Canadians Too Mean?

John Metcalf: the root of all evil?

In the latest issue of The Walrus, Andre Alexis argues that Canadian literary criticism is, of all things, too mean-spirited. He blames John Metcalf for the sitation. I wasn’t impressed with Alexis’ arguments and wrote a rebuttal (a very mild Canadian rebuke, of course), which ran in today’s National Post. You can read it here.

An excerpt:

Imagine an essay on the global economic crisis that described our dire prospects and then zeroed in on villain Fred Witherspoon, a banker in Winnipeg who is a bit too reluctant to hand out loans. Such an article would be laughed at for its inherent implausibility, but as an argument it would be no different than André Alexis’s essay in the current issue of The Walrus, which starts bemoaning a genuine problem — the sorry state of cultural criticism in Canada— then finger-points in the direction of one man, John Metcalf. “If I had to blame one Canadian writer for this state of affairs, I’d blame novelist and critic John Metcalf,” Alexis writes.


4 thoughts on “Canadians Too Mean?

  1. Your defense of John Metcalf was adroit and thoughtful. Anything I’ve read by the man has always been informed by reason and articulately stated. He has put a few snouts out of joint because he insists that our homegrown work achieve the same high standards as the best of the best elsewhere. He’s no apologist for Canadian culture and knows that in a just, intelligently designed world, book publishing would be a meritocracy. But unfortunately we live in a time when literary efforts don’t have much currency among editors and agents, and celebrities hold far more interest to the great unwashed than the latest book by _____________.

    Canadian publishers still stubbornly refuse to respond to the tastes and interests of their shrinking readership and the words “genre fiction” are rarely (if ever) whispered at M & S or Penguin Canada. Innovation? Works that defy convention or refuse to use a Canadian place name? Sorry, not interested.

    Christ, more than ever we NEED folks like John Metcalf, an outsider who grants us a special perspective, an alternate point of view. Not one to follow the party line and insist everything is sunny and blue. A counterpoint to the cultural apologists and nationalists, someone to keep us honest and remind us just how good we could be…

  2. jeet

    sorry i haven’t had the time to properly respond to your national post piece. here’s a longish answer to your points:

    Jeet Heer’s John Metcalf
    To begin a defence of one’s subject by insisting on the obscurity and insignificance of one’s subject is an unusual tack, but this is the one Jeet Heer chooses in his defence of John Metcalf. Here are the opening paragraphs of Heer’s piece:

    “Imagine an essay on the global economic crisis that described our dire prospects and then zeroed in on villain Fred Witherspoon, a banker in Winnipeg who is a bit too reluctant to hand out loans. Such an article would be laughed at for its inherent implausibility, but as an argument it would be no different than André Alexis’s essay in the current issue of The Walrus, which starts bemoaning a genuine problem – the sorry state of cultural criticism in Canada – then finger points in the direction of one man, John Metcalf. “If I had to blame one Canadian writer for this state of affairs, I’d blame novelist and critic John Metcalf,” Alexis writes.
    “John Who?” is probably the question that popped into the heads of most readers of Alexis’ polemic. While the fiction and essays of John Metcalf have a small and devoted readership, a tiny fellowship that I myself belong to, he is hardly a household name.”

