The Return of Political Fiction

How a new generation of Canadian writers is turning politics into art

Rows of books on a shelf
Paul Schafer / Unsplash

Italo Calvino’s Difficult Loves wasn’t the first collection of short stories I ever read, but it was the collection that made me a lover of the form. The stories in Difficult Loves date from the late forties and early fifties; they had none of the postmodern cleverness Calvino became famous for in later decades, and the prose wasn’t particularly virtuosic (at least in William Weaver’s translation; I cannot speak for the Italian). But something about how Calvino condensed an entire universe of thought and feeling into a few pages, as he does in “The Adventure of a Married Couple,” opened my eyes to what a good story can do.

“The Adventure of a Married Couple” details a day in the life of a husband and wife working opposite shifts at the same factory. When the husband, Arturo, comes home in the morning, his wife, Elide, is just waking up. When she goes off to start her day, Arturo goes to bed, inching over onto Elide’s side because it is still warm. So much is suggested in these brief interactions: the unnatural mechanics of industrial living, the exploitation of the working classes under capitalism, the animal tenderness of love. Calvino was a member of the Italian Communist Party at the time, and perhaps he intended the story to have a political dimension. But, whatever critique of dehumanizing labour conditions may be implicitly present in the text, it is Calvino’s ability to draw out the quiet dignity of these people, to unlock the story of their lives through the barest fact of their existence—literally, the human warmth of their bodies—that makes it not a parable or a pamphlet but literature. Arturo and Elide, the eponymous married couple, exist for me.

In the years since I first came across Difficult Loves, I have come to suspect that what I found so enchanting about it was not only the content of the individual pieces, or Calvino’s deceptively simple style, but the way he used the compactness of the form to clarify the world, to make it realer and more alive. Perhaps because the short story is often less reliant on plot than the novel, which unfolds according to the inexorable logic of action and reaction, cause and effect, the short story is more nearly able to capture experiences of revelation and disillusionment. The ways individual stories do this, of course, are as infinite and varied as literature, which is why literary criticism is as inexhaustible as fiction itself.

I was put in mind of all this when reading John Metcalf’s new book, The Canadian Short Story. Few editors or critics have done more to argue for the relevance of the form in this country than Metcalf: in a career spanning more than five decades, he has nurtured, anthologized, and brow-beaten two generations of Canadian writers into taking the potential of his particular brand of short story seriously. The Canadian Short Story is his summa (literally: several sections are directly reprinted or drawn from earlier books), a sprawling and not always coherent defence of the short-story tradition he has been an acolyte to since he first came across Katherine Mansfield in a deserted school library.

Metcalf’s taste in short fiction is highly specific: he dismisses everything written before the First World War as “tales,” which he defines as narrative confections less interested in style than in content, and by so doing collapses everyone from Edgar Allan Poe to Edith Wharton into a dreary sameness. For Metcalf, the modern short story (the only kind that matters) began when writers rejected these supposedly plot-centred tales for a style that built emotional resonance through carefully delineated images. A Mansfield story, he argues, exists not to communicate information but to engage the reader through its aesthetic richness; this, for Metcalf, is the standard against which all contemporary short fiction must be judged.

In Metcalf’s analysis, Canadian critics in the second half of the twentieth century (and the first part of the twenty-first) were seduced by misplaced concern for political, social, and moral issues into treating fiction primarily as a vehicle for ideas rather than promoting prose that is “alive.” To counter this perceived heterodoxy, he offers a 442-page “Century List” consisting of the fifty short story writers Metcalf declares to be the best Canada has produced since 1900. (Actually, none of the stories were written earlier than 1950, and many of them were written after 2000—a span of time that just happens to coincide with his own career.) It is an exercise, he notes in the list’s introduction, that he hopes will be a “starting point for a literary discussion which has not yet taken place but that is essential for our literary sanity.”

But, by treating the short story as a purely aesthetic object, Metcalf severs the beauty of prose from the profundity of what it communicates. This not only hampers his appreciation of writers who can’t pretend beauty is apolitical but ignores what makes the writers he does champion worthy of praise. In many cases, it is even at odds with his own practice as a critic. As the culmination of Metcalf’s tastemaking, The Canadian Short Story reveals the risks of insisting on the supremacy of one’s palate: it leads to a cramped vision of literature, one that cannot provide a full account of its pleasures.

Metcalf frames the Century List as a connoisseur’s notes on a lifetime of reading. It contains both the famous (Alice Munro, Mavis Gallant) and the relatively obscure (Libby Creelman, Shaena Lambert) and goes rather heavy on Metcalf’s colleagues and the writers he has published and edited. He does not explain how these writers do or do not participate in a larger tradition, or show the lines of influence that tie Alice Munro to K.D. Miller, or delineate trends. In short, he doesn’t do a lot of the work traditionally involved in literary criticism. Instead, Metcalf points to his favourite passages and talks about what makes them work as literature.

