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Canadian Notes & Queries 51-60 (1997-2001)

by Edited by John Metcalf
32 pages,
ISBN: 0576 5803


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Vindicating Midas
by Chris Jennings

The Phrygian king Midas is probably best known as an avatar of avarice. Granted a wish by Dionysus, he asked "ŠLet whatever I touch become gold,'" not thinking that "whatever" would include food, water, wine and that "ŠNothing can live...in a world of gold.'" It likely marks a shift in cultural attitudes toward avarice that we describe successive success as a Midas touch, but perhaps all Midas really needed was a good editor¨Šyes, turn that to gold; no, this is better plain, real.' Judgment was never his strength, as a second story recalls. Overhearing a music contest between Apollo and Pan, Midas favoured the latter. A petulant Apollo rewarded Midas by giving him an ass's ears. Though I understand Midas's preference for the satyric over the divine, failing to anticipate such a reaction merely reiterates the Phrygian's tendency to err.

Anyone familiar with the current incarnation of Canadian Notes & Queries, now edited by John Metcalf, will be able to draw several possible analogies from the above. Your relative sympathy for what the journal has published in its first ten issues under Metcalf's control will determine to whom you assign the role of Apollo or Pan, of Midas or the editor-adept who could redeem Midas's curse.

Metcalf is the third editor of CNQ since its launch in 1968, following Douglas Fetherling and founding-editor William F. E. Morley, former rare book librarian at Queen's. In his "Farewell Editorial" (CNQ 51, 3), Fetherling describes CNQ's origin as "a four-page mimeographed affair, ... distributed as a supplement to Abacus, the newsletter of the Antiquarian Booksellers' Association of Canada." Its goal was to be "a Canadian equivalent of the famous British journal Notes and Queries (1849 to date) ... that would serve as both bulletin board and pulpit for scholars in the field of Canadian studies in the humanities." When Fetherling took over in 1990, "[f]eeling strongly (and, as it happens, correctly) that the original function...would soon be taken over by computer technology," he reinvented the journal "as a periodical of Canadian literary and cultural history." Most issues now contain no notes or queries, though a few survive despite email, web sites, and electronic distribution lists. Fetherling published eight issues before passing the enterprise on to Metcalf and The Porcupine's Quill, returning to the masthead after an issue's absence as a contributing editor. The result of this evolution mixes literary criticism and reviews (sometimes insightful, sometimes inciting, occasionally both) with ardent advocacy on behalf of select authors, books, private presses, and booksellers, and remarkable miscellany pieces like Peter Miller's account of Contact Press or Roger Burford Mason's essay on the history and place of fishing in the English language.

Metcalf is the nail that holds the various components together. Take, for example, his editorial in CNQ 56. The George A. Walker engraving on the cover shows a bearded, pupil-less man sitting up in bed under a snarled cover. He could be sick, he could be waking from a nightmare. Either way, apparently things get worse because the next engraving is the skeletal reaper sharing the page with Metcalf's editorial. This is the preface to an interview with bookseller Steven Temple, who, when asked about the state of the market for "rare and collectable English-Canadian literature," reveals that "there never was a healthy market. It always was unhealthy. The market was always institutionally driven, and as soon as that demand was removed then the truth was exposed" (5). This illness feeds Metcalf's editorial. He writes, "I could, I suppose, explain the intellectual importance of book collecting, the significance of rare book dealers to our society, the need we have to nurture great libraries and to educate great librarians, but frankly can't be bothered." Then, bothered, "all this discussion about money is not about money. It is about how much people care about writers and writing. All this talk is about respect and love. It is also about history and knowledge." (3). In other words, there is a reason to bring book dealers and collectors together with writers and literary critics¨they share a love. If Metcalf's tone suggests a less-than-harmonious union, well, most love triangles have their share of animosity.

Adversaries abound (think back, now, to Apollo and Pan). Academics (who promote Canadian writing only when it serves their research), literary journalism ("people qualified or not, whaling away with blunt instruments" in the words of Terry Griggs [CNQ 59, 7]), and the Canada Council (for supporting books that no one reads) are frequently held to account for a Midas-like noxious judgment that valorizes inferior writing at the expense of real literary achievements. The examiners include booksellers who specialize in Canadian literature, like the late William Hoffer, whose essay "Cheap Sons of Bitches: Memoirs of the Book Trade" gets right to the core of the conflict. "An academic critic can spend his life being wrong, and suffer no material loss. Booksellers, practical critics, put money on their choices" (CNQ 51, 30). It seems true enough that a collector's version of supply and demand economics should reward a bookseller's critical intuition. It is harder to sympathize with Hoffer's frequent antagonism (an aggression much muted here), but something of his bellicose tone ("Hoffer's campaign against the idea of subsidy to the arts" was called Tanks) salts the journal's characteristic style.

