Ethan Canin Canin, Ethan - Essay


(Short Story Criticism)

Ethan Canin 1960–-

American novelist, short story and novella writer, and editor.

The following entry presents criticism on Canin's short fiction from 1987 through 2000.

Canin is considered a talented and acclaimed short fiction writer. His short stories and novellas are praised for their technical virtuosity, subtlety, and poignancy. Commentators note his adroit exploration of such universal thematic concerns as aging, identity, and the dynamics of family relationships. Although he has written three novels, he is primarily known as a short fiction writer.

Biographical Information

Canin was born on July 19, 1960, in Ann Arbor, Michigan. While a student in a prep high school, Canin received encouragement from his teacher, the popular author Danielle Steel. His first story was published when he was nineteen while he was a student at Stanford University. In 1982 he received his B.A. from Stanford. He was accepted to the prestigious Iowa Writer's Workshop and was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts grant in 1989. After receiving his M.F.A. in 1984, Canin decided to enroll in medical school. When a book editor called to publish a collection of his stories, he put together Emperor of the Air, which appeared in 1988. In 1992 he received his M.D. from Harvard University. Canin continues to write novels and short fiction, has taught creative writing at several universities as a visiting professor, and pursues his medical career.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Canin's reputation as a short fiction writer rests on his two collections: his debut work, Emperor of the Air, which contains nine short stories, and The Palace Thief, which appeared in 1994 and includes four novellas. In Emperor of the Air, Canin introduces themes that will recur throughout his work: marriage, the relationship between fathers and sons, and the impact of familial relationships. In “Emperor of the Air,” an older man refuses the entreaties of his neighbor to cut down an old, majestic elm tree that has become infested with insects. The conflict causes him to reflect on his own life and mortality. “We Are Nighttime Travelers” explores the long marriage of Frank and Francine. When Frank discovers poetry, it allows him to rediscover the love he felt for his wife early in their relationship. “The Year of Getting to Know Us” follows the story of Lenny, who is visiting his father in the hospital. While dealing with his father's death, he reflects on his childhood and how it affected his life. In the title novella from Emperor of the Air, Canin chronicles the life of Mr. Hundert, a respected teacher of classics at an exclusive prep school. As Hundert nears retirement, he is invited to take part in a reenactment of the school's ancient history contest, which is being sponsored by Sedgewick Bell, one of his former students. Now a corporate magnate, Bell cheats during the contest—repeating what he had done as a student. Faced with Sedgewick's cheating and manipulation, Hundert has to face his own limitations as a teacher and as a man. In City of Broken Hearts, an aging father learns something about love and trust from his son. Batorsag and Szerelem investigates the competitive relationship between two brothers, Clive and William. After surmising that his genius older brother's erratic behavior is caused by schizophrenia, William discovers Clive's true secret. When it is accidentally revealed to the rest of the family, the repercussions are far-reaching and unexpected.

Critical Reception

Although Canin is regarded as one of the more proficient and noteworthy American short fiction writers today, there are few extensive critical examinations of his short stories and novellas. Reviewers have taken great pains to differentiate Canin from other popular writers of his generation whose works tend to focus on more controversial and trendy themes. They assert that Canin's work is timeless and universal as it concentrates on such issues as aging, the power of love, and the repercussions of family dependency and rivalry. Critics commend Canin's technical expertise, attention to detail, and the maturity of his narrative voice. Some reviewers have derided his short fiction as uneven, predictable, unemotional, and too technically proficient. Commentators have noted the influence of John Cheever on his work and have investigated the impact of his medical knowledge upon his fiction. Canin has also been discussed within the tradition of Jewish American fiction writers.

Principal Works

(Short Story Criticism)

Emperor of the Air (short stories) 1988

The Palace Thief (novellas) 1994

Blue River (novel) 1991

For Kings and Planets (novel) 1998

Carry Me Across the Water (novel) 2001

William Goldstein (essay date 18 December 1987)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Goldstein, William. “Houghton Mifflin Publishing Stories by Literary Fellowship Winner.” Publishers Weekly 232, no. 25 (18 December 1987): 19-20.

[In the following essay, Goldstein investigates the influence of the popular writer Danielle Steel on Canin's writing career.]

In February, Houghton Mifflin will publish Emperor of the Air, stories by Ethan Canin, winner of a Houghton Mifflin Literary Fellowship. Canin, 27, is a fourth-year medical student at Harvard, and Emperor of the Air, which includes nine stories, is his first book. All the stories have been published in magazines, including the Atlantic, Esquire, Ploughshares and Redbook. In fact, every story that Canin has written since the age of 19 has been published. Two of his stories were included in Best American Short Stories collections published by Houghton Mifflin in 1985 (edited by Gale Godwin) and 1986 (edited by Raymond Carver).

