||Letters to Editor
Q.E.D. - Quod erat demonstrandum! These letters meaning that that which was asked to be proved, demonstrated, or established has been done, belong at the end of Eleanor Parkes's letter (November) concerning Books in Canada's interview with me. Her letter not only demonstrates but proves the existence of that bedrock racism that surfaces as soon as there is any attempt to present a fuller and more detailed picture of what has been a thoroughly Eurocentric and inaccurate view of Africa. In her proffering of unsolicited, unwanted, and useless advice on how I should conduct my life, Ms. Parkes falls squarely within that missionary tradition that David Livingstone so notoriously embodies. I will, however, return the favour: rather than indulging in useless arguments replete with knee-jerk racism so typical of the worst traditions of the Western world, Ms. Parkes would do well to go out and immediately purchase a copy of Looking for Livingstone. She might surprise herself - she might even learn something. Failing that she might want to start with an excellent biography of Dr. David Livingstone by Tim Jeal. She might be surprised to find there, in Livingstone's own words, his plans for Africa: destroy the indigenous way of life - including their customs, religions, and mores - the better to bring commerce. Once that was done and commerce established, then and only then could Christianity be imposed. And lie a Christian man at that!
Ignorance, while regrettable, can always be remedied; ignorance compounded by racism is deplorable and probably insoluble.
Publication of a letter like Ms. Parkes's raises the issue of editorial responsibility: with the exception of one brief and somewhat confusing attempt at historical argument, the entire letter is nothing but a more polite, less exciting, albeit more articulate version of "Nigger go home!," which I have seen scrawled as graffiti around Canada. Depending on where you are, "paki" or "chink" may be substituted for "nigger"; and it wouldn't surprise me if somewhere in this country, Native people weren't being exhorted in the same way to leave Canada and go home. Ms. Parkes's rant against me seems to have been sparked by the fact that I dared to criticize one of her sacred cows. If she has anything of value to contribute to serious discussion on literature, history, racism, or colonialism, we are none the wiser, and she has done herself a serious disservice. Books in Canada has colluded in this.
Correspondence like Ms. Parkes's, which passes for intellectual debate in the pages of BiC, is not only tiresome (primarily because one has to spend precious time answering it), but also in bad taste. I would have thought that BiC would have had some interest in setting the standards of literary debate somewhere above the level of the "down and dirty." I was, obviously, mistaken.
M. Nourbese Philip
Doctor in the House?
I WAS QUIETLY hoping that someone would give John Metcalf a good clout on the ear for his olympian attack on the Canada Council ("Trial by jury," October). However, when I saw Susan Crean lumber out of the deconstructionist alley armed with brass knuckles and her "different concepts of excellence," I wanted to sic the cops on her instead.
Metcalf wants to eliminate the disease by killing the patient. Crean denies that there is a disease, or, if there is one, claims it is a disease that proves the health of the afflicted. The sick patient of Canadian literature would do best to avoid both of these doctors.
"Different standards of excellence" seems to lie at the heart of Crean's argument. She points out, quite correctly, that "the e-word" is hard to define. No doubt about that, but what happens when one gives up the notion of excellence altogether,
as Susan Crean implies we should do?
Literature gets reduced to a plate of linguine Alfredo, which I might like, but you might not. If excellence does not exist, taste is all that remains, and we all know there is no point in discussing that outside the restaurant beat.
"Good point!" a deconstructionist might say. During the last decade or two, there has been a flight from value judgement in academic criticism. Since there is no "scientific" way of ranking books, all the critic can do is look at the internal working of the text. This is fine for the academy, but it is not the way the rough and rumble world of publishing functions. The whole business is judgemental in the extreme.