David Solway and Carmine Starnino both have their alkaline moments in CNQ. Their essays share a willingness to defend what they value in Canadian literature against inaccurate or even pernicious evaluative criteria based on what Solway calls "the wholesale jettisoning of the past as so much useless lumber" ("On Modern Poetry: A Diatribe", CNQ 54, 20). Solway's distaste centres on "our strutting post-modernist" who "has become, not difficult, but insignificant" (21), and therefore duly unread. But strip Solway's essay of its wrath and it shades into nostalgia. Solway enlists pyrotechnic rhetoric to defend tradition against "the insurrection" (to use his loaded term) of those who would contribute to its decline. "Standard Average Canadian, or The Influence of Al Purdy" (CNQ 59, 18-20), for example, rebuts the general, post-mortem celebration of Purdy's legacy; "one can lament the passing of the man...but one can also deplore the significance and quality of the work, in defiance of a consensus that feels more like unmixed adulation than sober appraisal" (19). If Solway's only purpose was to register his distaste for Purdy's poems it would be easy to dismiss the attack as spleen. His real target, however, is not Purdy but the homogenizing effect of any poet exerting an inordinate amount of influence on "the language, as well as the attitude we [tend] to adopt toward the subject matter for poetry" (19). For Solway, the fact that "homogenizing the ideolect" meant a proliferation of Purdy's "Standard Average Canadian" (19) suggests a material connection between Purdy's poetics and his influence. Purdy's poems can be fatally easy to imitate and nearly impossible to reproduce, no matter how you judge them. Unfortunately, Solway undermines the point by making his (sometimes splenetic) judgment of Purdy's example a foundation of his larger argument.

Carmine Starnino's "Canadian Poetry as a Busted Flush" (CNQ 55, 3-10) echoes Solway. "When we talk about Canadian poetry what we're talking about is a simulacrum; that is, something intended as a compensatory substitute for good poetry" (3). The essay censures the "mediocrity" of poets whose successes obscure those Starnino considers more worthy of attention. Two of the three poets he promotes Solway also champions, Eric Ormsby and Michael Harris, and the third is Solway himself, so the two share elements of taste as well as tone. Starnino makes his particular mark in his extended readings of his subjects. He points to what he considers the failings of a text and supports his judgment with that of other poets and critics. As a result, his antagonisms seem less magisterial, less stentorian, and more like an open challenge, while his praise, of A.M. Klein's Selected Poems (CNQ 59, 21-28) for example, shares the same verve. Praise and blame work together as part of a coordinated critical mind.

It would be a Midas-like error in judgment to let the spectacle of controversy overshadow the journal's equal commitment to praise. CNQ 60, for example, is devoted to Norman Levine in every sense. An autobiographical essay by Levine takes up more than a third of the issue (and perhaps that's the best kind of approval an editor can offer). Five essays focus on Levine's virtues, his precise prose or his gift for epiphanies both beautiful and bathetic, and only T. F. Rigelhof, in his review of By a Frozen River, blends admiration with admonitions for those who undervalue Levine's work. Ian McGillis casts the most persuasive light when, commenting on Canada Made Me, he compares "Levine's status as an expat and a Jew" to a similar double remove in V.S. Naipaul's writings on India. This affinity shines more brightly in Levine's favour, McGillis points out, because Canada Made Me was published in Britain in 1958 when, living in London, the young Naipaul's "first India book was still six years in the future" (27). McGillis then sidesteps temptation. "Naipaul checking out Levine? Maybe, maybe not. But doesn't that make a lovely image...?" (27). This is better than praise. It is the kind of incisive observation that might send you off energized to read Norman Levine. Other appreciative essays appear throughout the run. David Helwig meanders through his impressions of Hugh MacLennan, W.J. Keith gives an account of seeing Hugh Hood's Near Water through the press, and Ken Lopez discusses collecting uncorrected proofs. Private presses also receive generous words, The Aliquondo Press from Thomas T. Schweitzer and Locks' Press from Randall Speller.

Something of the journal's range of tone and sentiment can be found, almost as synecdoche, in its reviews. Michael Darling's review of Mordecai Richler's Barney's Version (CNQ 52, 27-31) begins in a slightly satiric voice to describe the reaction the novel received from the media (Griggs's whalers again), then shifts to consider Richler's style. Together, satiric voice and a focus on style reflect Darling's subject, emphasizing how thoroughly Richler's satire depends on his stylistic vitality, on irony and descriptive economy. Darling's review of Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin (CNQ 58, 27-31) follows the same pattern, reviewing previous reviews before examining the novel's "texture and voice" (28), the elements of style he cites as detriments to its "superficial brilliance" (27). Jeet Heer uses a similar method in his review of Russell Smith's Young Men (CNQ 56, 23-27). He dismisses the validity of generation-obsessed, "media-fabricated literary movements" (3), compares Smith's work favourably to that of David Eddie, and frames his evaluation by citing Smith's inheritances from the tradition of Evelyn Waugh and Kingsley Amis. Only Rex Murphy's demolition of the book he reviews ("It is only by virtue of its containing black marks on white paper that In Praise of Commercial Culture can be called a book" [CNQ 55, 30-32]) lacks Darling's or Heer's (or Keith's, or Allan Hepburn's) tonal complexity, but Murphy's outraged humour makes up the lack.

Most amazing, though, is how everything holds together to give the journal a composite, oppositional identity. Sympathy for the more extreme essays is not necessary; the journal has more to offer, and in context, the most contentious essays have purgative advantages. Even the physical thing has the satisfactions (wood engravings, high-quality paper) that characterize productions by The Porcupine's Quill. This coherence reflects Metcalf's pervasive presence. He suffuses the thing in every part, from the celebration of books as artifacts to the contrarian posture to the photo of Levine's home in St. Ives. Ultimately, no single aspect of the Ovidian analogy seems more apt to describe CNQ or its editor than any other¨and that is a fair compliment. Even the most petulant should admire the conviction it takes to stake an ass's ears on the strength of one's own judgment and the desire to see something loved valued as gold. ˛

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