How much attention does a $10,000 dollar prize get a beginning writer nowadays? That's what the Writers' Trust of Canada/McClelland & Stewart Journey Prize means to one contender among the best of Canada's latest writers featured in The Journey Prize Stories 21. Selected this year by award-winning authors Camilla Gibb, Lee Henderson and Rebecca Rosenblum (from nominations made by literary journal editors nationwide), the Journey Prize has become a proving ground for Canada's upcoming authors.
A number of former winners have become recognized names and recipients of other prestigious Canadian awards more frequently given to established authors: the Governor-General's Award, the Trillium Award or the Giller Prize.
According to Timothy Taylor, nothing previous in his career had convinced him that he could be a real writer. Yann Martel has pointed out that for young writers, it's the Journey Prize or nothing. "After that, letters from editors get a lot more polite, even if they're rejections." In Mark Anthony Jarman's case, it left him "tickled pink as your map of Canada." David Bergen has called the anthology "a windfall for both writer and reader."
It's a bonus for the winning writer, certainly (though the ten grand will probably work out to three bucks an hour for the work involved). But how many readers will notice?
Although billed as Canada's most popular anthology, the lamentable fact remains: Collections of short stories don't sell. That's in spite of the fact that accomplished and respected writers continue to work in the genre, an art form that, when compared to the novel, might well be likened to a well-aged single malt against a pitcher of sangria.
You'd think they'd be hot in an age of Tweets. Brief episodes consumed in a single sitting should fit readers increasingly pressed for time. According to Canadian Heritage data, reading levels have not dropped off in the past 15 years. In spite of the Internet, other audio-visual options and time constraints, 54 per cent of Canadians read, on average, close to five hours a week. They do it for fun, to relax and to learn, and they rank it on par with socializing with friends and entertainment for which they leave home. Then why not short stories? Especially these.
Adrian Michael Kelly's Lure takes readers into the mind of a child fishing with his father. The boy's anxiety, sensitivity and humour as he realizes the big one got away - and that he got away with a big one - are revelatory and touching.
A high-school classmate, one of several Japanese girls abducted to North Korea, who suddenly reappears in a news story 30 years after haunts Lynne Kutsukake's narrator in Away.
Jesus Hardwell offers raw, powerful prose in Easy Living, which is anything but. Instead, when "everything is yours, right in your hands the whole deal, then its yanked and nothing."
In Highlife, Paul Headrick charts the journey of Christopher, a dying man accompanied to Ghana by his wife. His goal is to find highlife music in its pure, original form. In doing so, both discover that the defiance in the music not only eases the oppression, humiliation and indignity of life, but also death.
David Margoshes portrays an idealistic writer who translates yesterday's new into Yiddish for a small Cleveland daily, writes obits and sometimes fabricates letters for his advice column in The Wisdom of Solomon. Life's dilemmas lead him to droll and dark answers.
Alexander MacLeod's Miracle Mile explores the circumstances of two runners still looking for the big comeback. They, like the rest of humanity, scrounge for meaning wherever they can find it. Nothing can separate their faith from their desperation.
The last three Chinese lepers banished to D'Arcy Island, facing Cordova Bay off Victoria, are the subject of Yasuko Thanh's Floating Like the Dead. Ah Sing watches the waves and ponders Buddha's question: How does one stop a drop of water from ever drying out?
As the husband's business prospects fail, a family flounders and struggles to accept their daughter's hearing loss in Deaf. Sarah L. Taggart reveals many nuances in the failure and refusal to hear.
Booze, drugs, sex and fire link Eddie, Leo, and Serena in Sarah Keevil's Pyro, set in London's Soho. Grilling a cheese sandwich - a controlled burn - is set on a continuum of toying with danger, playing with fire and creating wanton destruction.
On the Line, by Shawn Syms, takes readers into a small-town slaughterhouse. Claiming it's something she's got used to, the protagonist contradicts herself by doing what she must to forget. Men, women, animals - all are reduced to meat.
A husband and wife dance around the elephant of their toddler's cancer and do what it takes to keep going and act normal each day in Fran Kimmel's Picturing God's Ocean. During a vacation they cannot afford, the father catches a pervert taking pictures of his daughter and gives chase, while his unsuspecting wife rinses the sand from her swimsuit.
David Griffin, in The Last Great Works of Alvin Cale, delineates the complex nature of a father-son relationship complicated by jealousy, lust and distance. Both are brought together and held apart by love and art and death.
Sure, there are minor glitches here that editors shouldn't have missed: occasional confusion of like and as, an authorial finger pointing out symbolism the reader has already deduced, or a quick, too-tidy ending or sections of conversation that don't advance the story, that aren't dialogue. However, such flaws do little to detract from this year's offering of 12 very fine stories.
In all, the collection consistently does what the oeuvre does best: communicate intense emotion with force, give life to characters that struggle with their circumstances, illuminate the universal through the specific and the particular, and turn the commonplace into art.
Now if only Canadians would get past no-point-in-taking-notice-of-authors until they get big (ensuring that they won't) and buy it.
Lynda Grace Philippsen is a Metro Vancouver freelancer, contributor to A Verse Map of Vancouver and Half in the Sun: Anthology of Mennonite Writing.