Thursday, August 25, 2011

Review: How Stories Mean, edited by John Metcalf and J.R. (Tim) Struthers

This is just going to be a short review, since I read this 1993 anthology of essays on the art of the short story more for professional development than I did for pleasure. I’m getting back into writing short stories again after a lengthy hiatus to write a new novel, and How Stories Mean came highly recommended as a text to get one thinking about the story as an art form, and to get the short story juices flowing.

Not that this is a criticism, but this anthology does reprint a number of older essays that I encountered in previous books, either written or edited by Metcalf, including the brilliant Sixteen by Twelve, The Narrative Voice and Kicking Against the Pricks. In How Stories Mean, Metcalf reprints his own “Editing the Best,” “Punctuation as Score”, as well as Ray Smith’s “Dinosaur” and other pieces. These are vitally important essays to understanding the Canadian short story and how one goes about writing one, so I certainly didn’t mind reading them again.

The book also includes fantastic essays by Alice Munro, Carol Shields, Clark Blaise, Mavis Gallant, Leon Rooke, Norman Levine and others. The best pieces in the anthology talk about the short story at both the level of art and of craft. It was wonderful to get into some theory about the short story from those who practice it well. I took several pages of notes on things that resonated with me.

There were a few duds in the book. The essays by Jack Hodgins claim to be original to this anthology, but they seemed to rehash a lot of the ground he covered in A Passion for Narrative. Kent Thompson has a couple of duds in here before he redeems himself at the end with his piece “Reading & Writing.”

Anyway, it was great to read (and in many cases, reread) these essays as I embark on putting together a suite of new short stories over the coming months. Don’t be surprised if you see a spike in the number of high-profile short story collections in my reading log.

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