“In any dispute the intensity of feeling is inversely proportional to the value of the stakes at issue – that is why academic politics are so bitter.” - Walter Sayre
The quality of thought displayed in the responses to “The Long Decline” has been so mediocre, I have a hard time justifying a response to the responses. Reaction has ranged from brute stupidity to bizarre self-inflation, most of it predictable.
Still, I’d like to correct a few misrepresentations of my ideas and address the one essay that I thought misguided but interesting.
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.
3. 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 defence appear to have read him with any sort of attention. His most inept defenders have done him the greatest disservice by attacking the Walrus article, rather than defending Metcalf’s 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 him. 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 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 childish 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 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, in any case) idea that what Frye said about Canadian writing is what’s important about Frye in my polemic. 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 lead 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 in any way more valuable than the opinions of your next door neighbour.
4. Canada’s Most Overrated Reviewers
As if to demonstrate the almost wilful mediocrity of our reviewers, along come Alex Good and Steven W. Beattie with their list of Canada’s “overrated” writers and Canada’s “underrated writers”. Much of what is tiresome about Canadian reviewing is on offer, here, so this seems as good place as any to end my response.
Good and Beattie, having heard that Anis Shivani (in the Huffington Post) and Gabriel Josipivici (in the Guardian) had written pieces listing their respective countries’ most “overrated” writers, have done the same for our country’s writers. This kind of list is, of course, a cliché. It is, along with writing reviews in the voice or style of the writer under consideration or submitting a story by Kafka (or whomever) to a journal after changing the author’s name, one of the worst clichés of our reviewing culture. In effect, this list-making turns literature into something easily digestible by readers accustomed to Us magazine or USA Today.
Now, Good n’ Beattie are neither of them deep thinkers. But how fatuous do you have to be to accuse writers of being clichéd while yourself performing one of reviewing’s most obvious clichés? Without a hint of irony or self-awareness, Good n’ Beattie write of David Adams Richards that he has “found a formula that works … and he’s just going to stick with it.” while themselves sticking to the usual formula.
Not content simply to propagate cliché, Good n’ Beattie are, in their lists, perpetrators of the typical self-interest that afflicts unprincipled reviewers everywhere: they boost the work of their acquaintances or their circle. Good is an editor at Canadian Notes and Queries. He is a defender of John Metcalf, his review of Shut Up! He Explained gently chiding Metcalf for writing he would never forgive in Ondaatje. When one turns to Good n’ Beattie’s list of “underrated” writers, one finds a preponderance of writers associated with Metcalf or Porcupine’s Quill: Clarke Blaise, Sharon English, Russell Smith, Caroline Adderson, Ray Smith, and Eric Ormsby. That’s six out of the ten writers listed chosen from a select field. In the “discussion” afterwards, Beattie asserts that John Metcalf has edited the best writers to come out of this country. Yes, of course he has, Mr Beattie, but Sharon English before Thomas Wharton or Michael Turner? Please.
Not content with log rolling, Good n’ Beattie show themselves to be such mediocre writers, one wonders where they found the nerve to criticize the “over rated”. Referring to Erin Mouré, they write: “She also demonstrates why people have taken to avoiding poetry so studiously.” Her does? How? Is mime involved? Good n’ Beattie tell us that Anne Michael’s novels are “solipsistic, humourless and alienating”. All right, but if they’re alienating, why do her novels sell so well? Whom do they alienate, aside from Good n’ Beattie? Not her readers, clearly, because if Fugitive Pieces had alienated them, they surely wouldn’t have bought Michael’s second book. Or is it just that Good n’ Beattie don’t actually know the meaning of “alienating”? On top of that, Good n’ Beattie’s articles contains such memorable phrases as “angels fearing to tread”, an “army of fans and supporters”, “no mean feat”, the “upper echelons of CanLit”, and about Lynn Coady they say “She writes with an authority and power that belies her relatively young age”. The woman is forty, for God’s sake. How old does one have to be to write with “authority and power”? Rimbaud was doing it in his teens. Good n’ Beattie are tiresome hacks, their writing execrable.