    To begin with the obvious: the state of Canada’s literary criticism, even the state of cultural criticism in Canada, can in no way be compared to “the global economic crisis”. An economic crisis that effects the lives and livelihood of millions around the world is nowhere close to analogous to matters concerning the “sorry state of cultural criticism in Canada”. This isn’t just a matter of an inept analogy. By failing to keep things in perspective, Heer misses the (to me) most pertinent question: “What has John Metcalf actually done?”
    As Heer himself would acknowledge, the number of people actually interested in the state of Canadian criticism is probably in the thousands – to be very generous, let’s say two thousand people care about Canadian literary criticism and reviewing. Of that number, maybe two hundred publish regular reviews or criticism.
    In that small group of people, John Metcalf – on his own or with others – has published quite a number of books of “criticism”. In no particular order: Freedom from Culture (1987), How Stories Mean (1993), Kicking Against the Pricks (1982), Shut Up, He Explained (2007, which was biography and critical commentary), An Aesthetic Underground (2003, also memoir and criticism), The Bumper Book (1986, a collection of critical essays by others), Carrying On Bumping (1988, another collection of critical essays by others), Writers Talking. I may have missed one or two, but his critical activity doesn’t stop there. Metcalf, as the editorial head of Porcupine’s Quill and Biblioasis, has edited and/or shepherded through the press one (or more) books of critical essays by Philip Marchand, Stephen Henighan, Terrence Rigelhof, Carmine Starnino, David Solway, Eric Ormsby. I’m sure I’ve missed some but, again, among the very small group of people who are interested in or practice reviewing or criticism in Canada, I can think of no one who has done as much as John Metcalf to stimulate or encourage or propagate critical thinking. And remember, it isn’t just a matter of how much he has published or seen through the press. Though the numbers of those who read (or practice) Canadian literary reviewing or criticism is small, I would bet most of that number have read either Metcalf himself or the writers he has parented through the press.
    (A note: I disagree with John Metcalf’s critical positions almost entirely, but I find myself completely bewildered by the number of people who should know better who have not a clue how much Metcalf has done and how much recognition he deserves. It seems to me, I’ve done the honourable thing by taking his critical positions seriously. None of those who have rushed to his defense appear to have read him with any sort of attention. His worst defenders have done him the greatest disservice by attacking the Walrus article, rather than defending Metcalf’s critical positions. )
    (Another note: perhaps Heer was not sensitive to the implications of his pooh-poohing of Metcalf’s influence. However, the same arguments he uses to minimise Metcalf’s influence on reviewing can be used to minimise Metcalf’s influence on our literature. No one knows Metcalf. He’s obscure. Therefore, he has had no demonstrable influence at all.)
    Heer goes on to write that “the critics Metcalf has encouraged don’t form a coherent school (there is a world of difference between Marchand’s diffident coolness and Solway’s prophetic rage). They are very much dissident voices in the world of journalism and academia.”
    This is, again, to take surface matter – tone – for essence. Yes, of course. Marchand does not sound like Solway who does not sound like Starnino. Tonally, they are indeed different. But attend to their attitudes. They are all proponents of their own shoddily laid out (that is, unsystematic) aesthetic ideas. They are all somewhat proud of their “dissidence” – though it is a dissidence guided by or assisted through the press by John Metcalf, remember. They all, in their way, believe in their pleasure as the measure of the literary accomplishments of others. To my mind, they have much more in common than Jeet Heer either realizes or allows.
    (And, on that score, I think you’ll find, if you read Ryan Bigge’s childish defence of his own attacks, that Bigge does feel like one of the family. He’s proudly unsystematic, very much a creature of the “pleasure principle” Metcalf defended – whether Bigge knows it or not. And far from “hardly belonging in a literary discussion at all”, a writer like Ryan Bigge – trite media creation that he is – is exactly what’s at issue. With the destruction of shared standards that we’ve lived through, scribblers like Ryan Bigge may well be all we have left, as newspapers or websites seek to attract the attention of readers who accept that “entertainment” is the thing above all. I mean: in a world which is progressively becoming the ideal one for magazines like People or Us, what is the defense against a reviewer like Bigge? What shared standards can we insist on, when our literary reviewers – John Metcalf early on, if not alone – have made themselves the standard by which works are judged? Why not Bigge’s trite attacks? Why not Solway’s prophetic rage? Why not Starnino’s efforts to hurt those he reviews? To my mind, Jeet, we are living in the world criticism like Metcalf’s leads us to. And it’s not that good.)
    To wrap up his discussion, Heer writes about Northrop Frye that he was “like an indulgent father who approached CanLit with the motto. “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” Benevolent paternalism is wonderful in a father but lethal to the cause of healthy and invigorating criticism”.
    There is, here, the unintended (unintended by me, I mean) idea that what Frye said about Canadian writing is what’s important about Frye in my essay. But, for me, Frye’s criticism in general was what’s important to our critical climate. Frye made the Bible ours, a part of what we discuss. He wrote about writers like Wallace Stevens or William Blake with great subtlety, and by so doing he extended the boundaries of “Canadian” subjects and, what’s more, he was crucial in his attempts to arrive at something like shared standards. Crucial as an example.
    The fact that John Metcalf “always judges books [Canadian or otherwise] by the same critical standards he brings to all literature” is ENTIRELY beside the point. The point of my essay was that Metcalf, by taking us away from shared standards, by making his aesthetic the defining one – regardless of the object under review – has led us to the place where writers not possessed of anything like deep insights into literature – advance their “aesthetics” as if they were anything more than mere opinions, or anything more valuable than the opinions of your next door neighbour.

