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November 5th, 2013 • Posted in Literary Criticism

Lynn Coady short story collection Hellgoing wins 2013 Scotiabank Giller Prize, but Why?

Here’s what Margaret AtwoodEsi Edugyan and  Jonathan Lethem had to say:

“The eight stories in Lynn Coady’s Hellgoing offer a stupendous range of attitudes, narrative strategies, and human situations, each complete and intricate, creating a world the reader enters as totally as that of a novel, or a dream. Yet the book as a whole is also magically united by Coady’s vivid and iconoclastic language, which brims with keen and sympathetic wit. Whether from the perspective of a writer flailing in the social atmosphere of a professional conference, or a woman trying to extend forgiveness to a lover’s abusive father, Coady offers a worldview full of mournful humour, ready indignation, and vertiginous possibility; the reader feels in the presence of life itself.”

Hmmm.

Four and a half line justification (okay, it’s four lines here in the back end). 

Nice televised razzle dazzle I gather (the promotion I saw said that the show started at 9pm…I tuned in at 9.08.  Live feed was over. The winner  already  chosen). Still.  Wouldn’t it be nice to get a bit more from this talented jury? Sure it’s good to know what they think is best. Nicer to know why. Nicer still to get an exchange, a dialogue. Get inside the stable – or wherever it is that horse trading takes place  - get some of the see saw, push and pull – a bit of what the back and forth sounded like.  Who preferred what. 

That four liner’s a bit like tuning in after the show’s ended. 

 

April 1st, 2013 • Posted in Literary Criticism

Five ways to bring transparency and intelligent discourse to our prize-dominated literary culture

The pay is a joke. Most book reviewers do it out of a love for the craft and maybe some sense of duty to the culture.  It really is hardly worth the effort. Back when I was in the media relations business I typically earned ten times today’s book reviewer’s pay, writing stories for clients about energy efficient refrigerators and how to cook hamburgers safely.

No wonder there’s so little serious literary discourse in the country: no-one’s willing to pay for it.

Not surprising then that literary prizes have filled the void.

This isn’t a complaint, necessarily. Something is clearly worth more than nothing. But who really benefits from these prizes? The winning author of course -  nothing wrong with that. Those on the short and long-lists to a lesser degree. The publishers, obviously, and, perhaps, the reading public – made aware, as they are, of the ‘best’ books;  their choices about what to read made easy. What’s not to like? Authors are happy with a little extra cash in their pockets – more people reading their work/getting their messages; publishers staying in business. More readers informed and entertained in exciting new ways.

But then there are those more demanding types who – while welcoming the attention given books – wish for more. Serious discussion. Public discourse.  It’s a small group, one that doesn’t have to be artificially ‘broadened’ –  just nurtured. Madeleine Thien is in this group. She recently wrote an important article about prizes and transparency. It prompted this post.

So, how to improve the status quo?

As it stands jurors get stuck with reading scores of books – a fraction of which are, typically, any good. For this they get squat, save perhaps for a warm glow, a chicken dinner and a pat on the back in front of a national camera.  Frankly, this extraordinary degree of altruism has always amazed me.

  • Get publishers to pay 0.25 per cent (or whatever it takes to cover the costs of what I’m about to propose) of revenues generated from long-listed titles (say from the date of their announcement to three months after the awarding of the prize) into a pot.

Then:

  • Reduce the number of books that each juror is required to read from 100 to say 36, and pay each juror $350 per book read.
  • Require that each juror submit, up-front, a 500-1000 word statement describing what their version of literary excellence looks like. Pay them $1 a word for this.
  • Require that each juror write a 2-3000 word essay explaining why the book they’ve chosen -  and not other short-listed entries -  should take the prize. Pay them $2 a word for this.
  • And, completely out of left field, why not get academics in on the discussion by having them design courses and essay assignments around the long-lists, for their students?

Finally, let’s be clear. This isn’t about appealing to a broader audience. That’s taken care of by glitzy awards programming and radio show slap-downs. These modest proposals are about clearing the air and occupying at least some of the void left by thinning newspaper sections with engaging literary discourse.  

In this capitalist world, you get what you pay for. So why not leverage the system to benefit culture in a really significant way.

***

Jack Rabinovitch once told me that he’d be happy if the Giller Prize‘s annual shortlists counted among their titles, each year’s five best books. The rest he said, I think very wisely, is a crap shoot.