The most generous thing to say about Metcalf’s list is that it models a certain way of interacting with language. He has an editor’s attention to the way a thousand little decisions related to diction and syntax and punctuation come together to create the experience of a text. For a generation of writers who seem to have been reared to attend more to content than construction, his attention to mechanics is salutary. Furthermore, his close readings of stories (of which there are many) can be quite sensitive to the ways that larger meanings emanate from particular words or turns of phrase. The problem is that large parts of the book are given over to sweeping, needlessly bellicose generalizations that not only are unhelpful for understanding how fiction works but that indeed fly in the face of his close readings themselves.

Probably the best example of this is his take on Mavis Gallant’s collection The Pegnitz Junction. Though he spends the first part of The Canadian Short Story excoriating Canadian critics for their “scarcely comprehensible forays into sociology, politics, philosophy, race, feminism, [and] sexual orientation,” he quotes approvingly, in his entry on Gallant, from an interview in which she says, “I would think that everything is political, in a certain sense, in people’s lives.” And, while he provides a gloss noting that “her concern is the individual within the structure,” elsewhere he acknowledges that The Pegnitz Junction “probes what it is in us, the man in the street, as it were, that makes us culpable in the horrors of the twentieth century.” Of course, to speak about the individual within the structure is still to speak about the structure, and if Gallant’s journey into the haunted byways of postfascist Germany doesn’t constitute a foray into “sociology, politics, philosophy, [and] race,” then what does?

I don’t think it is possible to understand this glaring contradiction without seeing how it is related to another alarming fact about the Century List: almost every writer on the list, if not all of them, are white. I suspect that Metcalf, as a stubborn opponent of political correctness, would say there simply weren’t any writers of colour who made the cut. But anyone who has read Austin Clarke—another twentieth-century Canadian heavyweight steeped in the modernist tradition—might protest that Clarke wrote precisely the kind of imagistic short stories Metcalf holds in such high regard, and that he did so using tools very similar to the ones Metcalf praises. So why does Clarke not make the list when other writers Metcalf clearly disdains (such as Margaret Laurence) do?

It is in the face of this question that Metcalf’s entire critical position collapses. The authority of a connoisseur relies on their ability to discern the good from the bad based on a clear set of criteria. But what is Metcalf’s criteria for a good short story? That it delivers a heightened aesthetic experience. And how do we know a story has delivered this experience? Because the connoisseur has experienced it. Follow this logic any distance at all and it reveals itself as the solipsism of the fundamentalist. This story is good because I find it beautiful, and because I find it beautiful, it is good. If fiction by Clarke (or Dionne Brand, or Rohinton Mistry, or André Alexis, or Lee Maracle) doesn’t provide Metcalf with a heightened aesthetic experience, it can only be because it is deficient, not because Metcalf isn’t sensitive to its particular nuances and insights.

The problems with The Canadian Short Story can, I think, be summed up by the industrial metaphor Metcalf uses to explain why the “social ends” of a story should be separated from its aesthetic experience. “The reader’s engagement with the world may be deepened, enriched,” he writes, “but such possible experiences are always strictly a by-product.” In other words, any pleasure or joy we feel from having our relationships with the world deepened by a story is a “by-product,” according to Metcalf, “of being aesthetically devastated.” But how can we so mechanistically separate the experience of “being aesthetically devastated” from the experience of having our engagement with the world deepened? Isn’t enrichment the point of devastation? I believe the American critic Lionel Trilling got closer to the truth when he noted that “from the earth of the novelist’s prose spring his characters, his ideas, and even his story itself.” Trilling’s metaphor suggests a more organic relationship between form and content. A fertile style brings forth new ideas while an exhausted style becomes sterile.

For all Metcalf’s acuity as an editor and zealousness as a proponent of craft, better guides are needed to steer us into the future of the Canadian short story, whose best contemporary practitioners shine not only for the sharpness of their images and the shimmering illusions of their prose but for the ways they focus our attention back on the world around us.

In 2017, Metcalf stepped down as editor of the long-running Best Canadian Stories series. Starting in the early seventies, Metcalf edited eighteen editions of the anthology, and he is probably the person most responsible for keeping it alive so long. Under his editorship, the series played a significant role in enshrining his views on the genre and bolstering the careers of his favourite writers. So it was not particularly surprising that the person asked to helm the 2018 edition was Russell Smith, a novelist and short-story writer who has been edited by Metcalf and appears on his Century List.

