Atwood, better known for, first, her poetry and now, her novels, is another writer to emerge at mid-century and to be claimed by feminist readers and scholars. Atwood’s stories inherit their enigmatically interior language from her poetry. Stories like “Giving Birth” foreground language itself and, in testing it, examining it for tricks and quicksand, finding it inevitably guilty. This self-consciousness is one feature which allies Atwood’s fiction with that of the postmodern writers of the United States. Her fiction merges pop and high culture and seems capable of digesting comics, cartoons, or advertisement copy. A notable feature of her short fiction is her control of indirect interior monologue, as in “The Salt Garden” or “Hairball”; this technique accesses the flow of the character’s conscious mind while remaining detached from both character and event. Many Atwood stories are a form of historiographical metafiction; that is, they make use of historical events and personages in such a way as to question the conventional truths of historical storytelling. In this mode Atwood uses both distant events such as the Franklin expedition to the Arctic (“The Age of Lead”), and more recent ones, such as the title event from “Hurricane Hazel.” Many of Atwood’s stories hover on the edge of the grotesque and offer a black humor that flouts many sacred subjects. In her short prose pieces from Murder in the Dark (1983; “Happy Endings,” “Women’s Novels”), Atwood uses humor to undermine the culture’s most treasured assumptions about love, death, and the structure and content of fiction.

Among the finest writers of short fiction at this time is Alistair MacLeod. With only two collections, The Lost Salt Gift of Blood (1976) and As Birds Bring Forth the Sun and Other Stories (1986), MacLeod’s output is less than that of the female storytellers of the 1960’s and 1970’s, but his tales of hard lives in the Cape Breton mining and fishing communities have a uniquely tough, lyrical quality that allies them with the Celtic revival in music. In structure, characterization, and control of techniques of reversal, contrast, and epiphany, Macleod is the current master of the classic well-made short story. His only rival in this territory is Margaret Laurence, already mentioned for her realistic prairie stories. She also wrote short fiction arising out of her experience in Africa; The Tomorrow-Tamer (1963) displays a meticulous balance of elements that recalls MacLeod’s haunting tales of a similarly passing way of life.

Canada’s one genuine movement in short fiction involved a group known as the Montreal Story Tellers, formed in the late 1960’s in Montreal to promote the reading of short fiction to the general public at venues such as schools and community centers. Its members, John Metcalf, Clark Blaise, Ray Fraser, Ray Smith, and Hugh Hood, did much to raise the profile of short fiction. Four of these writers went on to publish individual types of short fiction: Smith in lively experimental stories, fabular and surreal (for example, “The Princess, the Boeing, and the Hot Pastrami Sandwich”); Hood in densely parabolic pieces grounded in the documentary reality of urban life in Montreal and Toronto (Flying a Red Kite, 1962; You’ll Catch Your Death, 1992); Blaise in confessional fiction about a childhood and adolescence spent wandering in the no-man’s land between French Canada, English Canada, and the United States (A North American Education, 1973; Man and His World, 1992).

Stories that exploit narrative technique to convey abnormal or altered mental states and to explore the human psyche are the forte of another group of short-fiction writers. Timothy Findley’s work includes a novella (You Went Away, 1996) and two collections of stories, including a chilling psychological story called “Dreams.” W. D. Valgardson’s stories from northern Manitoba draw on mythical background to create tense dramas such as “Bloodflowers,” a contemporary horror story and the title of his 1973 collection. Also from Manitoba, Sandra Birdsell writes of the difficulties of women’s lives in rural settings. Her fictional location of Agassiz links the stories in Night Travellers (1982) and Ladies of the House (1984). From Saskatchewan comes Guy Vanderhaeghe’s uncompromisingly realistic short fiction, collected in Man Descending (1982) and Things as They Are? (1992). Abnormal mental states and marginalized points of view are the main subject of Margaret Gibson’s short fiction, from her early study of life on a mental ward “The Butterfly Ward,” and her epistolary story “Making It,” to more recent work such as The Fear Room and Other Stories (1996).

