Many books of letters are scattershot, unfocused affairs, but the letters of Sinclair Ross (as selected, arranged, and annotated by Jordan and David Stouck) are compelling and laid out like a story. They build to a jarring and poignant climax, so that the collection reads like a novel.
A tragic novel. The Saskatchewan-born Ross (who lived in Winnipeg for close to a decade) led a difficult writing life. Generally unproductive and arguably uncommitted, he published only six books during his career (four novels and two short story collections). Looking back at his literary life, Ross remarks that “Stamps or butterflies would have been more fun.”
The initial chilly reception of his first novel, As for Me and My House (1941), seems to have crushed his confidence. Although the book was later recognized as a Canadian classic and sold well after its republication, Ross never regained confidence in his work.
As more successful writers such as Margaret Atwood, Margaret Laurence, and Guy Vanderhaeghe praise Ross in their letters, Ross responds with professions of failure. One of the most positive things he says about himself in these letters: “At least I can give myself an A for effort.”
The irony, the letters reveal, is that this isn’t so. Consistently, in his correspondence to publishers, Ross shoots himself in the foot. It’s fascinating yet sad, almost pathetic.
When major publishers write to him out of the blue, begging for him to write new books they can publish, Ross responds with notes saying that he’s working on a book but it’s not very good. When he finally sends the manuscripts, he includes cover letters saying things like “there is the likelihood that you wouldn’t touch it with a ten-foot pole.”
It’s difficult to blame his publishers for losing their enthusiasm. But we can’t put all the blame on Ross and his lack of confidence either.
As David Stouck writes in his introduction, Ross had many difficulties as a result of his subject matter. “Editors wanted stories with strong plot whereas Ross’s stories, as he knew himself, were strongest in terms of mood, setting, and character.”
Indeed, describing his own work, Ross writes that his stories “are pretty grim, and abound with horses, wistful small boys and poverty-stricken farmers.” An oversimplification — Ross produced some of Canada’s best stories — but an apt summary.
As Ross’s reputation grows, he flirts with success but never feels it. His work is optioned for films that are not made. This is normal, but these filmmakers seem especially bizarre — apparently, in a script for his novel The Well, the screenwriter included “a love scene in which the principals discuss Russian scientists and rabbits on the moon.”
A minor disappointment is that Ross and his correspondents are not articulate when it comes to discussing his novels and stories. The few insights Ross provides into his own work are unimpressive and recycled often. His correspondents have reserved their more impressive insights for essays published elsewhere.
The great flaw of the book, both as a scholarly resource and in terms of the story it tells, is that the early letters between Ross’s short story publisher (Queen’s Quarterly) and the original publishers of As for Me and My House (Reynal and Hitchcock) are missing. Since the letters don’t survive, the editors can’t be faulted, but it’s a shame nonetheless.
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