Sunday, May 31, 2009

Final TDR Editorial

This just posted on My final editorial, called So Long, Farewell, Adieu.


With the publication of our June 2009 issue (fiction issue #27), The Danforth Review will be going on hiatus.

Does this mean we are disappearing forever? It might. We're not sure yet.

It doesn't mean that the magazine's editors are disappearing from cyberspace, however. I have been working on a new blog - and Nathaniel G. Moore is Nathaniel G. Moore. You can find us both on Facebook and Twitter and who knows where else.

I am hoping to devote more time to a novel in progress that is still a long way from being done, while also preparing for the launch of my third book of short fiction, The Lizard (Chaudiere Books, 2009).

It is 10 years since I started TDR. Then, I had recently completed the New Media Design Programme at the Canadian Film Centre and was about to see my first book in print. The magazine started as an extension of my website. Within a few years, it had its own URL and we started to get some funding from the Canada Council to pay writers.

You can see past issues of TDR on the Library and Archives Canada website: TDR will be a permanent fixture there for future generations (assuming there are future generations).

TDR's first issue included a link to a CBC story about the imminent arrival of the digital book. A decade later, anxiety about the demise of books has reached a near fever pitch. Recent weeks have included stories in The Nation, Wired and The New York Times that suggest we may be reaching critical mass. A change may soon be upon us all.

Yet, I remain optimistic about books. I remain optimistic about literature. For TDR's final pre-hiatus fiction issue, we received over 300 submissions. People are writing. They are devoting themselves to the short story form as a means of expression and capturing meaning. Literature, I'm sure, will survive.

That said, hand held reading devices will change things. How, I'm uncertain. A couple of months ago, I was in a bar with friends and one of them pulled out a hand held device and showed us all that it contained James Joyce's Ulysses. Why? Because it could. He'd downloaded the entire novel. Was he going to read the novel that way, or just use it to impress friends in bars? We'll have to wait and see.

When I started TDR, some writers I knew didn't want to submit work. They didn't think that online publication was "legitimate." How far we've come!

But also not.

Last spring, I went to the AGM of the Writers' Union of Canada, which included a workshop on literary magazines. But not one representative of an online magazine.

If asked, I would have said something along the lines of "the internet is one big magazine." The AGM was full of talk about blogs. Writers should have blogs to promote themselves! You must get online! And yet, social networking sites are making even blogs seem anachronistic. Is Twitter a kind of magazine? Is Facebook?

Probably not, but the business models of media companies are all over the map these days. Local television stations, popular magazines, newspapers (!); all kinds of "old media" are under stress and unlikely to survive in their current formats.

In recent years, I've been advice time and again to add RSS feeds, etc., to TDR. I resisted. It felt to me like TDR had evolved to where it was meant to be. In this fast-changing age, it was falling behind the curve. Maybe. Frankly, I didn't care. I didn't have time to care. I was too busy with my day job, getting married, parenting two step-children, trying to get on with my own writing. And all that jazz.

Editing TDR has been the biggest project I have ever been a part of. It has engaged me longer than any other relationship I've had, bar my family and a handful of select friends. It has introduced me to many wonderful people, who I have often met only through email. It has taught me many things about the tricky role of mediating literary conflicts, attempting to moderate literary conversation, and the difficulty of attracting an audience with something less provocative than controversy.

I will not say that "everyone loves a fight," but many do; fewer love attempts at enlightened engagement.

I will also not say that TDR always offered enlightened engagement. Sometimes our writers approached their subject with their elbows out. I wrote some sharp, prickly pieces, too, and sometimes regret doing so. I used to think that honesty overruled all other concerns. I have, however, landed in a place where I think the good one-liner is more often misleading, even if entertaining.

