Week 9: Arvida by Samuel Archibald

Published in English in 2015 by Biblioasis | Paperback: 213 pages | Goodreads Rating: 3.39 based on 180 ratings
Published in English in 2015 by Biblioasis | Paperback: 213 pages | Goodreads Rating: 3.39 based on 180 ratings

20 pages into Arvida–Samuel Archibald’s Giller nominated book of short stories–I knew it wasn’t for me.

It wasn’t that Archibald was a bad writer; clearly he’s talented. It wasn’t that his ideas weren’t interesting; one of them was about a group of retired Montreal Canadiens playing against local hockey players who never made it to the NHL. That shit is my jam. And yet, I was seething over the fact that I’d forced myself into reading a barely-200-page book with a hair-brained, unnecessarily ambitious, “You’re going to read all five Giller nominees” challenge. I shouldn’t have spent the week as a whiney, petulant baby, but I did. And after a bit of soul searching, I realized why.

It’s not that Arvida sucks. It’s that I fucking hate short stories.

I hate them. Flat out despise them. I would rather get nosebleeds while reading the 4-millionish pages of Infinite Jest than read a single 30-page short story.

I spent the next few days reeling from this little epiphany. I was legitimately sad about it. It actually affected my mood. My plans changed.

That’s because I spent six years of high-priced education getting English and Publishing degrees. I write for a living. When I’m not doing that I read books and spend my nights blogging about them for almost no good reason. I should enjoy short stories. I’m almost contractually obligated to at this point. And yet I can’t recall a single one that I’ve enjoyed in my entire life. (I’m sure I have, but I have the memory of a head of cabbage.)

As a book blogger there are few things more degrading than finding out you loathe a book that’s almost universally loved. Clearly, there’s something wrong with you. Apparently, you’re unqualified to voice your opinion. At least, that’s how it feels. (Sometimes, though, it’s that everyone else is wrong. Like with Ready Player One. That book is absolute dogshit and I’m convinced that in a few years everyone else is going to see it too. But I digress.) As I do with most books I don’t like, I headed to Google and Goodreads to find out what other people thought of it. To my slight surprise–given that Arvida has been shortlisted for the country’s most prestigious literary prize–the reviews for the English translation are almost non-existent. I can only find three credible reviews via Google (an almost scientific impossibility at this point), and only four English reviews on Goodreads.

This makes no sense. The Giller brings with it unrivalled prestige in Canada, surely Arvida has been reviewed by at least a dozen credible sources. Why hasn’t it?

After a few days with this I think I figured it out, and my conscience has been clear ever since. No more mood swings. No more feeling sad. I’m sleeping better.

I shouldn’t feel bad about hating short stories because here’s the publishing world’s dirty little secret: almost everybody fucking does.

The short story is an affectation of dogmatic literary traditionalists, because they’re supposedly pure, a test of a writer’s economy. They’re drenched in metaphor and symbolism. They’re what true artists write, people who don’t need the money or the fame they may have been able to achieve with a novel. Only those with the thickest of thick-rimmed glasses write short stories, so we ought to pay attention and nod along like we understand their art.

But guess what, literary elite: pretty well no one else gives a shit, and if there weren’t hoity toity prizes to glamorize these collections no one would ever read them because, again, no one gives a shit.

And that’s okay.

We don’t have to like something just because it’s been around a long time. We don’t need to like something just because Hemingway wrote a few of these things. We don’t have to like short stories because they’re great for honing a writer’s craft.

Hone away. Just don’t expect me to pay for your electric bills so that you can practice.

In today’s world, the fact that I’m railing against works that ask me to have a shorter attention span is a point of pride. I love long works of fiction. Stuff I can dig my teeth into. Characters and circumstances I can invest myself in for more than twenty minutes. It’s good exercise.

Is all of this a bit of a cover up for me not getting Archibald’s apparent brilliance? Possibly.

Did I go on this rant because I really didn’t know how to review a book I didn’t get? You bet I did.

But this is also a cathartic realization that, as a reader, I don’t need to feel beholden to certain forms or practices that, quite frankly, aren’t at all relevant outside of literary journals with readerships so small I could squeeze them into my two-bedroom apartment.

