Arguing With Andre Alexis, Again

A few weeks ago, I wrote  a response to an essay Andre Alexis published in The Walrus about the state of criticism in Canada. Now Alexis has answered my criticism. You can find the parry and thrust of our debate here, but to save time I’ve also pasted our recent discussion  down below. This will be of especial interest to fans of CanLit and John Metcalf.

Alexis wrote:

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.

And in response to Alexis I wrote:

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.

8 thoughts on “Arguing With Andre Alexis, Again

  1. first “Beauty and Sadness” is not meant to convince as argument. it’s largely a memoir. so, if you’re reading it t find better proof of my positions, you’ll be disappointed. you’d do better to avoid it.

    second: your defense of metcalf’s role in promoting good writing in this country is superfluous. my point was that your insistence on metcalf’s public obscurity in a debate about his influence could, logically, be used to denigrate his influence on our literature. to be clear, the fact that the public knows nothing about john metcalf has no bearing whatsoever on john metcalf’s importance or influence on our prose fiction. it has no bearing on whether or not metcalf has influenced the critical climate of our country, either.

    on the other hand … the thought behind your argument is, i think, untenable. do you really find it convincing that metcalf could be scrupulous and astute in his choice of prose-fiction writers while being – as implied in your description – almost random in his choice of critics/reviewers to publish? do you really accept that his disagreements with keith and henighan are convincing proof that henighan, starnino, solway, etc have no points in common? that they were practicing critics beforehand is also, i think, immaterial. all of the prose-writers he published had published in journals before metcalf published them. they didn’t need him in order to be writers. does that diminish his role in their careers? metcalf has taste and he has promulgated that taste effectively. i take that as nearly axiomatic. (reading henighan and solway and starnino strengthens the sense of metcalf’s influence on our anti-academic critical culture, whatever his actual influence on the thinking and styles of those three.) given your doubts, here, it’s probably time for someone to look more deeply – and sensitively – into the question of metcalf’s influence.

    as for your telling anecdote: the idea that Linda hutcheon and frank davey are names likely to be recognized in academia … well, yes, i guess they would be. they’re academics. but i doubt very much that those who know of hutcheon and davey would not know some if not all of marchand, metcalf, starnino, solway, etc. as well. i’ve yet to run into academics so ignorant. you might be able to find a university-level teacher of Canadian literature who knew hutcheon and davey and not any of the rest, but it would be a rare bird. (and a lousy teacher of Canadian literature, by the way.) those who know criticism in our country – and remember the number is small – would almost certainly have been touched by one or more of the critics metcalf has published. to me this is undeniable. but perhaps our experiences are contradictory. we’ll have to wait for the statistical proof which, of course, will be out any day now, given the furious flood of interest in Canadian criticism, recently.

    yes, we disagree about metcalf’s “shared standards”. metcalf is a proponent of the individual’s aesthetics taking precedence over the communal. he is proud to announce that his taste is the guiding principle and the right one in his evaluations of prose. “shared standards” can’t come with the capitulation of one side to another. Metcalf hasn’t ever effectively “argued”. he has presented his views and denigrated those who don’t share them. that’s not debate. i’ll believe Metcalf is an effective proponent of “thoughtful debate”, the day he admits – without coercion – that morley callaghan – as a writer – may have as much going for him as, say, john metcalf. the day metcalf can mount an effective defense of some of callaghan’s work is the day i’ll admit there is more to his core beliefs than i understood. to me “shared standards” demands a common language. i’ve yet to see where metcalf has accepted languages other than his own. ( i may be wrong here. it’s been a while since i read him. point out the place to me and i’ll seek it out.)

    you affection for bigge is nice but, for me, beside the point. bigge’s recent defense of nasty criticism certainly does echo metcalf’s earlier criticism. is bigge aware of this? who knows? who cares? the critical climate – which metcalf has shaped – has undoubtedly had an influence on bigge’s attitudes. that he was published in cnq is telling, i think. you seem to think, jeet, that unless influence is direct and consciously accepted it can’t be spoken of as influence. but we live in a culture, a time, a place in which ideas find harbour or not. i believe metcalf has shaped our critical culture, time, and place. i can think of no one who has had as much influence. (davey and hutcheon? please)

    my conclusion is the same as yours, jeet, but in reverse: i didn’t find your national post piece convincing and your response, here, hasn’t changed my mind. what i would have liked – from anyone – would have been a defense of metcalf’s ideas. they are, in fact, defendable. i think it’s kind of amusing that, having spoken of what i dislike about metcalf’s thinking, i’m going to have to defend it as well so that the essential questions can be asked: what is the difference between criticism and reviewing? and is there a place (or even possibility), in a culture in which the individual is the final, incontrovertible arbiter, for “shared standards”?

