“The thing about the short story is that yes, it is small,” writes Scottish author and raconteur A.L. Kennedy, in the print version of an address given at Edge Hill University in 2006. “[B]ut it is small in the way that a bullet is small.” No one would deny the impact that even a small-calibre bullet – a .22, say – might have on a human body. This tiny piece of metal, packed with a miniscule amount of gunpowder surrounded by a cartridge casing and a primer, has the potential to wreak enormous damage, to change or even end lives. This, Kennedy suggests, is tantamount to the potential energy carried in a short story. “[T]he whole thing about a short story is that you’re trying to give it the punch that will hit your reader and blow their fucking head off.”
Some would no doubt cavil with the violence contained in the metaphor; such critics would also miss the point. Because, where technique in short fiction is concerned, the violence is the point. The brevity of the form, the concentration, the elision, and the verbal legerdemain a successful story requires practically insist that short fiction, in its force and effect, wreaks havoc on its reader. The best stories, the ones that endure and get passed down through generations, leave their readers shaken, shell shocked, as though the top of their head has been blown off.
Kennedy’s comment is quoted approvingly by both Dan Wells, publisher of Windsor, Ontario, small press Biblioasis, and editor John Metcalf, both of whom know a thing or two about short fiction. Wells and Metcalf individually reach for Kennedy’s apercu while discussing the literary form in the context of the long-running anthology series Best Canadian Stories, which turns fifty this year. The 2021 volume, guest edited by Kingston writer Diane Schoemperlen, came out from Biblioasis in October. A fiftieth anniversary omnibus – a kind of best of Best Canadian Stories, is due out in May 2022.
As it happens, the recourse to Kennedy’s bullet comparison dovetails nicely with Schoemperlen’s own approach to editing Best Canadian Stories 2021. Asked what her first principle for detecting a good story was, Schoemperlen speaks in terms that echo Kennedy, albeit with fewer lethal connotations. “The stories to which I felt an immediate connection were the ones that just made me say, ‘Wow!’” she says. “It’s a visceral reaction that doesn’t necessarily need to be picked apart to figure out why you feel that way.” Short fiction, at its best, evokes a response that is almost somatic in nature; this quality is on evidence in the new volume of Best Canadian Stories, as it is throughout the history of this august anthology series.
Originally conceived by the late writer David Helwig and editor Tom Marshall, the annual’s first iteration, in 1971, was called Fourteen Stories High and contained previously unpublished work. The book appeared with the now-dormant Ottawa publisher Oberon Press. When Marshall bowed out of the second edition, then called New Canadian Stories, Helwig recruited Joan Harcourt as co-editor. Metcalf came aboard to replace Helwig in 1975; when author Clark Blaise succeeded Harcourt in 1977, the series’ name was formally changed to Best Canadian Stories. “I had been deeply affected by the Best American Short Stories volumes being put out by [series editor] Martha Foley,” says Metcalf. “She unerringly picked out the best of the Americans. If you wanted to find out what was happening in the short story, which was very often to find out what was happening in the United States, you just had to read her.”
Metcalf was particularly struck by the success Foley achieved in discovering substantial American writers like John Updike and Philip Roth at the very start of their careers, before they became household names. And Foley’s selections, for Metcalf, were united by a staunch insistence on quality that he wanted to import for the series’ Canadian counterpart. “The focus that I wanted was to present what was in my opinion the best,” says Metcalf, with a definitive emphasis on the final two words. “The function of it was the pleasure of the work for readers, and the value to writers was to show them how good they had to get.”
As it turns out, writers had to get very, very good in order to share space in the annual anthology alongside figures like Alice Munro, Mavis Gallant, Margaret Atwood, Rohinton Mistry, Leon Rooke, Lisa Moore, and, later, Rebecca Rosenblum, Shashi Bhat, Casey Plett, Naben Ruthnum, Souvankham Thammavongsa, and Amy Jones. Even a cursory glance at some of the names who have appeared in the series over the past half-century should give readers an indication of the range and stylistic diversity of this country’s short fiction practitioners, a situation that has resulted in the form developing into a central plank in Biblioasis’s publishing platform.
