||Letters to Editor
WITH REFERENCE to Alec McEwen's discussion of typographical errors ("Perils of Proofreading," December), The Times may have suffered at least one further assault on its decorum. According to my friend John Reeves, the following sentence can be found in a sombre account of Queen Victoria's funeral procession that appeared in The Times in January 1901:
Slowly, and with immense dignity, and for the last time, Her Majesty pissed over Westminster Bridge.
Would she have been amused?
To Agree or Disagree
CANADA COUNCIL policy for the Governor General's Award specifically bars self-published books from consideration. I'd like to know whether readers of this magazine agree or disagree with this policy.
North York, Ont.
POOR Bret Easton Ellis. First his novel American Psycho is widely misunderstood and even boycotted; now Books in Canada misspells his first name - as "Brett" - twice in the December issue. I can sympathize; with the name "Mathew" I too often get a second t inserted where it doesn't belong.
BRIAN FAWCETT seems to have an obsession with promoting his notion that 'Alice Munro is an antiquarian miniaturist. " Having read this claim at length in the Vancouver Review, more briefly in the Globe and Mail, and now in passing in Books in Canada ("Me and My Gang," December), I can no longer resist my urge
to respond. I suggest that Fawcett should reread the story "Royal Beatings" and then consider if he can in good conscience call the complex layerings of voice and the postmodern view of language in that story "antiquarian" As for "miniaturist," it is true that Munro's stories are shorter than Harlot's Ghost, but perhaps the desire to write the Great American Novel is what is truly antiquarian.
Who We? Who Us?
IN HIS CONVERSATION with Linda Hutcheon ("The Space Between Meanings," December), Stan Fogel quotes to us from her book, Splitting Images: "as bpNichol taught us in book 3 of The Martyrology there is no we encompasses" No doubt, but who, then, is this "us"?
IN HIS LETTER to Books in Canada (February), Robin Skelton states that the book The Brother XII by Messrs Mclsaac, Clark, and Lillard is the "most thoroughly researched" account of the Brother Twelve story. This statement does not stand up to scrutiny, as even the most casual perusal of my biography of E. A. Wilson, Brother Twelve: The Incredible Story of Canada's Fake Prophet, will reveal. The Brother XII is 129 pages long, including index, and much of the book is simply a reprinting of earlier articles - errors and all - on the subject. Brother Twelve: The Incredible Story of Canada's False Prophet is 371 pages long, and is based largely on primary source material, including numerous interviews with surviving members of Brother Twelve's Aquarian Foundation - persons who lived with, worked with, and knew Wilson intimately. The story of Brother Twelve was most definitely not "concocted" by the journalist Bruce McKelvie. His newspaper articles, private letters, and interviews with Brother Twelve's disciples (Brother Twelve himself had no reason to grant an interview to McKelvie) all furnish ample evidence of his veracity. The evidence that Brother Twelve visited holy places in his travels around the world as a mariner comes from interviews I conducted with his former associates. The evidence that he met and carried on an affair with Myrtle Baumgartner is contained in legal affidavits, courtroom testimony, a letter of Robert England's (Brother Twelve's closest associate), as well as the divorce papers of Myrtle and Edwin Baumgartner. That he acquired a fortune in gold is from courtroom testimony, a written account left by Alfred Barley in which he discusses the Foundations finances, and from my interview with Dion Sepulveda, Brother Twelve's cabin boy on the Lady Royal. It was Brother Twelve's henchmen (Edric Agate and Harold Krause) who "trashed" the colony, not the local citizenry. There is no question that Robert England resigned from the Aquarian Foundation: his letter of resignation was read in court on October 30, 1928. The word "debate' is not too strong a word to use to describe the exchange that took place between Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Brother Twelve in the Occult Review.
What "new discoveries" McIsaac, Clark, and Lillard made are not evident to me. Their book presented no relevant information that I did not already know, and contained so many contradictions, illogical statements, and bizarre suppositions - and was so disorganized in its presentation of the "legend" and the "fact" -that I could give it no credence at all. That it was on the best-seller list in British Columbia attests to the interest people have in the subject of Brother Twelve, not to any inherent merit of the book itself (The reviews of the book sup, port my contention.)
Robin Skelton objects to my use of "Twelve" rather than "XII." " In fact, both forms of the name are used in my hook. My stylistic technique in writing Brother Twelve was to sculpt the events of this man's life into a narrative that would make him live for the reader. I have taken no liberties with fact. Since much of the material was from private files (including the files of Brother Twelve's lawyer, Frank Cunliffe), footnotes would have been tedious. I incorporated the source of quoted material into the body of the text itself wherever possible, and included instead of a bibliography - a list of numerous books dealing with theosophical history for background information.
IN RESPONSE to Robin Skelton's letter about Brother Twelve, the earlier McIsaac-Clark-Lillard book was not included in my review precisely because it is rather slim and not thoroughly researched. John Oliphant's book is based on extensive original, unpublished research. There is no bibliography mainly because, except for background books on theosophy, the reliable published sources are simply not there to draw from. The typed transcripts from the numerous interviews for the book, as well as lengthy court transcripts and letters, provide sources that only Mr. Oliphant has, and allow him to verify the parts of the story from Bruce McElvie, Robert England, and so forth that Mr. Skelton questions. Mr. Oliphant spent almost 10 years sorting out fact from fiction and getting at the characters and the spirit of the enterprise, before skilfully weaving the facts into a damned exciting narrative. Too exciting, apparently, to be believable to Mr. Skelton. But, nevertheless, true.