Okay. They are bad writers, cliché mongers, and log rollers. So what? Lists like these get us talking about Canadian literature, don’t they? And that’s a good thing, isn’t it? Well … reading the responses to Good n’ Beattie, one reads mostly of approval or disapproval, the assertion that this writer is talented or the denigration of that writer’s abilities. Good n’ Beattie allow that these lists are always “somewhat subjective”, but this list is, of course, entirely subjective because neither man has anything approaching the desire to establish ground rules that focus on the work itself. Leaving aside the fact that the writers on the “overrated” list are the usual bêtes noires of CNQ/Marchand-doting snobs, both lists are made up of literary writers whose aims and objectives are similar. (Genre writers like Howard Engel are on neither list.) For Good n’ Beattie, writer “A” has money, power and reputation. So, writer “A” is overrated. Writer “B” who has not (or not yet) gained money, power and reputation is “underrated”. As it stands, “underrated” or “overrated” are not aesthetic categories. They are social ones. The discussion is about power and status, but it’s disguised as a literary discussion. (A terrible disguise, by the way: putting the literary “failings” of one set of writers against the literary “virtues” of another is so childish in its desire to provoke one wonders if Good n’ Beattie are out of high school.)
These lists – clichés justified by the arguments they’re meant to stimulate – are part of the stultifying process we’re going through. They’re media-driven “shocks” meant to sell papers, not to help us think about how literature matters or what is crucial in our literature.
Having read the lists, I thought, briefly, that it would have been more pertinent to compile a list of Canada’s most overrated, practicing reviewers. The only one I could come up with, however, was Philip Marchand. By tragic coincidence, Marchand is also our most underrated reviewer. It is very difficult to think of anyone else who is rated at all. And that says something about the state our literary critical culture is in, doesn’t it? In the UK, the list of highly (or lowly) rated reviewers would begin with Robert McCrum, Adam Mars-Jones, Boyd Tonkin, Gabriel Josipivici. In the Unites States, you’d have Wendy Lesser, Michael Dirda, Sven Birkerts, James Wood, Dale Peck, Stanley Crouch, etc. That we have only Philip Marchand (who is not very good and doesn’t write regular reviews anymore) tells you quite a bit about the state of our reviewing culture. And it invites the question: if a Canadian writer produced a work of genius, could any of our reviewers recognize it? (Tree, forest, deadly fall …
5. Why talk about all this at all, and why with such vehemence?
I sent parts of this essay/response to Jeet Heer’s blog. He answered my first post but then declined to keep up the discussion because, as he wrote “The problems you’ve identified 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.”
I think Jeet is simply and unbearably right. I find it depressing that I can point to a number of interesting reviewers from the UK and America and to so few from my own home. Canada, the culture that has made me, is in some ways inadequate to the discussion it’s inspired. At times, it feels as if Canada were not worth the emotion spent to defend or belabour it.
The vehemence of my reactions has everything to do with how frustrating it is to care passionately about something so few of my peers care about at all. In fact, the reviewers I criticize – Alex Good, Steven Beattie, Philip Marchand – are among the small number who care as deeply about these things as I do. They are, ultimately, my brothers and the dislike I feel for them is a family matter. That being the case, I wonder about the wisdom of publishing the excerpt from Beauty and Sadness in The Walrus.
Knowing what I know now, I wouldn’t do it.
ANDRÉ ALEXIS was born in Trinidad and grew up in Canada. His debut novel, Childhood, was a finalist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, and won the Amazon.ca/Books in Canada First Novel Award and the Trillium Book Award. He is also the author of several acclaimed works of fiction, including the story collections Despair and Other Stories of Ottawa and Asylum. Alexis is the host and creator of CBC Radio’s Skylarkin’. He lives in Toronto.
Read Charles Foran’s review of Beauty and Sadness here in the Globe and Mail.