Wells was so convinced of the short story’s prominence in the pantheon of Canadian writing that when Nicholas Macklem, son of Oberon’s recently deceased founder, Michael Macklem, decided 2016 would be the last year the house would produce an edition of Best Canadian Stories, Biblioasis jumped at the opportunity to take over the project. “We hustled to make sure we didn’t miss a year,” Wells says.
The 2017 edition was edited by Metcalf, who had been sole editor since 2007 (with interregnums featuring David Helwig and his daughter, Maggie Helwig, Sandra Martin, and Douglas Glover). When the project moved to Biblioasis from Oberon, Metcalf decided the time was right to take a step back. “I’d been doing this for 10 years and I was getting tired,” Metcalf says. “And I was also beginning to think my voice was getting dominant in the whole thing.”
Accordingly, he suggested to Wells that Biblioasis switch to a model more closely resembling Best American Short Stories, with a different guest editor each year. This would provide an opportunity for an even broader range of voices, since each successive editor could be expected to have an individual sensibility, taste, and approach to the job. What was essential was that the writers chosen be proficient in the form themselves.
This was not an arbitrary consideration. The two most prominent single-volume anthologies of Canadian short fiction in the past quarter-century – the 1990 volume From Ink Lake and 2007’s The Penguin Book of Canadian Short Stories – were edited by writers (Michael Ondaatje and Jane Urquhart, respectively) whose lack of experience with the short-fiction form resulted in major omissions and questionable inclusions. Finding writers who understood the form, Wells thought, would help to ensure a more rigorous editorial eye. “I think it’s really important for writers who are versed in the technical difficulties of the form to be involved in the selection of stories,” he says. “They read them differently.”
Schoemperlen, who was chosen as guest editor for 2021 following stints by Russell Smith, Caroline Adderson, and Paige Cooper, not only reads stories differently, she often writes them differently from her contemporaries. A noted prose stylist, Schoemperlen’s stories frequently experiment with form; it comes as little surprise that the fifteen selections for this year’s Best Canadian Stories are a heterodox mixture, from the surreal opener, Senaa Ahmad’s “Let’s Play Dead” (about Henry VIII trying to rid himself of Anne Boleyn, though every time he has her executed she inconveniently returns from the dead) to Elise Levine’s typically challenging entry “Arnhem” and Lucia Gagliese’s fragmented psychodrama “Through the Covid-Glass.” Gagliese’s story begins on March 20, 2020, and is broken up into short sections, each headed by the numbers of COVID deaths and cases in Canada for the particular day on which it occurs.
“I felt that there had to be a COVID story in this book,” says Schoemperlen, who writes in her introduction about the brain fog she succumbed to during the pandemic lockdowns – a condition that prevented her from writing herself. One of her salvations, she writes, was immersing herself in short fiction over the year she read and evaluated selections from fifty print and online journals before making her final selections. (In addition to the fifteen stories included in the volume, fifteen “Notable Stories of 2020” are also listed at the end.)
“I really do like a story that takes a risk in some way,” says Schoemperlen, by way of extrapolating on her criteria for choosing one story over another. While much of her own work plays with form, the risks she found other writers taking also included areas of voice and structure and subject matter. One thing that surprised her was that, for a writer most comfortable in a realist mode, many of her choices were anti-realist pieces. This, Schoemperlen feels, is a testament to the vast array of approaches short fiction allows for. “It really is an unlimited form,” she says.
For a form that is so extensive and vibrant, it might appear odd that readers and publishers seem reluctant to pick up short fiction. It’s almost axiomatic that books of short stories don’t sell, though Wells becomes noticeably impatient when this idea gets voiced. “I actually don’t think it’s true that short story collections necessarily sell worse than other things,” he says. The notion that books of short fiction don’t sell is, in Wells’s conception, a self-fulfilling prophecy that might end if people stopped repeating it.
Both Wells and Schoemperlen are cheered by the wealth of new talent they see, though Wells does suggest that institutional resistance risks discouraging writers from pursuing short fiction over the course of a career. “My concern is the pressures [writers] face from publishers and, in particular, from agents to abandon it,” he says. This, however, is one reason why his dedication to publishing Best Canadian Stories remains so stalwart. “Hopefully, year after year, these snapshots will show people what’s possible.”