Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Non-Fiction Sidebar: Canadian Short Story Writers, Mediocrity from Coast to Coast?

   I have written and published exactly one short story (and am, this week, finishing a draft of my second: "The Final Appearance of Victoria Grunt"), so amongst the various labels I do apply to myself "short story writer" doesn't ever come up.
   Still, when I read a review on the weekend, I experienced a twinge of empathy for writers who choose the short story form; and then I felt insulted. I can only imagine how dedicated short story writers reacted when they caught this review.
   Anyhow, the review was a glowing one of Steven Heighton's The Dead Are More Visible. The writer regards Heighton as an author of the "first rank," on par with Joyce, Nabokov, Gallant, and Munro. The praise is no doubt deserved.
   In order to laud Heighton, though, the writer apparently felt compelled to dismiss not only the majority of short story writers in Canada, but also all Canadian universities with creative writing programs, their professors, and their graduates.
   In addition to being incredibly snide and patronizing, the writer's generalizations are equally vague and unsupported. With shopworn critical terminology, he explains how there's a cadre of writers of "first rank" fiction; they belong to a "different league."
   The lumpen rest (forming the other 99% of writers, whom he identifies as "the small army of writers who can jump over the bar of adequacy and win attention and some praise"), meanwhile, are regarded as embodying "[m]iddling competence"; evidently, their singular trait to is "carpenter together serviceable sentences to make a readable story or novel." Meow!
   This reviewer does not cite a single name from this small army of barely adequate writers, nor does he quantify: how, for instance, does fiction of the Olympian first rank differ from the mundane rest?
   Instead, he presents a highly subjective opinion as an empirical fact.

   Here's the relevant paragraph:

   To say Heighton is an immensely talented writer is true enough but insufficient. Thanks to creative writing programs, Canada has many skilled writers who can carpenter together serviceable sentences to make a readable story or novel. Middling competence in fiction is now the Canadian norm and enough to win prizes and even sell a few books. Unfortunately, given the small army of writers who can jump over the bar of adequacy and win attention and some praise, it is forgotten that there is a much smaller cadre of writers who belong to a different league, who write fiction of first rank. If Joyce and Nabokov seem like too distant and foreign as points of comparison, then here is a comparison closer to home: the best stories in this book — the title tale, “Shared Room on Union” and “Nearing the Seas, Superior” — are as good as the fiction of Alice Munro and Mavis Gallant. Or to be more blunt, Heighton is as good a writer as Canada has ever produced.

    A few weeks ago I wrote admiringly about Dale Peck's excoriating review of Rick Moody's work.
   I admire that review not because I also loathe Moody's work, but because Peck has conviction bolstered by evidence. Rather than making a bitchy statement like, "Most American male writers suck," he asserts that there's a genre of American writers he dislikes. He names them, indicates specifically what he believes is flawed with their approach to fiction, and backs up his criticism with concrete examples from their works. Had his review dismissed American fiction writers wholesale as examples of "middling competence," and then failed to support his claim with a single instance of actual evidence, I would have regarded his undertaking a failure and his criticism as, well, fatally botched.

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