  2. Dear Andre,

    I’m not sure that there is much more you and I can say about this. We’ll soon reach, if we haven’t already reached, a dead-end situation where we’ll just be repeating points already articulated earlier.

    Having said that, I want to make a few quick points:

    1. Your essay had two components: an argument about Metcalf’s widespread influence, and an argument about his limits as a critic. I’ve concentrated on the first point because I think if I demonstrate that Metcalf hasn’t been influential as a critic (which is what I believe) then the question of his merits as a critic is moot. But briefly, I do think Metcalf is a very good critic, especially when he’s offering a close reading of particular stories (as in his essay on Callaghan and Munro in Shut Up He Explained). There are issues on which I could take issue with Metcalf’s writing: I think he quotes too much in undigested lumps, I think he vastly over-rates English comic writers like Wodehouse and Amis, I think he greatly overestimates the importance of book collecting to literary culture. But really, I think my disagreements and agreements with Metcalf would only create a side-show to an already unwieldy and sprawling debate.

    2. In your original Walrus piece I thought you made one very astute critique of Metcalf. You wrote: “Metcalf himself borrows the ‘connoisseur’ analogy, quoting Cyril Connolly. But a novel or short story is different from wine in that, often and with the best work, you must finish it to know what is effective and what is not, to know where a work fits in. It’s easy to find bad sentences in Edgar Allen Poe’s work (Aldous Huxley does, and snickers at them). But Poe stays in the mind, awkward prose or not. (Crome Yellow? Not so much, though no doubt it is ‘better written.’) Dostoyevsky is a similar case. Yes, Nabokov was right to criticize Dostoyevsky’s writing. And yes, Demons is, for long stretches, badly written and tedious. But I defy anyone to point to the equivalent, anywhere in world literature, of the scene in which Kirillov, the nihilist, must decide whether or not to kill himself. Pure, unforgettable nightmare. Fanatics of “great prose,” like Metcalf (or Nabokov), reduce novels and stories to one of their elements and then insist that that element, style in this case, is the only legitimate one for critical consideration.”

    There’s some validity to the idea that Metcalf over-rates the importance of individual sentences while ignoring larger architectural structures such as plot. But it’s worth noting that this point has been made by earlier critics such as W. J. Keith and Sam Solecki. See the volume Volleys, where they argue with Metcalf on these issues. The fact that Metcalf was willing to publish two critics who fundamental disagree with him on an imporant matter is what I mean when I said that Metcalf is committed to creating a shared culture through the process of debate.

    Another example is Morley Callaghan. Metcalf has little use for Callaghan’s work and has explained why he dislikes Callaghan at great lengths (very entertainingly so, for me at least). But Metcalf has also published at least one critic who has a high opinion of Callaghan: W.J. Keith. Look at what Keith wrote about Callaghan in An Independent Stance and Canadian Literarture in English (the first edited by Metcalf, the second brought back into print by Metcalf). Again, evidence of Metcalf’s commitment to debate.

    3. In some ways, I feel like we’re replaying a famous debate Rene Wellek and F.R. Leavis had in Scrutiny in 1937. Wellek asked Leavis to explain the criteria behind the evaluation. Leavis responded, quite correctly, that there can be no useful criteria independent of the act of evalation: evaluation has to come out of grappling with literature. “Noticing is valuing” is one useful explication of Leavis’s stance. See the useful summary of the debate by Ian Duncan MacKillop in his book F.R. Leavis: A Life in Criticism, pages 171-172: http://books.google.ca/books?id=vG5Sxwm6mjcC&pg=PA171&dq=f.r.+leavis+wellek&hl=en&ei=boeaTKzqLtSpngf2wqwY&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=3&ved=0CDAQ6AEwAg#v=onepage&q&f=false

    I think Metcalf’s approach, whether he would admitt this himself or not, is in the tradtion of Leavis.

