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Letting Go of Anthology Guilt
by Bruce Meyer

Since this is an age of inclusiveness, which places emphasis on rethinking and retooling literary canons on a weekly basis, for whatever reasons (polemical biases and literary trendiness come to mind as culprits), the anthologist's task is difficult. What is "in" one day is often "out" the next. It is hard for good literature to make a claim for itself, when a trend or theory-driven canon (as opposed to a sensibility-driven one) has become the order of the day. And those who cannot scan the entire corpus of literature and maintain a daily routine often refer the matter of what is good and memorable directly into the hands of anthologists.
In this scenario, anthologies are often considered barometers or augurs of taste. After all, it is part of the anthologists' creed to select what they think is the best material at hand at any given moment, and readers in the twentieth century have come to trust them (though not always for the right reasons) to provide some sort of direction, structure, and scope to the miasma of the contemporary printed word. To compound the problem, readers, critics, and teachers of literature demand more and more, every time the deck of available material is shuffled and re-sorted. Although most anthologists dislike being second-guessed by their readers, they must acknowledge that second-guessing is part of the game. The really clever ones pretend to ignore this, and quite often they succeed; and occasionally, good ones try to serve up what readers really want while proffering a cool nonchalance about the whole affair. No longer is it fair game simply to celebrate; there is overwhelming pressure on the unfortunate gatherer to proclaim, pronounce, and prophesy, within a format that is brief, cost-effective, and of sustained quality. Readers, meanwhile, have had their tongues hanging out, thirsting for something that is good instead of just good for them.
The usual Catch-22 goes something like this: readers come to expect that an anthology will be shaped around a polemic, a catchy justification, or a purpose that will raise public awareness to a particular point of view, by demonstrating how writers have dealt with the issues or themes that justify the collection of the material. This is problematic. There is always the danger that the fiction or poetry of a polemical anthology doesn't quite fit with the polemic. Most educated readers have built up a casual resistance to a book of this kind, because it often reads like a failed attempt to ram a square peg into a round hole.
And however just and fair an anthology's inclusiveness may be, any polemic is ultimately based on exclusion, and leads to presenting less than wonderful stories because they "work" with the intent of the volume. What is more, quite sound anthologies are often weakened by well-meaning polemics, because they almost invite the critic and the reader to say, "Why didn't you include this-or-that piece?" Most readers expect the impossible: you can't have everything you want in three or four hundred pages. And so, of the making of books there is no end, the next anthology is just around the corner and promises to do the impossible: to include what the previous ones omitted.
Good anthologists are aware of all these traps. They try, when they can, to relieve themselves of the burden of "anthology guilt" (of being suckered by cute organizational ploys and thematic causes) by working from a position of informed editorial choice where their selections are drawn from as broad a spectrum as possible and where the sources for exclusion and limitation are minimalized. If avoiding the pitfalls of anthology-making is the hallmark of good editors, then Robert Weaver and Margaret Atwood have rightly laid claim to the title for their work on The New Oxford Book of Canadian Short Stories in English.