Houghton Mifflin cited Canin's stories for their plot and characters—“a young boy who can't bring himself to nab a thief in his parents' store, a retired couple discovering each other's love for a second time. He has charted the familiar territory of fathers and sons and the complicated geometry between husbands and wives with compassion beyond his 27 years,” says the publisher. Walker Percy, in an advance comment on Canin's work, called the stories in Emperor [Emperor of the Air], “dazzling—at times breathtaking—at other times heartbreaking.”

An earlier appraisal of Canin's work was given 10 years ago by his high school writing teacher, Danielle Steel. In 1977, she wrote:

Ethan has an extraordinary gift for writing. His work is nothing short of marvelous, crystal clear, perfect in nuance, adept in delivery. He has a gift and uses it well.

However, other than his apparent ease in spinning up stories, he contributed far less to the writing class than I would have hoped. He is easily distracted by his friends, and one must constantly peel his attention from other endeavors. I think because the writing does come so easily to him, or so well in any case, he has little interest in “experiencing” the class. He almost always refused to read and share his work with the others, who could have learned so much from him. And his presence in class assured us of a constant flow of chatter (non-class related) from the back row. His effort was less than glowing.

But his work is exceptional. Really, really splendid, and I hope that he keeps the gift well, and uses it one day with a bit of awe and seriousness. I've rarely read such good work—from writers twice his age. His poetry is extraordinary, and his quick deft style paints a story in bold strokes, with great splashes of color. He writes...

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Sybil Steinberg (review date 25 December 1987)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Steinberg, Sybil. Review of Emperor of the Air, by Ethan Canin. Publishers Weekly 232, no. 26 (25 December 1987): 61.

[In the following laudatory review of Emperor of the Air, Steinberg asserts that Canin “informs a technical expertise with a keen sense of the dynamics of the human psyche.”]

Canin's outstanding debut [Emperor of the Air], winner of a Houghton Mifflin Literary Fellowship, gathers nine stories originally published in the Atlantic, Esquire and Ploughshares, among others; two were selected for the Best American Short Stories 1985 and 1986. At 27, the gifted author, a Harvard Medical School student who was a creative writing instructor and an Iowa Review editor, informs a technical expertise with a keen sense of the dynamics of the human psyche. His far-reaching vision encompasses “The Year of Getting to Know Us,” where the protagonist recognizes in himself aspects of his father's disturbing uncommunicativeness, and “American Beauty,” where a teenager cannot escape his bitter older brother's grim prescription of life's inevitabilities: “You're going to turn into a son of a bitch, just like me.” Several of the marvelous tales showcase love's singular, redemptive powers: an elderly couple revives their comatose relationship in “We Are Nighttime Travelers”; a daughter bribes a guard to release her mother who is caught shoplifting in “Pitch Memory”; and a straight-arrow husband lies for his wife in “Where We Are Now.” With a fine attention to detail, Canin continually surprises readers as he casts the mundane in new light (for example, the young narrator of “Star Food” unloads bags of potato chips in their aluminum racks “as if I were putting children to sleep in their beds”).

Jonathan Yardley (review date 20 January 1988)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Yardley, Jonathan. “Canin's Mature Miracles.” Book World—The Washington Post (20 January 1988): C2.

[In the following review, Yardley considers Emperor of the Air to be an auspicious debut.]

For this slender volume of short stories, Ethan Canin, a 27-year-old student at Harvard Medical School, has been awarded a Houghton Mifflin Literary Fellowship: an honor bestowed irregularly by the Boston publisher to a notable first work of fiction. The prize, which consists of a generous cash award and publication of the work by Houghton Mifflin, has gone to a number of writers who went on to distinguished careers, among them Robert Penn Warren, Elizabeth...

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Raymond Sokolov (review date 16 February 1988)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Sokolov, Raymond. “Getting to Know Him.” Wall Street Journal (16 February 1988): E34.

[In the following favorable review of Emperor of the Air, Sokolov notes that Canin's stories center on the dynamics within families.]

Houghton Mifflin, the distinguished Boston publisher, has been pleased to announce the award of a Houghton Mifflin Literary Fellowship to the distinguished young writer Ethan Canin. No doubt, Houghton Mifflin has also been pleased by the generally amorous reaction to the book of stories it has just published by Mr. Canin, Emperor of the Air. Mr. Canin himself is on record that he is pleased with what he and a recent interviewer...