  3. Jeet
    You once wrote “Canada needs more Rigelhofs” and Alexis has answered your call by supplying a previously non-existent one: he includes “Terrence Rigelhof” among the essayists whose works John Metcalf has “edited and/or shepherded through the press.” I suspect he means T.F. Rigelhof whose This is Our Writing was not only edited and shepherded for Porcupine’s Quill by John but also suggested and encouraged. Alexis’s error is a small but telling one: Rigelhof (and I am the authority in this case) is “Terrance” with an “a” on his birth certificate and on all subsequent official documentation but no one who knows him has ever called him by this given name – except in moments of exasperation or intimacy. In the literary worlds in which he’s most comfortable, “shared values” includes getting the details right unless you’re deliberately creating “unreliability” as a literary strategy. In one of those worlds, the least fashionable branch of Modernism, an author’s use of initials rather than given names is also strategic: if you think of T.F. Powys when you read T.F. Rigelhof, I’m flattered; if it’s W.O. Mitchell, I’ms chagrined but either case (and many another) what delights me is the knowledge that a certain kind of literary rebelliousness is recognized. Instantly.

    One of the delights in reading the fictions of Andre Alexis is the inability of his characters to grasp what’s going on – not through slowness of wit – but by virtue of over-deliberation. What is delicious in his fiction is thoroughly dissatisfying and intermittently distasteful in his non-fiction because it’s damnably distracting. All it leads to is the kind of talking at cross-purposes you currently find yourself engaged in.

    Have you ever read Flannery O’Connor’s “The Teaching of Literature” (Mystery & Manners, 1972)? The very first question in all literary criticism is: alive or dead? O’Connor accurately lists the horrifying ways by which academics popularly avoid genuine literary experience, including a seemingly ineradicable impulse to slide off into doctrinal commentary before paying attention to the work as it really is before sliding back into comfortably conformist quip-making at the author’s expense that’s generally reducible to This is the book I would have written if I had written this book. The past three theorizing decades have killed criticism and ruined reviewing almost everywhere. In Canada, it was foreshadowed by none other than Morley Callaghan. If you’re old enough to remember the days of CBC radio’s Fighting Words, he’s unforgettable as the blowhard who could outshout anybody on any topic that crossed the table, a man of such hubris that he actually seemed to believe that there wasn’t a book ever written that he couldn’t improve upon in one way or another – including The New Testament. Paying attention to the work as it really is – that is, or ought to be, the heart of criticism and of reviewing but reviewers are called upon to pay attention in a different way than critics. Newspaper and magazine reviewing is the art of the tease, the flirtation, the foreplay to the foreplay that might actually get a reader in bed with a book; criticism is post-coital – the shared breakfast of the literary essay or the decades long affair with a book such as Ian Robinson’s The English Prophets: a critical defence of English Criticism (2001).

    As an essayist, John Metcalf is neither reviewer nor critic in any conventional sense: he is an agent provocateur , more Leonard Woolf than Virginia but closer to the latter than Alexis will grasp until he reads Virginia Woolf’s “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown” alongside John’s “A Writer’s Writer” in Shut Up He Explained.

    Cheers

    Terry

  4. dear jeet

    i was going to go straight to the issues raised by your mention of rene wellek vs. f.r. leavis, but t.f. rigelhof has stepped in the way. so …

    this is a blog, mr. rigelhof. it isn’t a magazine, in which editors vet spelling. nor is it a book, in which editors check spelling. it’s a blog. that is, it’s a place for casual commentary. if my official position were being expressed here, i’d have checked for spelling mistakes and for mistaken references. i’d have chosen to keep the mistakes or eliminate them, depending. (and i’d have asked for payment for my work.) part of knowing what you’re talking about is knowing where you are. this is a blog, mr rigelhof. your self-inflating quibble is just that: self-inflated quibbling. please: get over yourself, terrance. on the other hand, your sexualized description of the difference between reviewing and criticism is pretty amusing and maybe right, but i’d like to get to it after a few details …

    again, dear jeet

    i think your mention of wellek versus leavis is exactly to the point. the question is about how we get to “shared standards”. before i get to that, though, i’d like to make a couple of points – one briefly, one at greater length.

    first, briefly: i think terrypoo o’rigelhof was wrong. we’re not arguing at cross-purposes. it took a few words to get at the crux of the matter. you believe that as the ideas john metcalf was propagating came from abroad – from larkin/amis and elsewhere – one can’t blame him for them. i can see what you’re saying but, from my perspective, it’s a little like “communism” (the idea not the phenomenon). though marx and engels are the accepted originators of the ideas, in every country in which communism was taken up, an interpreter of marx/engels was as significant as marx/engels themselves. the reason communism under tito looks different than communism under mao is down to interpretation. (and power, of course, which is why we’re arguing over the extent of metcalf’s “power”.) in dealing with the canadian version of certain ideas about criticism, i think metcalf is unavoidable. this question about going back to the source versus understanding local interpretations of the source is an irresolvable dilemma, i think.

