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The End of My Critical Career
The English Canadian literary scene contains two antagonistic parties, writers and critics, locked in a vicious northern embrace. The writers would probably say that critics are the ones who are armed and dangerous in this attempted assault, because they are the ones with the media outlets. Literary critics, like Terminators, destroy the hopes and dreams of writers who have struggled in their garrets for years.

For their part, the critics could claim with some justice that all the writers want is critical collusion in the marketing of their work. What writer does not believe herself to be a genius? After all, only strong ego can keep a writer going for the years it takes to produce a novel.

In Canada's tiny literary scene, certain characters are double agents, playing both sides of the game. I was one of them. For years I had been an occasional critic for newspapers, journals, and radio. Then my own novel was published by a small literary press. Since I had been a critic, I knew that the biggest hurdle a new book has is getting noticed. I knew the problem, but I did not know the solution.

At about the same time I was asked to interview visiting literary biographers for radio. In my capacity as interviewer/critic, I took a call from the publisher of Graham Greene's biographer, Michael Shelden.

"We're having a little reception for Mr. Shelden," she said, and named a good Toronto restaurant. "All the crème de la crème of the media will be there."

This is the kind of temptation that keeps a double agent double. Literary publishers take their writers out to doughnut shops, if at all. The vocabulary was seductive too, because no writers could ever stand to hear themselves praised with French phrases without the due application of a little irony. Critics are so used to being reviled that they have a weakness for flattery.

The dinner was to be an especially tricky assignment for me. Not only would I have to cut a suitably impressive figure as a media critic, my own novel was just out and everybody whom I wanted to review it would be in that room.

It was the chance of a lifetime, but the stakes were high. I would have to make sure that my name was repeated about a hundred times, so that when my novel came across the other critics' desks, they would recognize me and read the book. I was ready to fight tooth and claw for name brand recognition. It was enough to make a Darwinian smile.

The eatery looked like a nineteenth-century grand French restaurant with all the modern amenities. We had two private rooms, one for drinks and the other for dinner. Stranger shook hands, and gave their names and affiliations. All the big guns of the Canadian media were there. As more and more affiliations were named, my palms became sweaty. I ordered a Margarita from the waiter.

The drink came in a martini glass the size of a swimming pool. I almost needed two hands to hold it. It looked like a triple raised to the nth power. The size of the glass was making the wrong impression for this, the age of abstinence. I did the only thing I could to get rid of it. I drank the Margarita quickly.

My anxiety evaporated and seemed to take my good sense with it. I should have known I was tipsy when I started having a good time. Literary events are not about good times. They are about getting noticed, and occasionally, about revenge.

When dinner was announced, the guests fit into eight tables of eight each. I had enough reserve intelligence to realize that I'd better not try to be noticed in my present condition. Invisibility was preferable to making the wrong impression.

The duck was excellent and the wine superb. A waiter kept topping off the glass whenever it got low. I began to understand that things were going wrong when I reached for the salt. It was halfway across the table, and I watched in horror as my hand knocked over three glasses on the way to it. I apologized carefully, and kept my head low. But the food was very good. A woman arts editor to my right ate only the vegetables. It seemed a shame to let such good food go to waste. Brains were about to lose out to desire. I was ready to spear the duck and haul it over to my plate when the waiters appeared, cleared the dishes, and the next part of the program began.

Michael Shelden's biography of Graham Greene turned out to be a big hit because it went straight for the throat. It was the kind of biography that made Woody Allen's reputation look saintly. Shelden spoke before taking questions, laying out the alleged sins of Greene. These were many. He was supposed to be sexually voracious, mean-spirited, and perhaps a murderer as well. Very serious indeed. The audience was rapt with attention, but the wine had loosened me up, and I slouched back in my chair and locked my hands behind my head. All I needed to complete the picture of uncouth hayseed was a piece of grass between my teeth. The wine was frightfully good, and it did not stop coming throughout Shelden's speech.

Like a lawyer out to pulverize his opponent, Shelden finished with the major crimes and launched into the misdemeanours. Greene was a lush. He had a Spanish priest as a friend, and sometimes Greene would fly into Spain, rent a car, buy a couple of cases of wine, and then he and his priest friend would drink, drive, and talk until they were too loaded to go on. They might stop in a hotel, field, dry out, and start all over again.

Shelden was a masterful speaker, and it is difficult to convey how much the audience was wrapped up in his discourse. I myself had admired Greene for decades, and had looked upon him as a kind of literary saint. It was both revolting and fascinating to hear the accusations.

However, this last accusation did not seem to be of the same order as the first one. In the deathly silence after the Shelden's story, I could no longer stay silent.

"I don't know," I called out above the heads of the assembled media literary critics. "That last part about the wine sounds pretty good to me."

Sixty heads snapped around to look at me. Canada was in immediate danger of losing its literary criticism to mass whiplash. I had blown my cover.

I got funny looks the rest of that night. I did manage to scrounge a ride home from an arts reporter of a major newspaper, but by then I was badly in need of Alka Seltzer. Even though my head was clear, I was afraid that if I spoke, I might belch and so complete the self-portrait I had drawn that night.

As any good handler knows, double agents can not last long. The strain is too much. I have decided to return to the monastery of literature, give up public relations, and be a critic of books no more. I will write, as Annie Dillard, the Abbess of literary seriousness recommends, in a room with no view. I will block the channel with Imprint, and let my subscription to Books in Canada lapse.

And yet through all these resolution, I can not forget the memory of good wine and that half a duck which went back to the kitchen untasted. The temptations are very strong.


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