Out of Focus
I TAKE EXCEPTION to "Personally Speaking" (December), Jim Christy's review of The Thinking Heart: Best Canadian Essays, a book that includes my "Zen in America." His apparent weakness for essays whose themes are "timelessly" personal and pastoral has blinded him to the real focus of George Galt's selection. The pieces that Christy reviles (by Blaise and Salutin, for example, but there are others) are in fact among the best: sensitive and challenging attempts to confront the current cultural crisis, to come to terms with issues of boundaries and identities, to explore the pull between regionalist and continentalist visions of Canada.
Christy's "country gentleman" posture, that of a man living above and outside the tainted politics of his time, suggests the kind of elitism that refuses to engage in anything so messy or complex as a debate about our future. This is his choice, but it doesn't give him the right to dismiss those who do.
OH MY, Alec McEwen is at it again, doing the two things that blinkered, prescriptive grammarians are always happily reduced to, the two things that language snobs everywhere delight in hearing about.
One: condemn people for using words that you in your infinite wisdom know are not really words. In "Technical Corrections" (Last Words, February), Mr. McEwen seizes on ostracization used in place of ostracism, and informs a historian, a national newspaper, and a dictionary that there is no such word. The simple fact, of course, is that any word that is used is by definition a word. English vocabulary is like a closer of clothing you have built Lip over the years. You wear what fits best, and You discard or alter as fashions change.
Two: insist on making distinctions between words that are gradually becoming synonymous. Mr. McEwen's examples are precipitous and precipitate: he would confine
the former to meaning hasty or rash, and the latter to meaning steep, in spite of the authority of English usage and "many dictionaries." Mr. McEwen reminds me of Saddam Hussein during the last days of the Gulf War, overwhelmingly beseiged but still declaring victory and asserting his leadership in the face of all the contradictory evidence. Again, the same arguments apply: language changes, and there are no inviolable meanings or usages of words.
Mr. McEwen's old-fashioned whining about right and wrong is out of place in an otherwise hip and progressive magazine such as Books in Canada. Please drop him and give me a call.
I'M NO DECONSTRUCTION expert, but it seems to me Antanas Sileika's letter ("Doctor in the House?," February) could use a little. Starting with all those violent images: giving John Metcalf "a good clout on the ear," sicking the cops on me, and how about his description of my rebuttal to Metcalf's plea for the abolition of arts grants to writers, "I saw Susan Crean lumber out of the deconstructionist alley armed with brass knuckles and her' different concepts of excellence."'
Sileika complains of being drowned in the sea of mediocre Canadian books, of having to leaf through so much "dross" in his search for small-press books to review that he can only assume the writers were related to the publishers or paid their way into print. Are we meant to take this as serious criticism? Are we supposed to accept such overheated opinion as evidence Canada produces more dross than other countries, and go on to debate the issue of how truly inferior we are as a literary culture? How do we know this isn't just plain old colonial-mindedness talking? How do we know this isn't Chuck Cook talking?
It's time for people like Sileika and Metcalf to be honest with the rest of us. If there is a disease, identify it; if there is exploitation and profiteering going on, point it out; if there is a better way of porting writing, suggest it.
Two points need to be made about Sileika misrepresentation of my piece. When I wrote about excellence, I was referring to the problems created when cultural policy is based on absolute notions about quality and single definitions of excellence. I argued for an approach that recognizes cultural diversity. When I wrote about competition, I wasn't obviously, commenting on the systems of grants, prizes, and publication that put writers into competition with other writers. I was talking about the attitude of reviewers like Antanas Sileika who take as their role in life to pass judgement on books rather than to appreciate them, to rate writers rather than to explore their work, whose effect is to turn the discussion of literature and ideas into a horse race.
How about a little enthusiasm for what we have achieved, some encouragement for the task that lies ahead? Or is that too much to ask of a man whose thoughts turn to fantasies of physical violence when someone suggests that the Academy discriminates?
IN HER blistering review of my book, A Mirror to Nature ("Bodily Harm," October), Heather Menzies dismisses, with breathtaking ease, this cross-section of my life's work as shallow, sensational, and devoid of originality or insight. And she does so suffocatingly, without even once permitting my words to speak.
Oddly enough, others have found a measure of merit in at least a few of the items in this admittedly "uneven" retrospective aimed at chronicling my metamorphosis as a science writer.
For example, "Matanza," a meticulously documented and previously unpublished account of the massacre in 1982 of an entire Mayan village, a story still largely unknown to the general public, has received praise from scholars and honours from the Mayan refugee community in Canada.
Sheldon Krimsky, a leading American historian of the recombinant-DNA debate, has called the final essay, "Blaming Crime on Chromosomes," the single "best presentation [of the famous XYY controversy] I have found."And Genethics, the book in which it originally appeared, won acclaim from the London Times, the Washington Post, the Globe and Mail, and other publications around the world.
I can only assume that Menzies would, in similar tones of ideological certainty, also condemn these voices to the same dark dark depths of perpetual ignorance to which she seems to have so impatiently condemned mine.
WITH REFERENCE to the ungrammatical aren't I? that Alec McEwen discusses in "Technical Corrections" (Last Words, February). My Irish wife, her Dublin family, and all their friends have always used the contraction amn't I? - the short form of am not. But then, the Irish were ever more grammatical than the English.
I thought you'd like to know.
Roger Burford Mason
Letters may be edited for length or to delete potentially libellous statements. Except in extraordinary circumstances, letters of more than 500 words will not be accepted for publication.