John Metcalf stepping aside from editing Best Canadian stories with a party

John Metcalf. Photo: Ellen Carey

This Saturday will mark the end of an era in Canadian literature. At the Manx Pub, the collection, Best Canadian Short Stories 2017 will be launched. It will be the last one edited by Ottawa’s John Metcalf.

Each year for the past 10 years straight, Metcalf has culled and compiled a collection of the best stories published in Canada. But now he’s handing the baton over. The Best stories collection has been going for 48 years. Metcalf has actually been responsible for many of those editions over the years, 18 in all. Last March, the collection was passed to Biblioasis where Metcalf is the fiction editor. Prior to that the collection was a labour of love for Ottawa’s Oberon Press.

Metcalf says the handover occurred to ensure the continuation and renewal of the collection.

He says he approached the Oberon folks and asked “Would you hand it over to Biblioasis and we’ll keep it going?”

And so they did. While Metcalf edited the 2017 edition, he says he did so to ensure a smooth transition.

” I wanted to bridge the gap between Oberon and Biblioasis, but I said to (Biblioasis founder and publisher) Dan (Wells), ‘I’m getting old and tired and probably too stupid for this game. Why don’t we go to the American model?'”

There has been an American Best stories collection since 1915. These days there is a guest editor every year. That person is also always a writer.

“If we give it to a young writer every year we’ll get this spread of sensibilities and bring new blood into the thing,” he said. Wells agreed.

There is a difference. In the U.S. there is a content editor who combs through more than 200 literary magazines for good stories and complies a list of about 300 for the guest editor to read, Out of that emerges a collection of 20 stories.

Metcalf did not want to do that.

“I don’t want to be imposing my taste in stories in any way. I want them to do the work; to invest time and effort and pride into the work. Besides there aren’t anywhere near as many literary magazines in Canada.

“We want the guest editor to take pride in the achievement. It will be a real addition to a writer’s resume,” he said.

They are starting to line up guest editors, but are not ready to announce next year’s choice. Metcalf says they are  looking for someone well known.

In this year’s collection, Metcalf says, the book features six beginning writers, some of whom will be reading at the Manx.

As for Metcalf, “I’m excited to talk about upcoming writers and listen to 10 minutes from each.

“I also want to pay tribute to Oberon. It’s a terribly important book even if it never got around. It goes into every major public library. The thing is a benchmark. A very young writer can say ‘I was in Best Canadian Short Stories’. It exists as a recognition of what they are doing. It means someone who is an elder in their community is paying attention to them and saying this is good writing. That’s a boost for a young writer.”

That’s what this collection has always done, he says, starting in 1971.

“Right from the beginning they were astonishingly good. They have every writer you can think of including Alice Munro and Mavis Gallant.

Metcalf himself  has woked with Munro, Norman Levine, Caroline Adderson, Rebecca Rosenblum, and Annabel Lyon.  He was the senior editor at the Porcupine’s Quill until 2005. Metcalf also has a rejuvenated writing career of his own. His collection The Museum at the End of the World won this year’s Ottawa Book Award. He has written  more than a dozen works of fiction and non-fiction, including Vital Signs, Standing Stones: Selected Stories, Going Down Slow, and Kicking Against the Pricks.

And he is finishing up a hefty 700-page book called The Canadian Short Story (Biblioasis), expected out in January.

“My wife says no one will read it because you can’t read it in bed.”

In the book, Metcalf explains the short story past and present and how they work. It will also present 50 of the best Canadian story writers ever with essays on each.

“It’s a killer of a book in that it nearly killed me. I’ve been working on it for three years. It is violently not academic.”

His hope is that people will go to a library and read these stories. “Because I think people do not actually read very well or very much. The short story as a form has been really downplayed in Canada from the beginning. There is this huge wealth of wonderful books out there that the universities pay little attention to.

“If a bright young person came to me and asked ‘Should I go to university to study English?’ I’d say ‘Stay away.’ They are like hospitals, they will infect you. They distort the way you ought to read, which is to pay close attention to what is on the page.”

Best Canadian Short Stories 2017 book launch
Where: The Manx Pub, 370 Elgin St.
When: Nov. 25 at 5 p.m.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.