Pulling no punches
Metcalf weighs in on all things Canadian literature in new volume
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Far too many Canadians do not read books and, of those who do, far too many read only American bestsellers. Any attempts to rectify this situation — especially those by government — have proven futile, leaving Canadian literature more or less in shambles.
This is one of many provocative observations made by Ottawa-based writer-editor-critic John Metcalf in his new book, Temerity & Gall. It is a lively, well-informed and often hilarious reaction to something Canadian author W. P. (Shoeless Joe) Kinsella said about him years ago:
“Mr. Metcalf — an immigrant — continually and in the most galling manner has the temerity to preach to Canadians about their own literature.”
Now 83, Metcalf was born in England, but has lived most of his life in Canada, where he has edited over 200 books and written some fine fiction (The Museum at the End of the World). His two previous non-fiction books (Shut Up He Explained in 2007 and An Aesthetic Underground in 2003) were billed as memoirs, but they dealt with some of the same concerns as he discusses in his latest.
Metcalf has read widely, and among the Canadian writers he admires are Clark Blaise, Leon Rooke, Ray Smith, Alice Munro, Hugh Hood and Linda Svendsen. He refers to the “slop and morass of Al Purdy, bp Nichol, bill bissett, Dionne Brand, [and] Victor Coleman” while asserting that Robert Kroetsch’s “only serious competition in the Unreadability Stakes is Rudy Wiebe.” Meanwhile, he dismisses Margaret Atwood’s Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature as “numbing” and “dumbing.”
Metcalf is critical of the federal government’s attempts to stimulate literature through, for example, the CBC:
“That it does is news to me!
“Those nauseating CBC voices, comfy, solicitous, cooing, earnest, righteous, sincere, understanding, inclusive, empathetic, outreaching — words fail the depth of my loathing — reducing the experience of literature to a Dumbo Game Show.”
Metcalf is especially irked by the Canada Council for the Arts, whose motivation amounts to “philistine Meals-on-Wheels do-goodery.” Despite changes over the years, “any system of state support to the arts is doomed to reward mediocrity.” The stated purpose of the Canada Council is to foster excellence in the arts, but, in 2017, the CEO of the Council “‘vowed to get more money into the hands of first-time applicants, Indigenous artists, and those from diverse communities.’ Why,” asks Metcalf, “would he vow unless he had seen a sudden, and heretofore hidden, surge of compelling artistry?”
The Canada Council is meant, according to the minister of heritage, to give Canadian writers “the means ‘to tell our own stories…’
Ministers seem uniformly too thick to understand that our stories are neither here nor there; what matters is the manner of telling.”
Metcalf follows up this point with many examples of authors who offer startling or emotionally engaging ways of telling. He emphasizes arresting language, be it exposition, description or dialogue.
After arguing that he knows more about Canadian writing than most Canadians, he ironically offers many British authors as models for new and different telling. Among his favourites are Philip Larkin, Beryl Bainbridge, Keith Waterhouse, Kingsley Amis, Ivy Compton-Burnett, Evelyn Waugh, Henry Green and Barbara Pym. His views on literature were influenced by English critic Cyril Connolly, who is often quoted in this book.
Since most of these authors are from the mid-20th century, it’s no surprise Metcalf has become a dedicated collector of vintage books. The number in his library totals 4,000, and probably the rarest one is “an advanced proof of Loving [by Henry Green],” costing him US$2,000.
Temerity & Gall is obviously a must-have for book lovers but, since it presents Metcalf’s energetic meandering from a re-union of the Montreal Story Tellers through colourful observations and unabashed opinions, it can be enjoyed by anyone seeking stimulation of the mind.
Dave Williamson is a Winnipeg writer who met John Metcalf 30 years ago at the Eden Mills Writers Festival.