By Nathaniel G. Moore
A special multi-part investigation on the short story market in Canada as part of the return of Nathaniel G. Moore's popular CONFLICT OF INTEREST column. (Reader's note: As part of a special signing bonus with Open Book: Toronto, Nathaniel has agreed to release his column's return in staggered brilliance over the next few days, culminating with a trio of short fiction inspection with Toronto short-fiction writers Sarah Selecky, Matthew J. Trafford and Jessica Westhead. Over the next few days, as more sections of this column arrive, look for sound bites and commentary from Rebecca Rosenbaum, Shirarose Wilensky, Spencer Gordon, rob mclennan, Ken Sparling, Danila Botha and more.
In the ever-shortening world of text-based language, you'd think the world would be doing cart-wheels for short fiction. Maybe they are, with the inclusion of these beasties in the recent Giller Finalist showdown. Maybe the short story, as some of my guests in this series have mentioned, is poised for greatness this calendar year, and it is in fact the YOSS (Year of the Short Story). Let's whet our appetites with a discussion from a fine cast of characters as we tear apart and put back together the genre that refuses to Humpty Dumpty itself into the pages of publishing history.
Each part of this investigation will be constructed in a different way, this one is sort of oral history style.
The Agent (Kris Rothstein) The Editors (Beth Follett, Alana Wilcox, Shirarose Wilensky) The author, critic, cultural worker (rob mclennan)
Debut short fiction remains very difficult to place with a publisher; however, fiction collections can be works that really "break out" a new author and excite readers and editors alike. So, while it is easier to sell non-fiction or a novel, Canada still has a real tradition for stories and people will read them if recommended by really trusted sources. More adventurous readers seek out good short fiction published by the literary presses and journals who often support great writers who are ahead of their time or a little unfashionable, but I'm not sure there's much money in it. As an agent, I would never turn down an amazing collection just because it's a hard sell, but I don't see many amazing collections. I think I've only accepted one in four years but it did find a good publisher.
I am a reader of both short stories and novels. As I believe that the individual artist works within a landscape uniquely their own, I think new forms always come out of individual ground and cannot be imposed from outside by theorists and other game-guessers. As our culture is so extraordinarily petrified at present, it will take our most fluid and also careful and knowledgeable critics to pick out from the exorbitant production that which is truly original and daring and new and alive and "outstanding."
My approach is always the same: a careful and open scrutiny. I am looking for excellence, a loaded word, to be sure: we can hardly agree on its meaning these days, but for myself I know excellence when, in Emily Dickinson's (watch)words, I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off. Canada has produced some ingenious and masterful short fiction writers, and their work sets a high bar. I have just one short fiction title on the Pedlar list, Laurie Petrou's Between, which Globe & Mail's Jim Bartley called "Intermittently brilliant." That's close enough to how I feel about Petrou's work. But a potential blurber thought the work too uneven and unripened to endorse.
When it comes to marketing, I market excellence, regardless of genre. I pick titles and authors that I can get behind 115 per cent. I know many people who will not read short fiction. They think of it as teaser fiction, amuse bouche fiction: not the main meal. I can barely comprehend this stance. Read Lorrie Moore and be forever changed, and changed again. Alice Munro's Too Much Happiness is genius work. Raymond Carver? Astonishing. I adore brevity, intensity, the short shout. (I also adore the epic.) Many people have weighed in on why Canada produces so many excellent short story writers. I do not think short fiction is subordinated by long fiction, but it does have a different and smaller market. Like poetry, perhaps, to which one comes after grief, after transformative life experience, the road to short fiction may have been blocked for many readers by how it was taught in high school.
I love short fiction, but it’s very difficult to get attention for it. I do hope the vogue for them will return among the reading public. I love editing story collections — each book is like ten short books, which changes how I think about them, plus the fun of figuring out the order.
What makes a good short story? That becomes difficult to answer. It depends what any particular reader wants out of a short story. My preferences lean away from what most Canadian literary journals publish, the more narrative-laden straight fictions, but every so often I read something or someone within that vein that really strikes, whether Michael Redhill or Michelle Berry. Usually my tastes head over into other directions that don’t often include short fiction, at least by Canadians. Sarah Manguso short stories, for example, or recent short prose pieces by Paige Ackerson-Kiely. Short and sharp and striking.
I love short story collections (even though they don't typically sell as well as novels, which is a shame). I think they're a great way to see what a writer is capable of. They are a real test of talent and skill, in my opinion. I also look at acquiring and publishing debut short fiction collections as an exciting opportunity to start a relationship with an author (often a feisty, young emerging one) that I hope we can build together over the course of their career and more books.
Since Tightrope does the Best Canadian series (poetry, essays, and speculation fiction coming up this spring as a co-publication with ChiZine Publications); naturally, we have tossed around the idea of doing The Best Canadian Short Stories. We're just not sure yet if we want to take on that additional project and compete with the anthologies published by Oberon, the Journey Prize Anthology, etc. We don't see as much of a hole in the market there as we did for, say, essays, for example. But, we'll see, I wouldn't rule it out.
Kris Rothstein is an Associate Agent at the Carolyn Swayze Literary Agency. Prior to that, she worked for five years as an Associate Editor at Geist.
Alana Wilcox is the author of A Grammar of Endings and the Senior Editor of Toronto's Coach House Books.
Beth Follett is the author of the novel Tell it Slant and the publisher and editor of Toronto's Pedlar Press.
Shirarose Wilensky is the editor of Toronto's Tightrope Books.
rob mclennan is the author of many books of poetry and two short novels White and Missing Person (and tons of other things). He blogs at robmclennan.blogspot.com and contributes often to Open Book: Toronto.
Nathaniel G. Moore is a Toronto writer and unrestricted free agent, ecstatic to be back with Open Book:Toronto. He is the author of Wrong Bar (Tightrope, 2009) shortlisted for the 2010 ReLit Award for Best Novel.