The hope is that, if implemented, these proposals might give us some slightly better sense of how the game is played, and something more to talk about than just: which horse made it first past the pole.

March 30th, 2013 • Posted in Literary Criticism

Literary Prizes and the Supreme Court

Literary prizes:  where entries are duly fed into one end of a black box and winners pop out the other; where sometimes, if we’re lucky, we even get a paragraph explaining why. Yes, prizes are great at generating buzz for a week or two and selling a few shortlisted titles – not so hot at stimulating discussion or debate about what’s actually written on the page or how good it really is.

Take the Griffin Prize for example.  Yes, we get a one paragraph judges’ citation for Methodist Hatchet. Here’s a passage:

“Babstock is the live wire in the gene pool: stirring things up, rocking boats, disjoining easier conjunctions, jolting the culture’s DNA. From sea-and-skyscapes literally lettered, from the suspect core of our ‘décors? (‘lost heart’ informs that fashion’s stock and trade), he winds past mere mundanities to find the world again, with words for his divining wands…”

Hardly a justification. ‘Mere mundanities’  and ‘words for divining wands’, are followed by ‘desire is wired’, ‘weaving worlds of words’,  ‘uppers cut with aspirin and talc’, ‘Hashes hinted’, ‘hushes marked’, ‘shock of shiver’. Out of context this reads like poetry.  Within the confines of a citation it reads like … a sack of sweet-scented imperatives – devoid of substantive argument.

Don’t get me wrong: it’s wonderful to have the Griffin, the Giller, the Booker, the IMPAC, and the many other generous prizes out there. The problem is – they’re all about the contest, and not the content.

The way to change this is to require judges to provide substantial (2-3,000 word) reasoned explanations for their rulings and/or dissenting opinions – especially their dissenting opinions  – just as they do in the supreme court. Don’t exhaust them, making them read hundreds of books. Limit the number to a dozen say, and get them to write about one, or two, or a shortlist of five.

Then perhaps we’ll have moved some way toward addressing Madeliene Thien’s  serious, eloquently expressed, concerns.

June 2nd, 2012 • Posted in Literary Criticism

Stodgy, arbitrary Canadian Canon determined by the wrong kind of Economics

Reading Robert Lecker’s Making it Real: The Canonization of English-Canadian Literature (Anansi, 1995), I came across these revealing quotes about McClelland and Stewart’s ‘New Canadian Library’(NCL).

First this from a letter written by Jack McClelland to Malcolm Ross, the series’s originator:

“Our proposal is to close the New Canadian Library off at 100 titles. It’s an arbitrary number, it could be 75 – it could be less.”

Then Lecker:

“McClelland’s use of the word arbitrary to describe the number of titles that would eventually be called classic underlines the arbitrary nature of the NCL canon.”

“The values established by the NCL series were as new and unquestioned as the series itself. For the most part the series responded to economic, rather than aesthetic pressures. Right from the start it was conceived of and constructed as a marketing device.”

As Lecker points out, the market is the great arbiter of taste – it determines the canon over time. Usually, books that are out of demand are dropped from the canon, the NCL however, demonstrates the opposite.

  “…in this case, books that were out of demand or out of print for many years (books that had become unvaluable) became the very works to be considered to be worthy of inclusion in a series that marketed its titles as classics deserving curricular and critical attention – truly an original concept for determining literary value. In the topsy-turvey world of the NCL, what was not wanted was often wanted most…

…Literary history is often written by the marketplace. Canons centre on what can be bought and sold. And they respond to pressures that have to do with promoting certain financial ends. More often than not, in Canada and elsewhere, the art of the deal is the art.”

This is particularly true of young countries.  Prior to the advent of the NCL, Canadian high school teachers and university professors had precious little to choose from when searching for Canadian fiction to teach. They needed titles that could be acquired cheaply by their students. The NCL at least gave them this. Availability determined what was taught in Canada during the 1960s and 70s.

Only once broad, if not comprehensive, supply has been settled, can the work of judgement, and aesthetic choice be undertaken with any seriousness.  And it’s only once a work has been on the market, easily obtainable, for at least several generations – given the chance to appeal to more than just those in its own time – that it can truly be said to belong to a canon.  Making books available, and re-publishing them, is one thing, but they must remain popular, and stand the scrutiny of critics through the ages.

