Saved by writing

In spite of what popular culture tells us, all writers are unlikely writers. Indeed, words arise out of necessity, not thin air. The question follows for readers: How do we decide which writer’s life will be saved by writing? During the past half-century, the American academy has held a strident debate with itself over this question. And the farther one goes down the wormhole, the trickier this question becomes. How, for instance, would one make a case for Carol Shields?

In 1972, at age 37, Shields took a job working at a small literary journal called Canadian Slavonic Papers. She had five children and was well on her way to earning a master’s at the University of Ottawa, where her husband worked as a professor. She had not lived a rich life, but she had not suffered the abrasions of abject poverty either. Closing in on middle age, Shields became that all-too-common cliché: “I worked in a spare room upstairs,” she once told an interviewer. “I became the mother who typed.”

And type she did. Over the next three decades and until her death in 2003 from complications related to breast cancer, Shields turned out an extraordinary number of wry, clever, singularly beautiful books: three volumes of poetry, 10 novels, four plays, a biography of Jane Austen, a work of criticism, two anthologies and three sparkling collections of short stories. Only Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro have had such an intense and sudden impact on Canadian letters since 1950.

Under the guise of collecting her last written work, Segue, Fourth Estate has now brought together Shields’ three works of short fiction and produced a volume of startling heft. Nearly 600 pages in all, Collected Stories spans two decades and brings back into print stories from obscure literary journals.

Although Shields was a major talent, it is not hard to see why these stories did not find a perch in major American glossies like The New Yorker or Atlantic Monthly. This is not to say that Shields’ stories lack sophistication. But, as with artists who warm up in sketch form before frescoing, Shields used short stories to try out the ideas she would study in greater depth in her novels. The quartet of characters in “Small Miracles” and “Dressing up for the Carnival” echoes forward and backward to Swann, Shields’ terrific 1987 novel that uses four voices and numerous genres to tell a story about a murdered poet and a symposium held in her honor.

Words don’t always give Shields’ players the ability to communicate or define themselves. An inordinate number of her characters have Ph.D.s in language and narrative theory, yet they haven’t a clue about how to communicate with one another. This kind of postmodern discussion of the means at hand is a knife’s edge, but Shields never makes us feel the cut, because so much else is going on here. Indeed, the dissonance between what characters say and feel is the source of many stories’ dramatic tension (and something to which all of us can relate).

Even after she won a Pulitzer Prize in 1995 for her eighth novel, The Stone Diaries, Shields’ short fiction continued to have friction with literary publishing. By concentrating Shields’ creative output, Collected Stories reveals why. For a novelist, Shields had a healthy skepticism of narrative. Even when she creates a perfect fictional universe, she can’t help pointing out the glue and plastic holding her fictional contraption together. She interrupts herself and changes her mind over the story’s direction in mid-sentence. And yet she celebrates her powers anyway. Collected Stories is likely to have readers joining the party.