Susan Crean shows nothing but myopic good intentions when she denies competition in literature. Literature is tied up with publishing, and that beast is competitive from top to bottom. It costs money to print books, so some manuscripts are chosen and some are not. If I can only publish four books this year, then the fifth-best book has somehow lost. Next comes competition on the bookshelf, and this one is the harshest of all. Those books that sell do "win!' in some sense. Of the hundreds of novels and poetry books published, only a few are chosen by reviewers for discussion, and of these, only some are praised. Finally, whether or not one believes in prizes, in some sense a writer still "wins" the Governor General's, Booker, Goncourt, and other prizes. Furthermore, if Crean is uninterested in "a world where literature becomes a competitive exercise in which there are winners and losers," then how can she defend arts councils, whose decisions are made by juries? What do the jurors do if not judge?
Crean puts in a wrong-headed plug for mediocrity as well, on the theory, I suppose, that mediocre works are the manure that fertilizes the great works. A different argument could he made, namely that mediocre works are the weeds in a garden that kill the struggling work of promise. Mediocrity is to be avoided at all costs, to be shunned like a medieval leper.
Metcalf's rant, white wild and unbalanced, is the natural response at being drowned in a sea of mediocre Canadian books. I share Metcalf's anguish. As an occasional reviewer of Canadian smallpress books for radio, I have to scan about a dozen fiction titles a month and choose two or three to review. The choice is often difficult because there is so much dross printed that I can only assume the authors are relatives of the publishers, or have paid hefty fees to find their way into print. Inside the front page, I find the author's thanks to various arts councils.
I can sympathize, therefore, with Metcalf's complaint that there is simply too much rubbish around. While the "e-word" may be elusive, the "r-word" is not. Nobody who flips through many of these novels, with the exception of the authors, can doubt that they really are rubbish.
While both Metcalf and Crean are often wrong, they are both occasionally right. To defend Metcalf, one has to say there is a lot of garbage out in the Canadian literary world, and much of it has been funded by various arts councils. The problem is self-correcting, though, because the junk goes unnoticed, and disappears from the shelves of bookstores very fast, if it managed to get there in the first place.
Crean's strongest argument for arts councils is that they prove "an investment in people, in the potential and possibility of talent." That is the exciting part. Every arts council juror, every publisher and critic, is motivated to continue through the dross in the hope that some new talent will appear, and occasionally it does. When a Douglas Glover or a Rohinton Mistry comes off a press funded by an arts Council, one can't help but say that the whole exercise was worth it.
Antanas Sileika Toronto, Ont.
IN REVIEWING John Oliphant's book about Brother XII ("Into the Mystic," November) -he himself invariably used the Roman numerals - Erich Hoyt lists a number of books and other writings on the subject but, unfortunately, fails to mention the most recent and most thoroughly researched account: The Brother XII, by Ron Mclsaac, Don Clark, and Charles Lillard (Press Porcepic, 1990). This is particularly tiresome because, had either Oliphant or Hoyt read this book, the former would not have made errors and the latter would not have uncritically accepted them. Brother XII's story was largely concocted by a journalist, Bruce McKelvie, who never interviewed his subject and told stories for which no evidence exists. There is, for example, no evidence that Brother XII ever visited holy places, had ever met, much less had an affair with, Myrtle Baumgartner, or had acquired any fortune in gold with which to abscond; moreover, it was the local citizenry and not the Brother's followers who trashed the encampment, and Robert England, whose "letter of resignation" is emphasized by Oliphant as a "damning document," did not resign but was fired, and Brother XII had him arrested for theft. Brother XII did not debate Conan Doyle; he merely responded to a letter in the Occult Review. These are only a few of the errors that should have been corrected in the light of the new discoveries by Messrs Mclsaac, Clark and Lillard and published over a year ago; moreover, the book your reviewer describes as "scholarly" seldom attributes its sources adequately, and has neither footnotes nor a bibliography. Both John Oliphant and Erich Hoyt should have read The Brother XII. It was not reviewed in Books in Canada, admittedly, but it was not and is not hard to find, having been on the B.C. best-sellers list repeatedly since publication.
Robin Skelton Victoria, B.C.