The 1970’s and the 1980’s

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In the 1970’s and 1980’s it was popular to see all Canadian literature in terms of unifying thematic patterns, the most influential of which was Northrop Frye’s template of the “garrison mentality,” which became a symbol for the isolated, inward-looking, wilderness-fearing communities of early Canada. Together with Margaret Atwood’s related concept of “survival,” this term became for a while the touchstone of the good in short fiction as well as other genres. Short fiction whose plots conformed to this paradigm rose to the top, and other types of fiction were undervalued. Certainly many excellent Canadian short stories are illuminated by such readings: Frederick Philip Grove’s Manitoba stories conform to the pattern. Atwood’s own “The Age of Lead” (about the televised unearthing of the bodies and artifacts of the doomed Franklin expedition to the Arctic) repay interpretation as a conflict between human beings and an implacable wilderness. Thematic criticism offers a way of reading Sinclair Ross’s “The Lamp at Noon,” Joyce Marshall’s “The Old Woman,” Alice Munro’s “Winter Wind,” and Rudy Wiebe’s “Oolulik” and “The Naming of Albert Johnson,” but it excluded other types of fiction: the urban mythographers Morley Callaghan, Hugh Hood, and Hugh Garner, the ironic social anatomists Mavis Gallant, Mordecai Richler, Katherine Govier, John Metcalf, Carol Shields, and Janice Kulyk-Keefer—all are beyond the reach of the survival theme. Other thematic paradigms have been suggested, notably Constance Rooke’s idea that “fear of the open heart” is the emotional and literary marker of a generation of Canadian writing.

After the definitive thematic statements of Laurence, Munro, Atwood, and Macleod, the focus in short fiction moved away from strict realism and the confining demands of national definition. Fiction writers whose works embraced postmodern modes and techniques include Leon Rooke, Jack Hodgins, George Bowering, Audrey Thomas, David Arnason, and Jane Urquhart. In his long writing career, Matt Cohen has produced short fiction in a variety of moods and styles, realistic as well as fabular (see Columbus and the Fat Lady, 1972), but his best-known stories, such as “The Sins of Tomas Benares,” side with an experiential realism. Metafictional fabulation distinguishes the stories of W. P. Kinsella, especially in his popular baseball stories, such as “Shoeless Joe Jackson Comes to Iowa.” Kinsella is as well known, however, for stories in a different genre: His humorous pieces about life on the Hobbema Reservation use Native Canadian characters presented through the voice and perspective of Silas Ermineskin. Despite the effervescence of his humor and his revelation of the resilience of native culture in changing times, Kinsella’s Frank Fencepost stories, such as those in Born Indian (1981) and Brother Frank’s Gospel Hour and Other Stories (1994) have been criticized as condescending to genuine speakers from Canada’s First Nations.

Among these, the best writer of short fiction is Thomas King, who uses the motif of the aboriginal trickster, coyote, to challenge reader complacency about “Indian” subjects and narrative styles. In “The One About Coyote Going West” and “One Good Story, That One,” King’s deliberately sly narrator tricks the reader in his broken English, enmeshing the reader in the oral roots of narrative, in a place where practical joke meets story and the joke is on the reader. A different narrative focus marks his 1989 story “Borders,” in which a preadolescent narrator struggles to understand the failed crossing of the Canada-U.S. border, when his Blackfoot mother refuses to answer queries about her nationality with any answer other than “Blackfoot.” She and her son are stranded in the duty-free limbo between borders, trapped by a fatal clash between stubborn idealism and bureaucracy. This well-crafted story with its naïve narrator and pivotal subject matter may be one of the most important pieces of Canadian short fiction from the end of the twentieth century. Other native Canadian writers of short fiction include Daniel David Moses, whose “King of the Raft” is an often-anthologized lyrical story of adolescence. Less comfortable is the angry, radicalized prose of Lee Maracle (Sojourner’s Truth and Other Stories, 1990).

In the 1980’s, younger writers began to produce more daring stories, although Canadians never moved so far or so quickly toward the postmodern as their American peers. The Canadianness of these new stories was less self-conscious, expressed in self- reflexive and self-parodic ways. In this mode Diane Schoemperlen’s story “Red Plaid Shirt” became an instant classic, and her collections Hockey Night in Canada (1987) and The Man of My Dreams (1990) held a playful, ironic mirror to the Canadian scene. A more recent collection, Forms of Devotion, which won the 1998 Governor General’s Award, unites antique images of woodcut illustrations with self-reflexive fiction such as “How to Write a Serious Novel About Love.”

