Rosemary Sullivan, Mark Levene, eds. Short Fiction: An Anthology. Don Mills and New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. viii + 950 pp. $49.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-19-541760-9.
Reviewed by Tracy Ware (Department of English, Queen's University)
Published on H-Canada (October, 2003)
Canonicity and Diversity in Short Fiction
Canonicity and Diversity in Short Fiction
As the back cover states, Short Fiction: An Anthology is "a skilfully chosen blend of international and Canadian short fiction--seventy-nine stories and two novellas--from the early-nineteenth century to the postmodern era." The book offers the pleasures of such familiar stories as Edgar Allan Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher" and James Joyce's "The Dead," and the excitement of such new works as Lorrie Moore's "Agnes of Iowa" and Sherman Alexie's "This is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona." I take nothing away from its fine editors, Rosemary Sullivan and Mark Levene, when I identify some of the assumptions behind their choices. No editor can claim aesthetic neutrality today, and the great virtue of this anthology is that the editors know their minds. Their best head-notes are not merely informative but compellingly partial. They are most attracted to the kind of Modernist story that starts with Anton Chekov and culminates in Raymond Carver, though they are generous enough to recognize some historical diversity. But for the most part, what the back cover calls "issues such as gender, race, politics, and cultural identity" are most apparent in their recent selections, in which a survey of current practice follows a survey of canonical short fiction. Because it speaks to interests that are shared by many teachers, readers, and students, this anthology is both useful and revealing.
Some of the editors' assumptions are evident in the very structure of the book. With two exceptions, it is organized chronologically by the author's date of birth, as opposed to the alphabetical organization that is now a curious alternative for short fiction anthologies. (Would anyone organize a course this way?) But the approach is not really historicist, and the dating of stories is somewhat erratic. The stories by Woody Allen, Beth Brant, and Ian McEwan receive different dates in the text from those given in the acknowledgements at the end of the book. Sometimes we are told helpful information about the collection in which a story previously appeared, as with Alice Munro's "Fits," and sometimes not, as with William Faulkner's "Pantaloon in Black." The policy on dating is never clearly explained, but the dates often correspond to the appearance of a story in a later collection, and this can be misleading. Thus the dates given for the stories by Morley Callaghan and Sinclair Ross are about thirty years later than their first publications. Perhaps the assumption is that it is up to the instructor or the reader to provide the historical perspective. That seems consistent with the complete lack of annotations. As the editors explain in their preface, "in our view a contemporary anthology must keep the scholarly apparatus, a requisite part of the old format, to a minimum" (p. viii). It's a defensible move, but it makes even recent stories less accessible than they might be. How many students will understand Woody Allen's references to a "Helmut Berger hairdo" (p. 541) and to Portnoy's Complaint (p. 545)?
The two exceptions to chronological arrangement are the first two stories, Chekov's "The Lady with the Dog" and Carver's "Errand," which are included with commentary in a section called "Two Stories and Reflections," and the last two, Herman Melville's "Benito Cerino" and Mavis Gallant's "The Moslem Wife," which are included in a section called "The Novella." The second matter can be dealt with briefly, since it is common for short-fiction anthologies to include a novella, often "Heart of Darkness." In this case the inclusion of an American and a Canadian novella instead is consistent with the anthology's focus on North American writing. The foregrounding of Chekov and Carver is more contentious. Sullivan and Levene give good reasons for singling them out, but their implicit preference for the Modernist and late Modernist story is somewhat incongruous with their prefatory remark that the ideal anthology "should contain as many stories on as wide a variety of themes and from as many cultural perspectives as is possible." It is not hard to imagine an anthology with greater variety than this one affords. You could start by including Nikolai Gogol's "The Overcoat" rather than Gustave Flaubert's "A Simple Soul," thereby showing the unruliness of nineteenth-century fiction instead of its approximation to Modernism. You could easily include more Postcolonial writers. And if you added Mark Twain, Saki, and Stephen Leacock, you would not have to argue that Lorrie Moore "has created that very kind [sic] of rare narrative, the comic story" (p. 811). It would be easy to make a different anthology, but very difficult to make a better one. All I want to emphasize is how consistently these editors maintain the Modernist tastes that shape their most memorable comments: that Conrad's "Nostromo (1904) is probably even more consummately modernist than is Ulysses, and The Secret Agent (1907) the most complete expression of irony since Swift's A Modest Proposal" (p. 118); that "the basic details of James Joyce's life have become one of the stories central to the modern age" (p. 193); that D. H. Lawrence "still seems a force of nature" (p. 233); that biographical legend obscures F. Scott Fitzgerald's "superb articulations as a modernist" (p. 262); and that Ernest Hemingway established "a line of remarkable writers," including three represented here--Carver, Robert Stone, and Tobias Wolff (p. 297). By contrast, the head-notes for some of the later writers are little more than dutiful surveys of publications and awards. It would be absurd to hold their enthusiasm against them, but it would be equally absurd to deny that the editors regard some writers as more important than others.