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David Gurewich (essay date 21 March 1988)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Gurewich, David. “Breaking Away from the Brat Pack.” The New Leader 71, no. 5 (21 March 1988): 21-2.

[In the following positive assessment of Emperors of the Air, Gurewich suggests that Canin's writing is too technically proficient.]

In the title story of this collection [Emperor of the Air], a 69-year-old retired high school teacher, childless and recently recovered from a myocardial infarction, tries to protect a 250-year-old diseased elm from his next-door neighbor's efforts to have it cut down. The tone is calm, deliberate: “… though I have thought otherwise, I now think that hope is the essence of all good men.” The struggle causes...

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Sven Birkerts (essay date 1992)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Birkerts, Sven. “Ethan Canin/Mona Simpson/Brett Easton Ellis/Jill Eisenstadt.” In American Energies, pp. 374-79. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1992.

[In the following excerpt, Birkerts delineates the defining characteristics of the stories in Canin's short story collection Emperor of the Air.]

According to a recent profile in Publishers Weekly, twenty-seven-year-old Ethan Canin has published every story he's written since the age of nineteen—most of them in prestigious journals like Esquire, Atlantic, and Ploughshares. Yet his debut volume, Emperor of the Air, contains only nine stories. Either Canin refused to...

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(review date 22 November 1993)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Review of The Palace Thief, by Ethan Canin. Publishers Weekly 240, no. 47 (22 November 1993): 48.

[In the following review, the critic offers a favorable assessment of the novellas comprising The Palace Thief.]

Canin, whose short-story collection Emperor of the Air was justly feted, as his novel Blue River was not, here [in The Palace Thief] offers four brilliant longer stories, each seamlessly structured and with prose and characters to linger over. The book's ostensible theme is Heraclitus's observation that character is fate, which is all well and good until we try to understand the meaning of either term. Take Mr. Hundert, the...

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(review date 15 December 1993)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Review of The Palace Thief, by Ethan Canin. Kirkus Reviews 41, no. 24 (15 December 1993): 1539.

[In the following unfavorable review of The Palace Thief, the anonymous critic asserts that the four novellas in the collection are devoid of “the small flashes of humaneness and helpless knowledge” that make Canin's debut collection, Emperor of the Air, outstanding.]

Canin's return to short fiction [The Palace Thief] should be a cause for welcome—yet isn't, disappointingly.

In four adipose, rhetorical, quite forced long stories, he continues—as in his unfortunate last book, the novel Blue River (1991)—to...

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Peter D. Kramer (review date 17 February 1994)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Kramer, Peter D. “Riches in the Doctor's Bag.” Book World—The Washington Post (17 February 1994): C2.

[In the following review, Kramer contends that The Palace Thief “constitutes a broadening of literary scope for a writer of enormous talent and charm.”]

Chekhov, Bulgakov, Maugham, Celine, William Carlos Williams, Walker Percy. For the physician-author the question is always whether he will be one more “doctor who writes” or whether he will join the select group of writers who are also doctors.

Ethan Canin, then a medical student, now a resident, made an acclaimed debut in 1988 with the story collection Emperor of the...

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Gail Caldwell (review date 27 February 1994)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Caldwell, Gail. “The Delicate Wisdom of Ethan Canin.” The Boston Globe (27 February 1994): A14.

[In the following mixed review of The Palace Thief, Caldwell argues that the only real weakness in the volume “is a lack of range, rather than depth; each of these stories stands tall alone, but a familiarity seeps in by the end of the collection that tugs at the hem—it's as though you've watched an exquisite performance, the same exquisite performance, done again and again.”]

One of the litmus tests for a writer of substance is that, once summoned, the name evokes a certain literary memory: Fitzgerald with his lonely, high-priced wisdom, say, or...

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Wendy Brandmark (review date 4 March 1994)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Brandmark, Wendy. “Awful Daring.” New Statesman & Society 7, no. 292 (4 March 1994): 40.

[In the following positive review of The Palace Thief, Brandmark maintains that what makes Canin “an exceptional writer rather than just a clever one is his combination of wit, compassion and moral seriousness.”]

Ethan Canin writes about men of quiet desperation. Each of these four novellas [in The Palace Thief] reaches its epiphany in the hero's moment of folly or dishonesty, when he realises that the flaw in his character that allowed him this small rebellion is “so large that it cannot properly be called a flaw but my character itself.”...

