Kay vs. Laidlaw, how to structure a story collection, and other subjects that have pissed me off recently

July 16, 2009 by · 1 Comment 

Yr. humble correspondent is in a punchy mood. Perhaps it’s a result of the cold meds, perhaps the combined stress that accrues to a runaway train of impending deadlines, perhaps the spectre of the upcoming awards season, which promises yet another swamp of soporific pablum to wade through. Whatever the cause, it seems that lately I can’t read much book-related news without winding myself up into a state of high dudgeon. Witness:

1. Katherine Laidlaw at the National Post recently responded to a column by Post writer Barbara Kay, which was itself a response to Laidlaw’s “gushy” profile of Lisa Moore, part of the promotion around the publication of Moore’s second novel, February. Laidlaw’s profile includes the following sentence: “Moore is clear about one thing: This is a book about vulnerable, irrepressible love, and what it feels like to have that torn away.” That sentence is enough to send Kay – who admits that Laidlaw’s profile “smothered – rather than aroused” her interest in reading February – on a tear about the ills of CanLit:

I’m chary about experimenting with any Canadian author who gets a good review, especially for a novel that’s up for the Giller Prize. I’ve been burned several times by Giller-endorsed, but virtually unreadable CanLit. They’re all jumbled together in memory as feminized paeans to a sepulchral past, mired in poetically lyrical, but navel-gazing narrative stasis. So I tend to view boosterish reviews of this genre through a cynical lens.


Welcome to the unrelenting self-regard of CanLit, where it’s all about nobly suffering women or feminized men: men immobilized in situations of physical, psychological, or economic impotence (that is when they’re not falling through the ice and nearly drowning), rather than demonstrating manly courage in risk-taking or heroic mode.

To which Laidlaw responds, in part:

It is introspection and deep character exploration that make Canadian literature a worthy, albeit divisive, genre. Without the reflection of characters scarred by traumatic events, such as war, depression, natural disasters and genocide, to name a few, Canadian literature would lose its essence, not to mention its most celebrated authors.

I suspect Ms. Kay’s definition of CanLit as “navel-gazing narrative stasis” will not sit well with Michael Ondaatje, Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, or Ms. Kay’s readers, many of whom I dare say support our country’s literature.

Laidlaw accuses Kay of not reading Moore’s novel, which is fair comment, if true. Of course, Kay doesn’t admit to not having read the book; she merely says that her interest was “smothered” by Laidlaw’s piece. (Yr. humble correspondent has had his interest in any number of novels smothered by profiles or reviews, then has gone on to read the books, for any number of reasons. Some of them have even surprised me by being enjoyable.) Still, Kay’s argument about noble suffering characterized by “paeans to a sepulchral past, mired in poetically lyrical, but navel-gazing narrative stasis” seems to be a fairly accurate thumbnail of much CanLit. True, this description would not sit well with the authors Laidlaw names in her rejoinder, but that doesn’t make it any less precise.

What is nettlesome, however, is the peevishness that seems to accrue to both sides in this – admittedly, rather trivial – dispute. Kay, for her part, can’t conceive of a novel about an oil rig disaster that doesn’t focus on the men immediately involved in the tragedy. (For her, Mary Swan’s novel The Boys in the Trees, which circles around the massacre of a family but never treats the crime directly, would probably not be satisfying fiction either.) Laidlaw responds to Kay by unleashing a petulant, ad hominem attack that ends with her speculating that she’d withhold an invite to a hypothetical book club, “lest [Kay] become emotional at the very thought of our discussion.” Which probably sits just fine with Kay, but doesn’t contribute much to the literary discussion.

2. BookFox recently published an article titled “Ten Guidelines for Structuring a Short Story Collection,” which offers such Writing School 101 bromides as “put your best stories at the beginning” (later contradicted by the suggestion that stories be ordered according to the “logic” of an hourglass, Möbius strip, or musical improvisation structure), ensure that the last story “open[s] the book out,” and order stories with overlapping characters alongside one another (thank God no one ever told that to this guy).

As a whole, this list is a bluerpint for a kind of bland, paint-by-numbers approach to short fiction. The fact of the matter is, authors are free to structure their collections any damn way they please. Some employ a musical, point-counterpoint structure, some (like Joyce Carol Oates) prefer to structure their collections thematically, and some use a pattern (spiral, chronological, circular, etc.) as a structure. Telling a writer to put the novella at the end because a reader won’t be prepared for its length is ridiculous.

But it’s suggestion number eight that really steams my asparagus: “Here’s another piece of advice from Daniyal Mueenuddin: ‘The first story … should be bright and immediately appealing.’ Bright is key – you don’t want a super-depressing story to launch the collection. You also want one that appeals to the largest demographic (that is, if you want people to continue reading.)” Jesus wept. That’s right Faulkner, O’Connor, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Poe, and Hemingway: if you want people to keep reading, make sure the first story in your collection is a cheery one. Otherwise, your work will never survive.

3. The folks at Quirk Books, apparently bolstered by the success of their Jane Austen/zombie mash-up, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, have announced another title in what threatens to become a series. Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters is set to publish on September 15, which just happens to be the same day that The Lost Symbol, Dan Brown’s sequel to the Da Vinci Code, drops (such is the hubris that 600,000+ print runs can engender).

Yr. humble correspondent thought that P&P&Z was a nifty concept undone by a sloppy execution; it never occurred to me that it might be the book that launched a thousand mash-ups. The mind boggles at the possibilities: Silas Marner and the Sasquatch; The Woman in White and Werewolves; Anna Karenina and Aliens; Tom Jones vs. Jason. (Okay, I might be convinced to pick up that last one.)

But surely this is a fad with an extremely short shelf-life. It was amusing the first time (conceptually, at least), but how long can the “series” possibly drag out before the law of diminishing returns inevitably kicks in?