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Archive for September, 2010

September 30th, 2010 • Posted in Authors and Books

Reading Anna Karenina #2: Best start at the beginning

Musings on the first 25 pages of Anna Karenina:

“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

I assume that by commencing with this generalization Tolstoy’s objective, through the telling of his story, is to prove the hypothesis.

So, we are to muse on happiness.  Are all happy families alike? I suppose that if: the married partners are compatible in important ways (sex, values, etc.); the relationship works equally well for both; the arrival of children doesn’t alienate the husband; both enjoy raising children, and both are able to sacrifice their needs for the ‘common good’, that ‘happiness’ is possible, and that yes happy families in this regards are all alike; these ingredients are common to all happy couples.

Does the same hold true for unhappy ones? Contrary to what Tolstoy tells us, I’d again say yes. Sex and money are the arenas within which most of the happy fall. Emotional neglect, sexual abuse, ‘broken’ homes  in childhood often lead to less than blissful marriages. Boredom/a sense of being taken for granted, of feeling unappreciated are common culprits.  All invariably lead to unhappiness; nothing unique here. Sure each family may endure and try to avoid them in slightly different ways, but the same potholes typically chequer the road to all familial contentment.

Problem is that, even when happiness is achieved, things change.

Stepan loses interest in his wife we are told in a blunt, honest ‘self’ assessment.  He has an affair with the children’s governess

“Didn’t feel amorous” with his ‘worn out’ wife (seven children five living, two dead). He wished only that he’d concealed things better; was unaware that she would be so upset.

What to do?  Leading us to believe that this is Stepan’s response to the situation -  the narrator suggests that there is no answer, save for the one life gives to all the most ‘complex, insoluble’ questions:  one must live for the needs of the day, in other words, become oblivious.

The meaning is a bit unclear here. Or perhaps the translation. Become ‘oblivious’ to the problem that exists: what to do: what does ‘live for the day’ mean? Avoid making a decision? Pretend nothing has happened? Passively wish that things will return to normal on their own? If actions are to be taken, what should they be – avoid his wife; beg for forgiveness; seek a divorce?  There’s a hint that the governess may be pregnant, but nothing, so far at least, on Stepan’s feelings, if any, toward her.


All happiness alike? Perhaps Tolstoy is suggesting that when we’re happy/in love  we don’t ‘sweat the small stuff.’ Everything glides along smoothly. It’s easy to live. Nothing bothers us. Nothing else matters. Life is light. But when we’re unhappy: the opposite. Everything’s a struggle. Everything goes wrong. We focus on all the annoying details. Life through shit-coloured glasses. It’s heavy.

Tolstoy himself certainly wasn’t happy in marriage. I suspect that he, at one time or another, lived the lives of each of the leading male characters in the novel. Time to drag out the bios.

September 30th, 2010 • Posted in Authors and Books

Reading Anna Karenina #1: Woody Allen and the themes

I’ve started to read Anna Karenina for the third time. Aside from being struck by all the blushing, I’m put in mind – what with Stepan’s affair with the family governess – mostly of Woody Allen. So, instead of a wearyingly familiar list of themes, I give you this selection of  what I consider to be some of the comedian’s best lines:

I took a speed reading course and read War and Peace in twenty minutes. It’s about Russia.

The only time my wife and I had a simultaneous orgasm was when the judge signed the divorce papers.

Is sex dirty? Only if it’s done right.

My love life is terrible. The last time I was inside a woman was when I visited the Statue of Liberty.

 The lion and the calf shall lie down together but the calf won’t get much sleep.

Money is better than poverty, if only for financial reasons.

Some guy hit my fender, and I told him ‘be fruitful, and multiply.’ But not in those words.

My one regret in life is that I am not someone else.

 I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work…I want to achieve it through not dying.

I had a terrible  education. I attended a school for emotionally disturbed teachers.

The baby is fine. The only problem is that he looks like Edward G. Robinson.

How can I believe in God when just last week I got my tongue caught in the roller of an electric typewriter?

I sold the memoirs of my sex life to a publisher – they are going to make a board game out of it.

If you want to make God laugh, tell him your future plans.

More than any time in history mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness, the other to total extinction. Let us pray that we have the wisdom to choose correctly.

Basically my wife was immature. I’d be in my bath and she’d come in and sink my boats.

 (see next post for some serious musings on the first 25 pages of the novel)

September 29th, 2010 • Posted in Authors and Books

Upcoming antiquarian book fairs

Upcoming antiquarian book fairs courtesy of the Book Hunter Press:

Santa Fe Book Show

October 1st and 2nd, 2010
Fair location: Santa Fe,_NM 87501
Address: El Museo Cultural, 1615 Paseo de Peralta, Santa Fe, NM 87501
Hours: Friday 4-9PM, Saturday 9AM-5PM
Admission fee: $10 Both Days, $6 Saturday only
Number of dealers expected: 40
For more fair information:
Contact person: Henry Lewis
Contact phone #: 505-983-0088
Address for contact:  308 North Guadalupe St., Santa Fe, NM 87501

Heart of the Continent Book Fair

 October 2 and 3, 2010
 Fair location: Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada
 Address: Masonic Memorial Temple, 420 Corydon Ave. (at "confusion corner")
 Hours: 11-5 and 11-4
 Admission fee: $4.00 for both days
 Number of dealers expected 15
For more fair information:
 Aimee Peake, 204-947-5931

The 42nd Semi-Annual Toronto Book Fair & Paper Show

Sunday, October 31st, 2010
Toronto, Ontario
St. Lawrence Market
92 Front Street East (at Jarvis)
9:30 am to 4:00 pm
$5.00 admission
30 Antiquarian Book and Paper Dealers