    second: i’d like to address the whole tone/snark thing. to me, it’s a red herring and has little part in the debate about fundamentals. so, here’s something i wrote down a few weeks ago, in response to some of the responses to my polemic in the walrus:

    1. “Snark”
    A number of commentators, ignoring what I actually wrote, would have it that I object to the tone of book reviews. I don’t. I thought the argument about “snark” that was carried on in the pages of “The Believer” a few years ago was, and is, shallow. A vacuous sneer is no deeper than a vacuous smile. Tone, in a review, is a surface matter. What’s crucial, to me, is content, is quality of thought. A revealing argument can be made by a grouch as easily as by Pollyanna. Some readers find a supercilious tone (F.R. Leavis) off-putting. Others have a hard time with cheerful congratulation (Northrup Frye, at times). But to engage with the arguments in a review is to put aside matters of tone and deal with, well, arguments. Mark Twain’s decimation of James Fenimore Cooper (“Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses”) is mean-spirited, exasperated, mocking, and more than a little cruel. But it is so utterly convincing that – after reading Twain’s essay – one begins to read all novels, not just Fenimore Cooper’s, with an eye to just detail. It’s what Twain points out, not how he points it out, that, ultimately, makes his essay valuable.
    For a reviewer like Ryan Bigge, it’s obviously easier to treat my essay as being a matter of “tone”. Bigge defends his sneering reviews by asserting that Canadian reviewing is too indulgent. We need, it seems, a dose of the cold authority that comes with a BA in English. But, again: mindless cruelty is exactly as mindless as mindless kindness. We need good listeners more than we need good performers. On the other hand …

    2. Cui Bono?
    Though the tone of a review may turn the reader of the review on or off, it is one of the least important aspects of a review. The book is the important thing, and critical consideration matters. Still, every once in a while, it’s important to ask for whose benefit the nasty review is being written, for whose benefit the overly kind?
    The author of a work under review can’t change the book he or she has written. So, the negative review comes too late to discourage the writing of a particular book, of course. If the aim of the negative review is to discourage altogether the writing of certain kinds of books, it must give sound reasons for the unworthiness of these kinds of books. Otherwise, why should one take such squittering into serious account? And the condescendingly kind review, if its aim is to encourage the writing of the same or similar books, will only be of encouragement to the amateur. Professional writers follow their own instincts. So, for better or worse, discouraging and encouraging reviews are equally useless to the author. (I can think of only one case in which a writer of any depth – Scott Fitzgerald – read his reviews to help his work. Fitzgerald, as Morley Callaghan has it in That Summer in Paris, read all his reviews – good and bad – for possible clues to what he’d done right or wrong. Callaghan calls Fitzgerald’s practice masochistic and so it is, I think. To take in the opinions of those whose only commitment is to the sound of their own voice is, potentially, disastrous. As I said: helpful mostly to the amateur.)
    Negative or thoughtlessly kind reviews may please readers of the reviews but their pleasure is not tied to anything deep or instructive. Some readers like to read insults. Some like to read kind words. Giving them one or the other without benefit of thoughtful readings is not helpful if what’s important is the development of critical thought.
    Negative reviews in particular seem to be for the good of two beings:
    1. the newspapers or journals who thrive – or believe they’ll thrive – on the emotions (or “conversation”) negative reviews will generate. Fair enough: it brings in funds to those who couldn’t give a toss about literature but like money well enough.
    2. it allows those with psychological problems and English degrees an occasion to express their “superiority”. I say “psychological problems” because I really can’t imagine – in a reviewer beyond the age of thirty – the need to raise oneself up at the expense of those who can’t defend themselves. If the negative reviewer has a deep point about a book or wishes to make an observation about aesthetic matters. Great. As I said above, Twain was negative and precious. But most of our reviewers aren’t anywhere near as deep or observant or talented.
    A similar case could be made for those who are thoughtlessly kind. (Not for nothing did Nietzsche say “there is no man alive who has the right to praise me”.) But it’s generally the nasty, and mean-spirited self-regarders who insist most spiritedly that regular display of their critical acumen is of benefit to the public at large. They do it in the name of principles and aesthetics and ideas that obscure the point. A good review, whether nasty or kind, is a good review – a useful review – for what it says of value about a work, not what it reveals about the personality of the reviewer.
    The best analogy, to me at this point in my life, is that of the traveller. The best travel writers, from Ibn Battuta to Bruce Chatwin, are curious about what’s in front of them. They are scrupulous to pass on the feel of a place as much as descriptions and comparisons. One explores the land with them and inherits a yearning for places, for the spirit of places, and for travel itself. Nasty reviewers, Dale Peck comes to mind, are like travellers who complain that, in this place, the MacDonald’s is not as good as at home, that the natives don’t know how to dress, that their architecture is primitive and their habits vulgar. These travellers are instructive about the attitudes they hold, but they are useless for those curious about the territory.
    In the end, most reviewers over the age of thirty learn to accept for review only books that will engage them deeply. They write “positive reviews” (meaning thoughtful or considered or reasonably complex responses to reasonably complex works), because they choose books that won’t arouse their ire. In other words, the pleasure of displaying their own “superiority” palls. Those who reach thirty and still need to belittle others in print are plain bullies and have nothing to do with the literary climate. They are, at their best, entertainers and should be dealt with as such, not as critical intelligences.

