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.
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.
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.