Enjoy what you like, and don’t beat yourself up over what you don’t. Because at the end of the day, the only person’s opinion that matters is your own.

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14 thoughts on “Week 9: Arvida by Samuel Archibald

  1. Ha! I’m always disappointed to see short stories on the awards list, too. They’re not my favourite. I have liked some of them, though, so I decide which ones to read very carefully. I did just read Confidence, which is full of stuff I would normally not read, but for some reason I enjoyed it. Even though I hated just about every character in the book. His dialogue was so bang on. I was curious about Smith’s writing for a couple of other reasons, too, so I thought trying out a couple of his stories would be better than investing in a whole novel. Then, I ended up reading them all.
    Anyway, here’s what I think – short story collections should have their own awards/category. I know writing is writing, but the form is like comparing apples to oranges, isn’t it?

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      1. Russell Smith. It was longlisted for the Giller and is also up for the Rogers Writer’s Trust. I think you might like him – at least, I’d be interested in hearing your opinion about him/his writing.

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      2. I’ve heard it’s good. I’m hoping to get to try that one if my library ever gets it in.
        Russell Smith has also written a couple of novels.

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    1. That was a fantastic article, thanks for sharing. I particularly enjoyed this:

      “Indeed, an archetypal Canadian novel right now would be one set in Asia or the Middle East and written with a very liberal sprinkling of non-English words from the language of that place, such that a typical paragraph of Canadian literature is written in a kind of near-Creole, e.g. “Every morning I would wake up and look through the pitta window and see the al-azroush man pushing his tiki-to down the street with fresh manazas. ‘Na, Goshti,’ my imara would say to me, using the formal form…”

      I wrote a similar piece a few weeks ago, about “reading local.”

      https://thebookaweekproject.wordpress.com/2015/09/27/should-people-make-an-effort-to-read-locally/

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I thought you might like it. Partly because I read your post on reading locally (I also commented on it), so when I read this article I thought of you.

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      1. That’s a good one, too. I find him very entertaining. Actually, I think I could read his articles for a good part of the day. In fact, while reading about him for my ‘review’ of his book, I was notified by Globe and Mail that to continue reading more of their articles I would have to pay them some money. 🙂

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  2. But… but… novellas are basically a longish short story?

    I agree with many of your points but how do you reconcile a love of novellas and a hatred of short stories when the difference is basically whether it’s published as part of a collection or as a stand alone? I’ve read 60 page novellas and many short stories are longer than that.

    I want to write a post about “The Giller Effect” – I did once, but not in a lot of detail. But basically, what the effect of winning a Giller is, on things we normal people can measure, like Goodreads, Amazon, blog reviews etc. I can tell you Hellgoing still has VERY few Goodreads reviews despite winning. And I loved Hellgoing!

    PS did you finish IJ?

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  3. Well, in terms of short stories vs. novellas, most short stories are 20-40 pages. There are longer ones, sure, which is only a good thing for me. But novellas, at minimum, are 100 pages (again, most of the time). A good number of them are 140-160 pages. Quite a difference. That’s in my own experience, though. There’s obviously going to be outliers.

    There’s also a strong difference, stylistically, between short stories and novellas. Short stories, given their lack of length, are often more focused on metaphor and ambiguity. There’s usually not an “end” to the stories. Novellas are able to focus a little more on plot and character growth, because they have the space to do that. It’s not necessarily that one style is better than the other, I just drastically prefer the longer form. It has more of what I love.

    I haven’t finished infinite Jest. Shortly after starting it the wheels started turning for the blog, so the timing wasn’t right for it. I’d love to get back into it in the new year (after my Giller/novella reading). I might even try to start a read-along or find a book club. It would be so much more fun to read along with other confused people 😀

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  4. Total side note:

    I’ve come across one of the most annoying sentences I’ve ever read, in a review for Arvida in Quill & Quire: “Determining the exact dramaturgy of Arvida’s narrative universe can be challenging, and certain character types and situations recur like musical leitmotifs.”

    *insert toilet emoji*

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