In the fall of 2001, I wrote an overview of the CanLit Online Scene for The Drunken Boat. I read it again recently and found broken links, references to defunct magazines, and a broad range of links from across the literary/publishing spectrum. As Roy MacSkimming told us, publishing is a perilous trade. Turnover is high; the industry in recent decades has been in a constant state of transformation. In my 2001 article, there is, of course, no reference to social media. There wasn't even BookNinja!

But I think I got the broad, simple picture of the literary ecosystem right, and that hasn't changed substantially, I don't think. It's just become more fragmented, like every other media environment. Paradoxically, it's also increasingly become a zero sum game. Either your book wins big, or no one ever hears of it.

In 1992, Springsteen sang about 57 Channels (and nothing on), but all the texting and tweeting and following, etc., has opened a lot more than 57 channels. In 1985, Neil Postman argued we were Amusing Ourselves To Death, but the white noise has only grown since then.

In the mid-1990s, I saw John Metcalf at the Rivoli in Toronto. The New Quarterly had done a special issue on him. I was writing short stories and hoping to put a book together. In the way that only Metcalf can, that night he talked about how a Canadian author is lucky if his or her book sells 2,000 copies. I'm sure he said other things about how Canadians don't care about literature. Leon Rooke prodded him, too, about his position that government support led to literary mediocrity.

The arrival of Chapters and the demise of many independent booksellers only made finding readers more difficult for smaller presses. And yet, despite all of the peril, books continue to get published. Every season new authors find their works thrust into the world. Most sell well less than 2,000 copies. Literary publishing in Canada has become about micro-niche marketing. While the popular image of CanLit continues to consist of authors first made popular in the 1960s. Astonishing.

What I have enjoyed most about TDR, is reviewing the fiction submissions. Yes, many are redundant. Domestic situations. Childhood memories. Alien abductions. Sometimes, they seem interchangeable, the language in one hardly different from the language in another. On this point, I agree with Metcalf. The mark of good literature is the use of a distinct voice. Assured control over language used to tell a compelling story is a rare gift. I am always pleased when I see it.

It has been a pleasure to read all of those stories, hundreds of them, and most pleasurableable to read the rare gems.

I will be back, sometime, I'm sure of it, because of that.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Sweet Smell of Death

Somehow I missed this. My entry in the death of a critic contest over at Biblioasis was posted on the contest blog.

I'll post it below, too. The contest is in support of Terry Grigg's new novel Thought You Were Dead, which I just finished and hope to review here soon.


The chalk remained the next day, faded, smudged. Poorly edited, Cindy couldn’t help remarking to Suzanne, who’d coerced her into attending "the scene of the crime."

"What crime?" Cindy had asked. "He jumped."

Suzanne didn’t agree. No one as confident in his own opinions would need the solace of freshly laid asphalt.

"You think he was pushed?"

Suzanne shrugged. She’d had a crush on the critic, Cindy knew. Suzanne’s slim debut volume of poems was due out the following month, and she’d sent him a copy of the proofs, a pair of soiled undies, and a perfumed card.

"Do you want to get laid or reviewed?" Cindy had asked.

Suzanne replied, "What’s the difference?"

Now they stood over the spot where he’d died. A large death, not a little one. Cindy didn’t understand book people. Especially poets. Why did they hate each other so? Did it all go back to their mothers? Why couldn’t they punctuate or use capital letters?

Cindy imagined the critic on his balcony, wine glass in one hand, Suzanne’s manuscript in the other. The blogosphere had already confirmed the details. Her underwear stuffed under his belt. Her manuscript dispersed across the area. The perfumed card hadn’t turned up.

It wasn’t until days later, when the police came knocking, that Suzanne confessed. Her emails were all over his computer. So, too, was his sharp dismissal of her talent.

"He was allergic, how did you know that?" the solemn police sergeant wanted to know, but Suzanne just smiled.

"Environmental sensitivities," she told Cindy when her friend visited her the following month in custody. "He wouldn’t have been a good critic without them."

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Stuart Ross

It's easy to misunderstand Stuart Ross.

