Canadian Short Fiction

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Historical Background

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

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

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

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 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...

(The entire section is 6,924 words.)