Short Fiction in English 1985-2012

After 1985 significant changes occurred in both the aesthetics of Canadian SHORT FICTION and the ways in which short stories reached the public. The waning of the SMALL-PRESS NATIONALISM of the 1970s was offset by a vogue for reading and writing short stories imported from the United States.
After 1985 significant changes occurred in both the aesthetics of Canadian SHORT FICTION and the ways in which short stories reached the public. The waning of the SMALL-PRESS NATIONALISM of the 1970s was offset by a vogue for reading and writing short stories imported from the United States.

Short Fiction in English 1985-2012

After 1985 significant changes occurred in both the aesthetics of Canadian SHORT FICTION and the ways in which short stories reached the public. The waning of the SMALL-PRESS NATIONALISM of the 1970s was offset by a vogue for reading and writing short stories imported from the United States. By the mid-1990s, Canadian short story writers had diversified and internationalized their themes (and, in some cases, their readerships); yet the infrastructure that supported the publication of short fiction, in both LITERARY MAGAZINES and single-author collections, was being weakened by the globalization of literary markets, which promoted the novel as the primary form of fiction and led to the demise of many of the independent bookstores that had been instrumental in disseminating Canadian short stories. By the end of the first decade of the 21st century, short story collections were rarely issued by larger publishers (SeeENGLISH-LANGUAGE BOOK PUBLISHING) and literary magazines were losing their institutional support, while online publication offered a new, if uncertain, outlet for stories that often bypassed the Modernist emphasis on unities of image and voice in search of brisker pacing and more colloquial language.

Changes in Theme and Style

The most notable change in the thematic concerns of Canadian short fiction writers who began publishing after 1985 was the adoption of international subject matter. Some of the new writers were from immigrant backgrounds (SeeIMMIGRATION), or had been raised by errant 1960s parents; others, whose work reflected the increased mobility of the 1980s, drew on their experiences as ESL teachers, backpackers, aid workers or journalists. The most common route to a career remained the accumulation of publication credits in literary magazines such as CANADIAN FICTION MAGAZINE, PRISM International, The Malahat Review or THE FIDDLEHEAD, as a prelude to placing a collection with a literary press. The renewed popularity of the short story form in the United States, led by Dirty Realists such as Raymond Carver and Richard Ford, drew young Canadian writers towards short fiction, as did the spread of university creative writing workshops. Not only small presses, but also larger publishers, most notably Penguin Canada, launched short story series. The Penguin Short Fiction series published collections such as Rohinton MISTRY's Tales from Firozsha Baag (1987), which included stories set both in India and Canada. Mistry's work, though pioneering in its exploration of South Asian immigrant themes, was aesthetically more conservative than the Modernism practised by writers who had emerged in the 1970s. The Penguin Short Fiction series provided some of these writers with improved distribution. Champagne Barn (1984) by Norman LEVINE, Resident Alien (1986) by Clark BLAISE and If Only We Could Drive Like This Forever (1988) by Elisabeth Harvor expanded the audiences of artists who influenced younger story writers in their roles as models, mentors or teachers.

Among the collections published by younger writers whose work reflected their international experiences were Steven HEIGHTON's Flight Paths of the Emperor (1992) and On Earth As It Is (1995), Janice Kulyk KEEFER's The Paris-Napoli Express (1986), Transfigurations (1988) and Travelling Ladies (1990), Patrick Roscoe's Beneath the Western Slopes (1987), Birthmarks (1990) and Love Is Starving for Itself (1994), Jean McNeil's Nights in a Foreign Country (2000), Neil BISSOONDATH's Digging Up the Mountains (1985) and On the Eve of Uncertain Tomorrows (1990), and Stephen Henighan's Nights in the Yungas (1992), North of Tourism (1999) and A Grave in the Air (2007), as well as work by writers of older generations, such as Keath Fraser's Foreign Affairs (1985) and Seán Virgo's Wormwood (1989). These writers' stories diverged from U.S. Dirty Realist models in their inheritance of the rapt prose style of Mavis GALLANT, or in the creation of a resonance of language and image through the layering of scenes set in different time periods, as in the later stories of Alice MUNRO. The new writers added to these ingredients a more acute historical consciousness than that exhibited by the often domestic 1970s Canadian short story, and, in many cases, a strong sense of cultural displacement.

Munro, Gallant and their Followers

The coming-of-age collection of linked stories, cohering around a Modernist attention to unities of style and image, and, most typically, an interest in female experience, remained a mainstay of short fiction through the end of the twentieth century. Publishing now in The New Yorker magazine, which had a tolerance for very long stories, Alice Munro developed the short story as a "compressed novel" that wove together scenes and images set decades apart. Munro collections such as The Progress of Love (1986), Friend of My Youth (1990) and Open Secrets (1994) experimented with stories set in the United States, Australia and the Canadian past. Writers slightly younger than Munro, such as Audrey THOMAS in Goodbye Harold, Good Luck (1986), Elisabeth Harvor in Let Me Be the One (1996) and Frances ITANI in Leaning, Leaning Over Water (1998), like writers of succeeding generations, such as Linda Svendsen in Marine Life (1992), and Isabel Huggan in The Elizabeth Stories (1984) and You Never Know (1993), developed variations on Munro's aesthetic and thematic concerns. The short stories of Margaret ATWOOD ranged from the ironic social criticism of Wilderness Tips (1991) to the postmodern fables of Good Bones (1992). Carol SHIELDS and Barbara GOWDY, two writers better known for their novels, produced their best work in books of fantastic or surrealist short stories: Shields's The Orange Fish (1989) and Gowdy's We So Seldom Look on Love (1992). Mavis Gallant published her last collection of original stories, Across the Bridge, in 1993. Her stylistic precision and themes of expatriation and cultural border-crossing, whose centrality had grown with the acceleration of globalization and multiculturalism, were displayed in her career retrospective, The Selected Stories of Mavis Gallant (1996), a landmark in the Canadian short story.

