Come away from the hearth, little Cinderella genre! Wipe the smuts from your misunderstood face. This was your year – 2013! – when you were actually invited to the most important balls and everyone, I mean everyone, wanted to dance with you.
“Alice Munro’s Nobel Gives an Unloved Genre its Long-awaited Due,” ran the headline for Russell Smith’s Globe and Mail story on October 12th. He called the prize for Munro “a win for short stories themselves.” And that wasn’t your only triumph! Lynn Coady’s fabulous collection Hellgoing scooped up the Giller Prize! But wait, my unloved one. Perhaps things aren’t as magical as they seem. Yes, Coady’s stories were also on the Rogers Writers’ Trust Prize shortlist. But only four story collections have ever been awarded the coveted Giller and two of those were by Alice Munro. If we assume Munro can take home any prize she wants, that gives short fiction a 2:17 chance. Furthermore, Alice Munro is the only writer of exclusively short fiction who has ever won a Nobel.
The odds are worsening for you, little one.
So why doesn’t my favourite literary form fare better on prize lists? 2013 was the year I decided to puzzle it out, a task made easier by the fact that I was a juror for the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. My conclusion is three-fold.
First, there is the problem of time. Stories are short, but they aren’t fast. A good story requires that you to build a little chapel around it and sit there awhile in quiet contemplation. You may read a story in twenty minutes, but then you have to think about it for hours, or days, or, in the case of Munro, or Chekhov, or Mavis Gallant, a lifetime. This is not conducive to a reading schedule of a jury member, which requires you to “consider” 115 books in nine months.
But why is this special contemplation necessary? Because – and this is reason number two – short stories, with their narrative compression and their reliance on imagery, rhythm and repetition, are essentially language-driven, like poetry. No one reads poetry fast. But the traditional novel – the kind that usually wins the prizes – is a scene-driven, dramatic form with built-in profluence that the keeps the reader turning the pages all the way to the climax. It can be read quickly. If we want to give short fiction a chance, we need to unskew our prize categories. Group short fiction with poetry or, better yet, give short stories their own Giller or Griffin.
Which brings me to the third reason stories tend to be underrepresented when laurels are handed out. No one would dream of putting a non-poet on a poetry jury. But a fiction jury may lack a story writer. Without a passionate champion, someone who has struggled with the form from the inside, who knows how essential it is to sit inside that chapel – good luck little form! I read many excellent collections this year. Here are some of the ones I’m still contemplating.
Lynn Coady’s Hellgoing. Please see the Rogers Writers’ Trust Jury Citation for my full gush of remarks.
Shaena Lambert gets to wear the Miss Munro Successor sash for Oh, My Darling. The wit is there, and the technical similarities (oh, those virtuoso time shifts!). Like Munro’s, the stories are so complex they simply vibrate with mystery. Read, for example, A Small Haunting and try to forget it.
Douglas Glover, the mad genius of Can Lit, came out with Savage Love, a grab bag of everything the form can do, in turns hilarious, intriguing and truly chilling. Intellectual pleasures abound just by recognizing the playful way Glover gives the nod to Borges, Thomas Bernhard, Cormac McCarthy. But Glover also seizes your soul. At the end of Tristiana, his McCarthyesque tale of a 19th century murderous duo roaming the American West, I scrawled in pencil, “I will never recover...”
The mournful, aching stories in Kelli Deeth’s The Other Side of Youth play both sides of womanhood – girls mired in the banality of suburban adolescence, adult women struggling with childlessness or empty marriages. Her layers of imagery build exact, poetic worlds. As in, “The house was quiet and dark, a tomb with pictures on the walls.” Or this, “I listened for coyotes, their ragged voices, the unloved wild.”
In red girl rat boy Cynthia Flood has pared her style down to a clipped staccato that is at first jarring, then mesmerizing. How does she scrape the narrative so close to the bone, yet still manage to emotionally engage the reader? Because she’s a master, carefully maximizing the potential of each word. Her description of a leopard escaping into a forest: “Her dapples soared to another tree. Her front claws nailed the bark as her tail curled and her hind-quarters swung up to complete a perfect leap that went on, and on, as patterned brightness lasts under closed lids.” Poetry.
Elisabeth de Mariaffi manages in How to Get Along with Women to lower the reader straight into the lives of others. The accrual of small details, the utterly true things her characters say – true as in both Truth (about life and love), and the naturalness of her dialogue – make the reader feel simultaneously uncomfortable and privileged, as though we’re overhearing a stranger’s deepest secrets. This remarkable debut collection was longlisted for the Giller Prize, for good reason.
Other collections have also stayed with me: Nancy Jo Cullen’s Canary, Holley Rubinsky’s South of Elfrida, Sean Virgo’s Dibidalen, Astrid Blodgett’s You Haven’t Changed a Bit. In my work as a juror and in compiling this list of favourites, I’ve been heartened not just by the range of voices and styles, but also by the publishers, large to minuscule, still willing to put their money on Cinderella.
Now 2013 draws to a close. Winter is long, the nights, too. So let’s gather by the hearth. The space is small, but no matter; there aren’t that many of us. Let’s read each other stories.
Caroline Adderson’s next book, Ellen in Pieces, is a novel in stories. It will be published in 2014.