Eighth Annual Houston Book Fair at the Museum of Printing History

November 6, 2010
Fair location: Houston TX
Address:  1324 West Clay, Houston, TX 77019
Hours:  10 am to 5 pm
Admission fee:  $5
Number of dealers expected:  20
or more fair information:
Contact person :  Amanda Stevenson
Contact phone #:  713-522-4652, ext 207
Address  1324 West Clay, Houston, TX 77019
September 29th, 2010 • Posted in Authors and Books

Mumford and Sons – Little Lion Man


September 29th, 2010 • Posted in On Book Collecting

Kenneth Grahame on why the book-buyer buys books

It’s as if he knew me:


"It will never be clear to the lay mind why the book-buyer buys books. That it is not to read them is certain: the closest inspection always fails to find him thus engaged. He will talk about them – all night if you let him – wave his hand to them, shake his fist at them, shed tears over them ( in the small hours of the morning); but still he will not read them. Yet it would be rash to infer that he buys his books without a remote intention of ever reading them. Most book-lovers start with the honest resolution that some day they will "shut down on" this fatal practice. Then they purpose to themselves to enter into their charmed circle, and close the gates of Paradise behind them. Then will they read out of nothing but first editions; every day shall be a debauch in large paper and tall copies; and crushed morocco shall be familiar to their touch as buckram. Meanwhile though, books continue to flaunt their venal charms; it would be cowardice to shun the fray. In fine, one buys and continues to buy; and the promised Sabbath never comes."

                                  From Pagan Papers (John Lane, 1898, 6th Edition)

Should however hastily mention that I am currently reading Anna Karenina (stay tuned for fallout).

September 28th, 2010 • Posted in On Book Collecting

20 per cent plus discounts on some of the world’s most beautiful books

The exhibit hall at Oak Knoll Fest XVI apparently  filled up in record time this year, which means a great international wayzgoose of forty fine press printers is now primed and ready to show you some of the world’s best printing.


Focusing on the relationship between fine press and artists’ books, Oak Knoll Fest XVI (October 1-3, 2010 in New Castle, Delaware) features a presentation on private press typography by the distinguished typographer Russell Maret. It highlights the annual meeting of the Fine Press Book Association.


As in past years Oak Knoll Fest attendees will enjoy twenty per cent plus discounts on some of  the world’s most beautiful books


Oak Knoll authors will also be present to sign their work. 

September 27th, 2010 • Posted in On Book Collecting

Allen Lane Launches in Canada

Penguin Group today launches its Allen Lane Canada ‘prestige’ imprint. It will be managed by Diane Turbide, director of Penguin’s Extraordinary Canadians series and editor of among others Michael Ignatieff, Margaret MacMillan and John Ralston Saul.  The new imprint kicks off with a new series entitled The History of Canada, co-edited by MacMillan and Robert Bothwell, and a new book by award-winning author and Great War historian Tim Cook entitled The Madman and the Butcher: The Sensational Wars of Sam Hughes and General Arthur Currie.

As it turns out I’ve been thinking quite a lot about Allen Lane lately; reading Jeremy Lewis’s fine biography, talking to publishing pros about how Lane secured Penguin’s early success; hunting for jacketed paperback editions of the first ten titles published in 1935; looking for Albatrosses, admiring the Lady Chatterley’s Lover mini-exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery in London, and buying just two days ago from Oliver Clark, this famed Lane Christmas book:

1957 Private Angelo by Eric Linklater; bound in vellum-covered boards; endpapers by David Gentleman. (Called the first book to be printed in the U.K entirely by photocomposition. 2,000 copies. $75–$120)

for my publisher’s histories book collection, complete with this:

(images courtesy of Fine Books and Collections magazine)

I’m currently writing an article on ‘Collecting Canadian’ in which I tag the Extraordinary Canadians series as one to collect. Cook’s book wouldn’t be a bad bet either.

September 27th, 2010 • Posted in Literary Criticism

Guest Post by André Alexis: A Response to Some of the Responses to “The Long Decline”

Canadian novelist, playwright, and short-story writer André Alexis muses…aggressively (think: full contact origami) about the wisdom of excerpting (Walrus magazine) his latest work Beauty and Sadness:

 “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.

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.

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 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.

September 27th, 2010 • Posted in Authors and Books

Mont St-Michel on shaky ground

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Yes it’s magnificent. Yes, we’re lucky to have it, and all the other breathtakingly beautiful cathedrals in the world. But what about its foundations? What about all those poor slobs who died under the weight of  those stones. Think of the enormous travail and suffering.  I thought that the church was here to alleviate misery, not cause it; to give to others, look out for the less fortunate, instead of spending what must have been unthinkable amounts of money building colossal monuments to what? It’s own power? These are the nuclear missiles of the middle ages.

September 26th, 2010 • Posted in Literary Destinations

Paul Bonet & how knowledge changes everything

Self evident observations:  the more you learn, the more you  see; you’re blind to what you’re unaware of;  you can’t see what you don’t know about. It pays to be ignorant?

The proprietor

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of this store

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in Le Mans told me about Paul Bonet the renowned French book binder famous for, among other things, 550-some book bindings designed for the Gallimard publishing house between 1941 and 1967. I bought one of them from him, and later another

around the corner, from this lovely woman:

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If I’d known about Bonet’s bindings several days earlier, I’d have found a large trove of them, likely one of the largest in the world, for sale here,


 in this guy’s


store in Becherel, France’s first ‘book town’.

The only plus in all of  this I suppose, is that if I had been in the know, my pocketbook would doubtless now be hundreds of Euros lighter, my luggage, many pounds heavier.