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 protegĂ© 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).

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