Smith may be a writer Metcalf approves of, but he does not share Metcalf’s disregard for plot. In his introduction to Best Canadian Stories 2018, Smith is candid about the fact that the pieces contained therein are not context-free bursts of aesthetic rapture. Good art, in Smith’s opinion, “situates the political in the body and the landscape,” and in doing so, “rises above argument.” Fiction gives us room to take in a narrative or situation without rushing to judgement, and for this reason, “art has a role that polemic does not.” The ultimate value of art, in Smith’s view, is its ability to let us experience the mess of life without needing to immediately pass judgement on it. “If fiction does anything at all,” he says, “it enables us to sympathize with the guilty.”

But what does it mean for art to “rise above argument”? If fiction is going to let us sympathize with the guilty, it must first suggest that someone is, indeed, guilty. I suspect the distinction Smith is trying to elaborate is between art that is complex and human, that thrives on ambiguity, and a kind of crude, programmatic propaganda. But I am less convinced than Smith that such a neat division exists and more inclined to agree with George Orwell’s assessment that all art is propaganda. Art, in other words, marshals our sympathies in certain directions and presents particular ways of looking at the world.

The evidence for this lies in Smith’s own selections. Take Lynn Coady’s “Someone Is Recording,” which consists of a series of emails sent by an increasingly desperate male professor to a former student who has just written an essay divulging an unspecified wrongdoing of the professor’s (presumably of a sexual nature). The writing is forced and awkward, but it is forced and awkward because the professor is a pompous, self-regarding mediocrity whose genuinely sinister refusal to take responsibility for his actions is rendered darkly comic by his bland, aw-shucks prose. Coady is using ugliness to illuminate ugliness, and it would seem disingenuous to suggest that she isn’t drawing a bead on systemic misogyny.

Something similar is happening in Michael LaPointe’s “Candidate” (originally published in The Walrus magazine), a story about a young apparatchik running an insurgent political campaign of a lamentably recognizable populist stamp. The restrained, unornamented prose in which the narrator tells the story of how his nihilistic reactionary politics grew out an adolescence shaped by The Simpsons and execution videos draws attention to how viciously banal, how predictable such politics are. “Candidate” may be about the weaponization of the id, but LaPointe’s counterintuitive decision to tell it in the icy prose of the superego is the key to its power. In the twenty-first century, LaPointe suggests, political chaos is unleashed not by anarchists, but by disciplined professionals who understand just how big the audience for anarchy is.

Not all the pieces in Best Canadian Stories 2018 are pulled from the headlines in such overt ways. But, in a noisily political age, a lot of writing does tend to be about politics—how could it not? Even the selections by Lisa Moore and Kathy Page, masters of the poetic style Metcalf celebrates, have emotional impacts that come directly from their female protagonists’ senses of vulnerability and helplessness in a world that punishes them for both domesticity and independence. Moore’s “Visitation” and Page’s “Inches” cannot be crudely reduced to political programs, but they channel a particularly female kind of humiliation and rage. To elevate the sophistication of their diction over the quiet devastation of their narratives is to mutilate them, to deny something essential in the work.

But the stories that stand out to me as being the best in the collection—Tom Thor Buchanan’s “A Dozen Stomachs,” Alicia Elliott’s “Tracks,” and David Huebert’s “Six Six Two Fifty”—are notable less for the ways their styles reflect certain political realities than for how they simultaneously present experiences of narrative and undermine them through the quiet and intentional use of language. It is here that Metcalf’s iron curtain separating form from content is most clearly revealed to be a complex and porous boundary.

Tom Thor Buchanan’s marvellous “A Dozen Stomachs” presents thirteen short fragments, which collectively constitute a narrative that does not so much unfold as emerge. Some of the fragments consist of informative facts about human and bovine stomachs, while others treat the stomach as a metonym for a character struggling with their relationship to food. (“A stomach is stealing food from its roommate. The stomach doesn’t buy any groceries because the stomach isn’t eating right now.”)

At first, the device seems like a kind of MFA-workshop gimmick—a story about hunger that swaps out the protagonist’s name for the word stomach, how clever! But, as the fragments unfold, the matter-of-fact narration and the stomach’s slow-burn yearning to “slough off all this matter” become strangely affecting, so that when the thirteenth and final fragment gives way to a dream about the destruction of the world, the apocalypticism feels both revelatory and comforting. The language becomes lyrical, even playful. (“As the continents draw together they are overjoyed to see one another. It has been such a long time. They embrace. That is to say, the continents hug. Great Britain and the Carolinas are vaporized.”) A story about the fleshy quality of human life becomes a story about its transience, and when the world is left without people or stomachs, the gimmick’s cleverness is revealed to be the deepest kind of tenderness.