This is Atwood and Weaver's second attempt to offer a pleasing selection of works that can speak well for the Canadian short story. In what seems to amount to a statement on the stories that stand the test of time, the editors have carried over from their previous book Raddall's "The Wedding Gift", Ross's "The Lamp at Noon", Marshall's "The Old Woman", Reaney's "The Bully", Clarke's "Griff!", Wiebe's "Where Is the Voice Coming From?", Barry Callaghan's "The Black Queen", and Blaise's "A Class of New Canadians". Dropped from the old roster in the second edition are Mukherjee, Ray Smith, and Edna Alford. The dropping of the first two is, perhaps, a subtle comment on "Canadianness", as they now make their homes in the United States. But the new edition more than makes up for their absence with the inclusion of such fine (and definitely Canadian) talents as Keefer, Schoemperlen, Bissoondath, and Brand.
As Atwood noted in the introduction to the 1986 version, many Canadian readers' knowledge of the Canadian short story can be traced directly to the efforts of Robert Weaver, both as an editor and as a radio producer for CBC's Anthology. (The loss of Anthology poked a hole in Saturday nights that even Hockey Night in Canada never quite filled). As editor of numerous anthologies and of the landmark Tamarack Review, he did much to shape the current ideas of what most readers today consider Canadian literature, by virtue of his instincts, tastes, or literary knowledge-he has never revealed which.
In this case, Atwood and Weaver have produced an anthology that is selected on the basis of a literary "pleasure principle". In her introduction (which is less didactic than the one from 1986), Atwood has set aside all of the old extra-curricular "bug-bears" that have weighed so heavily upon Canadian collections of recent memory. Gone are the anxieties over gender and regional balance. Instead we have a rare statement of editorial sanity: "But to worry unduly over such matters as canons and classics is to make a fool of oneself eventually, for a canon is merely an oft-duplicated list, and a classic is simply a work that is read, re-read, explored for meaning, and admired widely, over a sufficient period of time; and what one generation finds meaningful, the next may find puzzling, absurd, or even tedious." The result is an anthology that is enjoyable to read, the manifestation of what Atwood has called "a childish longing to be amused".
Surprisingly, though there may not have been a conscious effort to balance the book by external criteria, the volume reflects a literature that has become balanced in its demographics and significant in its quality. East coast authors such as Alistair MacLeod are here, as are the west coast writers such as Audrey Thomas. There are almost as many women (twenty-three) as there are men (twenty-four). There is "multicultural" content aplenty, for those who would immediately search the pages for the works of Dionne Brand or Rohinton Mistry. If this anthology is a reflection of the state of contemporary Canadian fiction, then it can rightly be said that it is in fine form. Forget the balancing acts of the past. Forget all the sub-issues and their anxieties. This is the signal of a healthy literature: good stories. But the question begs to be asked: is this a natural phenomenon that reflects the state of current Canadian fiction or is this simply the conscious or unconscious affirmation of a self-fulfilling prophecy?
Atwood points out that one of the things that has made Canadian literature thrive has been the support of authors by federal and provincial arts councils. She laments the cutbacks, the dangerous temptation to assign the artistic conscience of society to the anomalous free-market winds of chance. Her defence of public arts funding is eloquently Canadian. Here, she has struck a major chord in our psyche: we are not like Americans who allow the conscience of their country, their literature, to be shaped and dictated by the pressures of money-making. Canadians of the past, and, we hope, Canadians of the future, will have the courage to offer their writers the freedom implicit in public support to speak their minds and create such visions as articulate the ethos and genius of this nation.
She claims that in preparing the anthology with Weaver and the often unsung editorial hand of Oxford's William Toye, that they "gave up some time ago trying to isolate the gene for `Canadianness'." The old anxieties of "what is a Canadian" or "what constitutes a piece of Canadian writing" have been dismissed. So, what has replaced regional, gender, and identity concerns? The answer seems to lie in the multiplicity of the contents.
This latest gathering presents a range of twentieth-century short stories, all of them memorable; yet, with few exceptions, these are not the expected "standards" that readers have come to expect from the authors. James Reaney, for example, is not represented by the ubiquitous "The Box Social", his most famous and perhaps infamous story about abortion, but instead by "The Bully". The same can be said for the offerings from Morley Callaghan and Timothy Findley.
There is a quality of the unexpected about this anthology that is pleasing. In the case of Alistair MacLeod, the familiar Maritime standard, "The Boat", from The Lost Salt Gift of Blood, has been replaced by the Gothic title story from his second collection, As Birds Bring Forth the Sun, a choice which discloses Atwood's own slant toward the darker side of popular mythology. In fact, her fascination with an articulate contemporary Canadian Gothic is duly noted in the introduction, where she makes special mention of the recent "examples of modern Southern Ontario Gothic, a mode that includes works by such novelists as Robertson Davies, Timothy Findley, and Barbara Gowdy." She could have included Barry Callaghan in that list too, whose recent When Things Get Worst can aptly be placed alongside Findley's The Piano Man's Daughter in that category.
"The Black Queen" by Barry Callaghan (who was omitted from Ondaatje's mammoth attempt at a similar collection, From Ink Lake) is an engaging portrayal of aging and the dark decline of FOOF (Fine Old Ontario Family) culture. But why not include his story "The Muscle", a marvellously compact and memorable piece about a young immigrant boy whose trick tendon gains him the respect of his class-mates and the confounded attention of his teacher? Brevity, which Atwood claims played a minor role in the selecting, appears to account for the inclusion of Bissoondath's "Digging Up the Mountain", the title story from that author's first book, which addresses the themes of displacement, identity, and political anxiety, and the omission of his best story, "The Cage", about a Japanese immigrant in Toronto. And although it may be pedantic to say so, the editors have opted for the title stories from at least nine collections (Ross, Kinsella, Levine, MacLeod, Barry Callaghan, Valgardson, Keefer, Gowdy, and Brand); this is puzzling when there are better stories in the individual collections. But half the fun of reading an anthology is second-guessing the editors, playing "arm-chair editor", and fantasizing about what could have been included; and good anthologies as opposed to bad ones stimulate that kind of response.
One shortcoming, however, is the absence of any pre-modernist short fiction. It seems a shame that some of the great works of early Canadian literature should be pushed aside in favour of the contemporary. Those of note who are missing in action are Leacock, Haliburton, McCulloch, Duncan Campbell Scott, Charles G. D. Roberts, and Isabella Valancy Crawford. One wonders what an Oxford Book of American Short Stories would be like if Poe, Hawthorne, and Chopin were overlooked.
This problem (and it is only a problem if one reads it in this way) raises several important issues. The first is that there is a need for a good anthology of early Canadian short fiction, something along the lines of David Arnason's Nineteenth Century Canadian Short Stories, to keep Canadian readers from drifting into their dreadful habit of cultural amnesia. Perhaps Atwood and Weaver have something in the cards-and their expertise in Canadian literature would guarantee some sound results if an early works anthology could be brought to fruition. As Atwood points out, "So many stories of note have been written over the past decade, however, that for this second edition the authors have unfortunately had to make the decision-faced with constraints of space-to penalize the past in favour of the present."
So, let's read the problem from the other side. If these stories are of note (and all of them are) and the past has to be penalized at whatever cost to the broader picture of cultural consciousness, then perhaps Canadian literature is on the verge a new "golden age", or at least a period of artistic achievement high enough to justify the negation of an older, richer tradition. Certainly the inclusion of Caroline Adderson's quirky yet brilliant "The Chmarnyk", a story about weather augury and blind faith, should give any reader pause to reflect on the increasing scope of a genre to which Canadians have staked a considerable claim. (Perhaps what Atwood said in her 1986 introduction is still true-that the short story is the product of writers who haven't enough funding to accomplish larger works). In any case, this anthology proves that the short story may be Canada's national literary idiom in the same way that the Americans have claimed the novel and the Irish the theatre. For now, The New Oxford Book of Canadian Short Stories in English (1995) stands as a useful benchmark as to how far the form has come in recent memory. Perhaps the next edition will include stories by Gayla Reid, Cary Fagan, George Elliott Clarke...No, the anthologist's job is not an easy one. And as long as the literature remains vital, it will be an unlimited one.


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