Canada has only recently reached the point where all or most of the books written by its inhabitants can, either through series like the NCL or ebooks, now be accessed easily by everyone. Only with the passage of time, and the sustained interest of critics, can a real canon be built independent of what smart book publicists or nation-building pundits might have to say.

April 27th, 2012 • Posted in Literary Criticism

Why expose yourself to the arts and literature?

Martin Esslin tells us why in his essay ‘A Search for Subjective Truth’ found in What is Criticism? Ed. Paul Hernadi (Indiana, 1981):

“If the arts in general, and literature in particular, are concerned with communicating the intellectual and emotional experience of outstanidng individuals, and doing so with the maximum degree of skill, the maximum degree of (subjective) truth, clearly an exposure to the arts and to literature will contribute to enlarging the capacity, on the part of the individual exposed to the artifacts in question, to experience life, to profit from the experience of other individuals before him. It is through discourse about these artifacts, through exchanging opinions about them, having them discussed, analyzed, and explained that each individual can train and develop his own sensibilities, increase his discernment in perceiving the finer points of skill involved in their creation and school his capacity for emotional experience through empathy and imaginative involvement, and enlarge the scope of his intellectual capacity through the insights to be derived from the more complex and subtle forms of human communication.

Criticism provides the techniques for such discourse and the multiplicity of views and viewpoints that constitute that discourse itself. Moreover it helps, through such discourse, to school, guide, and stimulate the creative individuals who are destined to contribute further artifacts to form the basis of further continuing discourse.”

August 8th, 2011 • Posted in Literary Criticism

Too often the reviewer looks for his image in the book

Reviewers, Frank Swinnerton tells us in this sweet

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little

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book

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(check out the beautifully patterned top edge), part of the J.M Dent Memorial Lecture series, should present themselves to any book with an open mind, and judge each book on its own merits.

They should ‘submissively’ ask such questions as: What is the author’s plan? Does this book fulfil the plan? Is it a good plan; an original plan?  “Has the book style; that peculiar suggestiveness of knowledge and understanding, and reserves of temperament which we can call ‘quality’ or ‘texture’?”

In other words, the reviewer should be ‘receptive to the book as it is. He should give it every chance to make, as a whole, its effect upon his imagination, for it is with his imagination, ‘the depths of himself, and not his culture or the superficies of his mind, that he should judge. He is not debating, he is assaying. Unless he allows the book full use of his profoundest attention for as long as he is reading it he is yeilding nothing of any value to the author, who may well be his superior. “ Too often, says Swinnerton, the reviewer looks for his own image in the book, doesn’t in the strict sense, read it at all.

” He thinks of his clique, of his editor, of his readers, who will be amused at his ingenious falsifications. He takes reviewing for a sport: hunt the author – tally ho! Poor mutt! He is suffused in vanity… He has not learned as yet that if the reviewer fails in his duty to the author he fails altogether, whatever the amusingness or the malice of his performance as a commentator…It is his business to find the vital speck in that author, in that book; it is not his business to dwell meaninglessly upon the difficulty of the search.”

 ”…the reviewer, doing justice to the author, then does justice to the reader. If he is imaginative enough, he will give all readers an impression of the book, and will indicate the quantity and quality of its success in pleasing himself. He is an interpreter. 
This involves no compromise. The reviewer is at full liberty, when he has done justice to the book, to kill it with his intelligence. But intelligence, in reviewing, is not enough. It must be supported by imagination – a quality greatly lacking, as a rule, in the intelligentsia – by taste, by humour, detachment, experience of men and books, and tolerance.”
 
Measuring the vitality and originality of the ‘speck’ he finds in the book using every bit of his imagination, the reviewer’s job then it would seem, according to Swinnerton, requires imaginative presentation, and intelligent comparison and deliberation over whether or not attending to this speck is worth the reader’s time and effort.
May 13th, 2011 • Posted in Literary Criticism

Chris Jennings’s shoddy review of Michael Lista’s Bloom

Several posts ago I trained the heavy artillery on Chris Jennings’s ARC magazine (Winter 2011) review of Michael Lista’s first collection of poetry, Bloom, calling it chicken-shit.

Jennings wondered why.

Here’s why.

