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.
I’ve already made clear my objections to Andre Alexis’ recent Walrus article decrying the state of Canadian literary criticism (or CanLitCrit). But my relatively mild rebuke has now been superceded by Zachariah Wells’ truly devastating response in Canadian Notes and Queries, which can be found here. It should be called My Deathmatch with Andre.
This is far from the only example of failing to practise what you preach. In the same essay in which you decry “personal attacks and collegiate vitriol,” as well as certain critics’ practise of “insulting” their targets, you write disdainfully of “a short, pompous man with thick, dark-rimmed glasses (a self-styled “critic”).” Just because, unlike Starnino and Bigge, you don’t name the person you’re belittling doesn’t mean that it isn’t an insult. It just means you’re less brave than they are in dishing it out. Either that, or this bespectacled little man’s a character you’ve invented.
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.
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.
I’m always afraid to tell people that my favourite literary magazine is Canadian Notes and Queries. The name is so off-putting. It sounds like a mimeographed sheet devoted to esoteric bibliographic information about Duncan Scott Campbell and Stephen Leacock. And in fact that’s what the magazine was for most of its history. But for the last decade or so, it’s been the home to the best essays on Canadian culture, and also some excellent short fiction. (John Metcalf was the editor who re-invented CNQ and he’s been helped by Daniel Wells, Alex Good and others). Perhaps wisely, the editors have tried to rebrand their journal as CNQ, to hide their embarrassing original name.
The new issue of CNQ, number 77, is chock full of the goodies including a new story by Clark Blaise. And some of these essays are already available online. Here are two goodies:
1. Seth on Doug Wright. The best writing on comics tends to come from cartoonists themselves: Art Spiegelman, Scott McCloud, Chris Ware, Eddie Campbell. There are few other art forms in which the critical discourse is so totally dominated by practitioners. Seth belongs to this elite company of cartoonists/critics. His essays on cartoonists like John Stanley and Chris Reynolds are filled with sharp observations grounded in a rare in-depth knowledge of comics history. The latest issue of CNQ reprints Seth’s speech on Doug Wright, delivered 5 years ago to launch the Doug Wright Awards. It can be found here.
John Metcalf, as I’ve said more than once, is both a great writer and a great editor. On my bookshelves I have scores of novels and short story collections edited by Metcalf, by writers such as Russell Smith, K.D. Miller and Annabel Lyon. These books maintain a level of quality unmatched in modern publishing: the least of them is worth reading and the best are the equal of any fiction currently being written.
Metcalf is such a good talent scout in part because he himself is a splendid writer: his prose has a sprightly elegance, classical without being stodgy. He can be as giddily funny as Wodehouse yet his stories can plumb into emotional depths that few comic writers are willing to risk. Underlying his antic comedy is a strong sense of all the ways life can go awry, the diminishments and disappointments that accompany the simple act of being alive. Alice Munro nicely captured the paradox of Metcalf when she wrote: “John Metcalf often comes as close to the baffling, painful comedy of human experience as a writer can get.” The humour that hurts (“painful comedy”) is the essence of his fiction
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.
Over at Maclean’s, Paul Wells is showing his literary side. He has a piece on the controversy over The Penguin Book of Canadian Short Stories, edited by Jane Urquhart. Despite its title the anthology contains a weird mix of material, not all of which is made up of short stories, which has caused consternation among the literati:
[Urquhart’s] anthology garnered respectful reviews in newspapers’ book pages when it first appeared, but there was grumbling in short-story circles about its peculiarities. (There are such circles. They are small, sparsely populated, and, as a rule, neither fat nor loud.) Memoirs and excerpts from novels mixed in with bona fide short stories? A book divided into five themes, as though some consideration besides literary quality had driven the choices?
Daniel Wells, the editor of Canadian Notes and Queries, emailed Kim Jernigan, the editor of The New Quarterly, and asked if she shared his concerns. She did, up to a point. Both found a lot to like in the Penguin anthology, including brilliant writers like Alice Munro, Mavis Gallant, Alistair MacLeod, Lisa Moore and Guy Vanderhaeghe. But both were baffled by some of the inclusions. What was Adrienne Clarkson doing in there, with a short story she published in Maclean’s in 1961, while she was still Adrienne Poy? “I love Charles Ritchie, but as a short-story writer?” Wells writes about the career diplomat and fondly remembered memoirist. “I did not know Claire Messud was Canadian. And Michael Ondaatje?”
Wells approaches this topic with less righteousness than the literary press. Perhaps that’s why his article is much more effective in communicating how strange Urquhart’s choices were (Adrienne Clarkson? Come on. I mean, was Wendy Mesley not available?).
As Wells mentions, writer and editor John Metcalf is leading the charge against Urquhart. Metcalf would be an obvious choice to edit this type of book. Yet so far, no major press has asked him to. Metcalf may contribute to his outsider status at times, with all his polemicizing. Yet he has done more for the Canadian short story than any other editor I can think of. First in his editorial work for The Porcupine’s Quill, and now in his capacity as fiction editor for Biblioasis, a small press based in Windsor, Ontario, Metcalf has discovered an entire generation of Canadian writers. Metcalf’s skill as a talent spotter has been repeatedly confirmed by larger presses signing up authors whose first books were published by Metcalf. Yet so far, no large press has shown any interest in working with Metcalf himself. The time is ripe for an editor at a large press to offer him the chance to edit his own Canadian short story anthology.