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Safdie Selling Well!

I found [Ian Allaby's] review for Moshe Safdie's City After the Automobile an enlightened and balanced piece, that is, until I arrived at the section that section that states, "A friend tells me that this book has soared to the top of the half price shelves already." Perhaps Mr. Allaby could enlighten me as to how a book that has done well in both the Canadian and U.S. market places and is slated to appear in trade paper format this fall seems to be appearing as a half price offering. This type of jaunty and cavalier editorial quip masquerading as a replacement for market research is very damaging to an author's profile. The fact is that this book has been well received and enjoyed healthy sales for the genre.

We are very proud of our publishing program at Stoddart and rightly so. I would hope that a magazine of your reputation and obvious editorial excellence would find a vehicle to make restitution for a slur against a publication that the reviewer himself found to be of obvious merit. I leave the matter in your hands and look forward to your reply.

Stephen Quick



Stoddart Publishing


Religion Issue

I would like to thank you for the feature piece on religion in the February issue of Books in Canada. I was deeply impressed that you would give such an unpopular topic-at least, unpopular in much of the literary community-such lengthy attention. I normally read your periodical in the Lindsay Public Library as I also did this time. However, this was the first time I wanted to buy a copy for my own use, but I could not find a retailer in town who sold it. I was left to scribble the main ideas of the participants on sheets of notepad paper..

Your piece is priceless as a document of the attitudes toward religion among writers and academics at the end of the twentieth century. I feel the contributors represent fairly accurately the thinking in their respective communities on this subject-matter. It was a real treat to get these opinions in black and white. The academics tended to be more objective and open-minded and much more perceptive in their responses. I was particularly impressed with Kenneth Hart Green and Thomas Langan. The professional writers tended to take a negative approach. They seemed almost offended by the topic, even bitter at times, as if they were being forced to swallow cod liver oil or something. At their worst, I think, the opportunity to inflict pain on traditionalists was too much of a temptation for some to resist. Among the writers, I was most impressed by David Helwig for his perceptive understanding of the religious consciousness.

By the way, why did most of your contributors think it necessary to reduce a discussion on religion to Christianity? Certainly that approach presented an easier target for negative criticism but I wish that there had been more treatment of Judaism, Islam, and authentic Native spiritualities. I was disappointed that the Jewish contributors tended to dwell more on Christianity than on Judaism itself. I was also disappointed that Native spirituality did not receive a serious treatment. I also feel there needs to be deep and authentic dialogue between Judaeo-Christian and Native spiritualities. (As a native of Finland I inherited a great sensitivity to the beauty and mystery of life-giving power of the northern forests that were our life-blood, and to the pagan beliefs and the myths of the Kalevala, and to the Sami people of which I am a descendant; since all of this past history of mine must exist in tension with my Catholicism, I long for a dialogue that reflects my unique situation.)

Finally, I was intrigued to see, as a shield against this barrage of Enlightenment-style thinking, a review in another section of the same issue of one whose works represent the German reaction against the Enlightenment, Jacobi, someone who along with Hamann and Herder I admire very much.

Paavo Viuhko

Lindsay, Ontario

Books in Canada's symposium on religious revival was interesting. I suppose there is not much written in Canada that is notable that concerns religion and science. Do you know that there is now a considerable literature on this subject and that there are institutions, mostly academic, which devote themselves to the issues raised by both sides? The Templeton Foundation (yes, the twin of the Templeton Fund) gives a lot of money to promoting what it calls the "Humility in Theology" program, etc.

Graham Cotter

Warkworth, Ont.

If I ever want to read a magazine about religion in Canada, I will let you know-or perhaps just subscribe to one of those already available. But I suppose if I do it will start featuring deconstructionist critiques of late twentieth century gay poetry...

Lynn M. Murphy


Why is it that Books in Canada and other literary publications, supplements, etc., continue to give Stan Persky a platform to publish his self-indulgent, boring stuff?-and badly written, too. His reply to your question [on religion] was insultingly brief. I hope he was not paid for his puny efforts.

John Walker

Kingston, Ont.

Red-Baiting, Shoddy

John Muggeridge's review of my book, Whatever Happened to High School History? Burying the Political Memory of Youth: Ontario, 1945-1995 (March), is shoddy and irresponsible. It is shoddy because it does not give what a writer has a right to expect: a review of his book, not of a few sentences of his book. It is irresponsible because three-quarters of it is little more than an old-fashioned red-baiting rant.

