JOHN METCALF calls them The New Story Writers -implying a process of selection that has spanned the country and winnowed out all but the best.
Five live in Ontario, three in British Columbia, and one in Gansevoort, New York. Three have been published by Metcalf's press, Porcupine's Quill. Others, with books by Oberon and Quarry, are recidivists he's selected and anthologized before. Five are Governor-General nominees - no surprise either, given that Metcalf has also sat on that committee.
If The New Story Writers isn't representative of the country as a whole - and let's face it, few anthologies are or even try to be - then what is it representative of? Who and what is being collected here?
The politest answer seems to be that this anthology represents John Metcalf's personal take on what is newest and best. And given that Metcalf has laboured long and hard on behalf of Canadian writing, particularly the short story, this is not an unreasonable basis for a selection.
Halfway through, I had the impression the quixotic Metcalf was also busy righting the gender imbalance in CanLit by weighting the anthology three-to-one in favour of men. It's hard not to notice that Keath Fraser, Don Dickinson, and Douglas Glover, good as they are, are fixated on certain themes: infidelity, passive-aggressive guilt, and men's quest for an identity that is always being snatched from them by the women they live to punish. I'm all for honesty, and some of these stories are gems of masculine angst. Gemlike, too, are the demented monologues of Terry Griggs. In fact, on the whole Metcalf seems to favour the monologue as the highest form of the story. But so much inner chaos is unveiled in the first hundred pages that one begins to long for Mavis Gallant's "fastidious precision," which Metcalf suggests is now outdated.
Due to the lack of vitality in Canadian publishing at the moment, it's hard for anyone to be sure who or what is "passe"
or "ahead of its time." A recent story by Gallant in the New Yorker surpassed most of these in postmodernist allusiveness as well as accuracy - and seemed more in tune with the times than John Metcalf. Some pieces in this anthology - notably the two by Fraser - recall American work of the '60s and '70s, circa the heyday of Norman Mailer and Donald Barthelme. This doesn't negate their interest, but forgive me for not believing that they are the Future of Canadian Writing.
Personally, I do like many of these writers. But Diane Schoemperlen, Linda Svendsen -"new"? Svendsen has been publishing fine stories since at least 1978. Given the title, and that there are 18 stories in this 325-page book, Metcalf might have chosen nine from his crew of frequent flyers, and opened up another nine slots for non-members -perhaps some people from Newfoundland whom he'd never met or heard of till he read their work? That he chose instead to take two stories from each of his Nearly New Nine, suggests that he's haunting the past, not breaking new ground.
It could also be argued that this is simply factionalism of the sort that is killing CanLit in its crib. With the devolution of our publishing industry proceeding apace, regional presses like Quarry are carrying more and more of the weight of fiction publishing. Perhaps they also ought to widen their critical focus.
We don't need more quick-fix anthologies fuelled by narrow messianism, any more than we need to save our architecture by dotting the landscape with foam homes and calling them national treasures. Writing in Canada is a disorganized, spread-out, many-faceted thing, and our editors should make it their job to reflect that reality.
Ayanna Black's new anthology of writing by Canadian writers of African descent is a strangely characterless production, and here again, the problem lies in constricted editing. Black seems less interested in presenting the best work by African Canadians than in compiling a collective statement about prejudice.
I couldn't help comparing the thesis-like tone of Voices with recent formula-shattering, visionary work by Alice Walker and Lucille Clifton, or the haunting power of films by Spike Lee and Julie Dash. Running through this collection is a choked kind of hopelessness and rage as if these writers had somehow bought the colonial lie and had nothing left to write about but their own paralysis and oppression.
Dany Laferriere's contribution asks the obvious question: "Why Must a Negro Writer Always Be Political ?" Laferriere is one of our most talented writers, but here he too seems stooped under the burden even the absurdity - of having to define himself by race. Makeda Silvera's fictional essay, "Her Head a Village," succeeds better than some because she allows the chaos of life to intrude into her meditation on what it means to be a "black/woman/lesbian/mother/worker."
Without renewal by fire, everything, even in the realm of the spirit, gathers dust - and this happened some time ago to the European tradition. Writers of colour are now in a position to set the world ablaze with new metaphors, new forms. But too many stories in Voices speak the language of the colonizer, and explore well-travelled themes in the styles of 20 years ago.
just as I was giving up, along came "Kitten Face" by Frederick Ward. This, friends, is a story. Like some red comet sweeping down all by itself from deep in outer space, it almost redeems the tentative, self-conscious work that precedes it. It has a one-of-a-kind, act-of-God brilliance that stopped this reviewer dead.
It makes me wonder why Frederick Ward never appears in Canadian anthologies that purport to present the best of the best of the new, and why he's not even mentioned in the publicity for Voices. His is high-calibre work that transcends all categories of culture and ethnicity.
I hope that some editors out there are listening.