Shortcuts: a new National Post column on short fiction

January 4, 2013 by · 2 Comments 

Longtime readers of TSR will be familiar with my affinity for short fiction, and my oft-repeated contention that Canada ranks as one of the most fertile literary fields for this particular genre. Yet, despite boasting a wealth of talent, the reading public seems to shy away from short fiction for reasons that continue to elude me.

In a post for the cultural website Lemon Hound early last fall, I bemoaned the lack of attention stories and collections of short fiction receive in this country:

[There exists] 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 worst 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.

Although this general disdain is frustrating, I’ve been trying to do my bit to spotlight the form, via the annual 31 Days of Stories on this site, and in writing for the National Post, Quill & Quire, Lemon Hound, and elsewhere. (When I was asked to choose my favourite books from 2012 for Quill, three-fifths of them were short-story collections.)

Wide World in Celebration and SorrowSo when Mark Medley, the Books editor at the National Post, e-mailed to ask if I’d be interested in undertaking a monthly column dedicated to Canadian short fiction, it took me all of about five seconds to say yes.

Called “Shortcuts,” the column debuts today on the Post‘s Afterword blog. It features a double review of two veterans of the CanLit trenches: Leon Rooke and Seán Virgo. Here’s a taste of the inaugural column:

Over the course of a writing career spanning the last four-and-a-half decades, and employing influences that run the gamut from Italian Renaissance art to the Southern Gothic of William Faulkner, Leon Rooke has determinedly been crafting one of the most idiosyncratic bodies of work in this country. If the house of CanLit has many mansions, Rooke’s is the one with the gargoyles on the turret.

This devotion to a ruggedly individual literary vision (it should come as no surprise that Rooke was born and raised in the United States – Roanoke Rapids, N.C., to be precise) results in writing that will, depending upon one’s temperament and pioneer spirit, appear bracingly original or frustratingly oblique. In any event, it is probably not incorrect to refer to Rooke’s fiction as an acquired taste. Once the taste has been acquired, however, devotees have learned to relish it, hungrily devouring each new work – and they run the gamut from novellas to poems to stage and radio plays – if for no other reason than to discover what unexpected combination of flavours the author will attempt to pull off next.

I’m very grateful to Mark and the Post for providing the opportunity to shine a light on short fiction in Canada, and am looking forward to what is sure to be provocative, challenging, and entertaining reading in the months ahead. I hope you’ll join me.

31 Days of Short Stories 2010, Day 22: “How to Write a Successful Short Story” by Leon Rooke

May 22, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

From The Last Shot

In his spirited defence of Leon Rooke’s 2009 story collection for The Afterword’s Canada Also Reads project, poet Jacob McArthur Mooney crafted what could be considered a manifesto for those of us who want to see our literary culture break out of its moribund stasis and embrace in a concerted way those artists who work on the fringes:

What I’d like is a reading (and reviewing) culture that values the wildchilds, the impossibility merchants and the avant-garde as partners in a community of bibliophiles that sees a vibrant and replenishing fringe as necessary to a vibrant and replenishing middle. Our imaginative country is well-represented by artists we export from other literary genres (including speculative fiction, with folks like John Clute and William Gibson, who shares Rooke’s status as an American-born Canadian-by-choice) and in other art forms, from our spacey rock ’n’ roll to our visceral cinematic imaginers at the fringe (David Cronenberg) and centre (James Cameron) of international film. Maybe we already have an imaginative country, and we just need one that’s willing to own that imagination.

The author of more than 300 short stories, Leon Rooke has spent his career toiling as one of Canada’s “impossibility merchants.” Unlike Ray Smith, whose writing in late-career novels like The Man Who Loved Jane Austen strayed into more conventional territory, Rooke has remained almost defiantly on the postmodern outskirts, playing and testing and experimenting, determined to chart the outer limits of the short story form.

As is apparent from its title, “How to Write a Successful Short Story” is an exercise in postmodern playfulness. Its central figure is a 23-year-old aspiring writer who has consulted a how-to book by a man named Fink, a creative writing guru who the narrator thinks will teach him how to write a good short story “before the sun goes down.”

Books purporting to teach aspirants how to write fiction are so plentiful that they have become a genre unto themselves, and Rooke has a great deal of fun sending up the clichés and conventional wisdom contained in the vast majority of them. Fink’s book is replete with useless platitudes, all presented in assertive boldface: “Start Your Fiction with a Bang“; “Write What You Know“; “Make Your Characters Attractive“; “Be Unique Without Being Eccentric.” The opening of a story should “hit you in the gut” and should grab the reader “like a hand at the throat.” Fink advises writers to “Zap those metaphors” and “holds no truck” with minimalist writers such as Mary Robison, Frederick Barthelme, or Raymond Carver, whose stories do not come to a definitive end, instead giving the impression that “the author just quits the story when he’s tired of it or his brain has gone dead.” Rooke, who is closer in spirit to the three writers Fink professes to hate than to the kind of writer Fink advocates his readers they should become, is having a bit of a laugh here; there is a not-so-subtle skewering of complacent, formula fiction taking place throughout this story. It is telling that Fink (note the name) “has toiled countless thousands of hours making his very popular stories”: the measure of a story’s success, for Fink, is popularity, not literary achievement.