For the first six and a half paragraphs of nine, a reader hasn't the foggiest idea what the argument of my book is. These paragraphs are a development of one sentence in the book from a piece I wrote in 1968 about being a utopian communist. In 1968! Muggeridge never mentions this. I've never called myself a communist since, and I shed the utopian label in 1975 by returning to public high school teaching, where I have been till I retired two years ago.

Muggeridge makes up lies about me. He has me liking Pol Pot! He ends the review like this: "Not only is Davis shouting with the faintest (he means as a communist after all others have abandoned it), he is beckoning the most murderous." This ugly, disembowelled red-baiting takes up 80% of the review. It bears no relationship whatsoever to the tone, spirit, style, or arguments of the book.

Muggeridge also says that feminist scholars have taught me that logic and coherence in history are completely imposed by historians. In fact a huge section of the book is dedicated to showing how and why I completely disagree with everything about postmodernism. Did he read these last three chapters?

When Muggeridge finally gets around to the book's arguments in paragraph seven, it is mostly to repeat that I say history is gone. By paragraph eight he quotes a sentence from the book on page seven! As for why history vanished, he obscurely tosses in one of my arguments. As for what I say about what has crowded out history (i.e., the development of sociology) and what history's chances are of being revived, nothing.

Actually, if he had bothered to show readers anything significant about the book itself, he would have noticed my great indebtedness to my old teacher, George Grant. In short, he would have shown readers the considerable Red Toryism in my work. But no, that would have interrupted the rant about Pol Pot and murder. And of course maybe even Red Toryism is worth only a rant to this man.

Frankly, a Books in Canada that would even print such a shoddy review is not in the tradition of the Books in Canada I used to know. Yes, they got dull, but never this irresponsible.

Bob Davis

North York, Ont.

Gregor Robinson

If your reviewer Nikki Abraham ("Better Off in the Ether", March 1998) wants "to be confirmed in [her] belief that we inhabit a moral universe", perhaps she should read the Bible and not literary fiction written at the end of the twentieth century. Her comment that the characters in Gregor Robinson's The Dream King "seem not to grasp the concepts of right and wrong and the human capacity to choose between good and evil" reminds me of what a reviewer once said of Eric McCormack's work: "murder and deformity are treated like everyday occurrences." Well, they are everyday occurrences! And if the twentieth century can be said to have a theme, surely the difficulty of choosing between good and evil must dominate. Robinson's work deserved a more subtle reading. As Margaret Laurence is quoted later in your March issue: the writer's task is "[to show] the ways in which people continue to damage one another."

Michael Bryson


I don't know Gregor Robinson and I haven't read his work, so it may seem strange for me to be writing a letter of objection to Nikki Abraham's review of his first story collection, The Dream King, but the review contains declarations of such startlingly small-minded prejudice I felt compelled to respond. Ms. Abraham tells us that she didn't "get" most of the stories, which caused her to question her criteria of what makes good literature in general. We then learn that what she primarily requires from stories is "to be confirmed in my belief that we inhabit a moral universe; that it matters that we try to do the right thing." This is bad news for Mr. Robinson, whose protagonists are "capable of callousness, passivity, murderous rage, or casual evil". Her earnest search for evidence of goodness in others could uncover "only one instance of unselfish, loving behaviour" in the entire book. Oh dear! Ms. Abraham will not have it. "This is difficult to look upon," she swoons.

What's troubling is how widely accepted the sort of critical prejudices announced by Ms. Abraham are. Like a self-help junkie who seeks to reduce reading to a form of therapy, she craves betterment, affirmation, and comfort. While these may be nice side effects to the serious reading experience, they're surely not the only way to determine literary quality. In fact, to bring such "moral" preconditions to texts that seek to challenge those very expectations denies in advance the possibility of pushing stories beyond mere lesson-teaching and into the kind of ethical experiments of which fiction is uniquely capable. Although undoubtedly numerous, those who read literature seeking only the same wash of warm fuzziness as Ms. Abraham threaten society far more through their limited imaginations that Gregor Robinson's amoral characters.

