Wells on Urquhart vs. Metcalf


Jane Urquhart.
Jane Urquhart.

Over at Maclean’s, Paul Wells is showing his literary side. He has a piece on the controversy over The Penguin Book of Canadian Short Stories, edited by Jane Urquhart. Despite its title the anthology contains a weird mix of material, not all of which is made up of short stories, which has caused consternation among the literati:

[Urquhart’s] anthology garnered respectful reviews in newspapers’ book pages when it first appeared, but there was grumbling in short-story circles about its peculiarities. (There are such circles. They are small, sparsely populated, and, as a rule, neither fat nor loud.) Memoirs and excerpts from novels mixed in with bona fide short stories? A book divided into five themes, as though some consideration besides literary quality had driven the choices?

Daniel Wells, the editor of Canadian Notes and Queries, emailed Kim Jernigan, the editor of The New Quarterly, and asked if she shared his concerns. She did, up to a point. Both found a lot to like in the Penguin anthology, including brilliant writers like Alice Munro, Mavis Gallant, Alistair MacLeod, Lisa Moore and Guy Vanderhaeghe. But both were baffled by some of the inclusions. What was Adrienne Clarkson doing in there, with a short story she published in Maclean’s in 1961, while she was still Adrienne Poy? “I love Charles Ritchie, but as a short-story writer?” Wells writes about the career diplomat and fondly remembered memoirist. “I did not know Claire Messud was Canadian. And Michael Ondaatje?”

Wells approaches this topic with less righteousness than the literary press. Perhaps that’s why his article is much more effective in communicating how strange Urquhart’s choices were (Adrienne Clarkson? Come on. I mean, was Wendy Mesley not available?).

John Metcalf.
John Metcalf.

As Wells mentions, writer and editor John Metcalf is leading the charge against Urquhart. Metcalf would be an obvious choice to edit this type of book. Yet so far, no major press has asked him to. Metcalf may contribute to his outsider status at times, with all his polemicizing. Yet he has done more for the Canadian short story than any other editor I can think of. First in his editorial work for The Porcupine’s Quill, and now in his capacity as fiction editor for Biblioasis, a small press based in Windsor, Ontario, Metcalf has discovered an entire generation of Canadian writers. Metcalf’s skill as a talent spotter has been repeatedly confirmed by larger presses signing up authors whose first books were published by Metcalf. Yet so far, no large press has shown any interest in working with Metcalf himself. The time is ripe for an editor at a large press to offer him the chance to edit his own Canadian short story anthology.  




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