When I say Stuart Ross, I don't mean Stuart Ross, the man, the individual, the writer, the poet, the blogger, the event organizer, the publisher, the person-who-does-things.

I don't know this Stuart Ross, whom I nonetheless believe exists.

Yes, I've seen him, or someone resembling him, or imitating him.

I've even reviewed a book purported to be by him. It didn't make a lot of sense, but I enjoyed reading it.

When I say it is easy to misunderstand Stuart Ross, this is the Stuart Ross to whom I am referring.

The Work. The Words On The Page.

As in, "So what do you think of the New Stuart Ross?"

Like, "What do you think of Hemingway?"

When one is asked if one prefers the early or the late Hemingway, one doesn't imagine he or she is being asked if one prefers the one with the beard over the one without.

Like, "What do you think of Kafka?"

One would say: "I dunno. I don't get what he's up to." For example.

One is perplexed by what Stuart Ross is up to, for example, in Buying Cigarettes for the Dog (Freehand Books, 2009), the author's new short story collection.

One cannot agree, however, with the last sentence in the book: "My stories are of no consequence."

These are stories of consequence. They're just easy to misunderstand.


Lorrie Moore recently reviewed Hiding Man: A Biography of Donald Barthelme (St. Martin's, 2009) for the New York Review of Books.

In that review, she wrote:

The placement of unexpected things side by side is not only the spirit of surrealism but also the beating heart of both comedy and nightmare, and Barthelme's work, despite its seemingly offhand oddness and its flouting of conventional storytelling, was capable of suddenly cohering in the marvelous way of Kafka.

She also noted that in Barthelme's writing ...

Conventional narrative ideas of motivation and characterization are dispensed with. Language is seen as having its own random and self-generating vital life, a subject he takes on explicitly in the story "Sentence," which is one long never-ending sentence, full of self-interruptions and searching detours and not quite dead ends (like human DNA itself, with its inert, junk viruses), concluding with the words "a structure to be treasured for its weakness as opposed to the strength of stones."

Moore doesn't appear to be overly thrilled with the biography, but she does link some of Barthelme's genius to his geographic past:

He was a rainbow coalition ventriloquist and his denser stories perhaps gasp for air. That his first three decades were spent in Houston, a sprawling city without zoning ordinances and resplendent with surreal juxtapositions (billboards next to churches next to barbeque shacks), must have been a deep and abiding influence - though his early reading of Mallarme is usually given the credit.


When my five-year-old step-daughter asked me what I was reading, and I said it was called Buying Cigarettes for the Dog, she laughed loud and long.

"Daddy reads funny books," my wife said.

[The previous book I read was Thought You Were Dead by Terry Griggs (Biblioasis, 2009).]


Stuart Ross is the editor of Surreal Estate: 13 Canadian Poets Under the Influence (Mercury Press, 2006). He may well be Canada's leading literary surrealist. He deserves more close reading than he currently gets. Donald Barthelme was a superstar. Stuart Ross is a small press racketeer (Anvil Press, 2005).

Joanna M. Weston found in Ross's I Cut My Finger - Poems (Anvil, 2007) an author full of hope:

Poetry for an evening by the fireside with a bottle of wine. Poetry to be savoured, relished, enjoyed. Ross writes of hamburgers and history, of oceans and orphans, of sonnets and self-portraits with what appears at first glance to be humour, but underlying the piled on images is a realistic, often optimistic, view of the world. The prince will always kiss Sleeping Beauty into wakefulness, will always bring the glass slipper to Cinderella.

Ross links images in a dance of kaleidoscopic colour and shape while maintaining rhythm and the cohesion of underlying emotion with serious impact. He gives a sense of adventure and wonder to each page; the reader can never be sure what might happen next.


Like I said, it's easy to misunderstand Stuart Ross.


The reader can never be sure what might happen next in the stories in Buying Cigarettes for the Dog.

