In 2001, with Sharon Pollock: Essays on Her Works (edited by Anne E. Nothof), Guernica launched the first title in its Writers Series. The number of titles has since grown to eight to include works on Caterina Edwards (Joseph Pivato), Louis Dudek (George Hildebrand), David Solway (Carmine Starnino), Aritha van Herk (Christl Verduyn) , P.K. Page (Linda Rogers and Barbara Colebrook Peace), Adele Wiseman (Ruth Panofsky), and Alistair MacLeod (Irene Guilford). Under the general editorship of Antonio D'Alfonso and Joseph Pivato, each title¨by a guest editor¨comprises an editor's introduction, at least five essays by different critics, scholars, or fellow writers, an in-depth interview, as well as extensive bibliographical notes. Thus configured, the series is meant to serve, according to the publisher, as an "ideal tool for students and for anyone interested in the work of contemporary Canadian writers."
The students for whom this series is principally intended will want a reliable and reasonably accessible source of commentary; a well-marked way inside; avenues readable, if you will, opening on the representative. While the various editors in this attractively-packaged series may not have produced an "ideal tool" in every instance, they've consistently produced an estimable one. Moreover, the seasoned reader or researcher looking for an authoritative critical guide or introduction to a writer with whom they are unfamiliar will likewise find much here to recommend. Almost without exception, the subject writers are of the long-established and widely-celebrated kind (Caterina Edwards is the possible exception), but until Guernica thought to commission them, collections of essays on many of these writers simply did not exist. Well, now they do, and we should be grateful: the Writers Series is a timely, stylish, substantive and, in several instances, an indispensable source of commentary on key figures in Canadian writing.
Among the charms of the series is the distinctiveness individual titles achieve within the prescriptions of the common format. This variousness has as much to do with the mix of editors as the nature of the writers under discussion. Numbered among the guest editors are young scholars, established scholars, established writers who've rarely if ever attempted criticism, and a young writer emerging as an important critic. Admittedly D'Alfonso and Pivato have most often relied upon the established scholar, but their willingness to trust the work to diverse others has opened up the possibilities of what collections of this kind can accomplish.
One of the most successful of these adventures in editing is P.K. Page: Essays on Her Works, by Linda Rogers and Barbara Colebrook Peace. Rogers has been actively publishing for over twenty years, Peace published her first book in 2001. Judging from this title's ŠNotes on Contributors', neither is an experienced scholar or critic. However, like Page, both are West Coast poets and, more to the point, both are manifestly longtime aficionadas of Page and her poetry. The result of their collaboration is a concatenation of fifteen pieces, some as brief as two pages in length. All but two of the pieces are by women and all but one are by poets. Through the blending of voices and genres (Margaret Atwood and Rogers, for example, contribute poems), the layering and counterpoint of various forms of passionate attention, this title constitutes both a celebration of a major poet's long career of achievement and that most useful of things in the criticism of poetry especially: an abundant source of original insight into how (as opposed to what) the work means.
Perhaps the least successful title in the series is Aritha van Herk: Essays on Her Works, edited by Christl Verduyn, a leading figure in Canadian Studies. As the book's thirteen-pages of secondary sources attests, a great deal of ready-made commentary on van Herk was available to the editor. Verduyn doesn't explain why so little of it was sufficient to her needs (only one of the five essays in the collection was previously published). However, in light of what's on offer in a couple of the essays in the collection, some readers may feel entitled to an explanation.
The two essays in question here, by Robert Budde and Robert Kroetsch, are described by Verduyn as a "highly creative commentaries" calculated "to break out of the strait-jacket of academic criticism." Whatever its merits as creative writing¨or as a practical demonstration of the Šficto-criticism' van Herk advocates¨as criticism Robert Budde's "The Aesthetics of Annihilation: The Restless Text and the Reader as Assassin in Aritha van Herk's Restlessness" made me very restless indeed, set my fingers itching after the absent buckles of criticism's putatively shopworn strait-jacket. Budde literally and, so far as I can tell, unironically begins by gazing into his navel: "One night I fell asleep with Restlessness in my lap...." With the critic thus positioned too close to dreamy grips with his text, a reading thick with afflatus and heavy on the affective fallacy is bound to be in the (b)offing; that Budde then proceeds to wax warm over the "aching originality" of the thing he holds in his hands ("Death, orgasm, and closure all arrive in my laps as I read...") will hardly come as a surprise.