    jeet: i’m going to leave it at that for today. i’m interested in what you have to say, so, i’ll leave space, here, for you. but – somewhere down the line, once we’ve dealt with rigelhof’s point – i’d like to get at another matter that’s been bothering me: i think it’s inappropriate for practitioners of an art form – in this case, writers like myself – to be the primary popular reviewers of the art form. reading the sometimes ridiculous critical writings of tolstoy and nabokov, one wonders if fiction writers shouldn’t be the last choice for critical commentary on prose fiction. there’s been a kind of “tyranny of the doers” in our reviewing culture, and i think that needs to be addressed as well.

  5. Dear Andre (and Terry),
    Thanks for responding again but for now I think forgo another round. The problems you’ve identified — the lack of competent reviewers of Canadian literature, the over-reliance on practitioner-reviewers — are real enough but they are rooted in a much larger problem, the fact that the number of people who are interested in serious literature, let alone serious Canadian literature — is not very large. But grappling with that problem takes us far afield from where we started, so it might be best to save this discussion for another day.

  6. dear jeet

    i appreciate your point and, it goes without saying, i find it almost unbearably true and unbearably sad. so few of us care about “reviewing” or “criticism” or” canadian literature”, it almost amounts to navel-gazing talking about these things at any length. if i’ve gone on talking about it, lately, it’s because, having published the piece in the walrus, i felt it would be cowardly not to respond to cat calls and criticism. also: although i’m rather depressive, i’m an optimist. i’m convinced of the insignificance of the literary world while being almost certain that state can change.

    before i sign off, here, i hope you don’t mind if i address the pertinent things rigelhof said, yesterday.

    1. i don’t write much non-fiiction, mr rigelhof, apart from book reviews. if you find my book reviews “damnably distracting”, i can’t help you. i do try to be clear, but clarity of the message is limited by the quality of the receiver as much as by the acuity of the sender.

    2. your hatred for morley callaghan is unchristian. the man is dead. moreover, the morley callaghan you’re referring to was on the show “fighting words”. the title means something, no? he was brought on in order to be pugnacious. he was not pugnacious in his fiction or his written criticism. not in any that i’ve read, anyway, though i’d be pleased if you pointed out where, in his writing, callaghan was cruel or mean. callaghan was the – admittedly willing – victim of an idea that goes through the minds of broadcasters from time to time: “let’s create interest in the arts by arguing about them!” it’s a mediocre idea – it’s also one of the justifications for nasty reviews – because the audience’s interest is turned to the contretemps, not the subject. people tune in to hear “fighting words” not to think about the finer points of literature. the ongoing lack of generosity vis-a-vis morley callaghan is irrational. i can’t understand the hatred you and metcalf feel for the man. and your hatred blinds you to such literary qualities as morley callaghan possessed.