One reason for that is the placement of unexpected things side by side. Another reason might be because Ross is a resident of a sprawling city ... resplendent with surreal juxtapositions [but, yes, Toronto has zoning by-laws].

There are other reasons, too, for Ross's literary peculiarities. One might find some possibilities by looking at what Wikipedia notes about Kafka's writings: "Themes of alienation and persecution are repeatedly emphasized."

The website contextualizes critical responses to the Czech - German - Jewish - Modernist writer:

Critics have interpreted Kafka's works in the context of a variety of literary schools, such as modernism, magical realism, and so on.[22] The apparent hopelessness and absurdity that seem to permeate his works are considered emblematic of existentialism. Others have tried to locate a Marxist influence in his satirization of bureaucracy in pieces such as In the Penal Colony, The Trial, and The Castle,[22] whereas others point to anarchism as an inspiration for Kafka's anti-bureaucratic viewpoint. Still others have interpreted his works through the lens of Judaism (Borges made a few perceptive remarks in this regard), through Freudianism[22] (because of his familial struggles), or as allegories of a metaphysical quest for God (Thomas Mann was a proponent of this theory[citation needed]).

Stuart Ross is not just strange and awkward. He is often profound.

And funny.

Here's Wikipedia on Kafka again:

Biographers have said that it was common for Kafka to read chapters of the books he was working on to his closest friends, and that those readings usually concentrated on the humorous side of his prose. Milan Kundera refers to the essentially surrealist humour of Kafka as a main predecessor of later artists such as Federico Fellini, Gabriel García Márquez, Carlos Fuentes and Salman Rushdie. For García Márquez, it was as he said the reading of Kafka's The Metamorphosis that showed him "that it was possible to write in a different way."

Ross is widely read and admired within the tight circles of Canada's small press readership.

It's everyone else who needs to wake up and get some learnin'. Something along the lines of it's possible to read in a different way.

That is a matter of not insignificant consequence.


I haven't said much about the specifics of the stories in Ross's new book. I find that I don't want to. I want you to discover them for yourself.

You will misunderstand them. I can almost guarantee it.

I did.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Gwendolyn MacEwen

This article first appeared in The Varsity (Sept. 1995).

Rosemary Sullivan, an English professor at the University of Toronto's Erindale campus, says Canadians are caught in a kind of cultural amnesia. That's one of the reasons she wrote the recently released Shadowmaker: The Life of Gwendolyn MacEwen (Harper Collins, 1995).

"Canadian culture doesn't have as many literary biographies as one would expect at this point in its history," says Sullivan. "And we need to recover those cultural moments and figures."

Canadian literature has reached a point in the 1990s where it can begin to look back critically and with nostalgia on the 1960s, when it made its first major cultural impact.

"In the 1960s a national project was acting as a catalyst to push the writing," says Sullivan.

Social events like Expo '67, which celebrated Canada's 100th birthday, and the introduction of the Canadian flag in 1965 help spur a growing nationalism. Canadian literature as we have come to know it was born in this period. And MacEwen, who published more than 20 books before her often troubled life ended in 1987, was a significant part of that birthing process.

An intensely talented writer with an original, if somewhat odd, personality, MacEwen serves as a emblem of the writers that laid the foundation of the Canadian imagination.

"It's valuable to write about her to show how textured and rich that period of the 1960s was," says Sullivan. "MacEwen had an originality and range as a writer. And she lived in a time when Canadian culture was just beginning to define itself."

Born in Toronto's west end in 1941, MacEwen grew up in the Keele and Bloor district. After she dropped out of high school two months before graduation, she saw her first novel, Julian the Magician, published in New York City when she was only 19-years-old. That novel has since been called one of the great works of the modern period.

Her later books included 11 collections of poetry, two short story collections, a second novel and three children's books. She also followed up her consuming interest in mythology by teaching herself Hebrew, Arabic and classical and modern Greek. Looking back on her life, it is difficult to come to a simple understanding of such a complex person.