Early on he tells us that "every" book of poems "plays this game" of weaving as many threads together as the poet can "without shutting out all air and strangling the thing." Immediately preceeding this, we learned that "First books divide into several species," some of which "collapse under the weight of too many competing ideas."

How threads in a  "loose" collection of works-to-date can be woven together by the poet, short of retroactively, I’ll leave for Jennings to explain. What I can tell you though is that it’s chicken-shit to dump one foul, confused misgiving up against a subsequent ‘neutral’ description of a work. Which is what Jennings does when he goes on to introduce Bloom. The implication is that the latter exudes the former. Rather than directly asserting that Lista’s book is over-heavy with competing ideas, we’re left only with troublingly opaque juxtaposition. Explain how and why these ideas detract from the work instead of merely insinuating it.

As Nick Mount, in his Walrus review of Ken Babstock’s latest, reminds us, most poets write for, and have been influenced by, other poets. Lista puts this up front in his collection, by styling each poem after another. Jennings, without explanation, condemns this as a ‘trick’ that ‘disappoints.’ Accusations of ‘parallel slackness’ used to fill out the rhyme aren’t substantiated; then, moderating ‘alarms’ that more seasoned poets evidently hear are dubbed ‘gifts’ that derive from experience…? Experience may develop judgement, but judgement certainly isn’t in itself, a gift. A final little cheap shot also bears notice. When plutonium goes critical it is called a ‘bloom.’ Jennings doesn’t grant Lista this definition, choosing instead to insert the qualifier  ‘apparently’ before giving us  ‘called a Bloom.’ What a picayune tune.

To summarize then, this is a shoddy, very poorly written, poorly reasoned little review, filled with chicken-shit cheap shots; entirely unworthy of its subject.

March 1st, 2011 • Posted in Literary Criticism

Guest Post: In Defence of John Metcalf

In response to a recent Guest Post on this site by Andre Alexis, I  received the following submission from one Ismail Andersson. I am pleased to present it to you today.

 

In Defence of John Metcalf by Ismail Andersson

In light of André Alexis’ attack on John Metcalf, I’d like to offer a defence not so much of John Metcalf the man but of John Metcalf the literary provocateur. Alexis has got a number of things wrong. I’d like to point a few of them out.

                In a nutshell, here’s what Alexis says in a piece published by The Walrus last summer:

 

                - There’s been a decline in the quality of literary appreciation, in Canada

 

                - One of the reasons for this supposed decline is a falling off in the credibility of book reviewers – who now write about themselves and their suppositions (“a species of autobiography” is how Alexis puts it) rather than concentrating on the work before them.

 

                - The origin of this autobiographical turn is exemplified by John Metcalf’s approach to literary journalism.

 

                The first two propositions are half-truths. As others have pointed out, bad literary journalism has been with us forever. Two hundred years ago, now, the great poet Goethe pointed out that great critics are rarer than great poets. So, whether from critics or reviewers, this lack of cogent criticism is not new. Yes, it’s true that twenty or thirty years ago Frye, Kenner, Atwood, McLuhan were writing criticism. But in the years before them there wasn’t much going on in Canadian criticism, was there? So, Alexis is pointing to the existence of a kind of “golden generation” of Canadian critics and berating the current crop of reviewers for not being at that generation’s level. Pointing to a writer like Ryan Bigge and suggesting that he’s not as good as Northrop Frye is a little desperate, though, isn’t it? If Alexis were being fair, he would compare Bigge or Nathan Whitlock to literary reviewers from forty or fifty years ago. I realize that Alexis actually compares Bigge et al to Stan Persky and George Fetherling, but Persky and Fetherling have stuck in his mind more than they have in the minds of others. Neither of them represent the height of reviewing and I’m not – personally – convinced that they were significantly better than their current counterparts. I believe Alexis’ argument surreptitiously – dishonestly – relies on the stature of Frye, McLuhan et al.

