One thing you’ll notice about our list of underrated authors: the vast majority of them are short-story writers. It’s difficult to countenance the lack of interest in short fiction here in Canada, given that it’s the best thing we do as far as our literature is concerned. True, Gaston is also a novelist – and his 2000 novel The Good Body is one of the most criminally underrated Canadian books of the last 15 years – but it’s in his short stories that he is at the peak of his powers. Surprisingly, given the short form’s constraints in terms of space, it is here that Gaston feels most free to be stylistically adventurous; his stories are funny and sad, often at the same time, rich in literary allusion, and honed to a razor’s sharpness. Whether they are riffing on Malcolm Lowry or the notion that every red-blooded American needs only two things – a gun and a beanbag chair – Gaston’s stories are scabrous, inventive, and above all, fun.
As Philip Marchand has said of “Canada’s greatest unsung writer”: “It is testament to the vagaries of literary reputation on this wilful and iniquitous planet of ours that Clark Blaise remains unknown to most Canadian readers.” Those who have read Blaise will likely be familiar with his non-fiction bestseller Time Lord, not the four volumes of his Collected Stories that have sold somewhere in the low hundreds. Though he became a member of the Order of Canada in 2009, Blaise has never won a GG. And yet his body of work – and one can speak of it as a coherent body – is an entertaining and profound monument to the craft of the short story.
Another sometime novelist (her new novel, The Sky is Falling, is out in September), Adderson is one of this country’s best – and least heralded – short-story writers. Like Lisa Moore, Adderson’s stories have been characterized as “difficult” by people groomed to expect some neat moral at the close, or some clever twist à la Poe or Maupassant. Adderson, who rightly acknowledges that stories are closer in spirit to poetry than to novels, is more interested in language than in traditional notions of plot or character development; her stories are small stylistic masterpieces. Never showy or ornate, they epitomize Jonathan Swift’s prescription for good writing: “Proper words in proper places.” Although in Adderson’s case, the word “proper” should be understood as “unexpected and delightful.”
Do a Wikipedia search for “Ray Smith” and you’ll be taken to a disambiguation page with six Ray Smiths, a list that includes a noted American entomologist, but no Canadian author of that name. This is one indication of how far Smith is from ever having “arrived.” And it’s a shame because in a long – and, to be honest, wildly uneven – career Smith has written some of the most truly original books ever published in this country. It’s hard to think of another writer we have who has pushed the form of the novel as far, and few whose best work so demands our attention.
Nominated for a Governor General’s Literary Award for her first novel, Strange Heaven, Coady has yet to receive the broad recognition she deserves, despite a string of books that are as diverse as they are engaging. Coady writes with an authority and power that belies her relatively young age. Unafraid to shy away from tough subjects – addiction, physical and psychological abuse, mental illness – her books are nevertheless bracingly funny and full of life. Her facility with dialogue (frequently laden with profanities) is matched by few writers in this country, and her style is as direct and forceful as a roundhouse to the temple. Her 2006 novel Mean Boy, a satire of writers and academics that is infinitely livelier than anything Robertson Davies ever produced, was woefully overlooked by the award juries that year, proving once again that unpretentious novels that dare to have a sense of humour have no place in the upper echelons of CanLit.
Glover might seem like an odd choice, since he did win the GG in 2003 for Elle, but it was a review of that book in Maclean’s that also identified him as “probably the most eminent unknown Canadian writer alive” (he was a student of Clark Blaise, you see). And how much has changed? Glover’s transgressive brand of historical fiction hasn’t won him the wide readership that more conventional practitioners of the form enjoy, and his short stories have received about as much attention as those of any other short story writer whose name isn’t Alice Munro. He deserves a higher profile.
Another odd choice, perhaps, since Smith has never been far from the media spotlight. But he has become (in)famous more for his somewhat intemperate commentary on gender politics and his columns on men’s fashion than for his fiction. Like Coady, Smith’s first novel (How Insensitive) was nominated for the GG, but he’s been pretty much ignored by award juries since then, despite the fact that his 2004 novel Muriella Pent is hands down one of the best Canadian novels of the new century. Smith provokes strong reactions from people who haven’t read him; were they to do so, they would discover one of the finest prose stylists working in Canada today.
In 2006 a landmark work in Canadian poetry was published: Time’s Covenant, essentially Eric Ormsby’s collected poems to date. You wouldn’t have known this, or for that matter, even known about the book at all, from its reception, as it was widely ignored by reviewers and didn’t even get shortlisted for a GG. But then, Ormsby’s whole career has been mostly spent below the media radar and off the prize lists. Could it be that he isn’t considered Canadian enough? One hopes not. Though born in the U.S. and now living in England, Ormsby is one of the two or three best English-language poets we can fairly lay claim to. A fact that should be recognized someday.
Schoemperlen has built a career out of experimenting with form in fiction. Her novels and short stories have won praise from a small coterie of admiring readers, and her 1998 collection Forms of Devotion even won a Governor General’s award. But none of that has resulted in her catching on with the broad mainstream of CanLit consumers. Perhaps her formal experimentation – stories that use multiple choice questions rather than a traditional narrative, or a novel (In the Language of Love) built around the 100 stimulus words on the psychological Word Association Test – is too challenging for readers more accustomed to the soothing, easily digested fiction of certain writers on the previous list. But Schoemperlen’s abiding themes are not far removed from those of Alice Munro or Carol Shields; if readers would simply open themselves to something a bit more stylistically unfamiliar, they might discover a world of riches they never knew existed.
Most of the writers on our underrated list are veterans who have spent their careers toiling in the suburbs of oblivion. Sharon English, however, is still an up-and-comer, with only two story collections under her belt – though they should have been enough in themselves to raise her profile considerably. Her debut, Uncomfortably Numb, stood out as a strong collection of linked coming-of-age stories (no mean feat in this country), but it was Zero Gravity that really announced her arrival as one of our sharpest new talents, wedding precision of language to a remarkable moral and imaginative range. That it made it onto the Giller longlist was slight consolation, given the presence of both Ondaatje and Vassanji in that year’s final five.
August 25, 2010