I want to conclude by discussing the Canadian selections, but first it is good to remember that editors are subject to all kinds of pressures. I once gave a conference paper about the bias of anthologies, only to be met later by a soft-spoken man who took me aside to raise a point that he did not want to embarrass me by raising publicly. In his experience, the strongest editorial bias is simply for the shortest story, so that as many stories can be included as possible. The soft-spoken man was Alistair MacLeod, and he can say more in a sentence than I can say in a review. I remember his words now because the MacLeod story in this anthology, "As Birds Bring Forth the Sun," does not strike me as his best, though it is one of his shortest. When we note that the acknowledgements refer mistakenly to "Vision" (p. 945), a longer and superior story, it looks as if the editors were of at least two minds. Keeping such considerations in mind makes us less likely to be critical of their selections and more appreciative that so many Canadian stories ("nearly half" of the total stories, according to the back cover) are included. Moreover, French stories in English translations are included as well as Canadian stories in English.
Because of the excellence of recent Canadian short fiction, most of the Canadian stories are fairly recent. In such a situation, it is good to see such early writers as Charles G. D. Roberts and Sara Jeannette Duncan here. Again the volume includes both standards (Callaghan's "Ancient Lineage," a standard selection since Douglas Daymond and Leslie Monkman's Literature in Canada, 1978) and less familiar stories and writers. Munro's "Fits" and Guy Vanderhaeghe's "How the Story Ends" are inspired picks, since both give a fresh view of their authors' extraordinary talents. Looking over the other selections, I am struck by the absence of names that would have been automatic inclusions only a decade or two ago. That is one reason why we need new anthologies, even if we regret some of the absences. Like many contemporary Canadian critics, Sullivan and Levene prefer authors who write from within the marginalized ethnic group that their stories concern. This idea is now so pervasive that it is barely noticeable, but a look at the Oxford Book of Canadian Short Stories in English (1986) indicates how much attitudes have changed. In that influential anthology, Margaret Atwood and Robert Weaver included the following stories by white writers on Native life: Ethel Wilson's "From Flores," Hugh Garner's "One-Two-Three Little Indians," Margaret Laurence's "The Loons," Rudy Wiebe's "Where is the Voice Coming From?" and Audrey Thomas's "Kill Day on the Government Wharf." It cannot be fortuitous that Wilson, Garner, and Wiebe are absent from the Sullivan and Levene anthology, while Laurence and Thomas are represented by less controversial stories. Now it is good that anthologies include more Native writers than they used to, and it is good that this anthology includes Thomas King, Beth Brant, and Emma Lee Warrior. But I cannot agree with these editors that "No longer is the issue who gets to write but how rich, how powerfully persuasive the story is, how layered a relationship it creates with the reader" (p. 10). If we ever reach the point where the identity of the writer is irrelevant, our anthologies will be even more diverse, but their inclusions will not have to address ethnicity as deliberately as they do now. In the meantime, there is much to be said for conflict, and for the stories that provoke it. For that reason, I miss Wiebe and Duncan Campbell Scott, though I suspect that they will be in for a hard time for a while yet.
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Tracy Ware. Review of Sullivan, Rosemary; Levene, Mark, eds., Short Fiction: An Anthology.
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