To recover from the terrible discomforts caused by The Dream King's void, may I suggest that Ms. Abraham turn to TV's Barney, the purple dinosaur that loves everyone and, like her, is very secure in his "concepts of right and wrong".

Andrew Pyper


Champlain College

Trent University

Peterborough, Ont.


Does Books in Canada often invite known enemies of authors to review the biographies of those same authors? I would be interested in knowing how your reviewers get selected. Would you dare to select a known foe of Margaret Atwood as a reviewer for an Atwood biography? Would you then print a review of an Atwood biography that started with the words "Margaret Atwood lies"? Would any other writer or scholar of renown receive such disgraceful treatment in your "respectable" publication? The only value of R. A. Harris's otherwise worthless review is its use in making such a comparison.

Nick Bludov

Markham, Ont.


In Phil Jenkins's excellent review of Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt, he writes that Newfoundland "is.the obvious choice" for the transmission of the emotion of poverty. Mr. Jenkins mentions writers Kenneth Harvey and Howard Norman. I'm familiar with Ken Harvey's work but I've never heard of Howard Norman.

I'd like to recommend Bernice Morgan's splendid novel Random Passage and its sequel Waiting for Time (Breakwater 1992 and 1994). Unfortunately those two evocative and empathetic novels are not international bestsellers. Pity.

Helen Fogwill Porter

St. John's, Newfoundland

Leicas & Noun Clusters

About your November, 1997 issue:

1) despite what the review on page 27 says, the original 35mm Leica, the one introduced after the First World War, was not a single lens reflex (the SLR Leicas appeared after the Second World War) and the 4x5 inch Speed Graphic (not Graflex) generally used sheet film, and not glass plates. Of course the much smaller Leica proved more convenient, but news photographers routinely used Speed Graphics in "stressful situations" for many years; I have used the original Leica, the 4x5 Speed Graphic, and the Graflex (a single lens reflex camera) myself.

2) despite what the review of Guide to Canadian English Usage says on page 24, such noun clusters as "visual arts editor Blake Gopnik" remain an often-used and useful part of both spoken and written English.

To see why, try to write or speak without using such clusters, as in translating "a 1968 Ford Six main bearing cap bolt washer" to "the washer of the bolt on the main bearing cap of a 1968 Ford Six".fifteen words instead of nine, even when both "main bearing cap" and "1968 Ford Six" remain clusters. As reading bilingual cereal boxes will show, these clusters often let English use fewer words than French does to convey the same information.

Until accurate structural grammars become generally used in our schools, the traditional grammar will continue to cause many of the confusions its advocates deplore. Disliking something someone writes or says does not mean that no one can (or should) use those words or sentence structures. Popularity gives us no guarantees of accuracy, clarity, or grammatical acceptability; inaccurate descriptions tend to give us unsuccessful prescriptions.

Robert Ian Scott


Professor Scott's example of useful front-end loading does not amount to an argument for "visual arts editor Blake Gopnik". He offers no example from spoken English; his bolt-washer specimen belongs to technical language. This compression would doubtless be useful to automobile experts. But the fifteen words he deplores tell me (doubtless an ignoramus) what they mean, by communicating the relationship between the nouns. The nine-word cluster he favours sounds like the title of a Prussian bureaucrat in the bad old days. To my mind, bilingual cereal boxes show the virtue of French in resistance to ugly distortions.

Brevity is no "guarantee" of clarity, to borrow a mode of argument from Professor Scott. On the contrary, as the old saying goes, Brevis vult, obscurus fiat: he wants to be short, he becomes obscure.

Professor Scott seems to demand iron-clad reliability, and will have no truck with principles that promise less. But though bolt washers may reasonably come with guarantees, prose for good or ill does not. One way or another, readers don't get their money back.

I note that Professor Scott does not include grace or elegance among the virtues he acknowledges: accuracy, clarity, and grammatical acceptability. He thinks that this dispute is a matter of "disliking" and "popularity". So I am led to suspect that he dismisses many of the qualities of good prose because he thinks aesthetic qualities are merely subjective. But even if these virtues were only in the ears of human beings, prose-writers should concern themselves with the supposedly subjective experience of readers, and indeed listeners. This apparently narrow debate has much to do with the large and difficult question of the relation between spoken and written speech. It has little to do with tradition or "traditional grammar".-G.O.


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