canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Editorial: Fiction issue #18

by Michael Bryson

When I was about halfway through reviewing the 156 short story submissions for the March 2007 issue, I started to think about what I would write for this editorial. Was there a common thread through the stories? Was there some insight that a rapid read through these submissions provided that I could share?

The first thought that came to mind was the obvious one: relationships are hard.

Relationships, intimate or otherwise, are arguably the basis of all stories. Each story has a protagonist. The protagonist wants something from someone else, from other people, perhaps even from him/herself. That desire is thwarted or complicated in unexpected ways. The story resolves the desire or doesn't, transforms the desire or doesn't, provides the protagonist with insight or not. Whatever happens, the reader is carried along on a journey. 

The "story" of the story is one element of the journey, but, in my opinion, not the major part. The artistic sense of the story, if one can forgive the pretension of that phrase, is carried by the language of the story (the diction, the sentence structure, the degree of detail and so on). This is where literary achievement begins, methinks.

In his introduction to The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel (Scribner, 2006), Rick Moody writes:

It's all about the sentences. It's about the way the sentences move in the paragraphs. It's about rhythm. It's about ambiguity. It's about the way emotion, in difficult circumstances, gets captured in language. It's about instances of consciousness. It's about besieged consciousness. It's about love trouble. It's about death. It's about suicide. It's about the body. It's about skepticism. It's against sentimentality. It's against cheap sentiment. It's about regret. It's about survival. It's about sentences used to enact and defend survival.

Sentences are the main building block of literary fiction, Moody suggests. Fair enough. Literary fiction is about articulating the complications of life, not defining life's certainties. Fair enough. Love, death, suicide, the body: these things make life hard. Fair enough. Life is about keep on keeping on, in the face of adversity: dig it. Fair enough. In this somewhat terse paragraph, Moody has begun to outline some of the foundation stones of literary fiction, and correctly identified Amy Hempel as a major proponent of it.

The 156 stories submitted to TDR for consideration for the March 2007 issue showed me that whatever fundamentalist nuttiness has infected the 21st century, there are writers all over the place that are digging for the deep stuff. Refusing certainties. Attempting to articulate "besieged consciousness." I found this tremendously inspiring. In particular because the batteries of the literary lights always need recharging. Writers are writing; are readers reading? I'm hopeful, though others are not so much.

Earlier this year, I was interviewed by the blog Conversations in the Book Trade. The first question I was asked was:

Literature is in trouble -- that is, more trouble than usual. Why do you think this is? The increasing prevalence of TV? The distractions of increasingly narcotic subcultures such as video games? Sept. 11? Or is talk of the "death of literature" simple exaggeration?

I responded, in part:

Literature has always been a sub-culture. Iím not sure video games are any more a risk to literature than television or nuclear weapons. Apparently 9/11 was a pretty big threat to literature, though, because sales of fiction fell dramatically as everyone started reading nonfiction frantically to understand what the hell was going on.

Closer to home, TDR has just published an essay by Dean Serravalle, an Ontario high school English teacher, who says that high school English teachers are to blame for their students lack of interest in literature.

Readers, are you out there? Here's four new excellent, I think, short stories:

Over French Jazz
by Michelle Miller

Black Petticoat
by Iftekhar Sayeed

Go to Sleep
by Craig Buckie

A Moment of Crisis
by Margaret Clark

Enjoy them.

Michael Bryson is the editor of TDR. His website is  







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