Katherine Govier interpreted urban life in Fables of Brunswick Avenue (1985), then conducted more daring technical experiments in Before and After (1989) and The Immaculate Conception Photography Gallery and Other Stories (1994). Of particular note is “God Is Writing a Novel” a postmodern study of the metaphysics blending life and literature. Stories both shocking in subject matter and daring in execution constitute the oeuvre of Barbara Gowdy’s urban gothic: We So Seldom Look on Love (1992). A good collection of contemporary urban stories is editor Barry Callaghan’s This Ain’t No Healing Town: Toronto Stories (1995). Linda Svendsen, in Marine Life (1992) introduced a new, spare prose in her short fiction. Reminiscent of both Hemingway and Flannery O’Connor, her British Columbia stories are flavored, nevertheless, with “Generation X” cynicism. The Generation X mood can also be sampled in the writing of Evelyn Lau (Fresh Girls, 1993) and Hiromi Goto.

Other writers contributing to the variety of voices heard in Canada came from immigrant writers, who wrote, not of assimilation but often of difference. An early contributor is Austin Clarke, originally from Barbados, who has written well for three decades of the dilemmas of immigrant life. His landmark early collection, When He Was Free and Young and He Used to Wear Silks (1971), analyzes the West Indian code of masculinity and its breakdown on the streets of Canada’s big cities. Later collectionsNine Men Who Laughed (1986), In This City (1992), and There Are No Elders (1993) explore similar territory, with unusual prose rhythms in both dialogue and narrative voice. Other more recent writers include the acclaimed Neil Bissoondath, Digging Up the Mountains (1985) and On the Eve of Uncertain Tomorrows (1990), and Rohinton Mistry, whose Tales from Firozsha Baag (1987) chronicle life in the Parsi community in Bombay. Mistry’s story “Swimming Lessons” and Himani Bannerji’s “The Other Family” resemble Clarke’s stories of immigrant life and together with them provide the finest work in this genre. Shyam Selvadurai (Funny Boy, 1994) also writes delicate, well-crafted, realistic stories of initiation and growing up in Sri Lanka. A different modern mood emerges from the short fiction of Dionne Brand (Sans Souci and Other Stories, 1988), whose use of a “tween- dialect,” a merger of standard English and Trinidadian creole, animates her stories of immigrant struggle and violence. Brand’s dark, dreamy vision of life on the seamy side is best sampled in “Blossom: Priestess of Oya, Goddess of Winds, Storms and Waterfalls.”

Other Short-fiction Forms

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There has also been a vital tradition of longer short fiction in Canada. The novella length has occurred in the writing of earlier writers such as Morley Callaghan (A Native Argosy, 1929, contains two novellas), Ethel Wilson (“Tuesday and Wednesday” and “Lilly’s Story,” in The Equations of Love, 1952), Mavis Gallant (“Potter” and “Its Image in the Mirror”), Malcolm Lowry (“The Forest Path to the Spring”), as well as in the exquisite prose pieces of John Metcalf (“Girl in Gingham” and “Private Parts: A Memoir”). Metcalf’s novellas are collected in Shooting the Stars (1993). Also accomplished at this length is Keath Fraser, whose acclaimed Foreign Affairs (1985) and Popular Anatomy (1995) contain complex novellas. A collection of novellas, On Middle Ground, appeared in 1987, containing work by Clark Blaise, Keath Fraser, Mavis Gallant, Malcolm Lowry, John Metcalf, Audrey Thomas, and Ethel Wilson. Additionally, a novella prize is offered by the Malahat Review.

Another feature of current short fiction in Canada is its flirtation with the border between story and essay. Several fine pieces of writing refuse to declare full allegiance with either genre and exhibit the best features of both: the discursive meditation of the essay, as well as the particular event of the story. An early example is Roch Carrier’s essay/story “The Hockey Sweater,” one of the most anthologized pieces from Quebec, which speaks movingly of the anguish of a young fan stuck with a sweater from the opposing team. Drew Hayden Taylor’s “Pretty Like a White Boy: The Adventures of a Blue-Eyed Ojibway” is a humorous anatomy of a hybrid existence; a similar topic in Makeda Silvera’s “Her Head a Village” becomes an elegantly bitchy account of being a black Jamaican-Canadian lesbian mother and author. A more solemn tone distinguishes Rudy Wiebe’s “Where Is the Voice Coming From?” which follows a writer in quest of any fact or artifact that will recapture the life and voice of the Cree warrior Big Bear. The quest leads through museums and archives but ends on a visionary note, as the ‘voice’ of the title comes unbidden to the writer.

