Panning for Gold: The Fate of Short Fiction in a Novelistic World

I was recently sent a self-published collection of stories. The author of this collection had published previously, and been reviewed favourably. The new collection had been submitted to numerous publishers, I was told, but although the reaction to the quality of the writing was generally positive, no one was willing to publish the book, because short stories were deemed too difficult to sell in the current marketplace.

This tidbit is anecdotal and second-hand, but it lends credence to a general perception that short stories are considered, by publishers and readers alike, the redheaded stepchildren of CanLit. This is frankly baffling, especially considering the pedigree short fiction has in this country. Mavis Gallant and Alice Munro are both Canadian short-fiction writers (though, granted, the former hasn’t lived here for over fifty years), and I defy anyone to name a stronger living practitioner of the form. Beyond those two, a partial list of top-rank Canadian short-story writers past and present should be enough to make most readers sit up and take notice: Norman Levine, Clark Blaise, Mark Anthony Jarman, Caroline Adderson, Rebecca Rosenblum, Bill Gaston, Sharon English, Andrew Hood, Matthew Shaw, Carol Windley, Leon Rooke, Diane Schoemperlen, Zsuzsi Gartner, Steven Heighton, Donald Ward, Gloria Sawai, Alexander MacLeod, Michael Christie, Terry Griggs, Ray Smith. Some of these writers alternate between short fiction and novels, but the strength of their shorter works is comparable to the best of what is being produced anywhere in the world.

Yet time and again I’ve heard readers complain they don’t enjoy short stories, which are too difficult, or not long enough to really immerse oneself in and get to know the characters. This latter objection has always struck me at best as obviously wrong, and at worse little more than a lazier way of expressing the former. But publishers know their market, and by and large avoid publishing collections they know will not make much of a dent at the cash register.

Even some writers have apparently come to this conclusion. Lisa Moore, whose strongest work has always been in the short-fiction genre, appears to have disavowed the form altogether. (This despite the fact that her second collection, Open, was shortlisted for the Giller Prize in 2002.) Her previous two books have both been novels, as is her new one, scheduled for summer 2013. Michael Winter, another powerful short story writer, hasn’t published a collection of stories since One Last Good Look in 1999. (Maybe it’s a Newfoundland thing.)

This year has been an especially strong one for short fiction, though you wouldn’t know it from glancing at the bestseller lists or the shortlists for major fiction awards. Munro’s Dear Life is an outlier – she’s a perennial bestseller, and her book was released too late in the year to qualify for award consideration. But 2012 has also seen the appearance of strong collections from John Vigna, Anne Fleming, Andrew Hood, Emma Donoghue, Heather Birrell, Spencer Gordon, and Tamas Dobozy. (The last is the exception that proves the rule: a collection of linked stories about the psychic and physical wounds inflicted by the Soviet siege of Budapest in 1944, Dobozy’s collection, Siege 13, was shortlisted for the Governor General’s Literary Award and won the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize.) One of this year’s bona fide fiction celebrities was Alix Ohlin, whose novel Inside was a word-of-mouth success and found its way onto literary prize lists. How many people know that she also had a collection of stories, Signs and Wonders, out simultaneously? And that it was arguably better than the novel? I rest my case.

One of the books of the year, as far as I’m concerned, is Alice Petersen’s sublime collection All the Voices Cry, which came and went in the spring with nary a whimper. The stories are subtle, told in precise language, and packed with meaning and resonance. So much in Petersen’s stories occurs beneath the surface, or outside the obvious frame of reference, that a reader is still discovering new and fascinating implications after a third or fourth reading. Perhaps this is part of the problem: Petersen refuses to hold her reader’s hand or to offer signposts denoting significant details or events. Her stories are minimalist in the way Hemingway’s are identified (sometimes erroneously) as being. She demands active participation on the part of the reader, and although her stories are short (rarely longer than ten pages), they are never slight.

Another collection that seemed to disappear without a trace was Yasuko Thanh’s debut, Floating Like the Dead. This is even more inexplicable than with Petersen, since the title story in Thanh’s collection won the 2009 Journey Prize and her publisher, McClelland & Stewart, is not exactly a minor industry player. Her stories, about displacement and the search for some sense of belonging or acceptance, are lusher than Petersen’s and cleave more closely to a familiar fictional template. Yet the fate of Thanh’s book was the same as Petersen’s: it appeared (briefly) on store shelves – often spine out – was reviewed sporadically, and then vanished.

Both collections are the equal of any major novel published in Canada this year, and are in fact superior to most of them. That readers have failed to notice these two books, and other strong collections like them, is distressing. However, now that the sound and fury that attends the annual CanLit fall award frenzy has died down, there is an opportunity for discovery. If readers were to take a chance on one of this year’s strong story collections, they might not only be made aware of just how good this country’s short-fiction writers are, they might also help counter the notion that short stories are a mug’s game for publishers and booksellers alike.

Steven W. Beattie is a regular contributor to Lemon Hound.

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