NOT SO LONG ago, writing in the The New York Times Book Review, Bharati Mukherjee, an ex-Canadian, argued convincingly that immigration is the opposite of expatriation. By refusing to play the game of immigration, she suggested, psychological expatriates "certify to the world, and especially to their hosts, the purity of their pain and their moral superiority to the world around them. In some obscure way they earn the right to be permanent scolds, soaking up comfort and privilege and nursing real grievances until privilege and grievance become habits of mind."
Mukherjee was writing about exnial, once-Third-World authors, but her remarks put me in mind of John Metcalf, that uncrowned king of Canada's psychological expatriates. Metcalf arrived in this country in 1962 at the age of 24, though in ways that matter he never really left his native
Great Britain. Soon he was flailing away at literary Canada in satirical stories and novels, and when those failed to transform the embarrassing backwater in which he found himself, Metcalf turned to collections of essays, writing Kicking Against The Pricks (1982) and editing The Bumper Book (1987).
Carry On Bumping is the third in this series of frontal assaults on CanLit and CanLitCrit, and once again Metcalf aims his most savage body blows at book reviewers, regionalists, and the Canada Council. The good news is that, for the most part, Carry On eschews the vindictive pettiness that marred Pricks, and the one pseudonymous piece here, unlike the scurrilous hatchet job included in Bumper, rises above personal attack to make a general point. Both earlier anthologies had their moments, but Carry On Bumping is the best of the three, with much to recommend it and even more to make the blood boil.
If this volume has a central debate, its focus is the Canadian literary canon: who's going to be in it, who's not. In three brief, imaginary dialogues, Linda Leith offers a cogent, jargon-free condemnation of academic exclusivity. And George McWhirter, a Vancouver writer, contributes a grammatically problematic but pithy formulation of one position: "If Canada cannot be seen, like nobody has ever seen it before, but must always be an addition to acceptable representations, the joint is in trouble."
The heart of the argument, however, is to be found in two elaborately polite, backto-back essays by English professors Walter Pache of Germany and Toronto's William Keith, author of Canadian Literature in English (1985). In analysing Keith's book, Pache asks: "Should Canadian literature be exposed to the rigorous criteria of analysis and evaluation that are applicable on an international scale, or can it claim a more lenient consideration on the grounds that it has a special function as a vehicle of explaining the nation to itself - a function that can also be met by works that are second or third-rate by literary standards?"
Keith replies that Canadian literature can hold its own in international company, and draws a distinction between literary history and criticism. Those studying the drama of the English Renaissance need to know not only the works of Shakespeare, Jonson, Marlowe and Webster, but also such relatively obscure texts as Ralph Roister Doister and Gammer Gurton's Needle, these last being important historically because they made "more artistically successful work possible." Keith also suggests that Pache "cannot really believe that, if literary history has been pronounced obsolete in Europe, Canadians are at liberty to dissent from this judgement."
Great fun, what? Further afield, we find Marco P. LoVerso arguing that Margaret Atwood's novels are really moral fables, each with a controlling metaphor, a split protagonist who achieves a new vision, and a welter of symbolic secondary characters. Lawrence Mathews takes effective issue with postmodernist reviewers, and one of his observations could serve only too well as a description of this whole business of literary polemics: "Of course what we're talking about is not revolution but market share. (Pick a name) wants people to pay more attention to the poets whose work he likes .... He just wants a larger slice of the pie for himself and his literary friends."
Vancouver writer Brian Fawcett contributes an idiosyncratic and bracingly irreverent article that is probably unfair to Eric McCormack, but which raises interesting questions. Fawcett distinguishes the privileged postmodernists of North America from their South American heroes, charging "that their lack of any detectable interest in questions related to authority hides an extremely reactionary (if covert) ideological stance, a demand (or wish) that the present structure of privilege and rewards be allowed to exist unexamined."