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Mary F. Pols (review date 6 March 1994)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Pols, Mary F. “‘Palace’ a Satisfying Quartet.” The Seattle Times (6 March 1994): F2.

[In the following review, Pols commends the haunting novellas collected in The Palace Thief.]

Ethan Canin is a publisher's dream. He's young (33), handsome, went to the best schools (Stanford, Harvard), and he has an interesting second career—medicine—giving him credibility beyond the coffeehouse.

Then there is his talent, which is considerable, and apparently not as fleeting as some had feared. His entrancing debut collection of stories, Emperor of the Air rode the bestseller list in 1988, but his first novel, Blue River, fared less...

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R. C. Scott (review date 13 March 1994)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Scott, R. C. “Fictional Stethoscope on Human Condition.” Book World—The Washington Times (13 March 1994): B7.

[In the following review, Scott regards the novellas in The Palace Thief as engaging and provocative and compares them to the work of Anton Chekhov.]

“Medicine is my lawful wife,” wrote Anton Chekov to his publisher Aleksey Suvorin, “and literature my mistress.” Suvorin had been trying to persuade Chekov to give up doctoring in favor of writing, but the doctor could not be made to abandon his belief in his ability to reduce human suffering. Neither could he forsake his writing. In addition to the plays, he wrote 588 short stories...

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Joanne Kaufman (essay date 22 March 1994)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Kaufman, Joanne. “Doctor, Author, Hunk All Rolled into One.” The Wall Street Journal (22 March 1994): A12.

[In the following essay, Kaufman provides a brief overview of Canin's life and career.]

A young woman recently called Random House pleading for a set of the galleys of Ethan Canin's The Palace Thief. If no galleys were available of this second collection of stories by the critically acclaimed, bestselling author of Emperor of the Air (1988), then how about an advance bound copy of the book or a press release? “Or maybe,” she added hopefully, “a toenail clipping or a hair follicle?”

Mr. Canin is 33 years old and a...

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Jon Saari (review date summer 1994)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Saari, Jon. Review of The Palace Thief, by Ethan Canin. The Antioch Review 52, no. 3 (summer 1994): 530-31.

[In the following review, Saari offers a favorable assessment of The Palace Thief.]

Canin's four stories [in The Palace Thief] are novella-length and formally distinctive. The style is deceptively postmodern, pointing back to the classic fiction of John Cheever while clearly springing from a contemporary sensibility. This trick is a neat one, and Canin pulls it off. The magic comes from the directness of the prose and everyday settings. How can men so easy to dislike hold the secret to philosophical questions? Life is a game of cat and mouse...

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Victoria Aarons (essay date 1999)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Aarons, Victoria. “Ancient Acts of Love and Betrayal: Ethan Canin's ‘Batorsag and Szerelem’.” Modern Jewish Studies 11 (1999): 15-36.

[In the following essay, Aarons investigates the central thematic concerns of Canin's novella Batorsag and Szerelem.]

“Deliver me, I pray, from the hand of my brother.”

(Genesis 32:12)

Ethan Canin, author of the novels Blue River (1991) and For Kings and Planets (1998), as well as two collections of short stories, Emperor of the Air (1988) and The Palace Thief (1994), has, to date, escaped serious scholarly attention....

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Ethan Canin with Lewis Burke Frumkes (interview date May 2000)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Canin, Ethan with Lewis Burke Frumkes. “A Conversation with Ethan Canin.” The Writer 113, no. 5 (May 2000): 19-21.

[In the following interview, Canin discusses how his medical knowledge affects his fiction, the origins of the stories in Emperor of the Air, and his creative process.]

[Frumkes]: Ethan Canin, whose most recent novel, For Kings and Planets, is published by Random House, is widely regarded as one of our finest writers. For Kings and Planets is an extraordinary coming-of-age story. I want to begin by asking where the title comes from.

[Canin]: One of the characters in the novel, Orno Tarcher, is a...

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Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)


Goodale, Gloria. “It's Just One Little Test, Isn't It?” The Christian Science Monitor (22 November 2002): 16.

Discusses the ethical issues in The Emperor's Club, the film adaptation of Canin's “The Palace Thief.”

Klein, Sarah A. “A Novel Specialty.” American Medical News 42, no. 36 (27 September 1999): 7.

Considers the impact of Canin's medical career and training on his fiction.

Additional coverage of Canin's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 131, 135; Contemporary Literary...

(The entire section is 83 words.)