Robert Kroetsch's "Circle the Wagons, Girls, Here the Bastards Come" is a more agreeably suggestive exercise in creative "commentary" but its value in a work of this kind is still questionable. "[B]y way of narrative and descriptive and speculative digression" (p60), Kroetsch takes us on a kind of rhetorical chuck-wagon race around the limits of (once again) van Herk's Restlessness. Hubs liberally greased with summary estimation, we proceed at breakneck speed, throwing up clots of gravid assertion, much of the time balanced on two wheels, only to end up, as is usual in races of this kind, pretty much back where we started, and arguably not a lot wiser despite the considerable exertion. Over the length of its discursive run, this essay generates an impressive welter of detached flourish, as in the following:
At times van Herk is her own landscape. She is a landscape that both reveals and conceals. From chinook arch to Freud's Vienna, from her beloved Trieste to Tofino, she wears landscape as a veil of knowledge. She performs it. Restless is as restless does: there can be no idea between the idea and the thing itself.
As van Herk "performs" behind veils of landscape, Kroetsch gestures provocatively from behind veils of Švatic-ism'. The degree to which one feels that this subversive form of criticism is a legitimate response to van Herk's subversive forms of writing is doubtless open to question, but certainly the risk that Kroetsch's particular act of commentary runs is that it will end up simply doubling the text's own teasing dance around its gaps and absences; that meaning will keep stepping from view, chasing after the glamour of yet another surface, refusing to stay around for the heavy lifting of a closer reading.
In the same volume, Marlene Goldman's "Go North Young Woman: Representations of the Arctic in the Writings of Aritha van Herk", makes a welcome change, for among its many virtues it shows what buckled-up academic criticism can do (it's the collection's previously published essay). According to Verduyn's introduction, Goldman has demonstrated in other contexts "how well [van Herk's] work sustains sophisticated theoretical investigation, from Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari...to the work of feminist theorists and writers like Nancy J. Chodorow and Christa Wolf." The truth of that claim notwithstanding, what Frederick Crews calls that common "fear of facing of literature without the intellectual narcotic" of "self-validating literary theory" is not at all in evidence in the actual body of Goldman's essay; not one of the aforementioned grandees of theory is ever cited as authority. Rather, the work is read closely and synoptically by a critic accomplished enough to wear her theory lightly. Goldman's focus is on the fundamental (and apparently unintended) contradictions inherent in van Herk's various reinscriptions of the north. Her fiction, says Goldman, amounts to "not so much a radical departure from the traditional, masculine narratives as a modification of those narratives." The example of this essay's carefully-reasoned argument qualifying the "radical" in van Herk is one of those "ideal tools" students can put to productive use on their way through, or back over, the difficult, uneven ground of van Herk's oeuvre.
As noted above, each title in the series follows a common format. Oddly enough, though, the series is inconsistent where consistency is at once crucial and easy to achieve: in the bibliographical notes. While most of the titles in the series provide fairly complete notes (albeit organized according to idiosyncratic schemes), there are curious exceptions. In the volumes on MacLeod and Solway, for example, secondary sources are omitted altogether. In fact, Guilford's bibliography on MacLeod, whose work especially of late has generated reams of critical commentary, lists only the four titles of MacLeod's primary publications in book form. This leaves out altogether the matter of where and in what order the individual short stories were originally published. Also puzzling is Starnino's decision not to include in the bibliographical notes any reference to reviews or scholarly estimations of David Solway's work, puzzling because in the course of his editor's introduction he makes a point of decrying how consistently critics and reviewers have misread Solway's poetry.
Unevenness in the focus and scope of the various editors' Introductions is likewise a problem. For example, some editors have chosen to limit descriptions of the essays that follow to one sentence, and sometimes not even that. Here, for example, is the sum total of Hildebrand's introduction to two of the essays in his volume on Dudek: "Tony Tremblay and Stewart Donovan respond to two of the many significant Dudek texts of the 1990s...." This is almost willfully unhelpful. But even this unavailing introduction is better than Nothof's in Sharon Pollock, which neglects even to name, never mind explain the choice of, the essays that follow.
A final cavil: When did it become the fashion, if not the rule, in works of this kind to eschew criticism that takes a writer seriously to task? From whence springs the conviction that unalloyed approval is requisite to informed and insightful appreciation? My advice to future editors of this series would be to invite Discordia to the wedding. I gather that a title on Michael Ondaatje is in the works. How I'd love to hear from one of the literate among the legions who fell asleep with The English Patient open in their laps (ficto-critical writer-critics excepted, of course). These collections should be an introduction to, not a refuge from, the wider marketplace of criticism where few of these writers have Šscaped an instructive whipping. ˛
Robert Moore's first book of poems, So Rarely in Our Skins, is being released this spring.