The CBC Short Story Competition

Robert WEAVER's retirement from CBC Radio in 1985 concluded the era when writers built audiences by having their stories read on radio programs such as Anthology. The CBC Short Story Competition, initiated by Weaver in 1979, continued after his retirement as virtually the only showcase for short fiction in the public broadcast media. This annual contest was able to capture a large audience and build new writers' careers. Carol Shields and Frances Itani were both beginning to move from small- to large-press publication at the time they finished second and third respectively in the 1984 CBC Short Story Competition. Janice Kulyk Keefer became a widely published writer of short fiction, criticism and novels after winning first prize in the CBC Short Story Competition in two consecutive years, 1985 and 1986. Younger writers such as Patrick Roscoe, who won first prize in 1989, and Caroline ADDERSON, who won third prize in 1988, experienced a boost in their publication prospects as a result of this recognition.

Porcupine's Quill, UBC and Burning Rock

After 1990, the fragmentation of national institutions enhanced the importance of local networks devoted to the short story, particularly in nurturing new writers. During John METCALF's tenure as fiction editor, between 1990 and 2006, The Porcupine's Quill in Erin, Ont., published well-received collections by younger writers, including Steven Heighton's first two short story titles, Dayv James-French's Victims of Gravity (1990), Caroline Adderson's Bad Imaginings (1993), Elizabeth HAY's Small Change (1997), Michael WINTER's One Last Good Look (1999), Annabel LYON's Oxygen (2000), Sandra Sabatini's The One With the News (2000) and Ramona Dearing's So Beautiful (2004). Younger writers' careers also developed in the Master of Fine Arts program in creative writing at the UNIVERSITY OF BRITISH COLUMBIA, where collections such as Eden ROBINSON's Traplines (1995) and Madeleine THIEN's Simple Recipes (2001) were workshopped. The outlook of the BURNING ROCK COLLECTIVE, which promoted a modern literary identity for Newfoundland, was exemplified by Lisa MOORE's collection Open (2002). While Metcalf chose titles that fit the Modernist principles he had been touting since the 1960s, neither UBC nor Burning Rock propounded a rigorous aesthetic program. In many cases these formations overlapped: Dearing and Winter were associated with Burning Rock, and Lyon and Dearing completed the MFA at UBC.

The Impact of Globalization

The career of Guy VANDERHAEGHE epitomized the pressures exerted by the accelerated globalization of the 1990s. After the commercial failure of his critically acclaimed collection Things as They Are? (1992), Vanderhaeghe wrote a trilogy of historical novels. Globalizing commercial pressures on publishers and bookstores made a full career as a short story writer less viable as novels became the passport to moving from small- to large-press publication. Writers such as Mistry, McNeil, Bissoondath, Winter, Lyon, Thien, Moore and Sabatini moved on to the novel and appeared unlikely to return to short fiction. In the new millennium, publishing a short story collection with a major publisher remained largely the prerogative of writers of the stature of Alice Munro, who expanded her range in the highly successful Runaway (2004), or Margaret Atwood, who reaffirmed the values of the linked-story collection in Moral Disorder (2006). Writers who employed the short form consistently included the innovative Douglas GLOVER, author of 16 Categories of Desire (2000), and Steven Heighton, who returned to short fiction with The Dead are More Visible (2012). Immigrant themes dominated the work of writers such as David Bezmogis in Natasha and Other Stories (2004) and Tamas Dobozy in When X Equals Marylou (2002), Last Notes (2005) and Siege 13 (2012). Some younger writers, such as Rebecca Rosenblum, in Once (2008) and The Big Dream (2010), and Sarah SELECKY in This Cake is for the Party (2010), moved away from the self-conscious patterning of Modernism towards brisker, more open forms while turning an indulgent eye on the insecurities of urban life. Carrie Snyder, in The Juliet Stories (2012), adapted the coming-of-age collection of linked stories to an international upbringing.

Future prospects for the short story as an expression of Canadian culture remain uncertain. The CBC competition has lost its star-making capacity; renamed Canada Writes, it is subordinated to the celebrity book show CANADA READS. The future of literary magazines was cast into doubt by the 2011 Department of Canadian Heritage decision to fund only MAGAZINES with sales of more than 5000 copies per issue. Prominent among new outlets is the electronic magazine Joyland, "a North American hub for short fiction," which includes Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal-Atlantic divisions. It is unclear in what form literary magazines will survive, how on-line publication will shape the aesthetic values of new short fiction writers, or even whether the globalized space of the internet will impede or encourage the evolution of Canadian short fiction.

Further Reading

  • Margaret Atwood and Robert Weaver, eds., The New Oxford Book of Canadian Short Stories (1987, 1997); Russell Brown and Donna Bennett, eds., Canadian Short Stories (2005); Barry Callaghan, ed., Young Bloods: Stories from Exile 1972-2001 (2001); Douglas Glover, ed. 06: Best Canadian Stories (2006); John Metcalf, ed., 11: Best Canadian Stories (2011); Lisa Moore, ed., The Penguin Book of Contemporary Canadian Women's Short Stories (2006); Reingard M. Nischik, ed. The Canadian Short Story: Interpretations (2007); Michael Ondaatje, ed.,From Ink Lake (1997); Stafford O'Neil, ed., Tales from Moccasin Avenue: an Anthology of Native Stories (2006); Norman Ravvin, ed., Not Quite Mainstream: Canadian Jewish Short Stories (2002); Jane Urquhart, ed., The Penguin Book of Canadian Short Stories (2007); Kent Thompson, ed., Engaged Elsewhere: Short Stories by Canadians Abroad (1989)