What are the best Canadian short stories? Are they done by the pioneers of Canadian literature; those authors who have defined Canadian literature and pushed their way to the front of classroom syllabi and “must-reads” and “best-reads” lists. Or, are they done by innovators and proteges of the masters; authors who have taken the torch and ignited new fires in the spectrum of Canadian literature?

And, what are short stories? Are they precursors to the novel; something an author cuts their teeth on before getting into the big game of the novel? Or are short stories a unique genre that pursues stories and writing with a concise and focused eye?

Well, this is the debate that has been raging amongst Canada’s top book publishers, literary magazines and literary experts, and no one can quite agree! After stumbling upon The Star‘s writer Alex Good’s article on this issue, “Literati get short over short stories,” we here at the Babble Book Club decided to get in on the conversation by extending it to our faithful readers, but first the backstory.

John Metcalf, noted literary curmudgeon, released his second memoir-like book Shut Up He Explained, an exploration of himself, but more importantly, a dissection of Canadian literature, complete with his Century List of the 40 best Canadian short stories from the past 100 years. Metcalf’s choices are presented as “against the mainstream and commerce-driven preferences” and focus on those authors only notable to aficionados of the genre. Frequently, Metcalf’s choices are also accompanied by a smugness and arrogance that actually outweighs the stories and seems to provoke an “I told you so” vibe. Metcalf released his book, hoping to incite debate (and potentially some controversy) over his opinion of his Century List; what he got instead was Penguin Canada’s massive anthology the Penguin Book of Canadian Short Stories featuring 60 stories, over 600 pages and was edited by famed Canadian author Jane Urquhart.

Here is where the controversy begins brewing.

Penguin Canada is a monster in Canadian publishing: publishing renowned Canadian writers (Alice Munro, Robertson Davies), boasting several imprints (Puffin Canada, Viking Canada) and printing an array of genres. One could assume their resources go pretty deep, in that they have connections with numerous authors and that they have an extended knowledge of the landscape of Canadian literature. 

So, why Urquhart for editor?

Urquhart if an award-winning Canadian novelist and poet and a definite gem of Canadian literature. However, save for one short fiction book Storm Glass in 1987, she has never really tackled the short story genre, so it initially seemed an odd choice. When the Penguin Book of Canadian Short Stories was released in October 2007 that uneasy feeling was cemented in Urquhart’s introduction where she claimed she had a “nagging suspicion that perhaps I was not the person best suited to the task,” and admitted her lack of experience with Canadian short stories referencing “the short story’s fat, loud cousin, the novel” instead. Through her research, she did discover some notable short story writers, but seemed to favour only those authors who used the medium as a gateway to the more potent form of the novel.

With these two very different lists of what is considered best — Metcalf’s Century List and Urquhart’s Penguin List — as Good notes in her article, the grounds for discussion were set.

Seeing gaps in Urquhart’s choices (and probably knowing the reach and succes the book would possess), Canadian literary magazines The New Quarterly (TNQ) and Canadian Notes and Queries (CNQ) teamed up to celebrate their favourite Canadian short stories, creating a double issue of the 20 writers not included in the Penguin release: The Salon des Refuses.

What is interesting to note is now Metcalf affected the TNQ and CNQ lists.

Metcalf is a prominent Canadian editor, critic and mentor, and is also the senior editor of CNQ. As mentioned by Good, of the 10 stories in the CNQ list, nine of the authors are from his Century List, and in the TNQ list, five of the authors are from his Century List, and of the other five, one of them is Metcalf. His influence is hard to deny on the CNQ and TNQ lists and leaves one wondering why these literary magazines even bothered to create these lists if they were going to be a representation of Metcalf’s Century List. When excluding stories already chosen for Urquhart’s list, shouldn’t they have done the same for Metcalf’s List?

CNQ editor Daniel Wells in his essay Tweaking the Beak: An Introduction to the CNQ/TNQ Salon Des Refuses may provide the most sensible argument in keeping in Metcalf’s choices while questioning Urquhart’s choices by asking if she has read the stories of lesser known or predominant short story writers and deem them not good enough? Do excerpts and stories from prominent Canadian novelists really add more to an understanding of the short story in Canada? And, how did she select or discover the authors she included? Though Wells is clearly biased towards Metcalf’s choices, he certainly can separate between what Urquhart didn’t choose and what she did choose and sense something a little off.

One could definitely argue that neither list is an unbiased opinion of Canadian’s best short stories: the Salon Lists favour Metcalf’s depiction of the Canadian landscape and his closest connections and Urquhart’s list seems uninformed and uninspired by her lack of commitment to the genre.

So, what does make up the best short stories?

This is where the Babble Book Club steps in. We would like to join the conversation and discuss which short stories we believe to be “best,” and what qualities we think these stories encompass. Here is how we plan to do it:

1. Choose the book(s) you would like to read. Use the big three Shut Up He Explained by John Metcalf, Penguin Book of Canadian Short Stories edited by Jane Urquhart and the double issue Salon des Refuses by TNQ and CNQ as either your selected readings or as a guide. These texts inform the parameters of our discussion with their lists and provide a great overview of Canadian short stories. Don’t worry! Since this is not a post-secondary English class, we do not expect you to read everything, but encourage a few glimpses if you can! We want to hear what you are reading and what stories you love, so please let us know in the established babble thread what you are reading. These suggestions will work in reciprocal fashion and inform other readers of your choices while their choices expose you to new stories.

2. Outline the qualities that are best exemplified in your favourite Canadian short story. Is it the innovative writing style that makes it best? Is it the status of the author and prominence of the writing? Or is it the unorthodox concepts and diversion from common structure? We want to know what draws you into a short story and makes it memorable.

3. Provide additional materials to guide your reading and provoke thought. We have some extra reading materials lined up, including some Q&As from the Canadian literary scene and how-to reading guides. These materials will be designed to provide further insight into this ongoing conversation, give extra exposure for the many awesome Canadian short story writers and introduce new readers to this genre and what makes it special.

4. Discuss our final opinions of the best Canadian short stories on Tuesday November 6, 7:30 p.m. EST. As always, the Babble Book Club encourages ongoing conversation through our reading as well as our final discussion on November 6 where we can bring all of our opinions to the table: favourite short stories, which lists were enjoyed more, if novels are prefered to short stories and what qualities are looked for in short stories. This is our chance to wrap everything up and make our mark in this conversation.

The Babble Book Club wants to get the inside scoop on what readers love about short stories and which Canadian short stories are loved. So get reseraching, reading and sharing! Leave a suggestion for reading and take a suggestion for reading: reciprocity at its best!