“Tracks” is less experimental, but subtler and more self-aware. The story opens with a birth, then we realize that it is not the birth itself we are watching but a video of it. In the video, the narrator’s cousin Laura is bringing her daughter, Sherry, into the world; the viewing is interrupted by the narrator’s husband, Tom, who tells her it is time to go to Laura and Sherry’s funeral. At the funeral itself, the narrator, Em, is waylaid by a Toronto Star reporter who wants to write an article that will “set the record straight” about Laura’s death. Laura ended her life, and Sherry’s, in a very public way, and because she is Mohawk, all kinds of nasty racist insinuations have been made in the press. Em tells the reporter to fuck off, then goes inside and begins comforting Laura’s bereaved husband, Roy. It is at this point that Em reveals she and Roy had been circling an affair and had been together the night Laura ended her life.

In some ways, the entire story is contained in the stark final sentences: “I don’t remember what I ate for dinner that night, what I wore, what lie I told Tom to get out of the house. I don’t remember anything that Roy and I talked about. But I remember the hollow of her voice, or at least I tell myself I do.” In the last nine syllables, Elliott captures the sense of ambivalence about the very act of storytelling that has been slowly building since the story’s first scene, when the camera zoomed out and revealed that what looked like a birth was the prelude to a funeral.

Stories are defined by what is left out; this is especially true of the ones we tell ourselves. It is not that Em is an unreliable narrator, for one does not get the sense that she is trying to deceive. It is rather that she is struggling, as all narrators must, with what parts of the story to tell and what parts to leave out. She is also struggling with the self-serving deception of memory. The real knight’s move lies in Elliott’s decision to embed this truth in the experience of reading the story, to implicate her readers in the story’s slow revelation. Am I, as a reader, substantially any different from the squalid Star reporter who enters the narrative confident she knows who she’s dealing with? There is beautiful writing here, but what keeps me coming back is not just those devastating final lines but the experience of getting to them, the way each rereading creates not less ambiguity but more.

I feel the same way about the final sentence of David Huebert’s “Six Six Two Fifty,” the story of a hockey enforcer trying to keep his life together after a divorce. Huebert (another Metcalf protege) builds his story, about a stoic enforcer’s frustrated ambitions and the bad conscience he feels over leaving his cancer-surviving wife, through a series of gorgeous and disturbing images. A pool of blood on the ice is “like a rose blooming out of a snowbank.” The protagonist feels, at one point, like “a grave that has been dug up and left open.”

Huebert doesn’t deal in sudden revelations, but I still think the final sentence reframes the entire story. In the middle of one of his usual staged fights, the enforcer finally breaks and starts attacking an opposing player in earnestness: “And even as I keep pounding I know that none of this is reversible, that this choice cannot be undone, and so there is nothing to do but keep swinging, keep trouncing, keep mashing this mask until it curdles, leaks the matter of its making.”

To my ear, this sentence contains a telling shift in register, one that leaves behind the story’s standard-issue realist prose to go deep into the Anglo-Saxon roots of the English language, dredging up the ancient alliterations, rhythms, and caesuras of Beowulf. In this remarkable shift, the enforcer’s tawdry life is telescoped into an ancient tradition of masculine brutality; we see its tawdriness, but we also understand that this tawdriness was there even among Beowulf’s noble Danish warriors at Heorot. All celebrations of masculine violence are implicated in it.

The stories Smith has selected for his anthology are all about something. And, I suppose, it is true that, as Metcalf puts it, “most abouts are simple.” But I cannot help thinking that Metcalf’s reductive understanding of short fiction forecloses on something essential in literature. Most stories are about ordinary life: about the suffering we experience in unequal measure and the meaning and pleasure people find in spite of it. These truths are known from an early age, and it is easy to become inured to them.

A good short story is a defibrillator that shocks us to consciousness and briefly restores our sense of wonder. Storytelling has always done this, and if the particular kind of literary short fiction that arose in the shadow of capitalism and bourgeois society dies away, other forms will arise to fulfill this vital role. For the time being, however, I will turn to the kind of short story I first discovered when reading Difficult Loves, and which I have discovered in the work of countless short-story writers since. Not only because these stories offer memorable images or vivacious prose but because they remind me that the world is real, and I am in it.

André Forget
André Forget (@AYForget) is a contributing editor to Canadian Notes & Queries and former editor-in-chief of The Puritan. Based in Toronto, he currently lives in Yoshkar-Ola, Russia.