Sullivan sums up MacEwen's life this way: "It's the narrative of a young woman inventing herself out of almost impossible odds with fierce intellectual training, turning herself into a remarkable writer at a moment in time that was very interesting."

Simple enough, perhaps. But is it enough to know that MacEwen's mother was in and out of mental institutions her whole life? Can the poetry be explained by the knowledge that MacEwen's father wasted his talent for photography and ended up an alcoholic on skid row, passing on his artistic ambitions to his youngest daughter? Sullivan thinks not.

"MacEwen's life had a tragic cast," she says, though she's quick to point out that no one should feel sorry for her.

"Pity implies a type of condescension," she says, "and there's too much intellectual and imaginative energy there [in MacEwen's life] for one not to feel amazing admiration."

Sullivan says she was anxious to make it clear how exciting the writer's life can be, although illustrating that life is difficult because so much of it is lived in the mind. MacEwen's early life had much pain, she says, but it also demonstrated a remarkable courage and prepared her to be the sort of writer that she would become.

"As her family was falling apart, MacEwen was writing magical books about magicians," she says. "She was always seeking some way of turning pain into affirmation."

MacEwen's only criticism of modern poetry was that it often seemed to be a reflection on pain. And she, who was so aware of the dark side of the psyche, wanted to celebrate life.

A writer with a Romantic temperament, MacEwen took the elements that life had given her and consolidated them in her art. One of her lovers told Sullivan that MacEwen was not an allegorical poet.

"What she was writing was her real life," she said.

"It was as if she lacked a kind of protective covering," says Sullivan. "The world seemed so immediate [to her] and constantly present that it seemed too much of an assault."

It was this assault that Sullivan postulates dragged MacEwen down into the dark regions of her psyche and pushed her towards the binge drinking that eventually ended her life.

The biography reads like a detective story. Sullivan uses the first-person voice to insert herself into the narrative, pointing to the architecture of the narrative. It's a way of demonstrating that writing a biography is a balancing act between the objective and the subjective.

"As soon as you turn a life into a narrative, you're selecting out what you think is relevant," she says. "Someone else would write the life differently, emphasizing different points."

She says MacEwen divided her life into separate compartments. There were many friends of hers who were unaware of other friends, which made writing the biography that much more difficult. There was often only one version of events and no corroborating evidence. But, Sullivan adds, there is always a place for doubt.

"To suggest that one can locate a truth about a life is presumptuous," she says. "An arrogant assurance that 'this is what's going on' is dangerous."

Shadow Maker is Sullivan's second literary recovery project. Her first, a biography of prose poet Elizabeth Smart, was nominated for the Governor General's award for non-fiction.


Related links:



Reading this 14 years later (cripes!), I'm struck most by this:

"Canadian culture doesn't have as many literary biographies as one would expect at this point in its history," says Sullivan. "And we need to recover those cultural moments and figures."

Canadian literature has reached a point in the 1990s where it can begin to look back critically and with nostalgia on the 1960s, when it made its first major cultural impact.

In the intervening decade-and-a-half, we haven't been overwhelmed with critical biographies, critical cultural histories, critical literary reviews. John Metcalf and Roy MacSkimming provided radically different perspectives on the post-nationalist ferment period. I've blogged on both ot them recently. George Fetherling's memoirs are perhaps the best reflections of the period to date.

There's much yet to be written (and not all of it about the Sixties Generation, either).