    3. “Paying attention to the work as it really is – that is, or ought to be, the heart of criticism and of reviewing but reviewers are called upon to pay attention in a different way than critics. Newspaper and magazine reviewing is the art of the tease, the flirtation, the foreplay to the foreplay that might actually get a reader in bed with a book; criticism is post-coital – the shared breakfast of the literary essay or the decades long affair with a book such as Ian Robinson’s The English Prophets: a critical defence of English Criticism (2001).” i really like the sound of this, mr rigelhof, but it makes a very odd jump. i agree that “paying attention” is capital in criticism and reviewing, but how do we get from “paying attention” to “seduction”? it isn’t the reviewer’s job to shill for a book, is it? advertising does that. nor is it the reviewer’s job to seduce the potential buyer. it’s the reviewer’s job to let the reader know what’s in the book, what the book is about, how the book goes about its business, where – intellectually, aesthetically, etc – the book comes from, and if, ultimately, the book is true to its goals, sources, and faithful to its “wager” (the “wager” being the author’s assumption that he or she can carry a certain idea(s) to successful term.) . nor is the critic (necessarily) happily post-coital. it certainly helps to love a book if you’re going to criticize it, i guess – why devote time and attention to what you dislike? – but the critic is involved with systematic understanding. he or she will talk about books they don’t personally like, because they recognize the intellectual or aesthetic significance/place of the book in literary history. your introduction of the idea of “seduction” into talk about reviewing leads to the place where it could be argued that a reviewer is good by virtue of his or her having successfully seduced a reader into buying a book, irrespective of the actual quality of the book the reader has bought. (question: if i successfully lead a reader to buy a book i loathe, have i done my job? the question in reverse: if i successfully turn the reader away from a book love, have i done my job? just how important, in the evaluation of reviewing is the reaction of the reader?) “seduction” is, i think, a by-product of the attention brought to the book by the reviewer. it’s not the reviewer’s goal to seduce.it’s something that happens when he or she does the job well.

    4. i disagree with your assessment of john metcalf. metcalf is most definitely a “critic”, in the conventional sense, or wishes to be taken for such. a “provocateur” would not bother to try to convince the reader of his evaluative abilities, as metcalf does. (“kicking against the pricks” is a great book, by the way. “shut up he explained”, not so much.) if the point is provocation, you don’t need to provide justification for your positions. you say something nasty, then you get out. i can see how it would suit your purposes to call him something other than a critic “in the conventional sense”, because his “criticism” doesn’t stand up well to scrutiny. but it’s no use pretending he was playing chess while he was on a tennis court hitting balls back and forth against an opponent.

  7. Oh, poo!
    When you want to engage the larger question of the size of the readership for serious literature, I’m ready, willing and able to take up the counter-argument that the readership for serious literatures (including Canadian) has never been larger but is far more dispersed than ever before.
    Although I think I made it clear that my relationship with Ian Robinson’s The English Prophets: a critical defence of English criticism is intense and longlasting, I keep forgetting how obscure his writings now are even though any discussion of F.R. Leavis that isn’t simply of antiquarian interest must take Mr. Robinson into account: Robinson was not only Mr. Leavis’s student, he was also one of his editors. Although his circle of readers is small, it is robust both in Canada and abroad: even detractors (and there are many due to his forceful opposition to Noam Chomsky’s claims about how language is acquired) will admit that he is likely the world’s foremost authority on the English language from Chaucer to the present day. (You can find all his works at Edgeways Books)
    To summarize briefly the points he makes that seem to me relevant to both the current discussion and the broader one you want to save for another day, his first contention is that (serious) literatures exist and do have a larger readership than they have ever had in human history. It’s only people still enthralled by theory who will deny this. As Mr. Robinson suggests, “Ask, in any bookshop and you will be shown to the section” where Wordsworth Classics, Everyman Editions, World’s Classics, and Penguin “make it cheaper in real terms than they have ever been” are prominently displayed and provide the evidence of cash flow both for literature and its readerships. His second contention is that even though “The undoubted truth that a poem will appear very differently to different readers, and to readers at different times, can obscure the other necessary truth that the great poems have an approachability and a staying power which makes it reasonable to suppose some continuing identity in them that aids some continuing identity in us.” Gilgamesh , for example, can still make our ears prick up and has done precisely that over and over again for my friend who was teaching lifers at a maximum security prison and for me when I was teaching seventeen and eighteen year olds up until I retired a couple of years ago. The real thing is accessible and indestructible and necessary unless its language is utterly lost. His third contention is that English as a language is being lost in any number of ways that have been under-analyzed. What needs discussion are the ways in which readers of serious literature in English are going and growing underground as our common language is being fractured, fragmented and losing more and more ground in public and semi-public forums, including blogs.
    Until another day,
    Cheers
    Terry

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