canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

TDR Interview: Sara Jamieson

Sara Jamieson teaches a course at the University of Calgary called "The Short Story in Canada." For a couple of years now, The Danforth Review has been conducting an informal -- and somewhat haphazard -- inquiry into the same subject. As part of this inquiry, we thought it would be interesting to ask Dr. Jamieson a few questions.

Interview by Michael Bryson (Spring 2006)


First, could you say something briefly about yourself. What's your connection to the subject? Why are you drawn to the subject? How did the course at U of C come about?

I'm a postdoctoral fellow in the department of English at the University of Calgary, and I'm currently at work on a project on Alice Munro -- one of my all-time favourite short story writers. As a postdoc, I'm given the opportunity to design and teach courses that are connected in some way with my research. I thought that a course on Canadian short stories would be a good chance for me to learn more about the history and the field of Canadian short fiction (before this, I specialized in Canadian poetry) and about the critical and theoretical discussions surrounding the genre.

Are there canonical or touchstone texts on this subject (i.e., essays or books that have framed the discourse in one way or another -- texts that all students of the subject ought to be introduced to)?

Edgar Allen Poe's 1837 review of Hawthorne's Twice-Told Tales is still important reading because it really inaugurated critical discussion of short fiction (at least in North America) and was very influential for subsequent theorists of the genre. Brander Matthews' 1901 "The Philosophy of the Short Story" is also important in this regard.

I'm especially interested in how short story theory has shifted over the years from being primarily concerned with defining and identifying supposedly essential and universal elements to a recognition of genre as a social and historical construct. Mary Louis Pratt's essay "The Long and the Short of It," for example, examines how our expectations of what a short story is and does are produced by its asymmetrical relationship to the novel, alongside which it developed, and in comparison to which it has been historically regarded as a lesser genre.

As for discussions of the short story in Canada, I like Frank Davey's essay "Genre Subversion in the English Canadian Short Story," which argues that the Canadian short story developed along very different lines from its Anglo-American counterparts. And of course, W.H. New's book Dreams of Speech and Violence, as well as Gerald Lynch's work on English Canadian short story cycles are also important texts.

Did the short story in Canada develop along different lines from its Ango-American counterparts? What was/is unique about the short story in Canada?

Davey makes the point that a particular kind of short story (the stories from James Joyce's Dubliners are often held up as the primary example) has been canonized as a kind of universal standard for short fiction writing. These are stories that can seem to exemplify Modernist or New Critical values like compression, unity, universality, a focus on character rather than event, an epiphanic moment of truth or revelation etc.. 

What Davey points out is how many examples of short fiction produced in Canada don't really fit this description: Charles G.D. Roberts' animal fables; the sketches of Moodie and Leacock; even the stories of "good" modernist writers like Morley Callaghan and Sinclair Ross employ mixed generic codes that problematize their interpretation according to the standards that I mentioned above. 

I wouldn't argue that there is anything uniquely Canadian about this kind of generic flexibility; rather, I would say that the forms that short fiction has taken in Canada can be used to question the universalist bias of much short story criticism, and make visible its ideological slant.

Some younger Canadian writers such as Peter Darbyshire in a recent feature in The Danforth Review have suggested that the short story in Canada is too predictable, too staid, too pastoral, realistic, etc., in comparison to stories by USAmerican writers such as George Saunders and Annie Proulx. Im not sure I agree with this, since it seems to me there are a number of experimental of short story books published every year in Canada. However, there does seems to be an unnaturally large number of writers imitating Alice Munros style, rural-focus and subject matter at the same time as the country is becoming increasingly urban, multi-ethnic and globalized. Im not sure I have a question here. Maybe, is the short story particularly prone to housing nostaliga? Has the genre kept up with the times?

Yes, I'm familiar with these complaints. I seem to remember Ray Robertson accusing Munro of inadvertently ruining an entire generation of Canadian short story writers by making them all want to write like her. Being a huge Munro fan, I'm not sure what to make of this. I don't think it's fair to Munro: does she really only write about rural life? What about all those stories set in Vancouver and Australia and Albania? I also wonder who makes up this "unnaturally large" number of Munro imitators? Madeleine Thien is a writer whose work is often compared to Munro's these days, and she writes about Asian communities in Vancouver, so is the Munro influence necessarily all that limiting?

Your question about the short story housing nostalgia is fascinating. I don't know if I have a ready answer for that, but, teaching this course, I have been especially struck by how many of the stories we're covering are about childhood remembered: not only Thien's "Simple Recipes," but Antanas Sileika's "The Man Who Read Voltaire," David Bezmozgis' "The Second Strongest Man," Isabel Huggan's "End of the Empire," Timothy Findley's "Stones" to name just a few. So there may be something to what you say, but I wouldn't say that these texts are generating nostalgia in an unexamined or uninterrogated way.

As for the perceived lack of experiemental short fiction being produced these days, George Bowering laments that there is something about the short story that fails to interest Canada's more experimental writers like Robert Kroetsch and Michael Ondaatje, but it seems to me that, as you say, there are plenty of writers out there experimenting with short fiction. They just never seem to get included in those anthologies of Canadian short fiction that are not expressly devoted to experimental writing. I'm not sure why this has to be the case, and it is an issue for me in the class I'm teaching. The students really liked P.K. Page's "Ex Libris," one of a few non-realist inclusions in the anthology I'm using;. (Incidentally, it's interesting, in view of your association of the experimental with "younger Canadian writers" that Page is the oldest living writer on my course!) Anyway, the students have expressed an interest in reading more experimental writing. If I were to teach this course again, I think I might include some selections from Zoe Whittall's Geeks, Misfits, and Outlaws or some of the short pieces in Christian Bk's Ground Works. It would also be interesting, in view of the tautological tendency of much short story criticism ("a short story is a story that is short"), to approach the whole question of brevity by looking at some examples of microfiction. So I think that the genre has definitely kept up with the times, and, if my students are any indication, there is lots of interest among young readers for new Canadian short fiction.

Michael Bryson is the editor of The Danforth Review and a short story writer.







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