In the meantime, I'm looking forward to Amy Lavender Harris's Imagining Toronto (Mansfield Press, 2009) for a different kind of critical review of time and place.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Robins Feeding

This has absolutely nothing to do with literature. It's just cute and astonishing. These robins were born in a nest on my front porch eight days ago.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

John Metcalf

Shut Up He Explained: A Literary Memoir Vol. II
by John Metcalf
Biblioasis, 2007

An Aesthetic Underground: A Literary Memoir
by John Metcalf
Thomas Allen, 2003

Kicking Against The Pricks
by John Metcalf
ECW, 1982

For 40 years, John Metcalf has been trying to introduce Canadian readers to elegance. In 1982, he told Geoff Hancock, "Critics in Canada don’t have a horror of elegance. They don’t even know its there." He quoted Evelyn Waugh’s Paris Review interview:

I think that your questions are dealing too much with the creation of character and not enough with the technique of writing. I regard writing not as investigation of character but as an exercise in the use of language. And with this I am obsessed. It is drama, speech, and events that interest me.

In response to that quotation, Metcalf said:

Now, that sentence, ‘I regard writing not as an investigation of character but as an exercise in the use of language’ is a statement that many today would have difficulty understanding. They’re so used to the idea of literature being about something or of using literature as something else – as sociology, history, psychology, what have you. The idea that it’s a verbal structure in the sense in which a lyric poem, for example, is a verbal structure, is an idea that’s largely foreign now to most readers of novels – even intelligent readers of novels (Kicking Against The Pricks, 10).

Here is the essence of Metcalf’s project: To inculcate into Canadian letters an aesthetic that takes pleasure in rhetoric. Short stories, he insists, are "performance," not telling of tales. What should concern refined readers is the arrangement of the words. The extent to which he takes this argument is perhaps best shown by noting that Kicking Against the Pricks includes an essay titled, "Punctuation as Score." An example:

Single marks here are appropriate to tone and character; I would go so far as to say that they are an aspect of characterization. The irony implied in the single marks would have been too crude had the marks been double; the reader would have been bludgeoned rather than tapped or flicked.

Do not ask yourself, then, what a story is "about." Ezra Pound told us poems are their own meanings. Metcalf says the same of short stories. Ask yourself, How well has the writer performed? (Did you notice how I punctuated that last sentence? I could have written: ‘Ask yourself, "How well has the writer performed?"’ Or ‘Ask yourself: How well has the writer performed?’ Or ‘Ask yourself how well the writer has performed.’ – This is the type of reading Metcalf demands. Which variation is best?)


Metcalf was born in England in 1938. In 1962, he moved to Montreal, where he taught high school. He began writing short stories. He won a CBC writing contest. He had eight stories accepted for back-to-back issues of PRISM (he submitted 16), and his work was selected to appear in Modern Canadian Stories (Ryerson Press, 1966) alongside the writing of Mordecai Richler, Alice Munro, Hugh Hood, Ethel Wilson and Irving Layton.

In An Aesthetic Underground, Metcalf writes: "The book represented only the fourth time since Raymond Knister’s Canadian Short Stories in 1928 that Canadian story writers had been anthologized."

Metcalf was soon to remedy that.

As the jacket of An Aesthetic Underground notes:

Since the 1960s, [Metcalf] has been instrumental in getting Canadian writing into schools, has organized readings, helped found the Writers’ Union of Canada, orchestrated conferences, encouraged accessible and vigorous critical debate, and documented the history of Canadian publishing in three fabled book collections, two of which are now housed in the National Library. Between 1976 and 1993 he edited and co-edited 18 anthologies of Canadian short stories and compiled seven textbooks of Canadian stories for use in schools and universities.

In that same work, he writes:

I suffered from the delusion that Canada could be improved. Since then, I feel that year by year Canada has been in continuous cultural decline. Our schools are a disaster. Our public life is a grim farce.

Here we see the other side of Metcalf, the one perhaps more broadly known. The curmudgeon. The anti-nationalist. The High Modernist. Metcalf employs a rhetorical strategy that emphasizes the distance between his ambition (large, transformational) and his achievements (large, but recognized only by a quiet few). It is also, of course, a strategy that portions blame elsewhere. Canada is in cultural decline, he says. Continuous cultural decline. His messianic mission failed because he came down from the mountain and we were all watching TV or reading Michael Ondattje.

