Listen to Metcalf


John Metcalf.

As I often note, we at Sans Everything are nothing if not eclectic in our passions: animal rights, free trade, and anti-imperialism are all causes taken up by the blog. But there is one particular flag that unites us (or at least most of us): John Metcalf, the extraordinary Canadian writer and editor. A.M. Lamey and I have repeatedly written celebrations of Metcalf’s life and work, one of these paeans appeared in a magazine edited by Ian Garrick Mason (only John Haffner, so far as I know, has managed to remain silent on Metcalf). One of my Metcalf odes can be found here.


So I’d be amiss if I didn’t point out that two interviews with the great man are now available on the internet here and here. The first interview is particularly delightful because it allows Metcalf to vent, with his characteristic barbed invective, against several over praised Canadian writers.


Who, the uninitiated might be asking, is John Metcalf, and why is he being promoted so sedulously by the Sans Everything. It’s hard to sum him up in a few words but I’d say that Metcalf’s achievements fall into 3 broad headings:


1. Metcalf the fictionist. He’s a comic writer in the tradition of Evelyn Waugh and Kingsley Amis, although his comedy is counterbalanced by an underlying humanity and sadness that Waugh only rarely achieved (and Amis altogether lacked). As Alice Munro rightly noted, “John Metcalf often comes as close to the baffling, painful comedy of human experience as a writer can get.”  


2. Metcalf the mentor and editor. Over the last three decades,  John has edited well-over 200 books, many of them by  writers who were at the start of their career when he first published them (Terry Griggs, K.D. Miller, Caroline Adderson, Mary Borsky, Russell Smith, Steven Heighton, Annabel Lyon, Mike Barnes, Rebecca Rosenblum). He has also brought back into print a select group of excellent older writers who have never gotten their critical due (Leon Rooke, Norman Levine, Clark Blaise). Taken together, the writers edited by Metcalf form the core of contemporary Canadian literature. As an editor, Metcalf great talents are 1) his ability to spot talent and 2) his tenderness and tact in helping writers find their own voice (in that sense, Metcalf the complete opposite of an editor like Gordon Lish, who imposed his will on countless writers.) The great literary editors of the last century were Ezra Pound, Maxwell Perkins, James Laughlin, Diana Athill, Jack Shoemaker, and John Metcalf.


3. Metcalf the critic. Metcalf is a great practical critic in the mode of F.R. Leavis, able to take apart a piece of prose and show you how it works. He is famously devastating on over inflated reputations (notably Morley Callaghan); less often noticed is how good he is at explaining why a good writer is good (see his essay on Alice Munro in his recent book Shut Up He Explained).


Much more can be said about Metcalf, but as can be seen I tend to burble when talking about him. So I’ll end this brief post with a simple plea: listen to Metcalf – or, better yet, read Metcalf.

One thought on “Listen to Metcalf

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