Heady stuff. But, scattered among these essays we find the bizarre musings of William Hoffer, an antiquarian bookseller, who delights above all in taking cheap shots at the Canada Council. (No, I've never received a grant.) A flippant anti-regionalist fantasy by Hugh Hood betrays the insularity of a Central Canadian who has lived too long in a single urban centre (Montreal). And Ray, Smith, who has written some unforgettable fiction, disappears into a rambling, incoherent, and self-indulgent monologue that touches, on semiotics, structuralism, and intersubjectivity. (As editor, Metcalf's biggest mistake was to put this arcane lucubration near the front of the book.)
Then there's an article by poet Louis Dudek, who castigates Canadian book reviewers generally as "incompetent and unqualified for the critical task." He goes on to create a straw man, give him my name and misuse a review of The Bumper Book in which I suggested that Metcalf "doesn't understand what a Canadian newspaper is or how it works. If he did, he'd think twice before undermining the credibility of his staunchest allies in a world obviously foreign to him, and in which he himself wouldn't survive two weeks."
Still, Dudek's superciliousness surprised me - though not as much as his suggestion that, when I described the mass-market newspaper as a business, I was denying that it has an important role to play in elevating standards, or that a newspaper with a good book section can reap rewards in heaven and become "famous across the land." Like most book review editors, I have often made these arguments and others besides. Surely Dudek knows this? Why was, he deliberately misrepresenting me? I dug out my review of The Bumper Book and there, near the end, found my explanation: "I'm puzzled," I'd written, "as to why Louis Dudek is so well. represented with so much mediocre poetry." Hey, that's how it is.
Metcalf himself has produced one of the most readable essays in this anthology, and it's easily the most offensive. Where to begin? Metcalf asserts that "because the Canadian literary world is wholly subsidized by the State it is impossible to write imaginatively or critically Without being conscious of being Canadian, without being self-consciously Canadian, without being conscious of the pervasive social and political desire for 'Canadianness.' " Nonsense. Scores, of Canadian writers have no such problem', and those who do address specifically Canadian concerns are often saying something uniquely relevant to those of us who live here.
Metcalf argues that 'Canadian nationalism is the motivation behind the subsidy, and it has failed to produce an audience." Hogwash. The first Canadian print run on Margaret Atwood's new novel was 50,000 copies - though Metcalf chooses to ignore such figures. The Canada Council from which he himself has often benefited - has made a spectacular difference in just three decades. Give it a century.
Another of Metcalf's favourite targets is regionalism, which "actively promotes mediocrity." Metcalf sneers at provincial writers' guilds and "subsidized regional presses dedicated to promoting and preserving the literature and 'culture' of New Brunswick, Alberta, and Prince Edward Island." He doubts that even William Faulkner, a professed regionalist, "would have approved the subsidizing of Alberta's best." Talk about literary bigotry! Surely it's obvious that those regional guilds and publishers Metcalf finds so laughable are building the audience he claims doesn't exist. How many times do we have to go over this? In the world of hockey, Wayne Gretzky didn't just happen. First came Howie Morenz, Rocket Richard, Gordie Howe, Bobby Orr, and numerous others. And for every hockey star, thousands of kids played hockey at thousands of neighbourhood rinks across the country. Gretzky exists because somebody erected and flooded those rinks and the same is true of his audience. Nobody appreciates Gretzky better than an ex-hockey player - even one who never got out of the neighbourhood rink.
Subsidized publishers, Metcalf argues, produce "a flood of books which would not be published in a normal literary environment." What, you may ask, is "a normal literary environment?" Why, that of Great Britain, of course - a country many centuries older than Canada, almost, three times as populous, a fraction the size and far more homogeneous (even now) - just for starters. Look at Metcalf's authorities: Cecil Day-Lewis, Richard Hoggart, Kingsley Amis, Charlie Osboume: scratch a Metcalf mentor and you'll find a worthy Brit of suitable psychological set, and never mind that he wouldn't know Oberon from Oolichan or NeWest Press.
I could go on. But if Bharati Mukhedee is right, we Canadians have fostered Metcalf's elitist ranting by celebrating the mosaic rather than the melting pot. We're just going to have to live with it. Who knows? Maybe there's something healthy about having continually to confront such eloquent resentment. 0