  3. Dear Alexis,

    Thanks for the thoughtful and civil response to my piece. I’ll try to respond in kind.

    A few points:

    About the analogy to the global economic crisis: the reason I made the analogy is that many of the things you complained about (the decline of book reviewing in newspapers and the rise of opinionated, insult based criticism) haven’t just occurred in Canada but can be seen all over the English-speaking world (and perhaps elsewhere as well). I’ve read countless articles on “the death of criticism” in American, British, Australian and indeed even Indian publications. I’m not sure if the “death of criticism” is real or not, but if it is, it can’t be blamed on John Metcalf.

    About Metcalf’s influence inside Canada: I think a distinction has to be made between Metcalf’s influence as an editor of fiction and his influence as a critic and shaper of critical writing. Metcalf has edited roughly 175 volumes, the vast majority of which have been novels and short story collections with a smattering of critical books. In the field of fiction there is no question that he’s had an immense influence in Canada, comparable to the impact that Ezra Pound had on early 20th century modernism: he’s helped bring to press the early novels and story collections of writers such as Keath Fraser, Isabel Huggan, Steven Heighton, Terry Griggs, Caroline Adderson, Elizabeth Hay, Annabel Lyon, Russell Smith, and many more. All of these writers have won critical acclaim and gone on to work with big publishers and many have won awards. So there is no denying that Metcalf has had a crucial role to play as an editor of fiction.

    The situation with Metcalf the critic and editor of criticism is very different. Many of the critics he’s published, for one thing, already had some renown in the field before Metcalf published their works: W.J. Keith was a recognized academic expert on Canadian fiction before he published the Metcalf-edited An Independent Stance (and other works). Philip Marchand was already the book review columnist for the Toronto Star for many years before he published the Metcalf-edited Riposte (1998) – a book that had a far smaller circulation than any of Marchand’s Toronto Star columns. Moreover, these books, unlike the fiction Metcalf has edited, have not won widespread acclaim, have not won awards, and have not been republished by big commercial publishers. Quite the opposite: these books have often been met by hostility or been ignored. A point of comparison might be in order: Margaret Atwood’s Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature has sold more than 50,000 copies. The typical Metcalf-edited critical books might, at best, have 2% of the sales of Survival; that’s an optimistic assessment by the way.

    This is anecdotal but I think telling: in my experience, if you talk to someone who teaches Canadian literature at a university and mention the names Metcalf, Marchand, or Starnino, you are likely to get a blank stare. You’re much more likely to get comprehension if you mention, say, Linda Hutcheon or Frank Davey.

    I wish it were otherwise but in my experience, the critical books edited by Metcalf have not made a big splash in the larger culture.

    I’ll re-iterate the point that I don’t think the critical books edited by Metcalf form a common school (nor do the fictional books he’s edited, but that’s another story). They do have a few general traits in common: they are all well-written and addressed to the general reader, and all take up the issue of evaluation. But the criteria of evaluation are quite different from book to book: W.J. Keith, for example, shares your critique of Metcalf: Keith also believes that it’s wrong to ignore storytelling and focus exclusively on style and sentence-making. Keith has championed writers that Metcalf can’t stand like Robertson Davies. Stephen Henighan also has a different critical approach, one that emphasizes the sociology of literature (i.e. a writer’s background and the influence of socio-economic forces). Again, Metcalf, I’m pretty sure, disagrees with a lot that Henighan writes, but still edited his book. That’s one trait that is worth pointing out: Metcalf genuinely believes in argument and has given venue to critics he’s strongly at odds with.

    Which is another way of saying that Metcalf has worked to promote the shared culture of literary discussion that you pine for. The fact that his efforts haven’t issued better fruit is unfortunate but not really his fault.

    Here is our major area of disagreement: you think Metcalf is the enemy of “shared standards”; I would argue that “shared standards” can only emerge from thoughtful debate. No one has done more to promote thoughtful debate in CanLit than John Metcalf.

    On a side note, I want to say something about Ryan Bigge. I’m afraid I was far too harsh on Ryan in my National Post essay because I wanted to point out how silly his feud with Leah McLaren was. But it should be said that apart from that unfortunate feud, Bigge has written many smart and interesting essays. None of these essays, so far as I can tell, are in any way influenced by Metcalf. I’m not even sure Bigge has read much Metcalf at all.

    In conclusion, I didn’t find your Walrus piece very convincing and your response hasn’t changed my mind. But I when I get my hands on your new book I’ll take another look at your larger argument.

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