An ongoing system of literary awards has helped to foster the boom in short fiction since the 1960’s. The country’s premier literary award—the governor General’s Literary Award—has often filled the fiction category with a volume of short fiction, thus giving a sales boost to a notoriously unprofitable genre. From Hugh Garner’s Best Stories in 1963, two Alice Munro collections (Dance of the Happy Shades, 1968, and The Progress of Love, 1986), the 1995 award to Greg Hollingshead’s robust absurdist tour de force The Roaring Girl (1995) and Schoemperlen’s Forms of Devotion (1998), the award system has strongly supported short fiction. Other prizes also contribute to the genre, notably the Journey Prize (instituted by James Michener). The Journey Prize Anthology contains prize nominees from journals across the country, and its list of prize winners over the last ten years is a useful guide to the fund of new talent in short fiction.

The anthology enterprise keeps remaking the canon of good Canadian short fiction. Important series include Canadian Short Stories and the annual volume The Best Canadian Short Stories. Each of these recognizes established talent in the genre, as well as introducing new directions in short fiction, and are helpful resources for beginning an acquaintance with Canadian short fiction. Anthologists have also responded to the surge in writing from and of the cultural margins with many collections. Other Solitudes: Canadian Multicultural Fictions (1990) varies Hugh MacLennan’s nation-defining formula of “two solitudes” to assert the plurality of experience in contemporary Canada. Also in this genre is Making a Difference: Canadian Multicultural Literature (1996—not exclusively short fiction).

An alternate way of getting to know Canadian short fiction is through film or video. The Canadian Short-Story Video Collection includes versions of about twenty-five stories by notable authors such as Sinclair Ross (“The Painted Door,” “One’s a Heifer”), Alice Munro “Connection”), Ernest Buckler, Margaret Laurence, Hugh Garner, Jack Hodgins, but also excellent adaptations of less well- known stories: Lois Simmie’s “Red Shoes,” David Billington’s “Hotwalker,” Isabel Huggan’s “Jack of Hearts,” and Guy Vanderhaeghe’s “Cages.”


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Gadpaille, Michelle. The Canadian Short Story. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1988. In-depth discussions of individual stories by many of the authors mentioned above, including chapters on Mavis Gallant, Alice Munro, and Margaret Atwood.

Howells, Coral Ann. Contemporary Canadian Women’s Fiction: Refiguring Identities. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. The essays in this collection analyze the shift in Canada’s literary perception of its identity.

New, W. H. Canadian Short Fiction: From Myth to Modern. Scarborough, Ontario: Prentice Hall, 1986. This is a comprehensive anthology with good representation of aboriginal work and nineteenth century writing, as well as sketches and tales. Excellent introduction including notes on short fiction forms, and a chronology. It has particularly good biographical introductions to individual writers.

New, W. H. Dreams of Speech and Violence: The Art of the Short Story in Canada and New Zealand. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1987. Comparative study, including valuable material on the colonial contexts.

The New Oxford Book of Canadian Short Stories in English, edited by Margaret Atwood and Robert Weaver. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1995. A selection of canonical short fiction, excluding that of the nineteenth century and beginning with earlier twentieth century writers such as Thomas Raddall and Ethel Wilson.

The Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature. Edited by Eugene Benson and William Toye. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1997. Includes Robert Weaver’s “Short Stories in English: To 1982”; Geoff Hancock’s “Short Stories in English: 1983 to 1996”; Michel Lord’s ”Short Stories in French.”

The Québec Anthology: 1830-1990, edited by Matt Cohen and Wayne Grady. Ottawa: Ottawa University Press, 1996. This is a good introduction to French Canadian short fiction.

Vauthier, Simone. Reverberations: Explorations in the Canadian Short Story. Concord, Ontario: Anansi, 1993. This is a full-length study of the genre.

Weiss, Allan. A Comprehensive Bibliography of English-Canadian Short Stories: 1950-1983. Toronto: ECW Press, 1988. This is still a good guide for those doing research on earlier Canadian writers and needing to find obscure stories, or dates of first publication.