Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Salon des Refusés at the Gladstone

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Salon des Refusés at the Gladstone

By Monique Mathew, a budding writer, curator and OCAD graduate. She lives in Toronto.

To celebrate the launch of the collaborative Salon des Refusés issues of their magazines, The New Quarterly (TNQ) and Canadian Notes and Queries (CNQ) held a panel discussion at the Gladstone Hotel on Wednesday, August 13. The launch was a This Is Not A Reading Series event, presented by Pages Books & Magazines, Biblioasis and EYE WEEKLY.

The term salon des refusés (roughly translated as "salon of rejects") originated in France during the 1800s, referring to exhibitions of art works excluded from the official exhibitions of the Academie des Beaux-Arts in Paris, better known as The Salon. These alternative salons were packed with rejected art works and became famous in their own right, boasting works by artists such as Manet and Whistler, and they were the topic of extensive writings by Emile Zola.

Daniel Wells and Kim Jernigan, the editors of CNQ and TNQ, took their cue from this idea, and each devoted an issue of their magazine to showcase a total of twenty short-fiction authors not included in The Penguin Book of Canadian Short Stories (2007). The anthology, edited by Jane Urquhart, features 69 stories by 66 authors, organized by themes of urban life, family drama, fantasy, metaphor and the immigrant experience. Upon its publication last fall, Wells and Jernigan found themselves perplexed by the authors that were excluded from the anthology. In response, they began considering who they felt should have made it into any anthology of Canadian short fiction, and collaborated to create the Salon des Refusés series, with the stories of twenty writers divided between their two magazines.

The panel discussion was moderated by Jernigan and Wells and included panelists (and Salon des Refusés writers) Heather Birrell, Adrian Michael Kelly, Sharon English, Mike Barnes and Steven Beattie. Jernigan and Wells, perching on stools at either end of the panel, introduced the evening by discussing the different tones and focuses of their magazines. TNQ, Jernigan explained, endeavours to take a celebratory approach to fiction, whereas CNQ offers its readers strong criticism. They shared a joke about their differing editorial perspectives, stating the "C" in CNQ stands for "curmudgeonly," while the "N" of TNQ stands for "nurturing." The two guided the panel in a lively discussion that examined the medium of the short story itself, the role of the anthology and the role of criticism in Canadian writing. The panelists were each engaging and were incredibly well-prepared for the discussion.

After expressing his surprise at the large turnout, critic and writer Steven Beattie spoke briefly about the problems inherent in the world of short-story writing. He theorized that the channels for the production and publication of short stories were atrophying, resulting in the increasing distance between short stories and their intended audience. Beattie wondered about the ability of audiences to read short stories today, suggesting the short story be considered more closely related to poetry in form instead of the novel, to which the short story is most often compared. By nature, short stories are rigorous in their brevity and concentration, and thus, he concluded that the short story "resists closure." Jernigan affirmed this with a Carol Shields quote: "short stories sail off into mystery."

Sharon English offered an interesting take on why the short story has not been widely embraced by readers. She theorized that people are comfortable with experimentation and non-linear narratives in the visual form, using the popularity of films like Memento and 21 Grams as examples. The reading audience, however, seems more conservative and reliant on the novel structure when reading short fiction, which prevents more experimental short fiction from finding a broad audience.

Adrian Michael Kelly stressed the high level of mastery required to write short fiction. He used the example of Martin Amis's preference for Saul Bellow's short stories over his novels. Amis felt Bellow's writing could be best experienced in the short-story format. Heather Birrell suggested that short stories require more from their audiences, as their episodic and abstract nature avoids linear narratives to describe what she called "the way moments bump up against each other." Many of the panelists took time to emphasize the difficulty of writing a short story and expressed frustration at the common perception that short fiction is either less significant than the novel, or a precursor to writing novels.

On the other hand, another panelist, Mike Barnes, questioned the idea that the short story was so difficult to write, suggesting the medium might be too privileged, with so much emphasis placed on the skill needed to write short fiction. As a writer of novels, poetry and short fiction, Barnes argued that each form is equally different and that an idea for a work is what determines the form it should take in his creative process. Sharon English agreed with the argument that an idea arrives in a particular form, explaining that an idea based on complex layering might be best for a short story as it would not benefit from the length of the novel, and might not possess the momentum to carry it forward.

When discussing literary anthologies, the panelists were equally responsive. Adrian Michael Kelly, in a rousing speech against academia, recounted a story where a young Ted Hughes struggled with his papers on English literature in college, finding the writing exercises draining and difficult. After falling asleep while writing a particularly challenging paper, he had a dream where a fox-like creature with human hands visited him. As it got closer, he could see that it was mutilated, with terrible cuts and singed fur. It looked at him, walked over to his desk and smeared its blood on Hughes's school essay, asking Hughes to stop destroying them. Hughes woke up from this dream, realized what academia was doing to his love of writing and switched his study of English to Anthropology. Soon after, he published his first book of poems. Kelly used this story as a cautionary tale, poignantly stating that "too much of what we do is brought about through a massacre of foxes." In describing the "vastly boring" and largely unread anthologies of Canadian literature that educators are forced to make their students read, Kelly joked that he felt like he was pushing his students through the endless forests, rural locations and long, unbearable winters that make the inevitable settings of the anthologized stories. Kelly calls for aesthetic excellence to be the basis of anthologies, stressing that anthologies could be "concentrated or assertive… they shouldn't be the type of books heaping in dusty shelves of used bookstores." Wells and Jernigan then mused about what would constitute the "best of" anything.

The panel soon began to run out of time before the role of criticism could be discussed. An audience member, who identified herself as involved in visual arts, writing and criticism, asked the panel for their thoughts on whether criticism has changed. Wells, who had been teased throughout the evening for his aggressively critical stance, answered the question admirably, "In order to have a vibrant culture, you need to have tough critics saying tough things about art. Rigorous, focused, aesthetic reactions to art." He went on to explain that the current inability to truly criticize would give rise to "a culture of cheerleaders."

A slightly uncomfortable moment arose when an audience member tried to question the influence of well-known short fiction writer, John Metcalf, on the works in the Salon des Refusés series. Wells easily deflected the question by explaining that most of the writers had worked with Metcalf, but that he was not consulted about who would be selected. He retorted that a more valuable question would be to ask why Penguin anthology did not select any writers that have published exclusively with small presses. The heated tone of the discussion quieted as the panel then responded to a question about the hybridity of form in the short story. The lively discussion was brought to a quick close by Jernigan and Wells due to time constraints, but the important issues raised throughout the evening will likely be pondered for some time to come by everyone in the audience.

Lisa Myers photographed the Salon des Refusés for Open Book. You can look at the photos here.

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