Babble Book Club: What are the best Canadian short stories?

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Kaitlin McNabb Kaitlin McNabb's picture

What do you think about this idea of creating Candian literature canons, especially when trying to encompass the 'Canadian Literature Identity"?

When I was in highschool I would have thought the canon to only be: Atwood, Munro, Davies...

But the genre has grown so much! (and these authors have grown with it too) I wonder what the scope would look like in a canon if an eltist ass or somewhat unwilling and surpsied writer weren't the editors?

kim elliott kim elliott's picture

Oh guys, I have to say that I'm curious about this discussion, and have read volumes of Canadian Short Stories for my literature courses (degrees actually!), but...  and this is a bit shameful to admit... I've never been a big fan of Canadian short fiction.  That said, I'm talking about readings from 15+ years ago, and haven't (gosh all this truth-telling!) haven't been able to the readings suggested here. 

With all that preamble, I do enjoy reading the Granta volumes - not Canadian, but always selections of stories that are more... edgy that what I think of as the usual short story volumes of Canadian short fiction...

Do y'all hate me now?

derrick derrick's picture

The thread seems to have evolved to a confession-discussion... 

Kaitlin McNabb Kaitlin McNabb's picture

No way! I think that proves the point that Canadian writing has really evolved from its previous roots!

I feel like (with most things) Canadian culture can be so stereotyped and that our writing actually, possibily, maybe, did fit that notion of a writing about farm-life, meadows, etc. There were obviously those great, wonderful, transcendent writers who began to shape the identity, but who are those people now and what is that identity.

I think Kevin Chong really hit on some interesting topics in his discussion with the BBC, mainly that as a teenagers from an immigrant family his identity and 'Canadian culture' was to grab up all the 'Westernized' ideas of music, reading, writing that he could in order to fit in. What does that say about our Canadian identity and writing culture as well...

Kaitlin McNabb Kaitlin McNabb's picture

haah @derrick. 

One of our twitter friends let us know that Wilfrid Laurier Press is tackling that exact question of identity with their TransCanada Series.

Kaitlin McNabb Kaitlin McNabb's picture

Okay, as most of us have commented Urquhart seemed like the wrong choice to edit the Penguin Book collection of Best Canadian Short Stories because she even admitted it, she seemed a little uninformed and out of her genre.

So, why do we think Penguin choose her to do it? Money? Prestige?

Kaitlin McNabb Kaitlin McNabb's picture

I'm going to take this opportunity to bow out at the moment, but the conversation so far has been really interesting and some great recommendations have come through! I'm looking forward to any additional comments on this topic and excited to move on to our new one!

Thanks again to everyone for participating and/or reading along!


I took a Can Lit course in grade 12 (1980-81) so it was a very different canon. I remember the course having themes male and female coming of age novels predominated. Atwood was just emerging and we read The Edible Women. When it comes to Canadian short stories Sinclair Ross' The Painted Door is still my favourite.

Catchfire Catchfire's picture

Kaitlin McNabb wrote:
So, why do we think Penguin choose her to do it? Money? Prestige?

Definitely money. Metcalf pointed out, rightly, that the US and British equivalent Penguin editors were legendary short story writers--Richard Ford and Malcolm Bradbury--who contributed greatly to the craft of short fiction. Canada's closest rival to them would be Munro, but the market for CanShLit is waaay smaller than Britain or America, so they don't really have the luxury of picking a more literary editor. Urquhart probably fit the bill because she was both a) somewhat famous and b) available. I mean this is Penguin after all, now "Penguin Random House," a massive publisher and no defender of small press literati.

Re: the pastoral thing in CanLit in general. What's with that? There's no other national literature that I know of that expects you to know the difference between a Balsam and a Spruce, an Aspen and a Poplar, a rhododendron and a periwinkle. And that's just in a book of urban poetry about Kensington Market!


Our open spaces almost beg for the pastoral. Such urban works as  The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz are obsessed with the pastoral.

Kaitlin McNabb Kaitlin McNabb's picture

Re: money and Urquhart.

I still does not make sense because since Urquhart was/is famous, she would probably still get a hefty sum to do it, especially since she seemed to not really want to (although she seemed to take it as a personal challenge. I'm covering because my intention is not to bash Urquhart, she tried and acknowledge some of her and the book's downfall). Why not give that money to Munro, assuming she'd do it, and get something that the CanShLit base might be drawn to moreso than with Urquhart? 

However, the point of Penguin not being a small press defender makes sense to me as they might have just churned this out as 'collector' thing, as a lot of canons seems to be. 

Re: pastoral references

I found the article I was talking about! It was from Canadian book blog Bella's Bookshevles titled "what is CanLit?" and in it, it heavily references Douglas Coupland's article 'what is canlit' where he basically says it govt funded writing about life in small, rural Canadian towns. (I might have posted it before) She goes on to discuss the evolution of Canlit.

I don't think our open spaces aren't worth writing anymore, but I think CanLit is far beyond the genre of just writing about it, ya know, especially on an international stage.

Kaitlin McNabb Kaitlin McNabb's picture

Oh and on that note about scenery, some of my favourite stories have included references to landscapes, but as in the city scapes and evolving cities and towns of Canada. I think that describing surroundings will always be an important part of CanLit because it informs the stories that are told.

Kaitlin McNabb Kaitlin McNabb's picture

New article Panning for Gold: The Fate of Short Fiction in the Novelistic World about relevance and place of CanShLit in Canadian publishing spectrum from LemonHound:

" a general perception that short stories are considered, by publishers and readers alike, the redheaded stepchildren of CanLit. This is frankly baffling, especially considering the pedigree short fiction has in this country. Mavis Gallant and Alice Munro are both Canadian short-fiction writers (though, granted, the former hasn’t lived here for over fifty years), and I defy anyone to name a stronger living practitioner of the form."

"Yet time and again I’ve heard readers complain they don’t enjoy short stories, which are too difficult, or not long enough to really immerse oneself in and get to know the characters. This latter objection has always struck me at best as obviously wrong, and at worse little more than a lazier way of expressing the former. But publishers know their market, and by and large avoid publishing collections they know will not make much of a dent at the cash register."