                The second idea – that the current crop of reviewers are “navel gazers” – is perhaps true but it’s irrelevant. Reviewing, as opposed to literary criticism, has always been a matter of using the individual’s taste as an aesthetic barometer. Newspapers aren’t literary journals. They aren’t the place where literary concepts get worked out. They’re the place where a known sensibility confronts a recent example of an art form: a new collection of poems or short stories or essays, or a novel. The point, in this confrontation, is the report of pleasure or dislike or ambivalence, from the reviewer’s perspective. That some barometers work better than others is, inevitably, true. I’d rather read Michel Bassilière than Alex Good, any day.  But that doesn’t make Alex Good useless. What Alexis fails to consider is that a third rate sensibility can still be a first rate gauge. Knowing that “reviewer x” has a certain kind of sensibility, I can get a pretty good bead on any book he or she evaluates. Regular reviewers like Good, Whitlock or Alexis himself aren’t valuable because they tell the truth (whatever that might be, where the evaluation of a book is concerned) or because they’re particularly “deep” but, rather, they’re valuable because they broadcast from a known frequency. I know where they’re coming from. What would be confusing is if Alexis began writing like Seamus Heaney and then wrote like Philippe Sollers and, the following week, wrote like James Wood. I’m happy he writes like André Alexis because, to be truthful, it allows me to guiltlessly avoid most of the books he recommends.

                There’s another thing to consider, where reviewing is concerned. Newspapers or magazines also have sensibilities. The Star is not like The Globe which is not like The New Republic, and so on. So, when we read André Alexis’ reviews, we’re reading – at least in part – what The Globe and Mail has decided constitutes reviewing. Again, this is not a bad thing. I know in advance what kind of sensibilities will be hired by Martin Levin (book editor at the Globe) or Dan Smith (at The Star). So, as a reader, I know where these reviews are coming from. (Not to be cruel but Alexis, when he does his reviews, is really only as independent as the next organ grinder’s monkey.)

                I think we can admit that Alexis presents Metcalf’s case fairly well. In short, some two decades ago, John Metcalf wrote his version of “The Pleasure Principle”. The idea is that the critic’s personal pleasure in a book is far from negligible. In fact, the pleasure the critic takes in a work is what guides him or her towards certain works and away from others. To an extent, the critic’s pleasure is a subjective matter but, and this is a big but, the individual sensibility’s pleasure is not a worse starting point than academic theories or intellectual configurations.

                The objection Alexis makes to this idea is that the critic or literary journalist ends up solipsistically defending aspects of literature that appeal to him or her. In Metcalf’s case, the crucial thing is called “style”. Metcalf places books whose “style” he admires over here and those whose “style” he does not like over there, beyond the pale. To Alexis this is unfair because unsystematic. “Good” works are designated as such by Metcalf, but all Metcalf can actually do is point to sentences or paragraphs and say “there, this is “stylish” and valuable and work that is not like this is not “stylish” and not valuable”. So, Alexis is arguing that Metcalf’s system is arbitrary and too closely based on what Metcalf himself prefers as opposed to what is inherently valuable. (If there is such a thing as “inherent value” where art is concerned.)

                At first glance, that’s a good objection. But isn’t Metcalf doing what all criticism does, either implicitly or explicitly? Isn’t all criticism a justification of needs or pleasure? For instance, the academic criticism that Metcalf was writing against invented categories to fit its needs. Canadian academic critics who wanted to talk about “the Canadian gothic” fetishized certain works in exactly the way Metcalf fetishizes Evelyn Waugh or Kingsley Amis. Yes, the academic critic could point to a system outside of his or her own sensibility. They could point to supposedly “objective” principles and taxonomies but, in effect, they ended up valuing the work that served their taxonomic needs. All the academic critic can do is point to Wacousta and talk about its inherent value as an “originating text” or as an example of such and such a tendency in the Canadian novel. But whereas the work that Metcalf liked – work by Waugh, Naipaul, Amis, etc. – could actually be read with enjoyment by any number of people, a work like Wacousta or Master of the Mill could only really have value if you were a member of the academic congregation that had created the grounds on which a book like Wacousta could be called valuable. (This strikes me as just as “arbitrary” as Metcalf’s pleasure principle, but much less democratic.)

                This divorce of criticism from pleasure is pervasive in all the arts. By now, this is an almost banal fact. Academic criticism began to see itself less as evaluation than as classification. It is, now, a kind of cancerous taxonomy. And this is where Alexis is particularly dishonest. The problem of the withdrawal of academic criticism to its dark, crystal chambers is crucial to understanding why Metcalf’s criticism is so important and still relevant. Metcalf’s approach is, still, the only one that allows us to talk about works of literature with language and concepts that have meaning, as I suggested above, for a wide variety of people.