Roy MacSkimming's The Perilous Trade tells a compelling counter-narrative, one grounded in the concrete realities of the publishing business, not aesthetic ideals. (Are these contexts in anything other than perpetual conflict?)

The jacket copy of Shut Up He Explained captures the nature of Metcalf's struggle:

Indeed, this may just be his most important and engaged book. Certainly it will be among his most controversial. What his critics will refuse to see, of course, is that it is also among his most positive, that it is a celebration of the best literature Canada has to offer, the birth of which Metcalf himself both witnessed and actively encouraged (emphasis added).

Shut Up He Explained purports to be the sequel to An Aesthetic Underground. In a simplistic way it is, but it is also much more. David Helwig calls it an "anatomy," lifting the meaning from Northrop Frye: "quotation, digression, obsession." He is right. Metcalf explores in his latest all the themes and issues of his previous nonfiction writings. However, though it’s subtitled "A Literary Memoir," it is not anything as simple as that. What it is, is a performance. And a compelling one, too.

An Aesthetic Underground seemed to me to be shackled. I wasn’t sure by what. By Metcalf’s Englishness, I thought. He writes about his first wife, his divorce, his second wife, the adopted and foster children, but he does not confess deep conflicts in his soul. The book is called a memoir, but Metcalf is most animated when slamming cultural bureaucrats and the ignorance of Canadian readers. That is, when he is most argumentative. Later I realized, too, that chunks of this memoir (2003) were lifted straight out of Kicking Against the Pricks (1982). Memories that one took for current, were in fact over 20 years old. Had the passage of time brought no new insights? It seemed not. Metcalf’s persona was remarkably consistent.

Funnily enough. The anecdote Metcalf recounts to explain the title of Shut Up He Explained also occurs in Kicking Against the Pricks. Here it is in the earlier book:

I was grateful, too, for George Bowering’s maunderings because the funny spelling reminded me of Ring Lardner and I went back to "The Young Immigrunts" which contained the lines:
Are you lost daddy I arsked tenderly.
Shut up he explained.

Metcalf says in the first chapter of Shut Up that many people tried to dissuade him from using the title, but he insisted and won out. I’m glad he persisted. It’s the right title because, caught at the right angle, it’s exceptionally funny. Which Metcalf is, especially I would argue when he is at his most insightful. He is earnest too, of course. One could hardly edit an anthology called Best Canadian Stories and not be. And that earnestness can be damaging. Kicking Against the Pricks is a title meant to wound. Shut Up also appears to be, but it isn’t.

An anecdote from the opening chapter:

I remember being at Hugh Hood’s house one day in 1978 after Alice Munro had published Something I’ve Been Meaning To Tell You and Who Do You Think You Are? In generally playful mood, we were composing other conversational and colliquial titles that Alice might use on future books. Our minds seemed to be running on admonitions to children. Hugh’s best advice was Just You Wait Until You Get Home. Mine was You Should Have Gone Before We Left. In collegial spirit, we passed them on to Alice who was very unamused.

In a nutshell, that’s John Metcalf. Clever, mischievous, lively.


Is he right?

In his Quill and Quire review of Shut Up, Nathan Whitlock managed to say that "many of [Metcalf's] attacks on CanLit complacency ... are as accurate and necessary as ever."

Yet he is also barely contained in his complaint that Shut Up is a confused mess:

Even the most language-conscious reviewer starts to suspect that either Metcalf’s intentions aren’t serious (the “prankster” angle), or that he has reached a point in his career in which, utterly despairing of our ability to recognize literary greatness, he has given up even trying to make sense.

Whitlock concludes:

Like his protegé Stephen Henighan, Metcalf is much better at identifying symptoms than diagnosing the underlying illness, and he is no good at all at prescribing a cure – his beloved “aesthetic approach” to literature being just as likely to lead to empty, middlebrow doily-making as to James Joyce.