Rooke plays with Fink’s methods and advice to great comic effect:

Keep your paragraphs short, Fisk says [sic].

Okay.

Or elsewhere:

A successful narrative, Fink asserts, must be seamless, must be fluid. A tactic a pro frequently finds useful is to plop a star (*) onto the page. This indicates a line break. The line break serves to inform the reader that a passage of time has occurred, to expect an alteration in point of view, or angle, another plot loop, etc. Usually what it indicates to me is that the writer is stymied, his wife is making him walk the dog, or the schmuck has got up to refresh his drink.

This paragraph is, of course, followed by an editorial space (complete with star) and a shift in scene.

However, although Rooke pokes fun at the conventions of writing manuals, his narrative also tugs against Fink’s rules in more subtle ways. Despite the advice to keep paragraphs short, Rooke includes several lengthy paragraphs, one of which runs to almost a page and a half. When Fink advises that conflict is essential in any narrative, the narrator launches into a description of his difficult relationship with his father, who referred to his son as “Asshole” and abandoned him when he was 13:

Leaving me at home to rot, which was reason enough, I thought, to hot-wire his cars and break into the pantry where he hid away his hooch. Not to mention the little fire we had around then, thee acres gone up in flames, the addition over the garage where he had put in his weight room, the games room, all that gone. Nor to dwell on my dope days, my B&E period, how I got hold of his bank PIN to raid his private treasury, them down there in Wahoo living he goldenrod life. Me, too, zipping about in his red Porsche until I wrapped it around a tree, all but deliberately, I would say, and owing to the presence of some heavy dust.

Rooke allows the character of the narrator to reveal itself in the way he attempts to put Fink’s advice into practice; the irony, of course, is that Rooke’s narrative schema is diametrically opposed to the writing instructor’s populist approach.

Nevertheless, there is a human heart to this story, and scenes that are genuinely affecting. Rooke is not so focused on his postmodern technical games that he forgets his characters; as Mooney asserts, “Rooke’s circuitous and mesmerizing structures aren’t means to avoid the human imperative at the heart of good stories but rather means to find new routes for exploring that humanity. Leon Rooke and Alice Munro, in the end, have the same aspirations.” In pursuit of those aspirations, Rooke has remained the literary wildchild, one of Canada’s unrepentant impossibility merchants. And for that, we can all be grateful.

Why Canada Also Reads has restored my faith, or, the one in which yr. humble correspondent shoots himself in the foot

March 5, 2010 by · 3 Comments 

Ever have one of those weeks that just get you down? I mean down, man, like wanting-to-crush-jagged-shards-of-glass-into-your-eyes down? That’s the week that I’ve just endured. It happens to all of us, I realize, but there are times at which I feel in my bones that the Philistines will always prevail, that quality of thought and craft count for nothing, and that there’s no point in carrying on trying to make some small difference in my little corner of the world.

Imagine my elation, then, to dial up The Afterword and read Jacob McArthur Mooney’s defence of his chosen title for Canada Also Reads, Leon Rooke’s story collection, The Last Shot. “What I’d like is for this to be a slightly more imaginative country,” Mooney writes, and if he had seen fit to leave it there, that would have been enough for me. (Honestly, Jake, you had me at “imaginative.”) But it ain’t enough for Mooney:

What I’d like is a reading (and reviewing) culture that values the wildchilds, the impossibility merchants, and the avant-garde as partners in a community of bibliophiles that sees a vibrant and replenishing fringe as necessary to a vibrant and replenishing middle. Our imaginative country is well-represented by artists we export from other literary genres (including speculative fiction, with folks like John Clute and William Gibson, who shares Rooke’s status as an American-born Canadian-by-choice) and in other art forms, from our spacey rock ’n’ roll to our visceral cinematic imaginers at the fringe (David Cronenberg) and centre (James Cameron) of international film. Maybe we already have an imaginative country, and we just need one that’s willing to own that imagination. Luckily for us, this is a cause that can actually be helped in a literary popularity contest. It gives us an opportunity to say what we already know to be true. That this is an imaginative country worth exploring. And that the people who have mapped its limits deserve to be remembered.

Amen, brother, amen. I’m even willing to forgive the reference to James Cameron. And though it may seem foolish to endorse the ideas of someone who is in putative competition with me, Canada Also Reads never seemed to be about which of the eight titles comes out on top. It’s more about remembering people who have mapped the limits of our imagination. Thanks for the reminder, and for restoring a little bit of my faith.