August 20, 2008
The Best Antidote: Salon Des Refuses
Since Friday, I’ve been reading the “Salon des Refuses”, as avidly as one reads any literary anthology. But, actually, no– because I’m not sure anyone reads literary anthologies avidly: such books were made for shelving. The Salon, on the other hand, is not a book at all, but rather two periodicals. The New Quarterly and Canadian Notes and Queries collaborating on a response to The Penguin Book of Canadian Short Stories, comprising stories by a number of writers whose exclusion from the Penguin Anthology has been regarded as baffling at best.
CNQ Editor Daniel Wells offers the Salon “as evidence of the short story in Canada, both inside and (in particular) outside of Penguin’s anthology.” TNQ Editor Kim Jernigan explaining the project, “What if we “tweaked the beak” of the Penguin by putting together a Salon des Refuses (an exhibition of the rejected) after the famous exhibition of artists not included in the Paris Salon of 1863, many of whom… went on to greater fame than those included?”
The quality of work in these two collections, though typical of the journals themselves, speaks for itself. That I’ve been positively absorbed in these stories these last few days, and oh the joys– my very favourite thing about anthologies– of discovering magnificent writers for the very first time. Which was also the case when I read My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead this winter– Lorrie Moore! Deborah Eisenberg! How could I ever have lived without them? And of course I’m contradicting myself re. the point above, I have avidly read an anthology before. But there is a difference, you see, between readable anthologies and most other anthologies, which are more statements than books, and are 700 pages long, for example. Anthologies made for reading, I believe, are actually where the future of the printed short story lies.
My favourite line from the entire “Salon Des Refuses” belongs to Caroline Adderson in her introduction to one of the stories, “Of course, the best antidote to the disappointment of the literary life is to read.” So wise, so true, in all manner of contexts. The Salon itself an example of this, ample consolation, I hope, to those rankled by Penguin that they’ve managed to create something so wonderful beside it.
A celebration, absolutely, of some really excellent authors. And I appreciate this approach much more than the attack on the Penguin itself, and its editor. The critical pieces opening CNQ making the argument far less than the stories do– in particular the review by Michael Darling which takes single sentences from stories in the Penguin Anthology and strings them altogether to make a point (but what point? One could do that with anything). The pieces condemning Urquhart for her choices, for her background, her tastes, and giving all matter of justification for this, but in the end it really seemed to come down to “we got left out, and so did other people we like.”
Because it’s all down to sensibility, it really is. And it’s fine that these conversations are taking place because I like that I live in a world where people get angry about short stories, if they have to get angry at all. But still, nothing is definitive. Even in this wonderful collection of tales, there were some I didn’t like, and some (albeit v.v. few) that I didn’t think were very good. Oh, but the others. Really, they’re all you need. Slip them over to someone who’s hauling that Penguin, tell them, “Why not try something else?” They’re bound to be converted, just as I was. Celebration is contagious.
To discover such goodness all at once is overwhelming. Wells writing, “And if after reading the stories… you are not compelled to go searching for more of the same, well, then, I’m afraid that your case is hopeless: there’s nothing else we can do for you.” I cannot argue with the magnificence of Mark Anthony Jarman’s “Cowboys Inc.”, though I’m not sure I liked it, but I’m so glad I read it. How affected I was by Bharati Mukherje’s “The Management of Grief”. Terry Griggs’ “The Discovery of Honey” was an extraordinary tapestry of language and imagery, and I was entranced from start to finish. I liked Patricia Robertson’s “Agnes and Fox”. My favourite story was “Impossible to Die in Your Dreams” by Heather Birrell. I enjoyed “Cogagwee” by Mike Barnes, Steven Heighton’s “Five Paintings of the New Japan”, Sharon English’s “The Road to Delphi” and Russell Smith’s story. But then I always like Russell Smith’s stories, and I knew that already.
The other writers I didn’t know, however, for the most part, and I am so glad to discover. My “Must Borrow”/”Must Buy” lists ever-expanding, and it is so refreshing to be exposed to all these new (to me) voices. Exciting to know what innovations are ongoing and ever-possible, and the marvelous flexibility and potential of the short story form. I finish this collection feeling absolutely inspired– it is a triumph. You don’t even need to knock the Penguin– I haven’t read it and I’m sure I never will (and so won’t so many other people), but this collection has changed the world. No mere hyperbole, it has, if just a little bit. Congratulations to CNQ and TNQ on something wonderful. You’re going up on the shelf, but I’ll visit you again.
**And now for a PICKLE ME THIS GIVEAWAY: As I subscribe to both CNQ and TNQ, I’ve ended up with two copies of the Salon. If you live in Canada and would like a copy of one of the journals, email me your contact info at the address in the sidebar and I’ll post one of them to you. First-come/ first-served** And now CLAIMED. Lucky EG.