Doily-making. James Joyce. Are these the only options?

At the heart of the three books under consideration here, is Metcalf’s engagement with the short story in Canada. For 40 years, Metcalf has been championing elegance (the same word Sean Penn used in reference to Barak Obama at last year's Oscars). Elegance would seem to be on an up-swing, and in increasing (and necessary) demand, and I applaud Metcalf's ability to illustrate literary elegance and promote it.

At the same time, one must acknowledge that Metcalf can be inelegant. Whitlock's brief review provides some examples. The habit of long quotation, for example. Long self-quotation.

Metcalf has left a legacy (which he continues to build on) which will not soon fade. One wishes, however, that he'd met encountered editors equal in intelligence and determination who could have wrestled Metcalf's worse habits out of him.

That said, I don't share Whitlock's complaint that Shut Up is a "mess."

I found it more compelling than An Aesthetic Underground, probably because it provided a more revealing account of Metcalf the man. Yes, it rambled. Yes, it was a little bit memoir, a little bit literary criticism, a little bit confessional, a little bit laundry list, and a little bit promotional for his engagement with Biblioasis.

But for all of those reasons, I thought the book "worked." It rose above the sum of its disparate parts, and it will stand as a testament to a remarkable career. (Alex Good's review of Shut Up in The Toronto Star [Oct. 14, 2007] carried the headline: "Still the grouch, still essential.")

The Globe and Mail's review of the title was headlined, "Metcalf: Still Canlit's Gadfly" (Oct. 6, 2007).


Here's something new from Metcalf: An interview with Nigel Beale (May 2009). So you can hear him for yourself. Or this one from the same site (2007).

New Facebook Group

There is now a Facebook group for this blog.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

The Perilous Trade

Let's confess: Writers are odd. We have this strange view of literature, that is it something significant unto itself.

Literature qua literature, as the graduate students might say. It makes nothing happen.

This dysfunctional view has been stoked by the academy, though the englightened among us (read economists) know truly what's what.

Which is that, it's the economy, stupid.

Which means literature is subservient to the publishing industry, otherwise known as The Perilous Trade (M&S, 2003, 2007).

This rich and rewarding reference work by Roy MacSkimming is subtitled "Book Publishing in Canada 1946-2006." Reading it, one is likely to be amazed that there is any such thing as Canadian literature at all.

Perilous trade? More risky than rum running, readers are led to believe.

The ups-and-downs of the industry are all here, and surely this book is required reading in all Canadian publishing programs. The high level advice will surprise no one: Non-fiction makes money, trade publishing (i.e., literature) doesn't.

The publishing industry in Canada has weathered massive storms in the past six decades. A few people got rich, most didn't. It's all here: the Chapters debacle, the Stoddart debacle, the multinationals debacle, the rise of the internet, the rise and fall and rise (and fall?) of government supports, the post Expo 67 boom.

What isn't here (it's not what this book is about) is an analysis of how the forces of the industry picked winners and losers among Canadian writers. The book makes clear that there were many strong winds blowing. Surely this chaotic market influenced "Canadian literature" (I throw this category out there at the risk that it actually exists).

MacSkimming quotes the always striking John Metcalf on the recent state of publishing in Canada: "the manufacturing of celebrity by ignorant media and the manipulation of the audience by publicity budgets" (371).

He also quotes Karl Siegler, who "prophesied ... the great flowering of Canadian owned publishing since the 1960s will eventually prove to have been a one-generation phenomenon" (372).

One tries to remain optimistic. Is it about who owns the means of production or about the ability of Canadians to tell their own unique stories? Or just about the best writers being able to get their work in front of readers?

One just hopes the age old questions go on and on.

Is it good enough that Canadians maintain an ability to write best sellers and sell them internationally?

I say no. What kind of culture is that?

A boring one. But I'm just a literary snob.