Alice Munro has won the Nobel Prize for literature. In the Sept. 15, 2001 edition of Saturday Night magazine, Frank Moher, backofthebook.ca’s editor, wrote with tongue only-slightly-in-cheek about the great volume of short story collections published in Canada, perhaps inspired by having the great Ms. Munro among us.
His suggestion for a short-story moratorium did not take hold.
End of Story
Short-story collections are clogging our bookshelves and choking our literature. This calls for drastic measures
By Frank Moher (first published in Saturday Night, Sept. 15, 2001)
With the publication this Fall of Alice Munro’s latest collection of short stories, the comprehensively titled Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, we’ll all have received our semi-annual Munro fix. This emboldens me to make a small suggestion: no more short stories. Everybody stop writing short stories. Canada must produce more short stories per capita than any other literary outpost in the galaxy, and the book reviewers of the nation are trembling under the weight.
Now, I can understand if you don’t give a fig about the book reviewers of the nation, but the fact is that our literature is at risk of becoming so small-boned, so petite, so lacking in ambition that it disappears up its own exquisite backside (this despite the few Big Book successes of the last few years: The Blind Assassin, No Great Mischief, and other exceptions that prove the rule). We are fast becoming the Toulouse-Lautrecs of world literature, and not, alas, because we work in bold colours.
By way of illustration, let’s return to my bookshelves, which, because I occasionally work as one of those benighted book reviewers, are laden with slim volumes sent to me by various editors and publishers. There you will find short-story collections about “the rugged terrain in the emotional landscape of women,” about “the lives, hidden loves and fears of teenagers,” and about “the dark troubled heart of human existence” (which means, I suspect, that its publishers aren’t sure what it’s about), plus a few dozen others. And those are just the ones I haven’t yet bundled up to donate to the local Women’s Institute library. (The ladies, having a keen eye for what people will and won’t borrow, tend to rebundle my donations and put them on sale at the local pub for fifty cents.)
Some of these collections are as delicately written as their covers promise, some are not, but all have twinkled briefly and weakly in the literary firmament, and then vanished without the average reader being any the wiser. There was a time when short stories enjoyed a broad and appreciative audience, but that time was over 40 years ago, when magazines like Collier‘s and The Saturday Evening Post created a spot for them on coffee tables throughout North America. Now short stories are read mostly by adherents of small literary magazines — although, gathered between covers, they have also served nicely to fill out the shelves at Chapters and Indigo, largely unnoticed, much less purchased; “wallpaper,” as even their publishers sometimes call them.
And still we keep churning out these literary effervescences in quantities sufficient to choke a Canada Council grants officer. The reasons are not hard to discern. No doubt they have something to do with the great Ms. Munro; having a master of the form living in your midst is undeniably inspiring. But they have more to do with the oversized role universities play in our arts and letters. Unlike the Americans, who still have a healthy commercial sector (and respect for the vulgar) that offsets the influence of the academy, our writers now come almost entirely out of creative-writing programs. And creative-writing programs, besides offering young writers a welcome last refuge from the marketplace, tend to encourage the production of literature in bite-sized chunks. There’s really no time to write anything else in a 13-week semester – especially when you’re also trying to read the 1,200-page novels of writers who didn’t go to university.
Then there’s the fact that producing these congeries keeps the small presses of the nation in block grants; as a columnist for the trade magazine Quill and Quire recently noted, the question of whether there’s a flesh-and-blood audience for such books seems hardly to enter into the equation. These same small presses have been blaming Chapters lately for most of their woes, but their complaints only point up the looniness of their business model. Publishers ship books to retailers, and then record them as “sold,” even though no one has actually purchased them yet. If they get returned, the publishers may find themselves in a debit situation with their distributor. But if a book is put on sale and it turns out nobody wants it, whose fault is that? The retailer? Or the people who chose to print it in the first place?
Apparently, magic realism has infiltrated the thinking of many publishers. But let’s not get diverted into measly financial arguments. What’s really troubling is the artistic timorousness behind this spate of lite fictions. Having accepted our marginal status on the geopolitical stage, we seem to have decided that our literature might as well be picayune, too. Tom Wolfe once famously lamented the shrinkage of American literature, but he was talking about what George Bush might have called “the vision thing” — the fact that his country’s fiction writers no longer sought to embrace society in its messy totality. These days, that’s an idea that would hardly even occur to most Canadian writers, who instead are content to limn sensations and particularities — the literary equivalent of etching on glass. Not that tiny always equals insignificant; in Ms. Munro’s hands, the diminutive knows no bounds. But she’s the exception, and increasingly the stories I read by other writers aren’t stories at all but squibs — anecdotes or word poems so slight as to be barely there.
So, let me return to my original proposal. No more short stories. Novels or three-volume memoirs only, for at least a year. Alice Munro will get a well-deserved break (unless she wants to work on her memoirs; she’s already said she has no intention of writing a novel), and the book reviewers of the nation will be ever so grateful. Personally, I’m hoping never to have to use the word “exquisite” again.