                In an ideal world, criticism would join in the discussions begun by reviewing and add to them. But …

                If he’d wanted to point to a deep problem in our critical culture, instead of blaming Metcalf’s approach Alexis might have mentioned the self-imposed segregation of academia.  To convey this last point, I’ll have to resort to anecdotal evidence. There are, of course, academics who still participate in popular culture, writing for newspapers and so on. However, I have a number of friends in academia who have complained that they’re not allowed to contribute to newspapers or more popular venes. Or rather that the consequences of their airing their views in “unmediated” venues are fairly serious. Mark Kingwell’s populist approach, for instance, will have done great damage to his reputation as a thinker. His contributions to The Globe or Harpers or even smaller venues, his use of non-professional language, his democratic approach to thinking and criticism are things that, in academe, count against him. His approach is taken as a mark against his seriousness. And Kingwell’s situation is not uncommon. In our time, the academic critic is forced to stay on “the grounds”, to write papers for other academics, to use the accepted jargon, to make major pleas for minor details. The systematic approach to criticism that Alexis wants is on offer, but it is not likely to help us find “shared standards”, since it’s exemplified by its crabbed language (think Judith Butler ), its specialist orientation, and its resolute turning away from the common reader.  In other words, it will not share.

                (Nor is the problem – as some have suggested – simply a matter of academic criticism turning away from evaluation and judgement, the things reviewers embrace. Rather, it’s a problem of “shamanism”. Academics see themselves as part of a brotherhood or sorority of the serious . Their withdrawal from popular culture follows from this, rather than from any particular approach.)

                What André Alexis has done – by turning the discussion towards an evaluation of John Metcalf – is obscure a sad but crucial point: criticism has abandoned the field to reviewing. As a culture, we are now left with reviewing alone. Thirty years ago, our culture had a massive advantage. Our reviewers were buttressed or contradicted or made more vital by Frye, McLuhan, et al. For a variety of reasons, we no longer have such critical perspectives to help us. Until we do, Metcalf’s approach is the only one that allows us to speak of important things (pleasure, style, diction, humour …) while waiting for a critical mind – for a perspective – that will help us make more acute or broader sense of literary matters.

 

ISMAIL ANDERSSON was born in Alexandria, Egypt. He came to Canada thirty years ago, when he was in his twenties. He has worked as a history researcher but now works for the government. He has been writing poetry for many years – since childhood,in fact – but has only recently decided to submit it for publication. Two of his poems were accepted by the magazine Contemporary Verse 2. He is a faithful reader of Constantin Cavafy.

January 13th, 2011 • Posted in Literary Criticism

How to improve Canadian literary discourse

Karen Armstrong’s piece on compassion and the Socratic method (in the Guardian) speaks I’d say to what Andre Alexis might be looking for in Canadian literary discourse:

"To philosophise was not to bludgeon your opponent into accepting your point of view, but to do battle with yourself.

Furthermore, a truly Socratic dialogue must be conducted with gentleness and without malice. It was a joint effort to obtain new understanding: you expressed yourself clearly as a gift to your debating partners, whose beautifully expressed arguments would, in turn, touch you at a profound level. Socrates once described himself as a midwife whose task was to help his conversation partner engender a new self. By learning to inhabit each other’s point of view with honesty and generosity, participants were taken beyond themselves, realised that they lacked wisdom and longed for it, but knew that they were not what they ought to be.

Dialogue is a current buzzword, but despite the vaunted rationalism of our society, there is little genuinely Socratic dialogue going on. All too often in a debate it is not sufficient for us to seek the truth; we also have to defeat and even humiliate our opponents. In a panel discussion it is often evident that participants are not really listening to adversaries but busy thinking up a riposte that will deliver the coup de grace."

I think the most important phrase here is "you expressed yourself clearly as a gift to your debating partners."  With gentleness and without malice, yes, it’s important to observe these practices, to avoid shouting matches and mud slinging,  but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with possessing a strong desire to win or make a point. It serves as a powerful motivation which ensures that all participants hear the very best possible expressions of the arguments -  that their respective merits are justly served. The essential concomittant of this is that those intent on winning be open-minded and ‘generous’ enough to make every effort to see both the flaws in their own arguments, and the strengths in others’.

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 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.