Far too many Canadians do not read books, and of those who do, far too many only read American bestsellers. All attempts to rectify this situation – especially those by the government – have proven futile, leaving Canadian literature more or less in shambles.
This is one of many provocative observations made by Ottawa writer-editor-critic John Metcalf in his new book, Temerity & Gall. It’s a lively, knowledgeable, and often hilarious reaction to something Canadian author WP (Shoeless Joe) Kinsella said about him years ago:
“Mr. Metcalf – an immigrant – has continually and most infuriatingly had 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 presented as memoirs, but they dealt with some of the same concerns he discusses in his latest.
Metcalf read widely, and Canadian writers he admires include Clark Blaise, Leon Rooke, Ray Smith, Alice Munro, Hugh Hood and Linda Svendsen. He refers to the “slop and marass of Al Purdy, bp Nichol, bill bissett, Dionne Brand, [and] Victor Coleman” while claiming that Robert Kroetsch’s “only serious competitor in the illegibility stakes is Rudy Wiebe”. Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature as “numbing” and “dumbing”.
Metcalf criticizes attempts by the federal government to stimulate literature through, for example, the CBC:
“Canada is reading.
“This is news to me!
“Those nauseating CBC voices, comfortable, solemn, cooing, serious, fair, sincere, understanding, inclusive, empathetic, open – words fail at the depth of my disgust – reducing the experience of literature to a Dumbo Game Show. ”
Ministers uniformly seem too thick to understand that our stories are neither here nor there; what matters is how you tell.”
Metcalf pursues this point with numerous examples of authors who offer surprising or emotionally engaging ways of telling. It emphasizes striking language, whether it is 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 storytelling. Among her favorites 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 the English critic Cyril Connolly, who is quoted often in this book.
Given that most of these authors date from the mid-20th century, it’s no surprise that Metcalf became an avid collector of vintage books. The number in his library amounts to 4,000, and probably the rarest is “advanced evidence of Magnet [by Henry Green]”, costing him $2,000.
Temerity & Gall is obviously a must-have for book lovers, but, since it showcases Metcalf’s energetic meanderings from a Montreal storytellers’ meeting through colorful observations and unapologetic opinions, it can be enjoyed by anyone who seek stimulation of the mind.
Dave Williamson is a Winnipeg writer who met John Metcalf 30 years ago at the Eden Mills Writers Festival.