The Second Macmillan Anthology

by John Metcalf And Leon Rooke
304 pages,
ISBN: 0771592027

Post Your Opinion
Hopeful Travellers
by Peter Buitenhuis

Thirty-seven Canadian writers contributed position papers' to The Second Macmillan Anthology in response to such questions as: Is the humanist tradition defunct? What is postmodernism? Why do you write? HOW TO GET to grips with this extraordinary smorgasbord - poetry, fiction, criticism, essays, autobiography, a symposium, questionnaire responses, a review? Sauve qui peut. I'll discuss only the things I loved and hated and leave the rest for the grazer - for this is an admirable grazing book, a bedside companion, both to amuse, and in some instances to put you to sleep.

The editorial principles, if any, have to be surmised by the reader, as there is no introduction. Metcalf and Rooke vigorously solicited and took what came. A few of the pieces have been printed before, but most of the contributions are fresh. On the whole, the work gives the reader a strong sense of the nature of the ongoing enterprise of, Canadian literature.

Fiction first, because that is undoubtedly the strongest part of the book. It begins well with a very short story, "Good Manners," by Carol Shields, in which, somehow, she manages to suggest the texture of a woman's whole life. Ibis is short story as synecdoche, writing in which the brilliance of the technique is never obvious. J. H. Hamilton tries to do the same thing in the next story here, called "Tulips," and it doesn't work. 'Me details are commonplace rather than significant and the drama is melodrama. In the modern short story, I believe, selection and understatement are all. That's why it's a treat to have two stories by Alice Munro, "Oranges and Apples," and "Oh, What Avails." How does she do it? After reading all her collections of stories, I still haven't figured it out: hers is the ultimate art of legerdemain. Munro's stories always appear to be random and indeterminate, mirroring what Henry James called "the strange irregular rhythm of life," and yet they always get to a predetermined, inevitable destination.

Included in the collection is work from four promising younger writers who attended the Banff Writing Workshop in 1988. 1 found the short story by Eliza Clark and the excerpt from the novel by Daniel Gagnon, a Quebecker, particularly effective. Gagnon has previously published only in French. In this epistolary novel - a young Quebec girl writing to a pen pal in Alberta - Gagnon effectively exploits the comic possibilities of a goofy teen-ager exploring her sexuality and the English language at the same time. Watch out for this writer.

For some reason, I can't become interested in speculative poetry. By that I mean speculation about ideas, assertions, or other (real) people. Don Coles, a good writer, for example, loses me when he writes poems about the thoughts of Edvard Munch, which appear to be mostly generated by a study of the paintings. How can we understand the creative process that produced that dark, terrifying work? To me, Coles's attempt to replicate that process in these poems seems strangely beside the point. Similarly, J. A. Hamilton's series called "Me America Poems," generated by trivia culled from Harper's magazine (similar to the junk that is placed at the back of the Globe and Mail business magazine: e.g., "Number of Americans currently frozen in the hope of one day coming back to life: 13"), does give rise to some quite amusing poems, but the idea soon wears thin.

When compared to these two groups of poems, the series by Al Purdy printed in the anthology seems far more authentic, even when he is using speculation as the basis for the work. The speculation, whether it be on "Herodotus of Halicarnassus," or prehistoric man in a poem called "Lok," is always intimately linked to the poet's own experience. 'Me lyric impulse is thus freed and articulated. Purdy's spare, laconic language, sometimes jewelled with exotic or mythical terms, works well in a surprising number of contexts, even in the familiar one of "In A Dry Season." Similarly Paulette Ales, in her series "A Tourist Excursion to the Badlands," not only travels hopefully but also arrives successfully at fully realized ideas and images. As in her previous work, travel becomes the source of metaphors for living that are often comic and absurd, but sometimes profound: many people have died to hold this place, they are still finding pieces of coin and horse in Medicine Tail Coulee. But this Is why we eat and keep up our strength; to cross into Montana, like people without papers, or reasons, without a fixed address, people at large, expendable, nomads, jingling with coins and horses, into the valley of the Little Big Horn thinking, we could have dinner there. We could win this time.

If I hadn't chanced to see Alberto Manguel while I was preparing this review, I would not have discovered that the discussion of Canadian writing published in this anthology, "Confounding the Dark," was not a panel discussion, as it is labelled, but a series of written responses to the questions, "where has Canadian writing gone and where is it going?" Such confusion is the consequence of an anthology without an introduction or linking explanations. This fact also explains the wild and unresolved contradictions that appear in the material sent in response to these questions by such luminaries as Manguel, George Woodcock, Linda Hutcheon, Douglas Fetherling, and Books in Canada's editor, Doris Cowan.

There is, however, some degree of consensus. In response to the question "What would you describe as the major changes in Canadian writing over recent years?" David Colbert compares the table of contents of the 1972 anthology Read Canadian: A Book About Canadian Books with what would be considered adequate for "reading Canadian" today. In 1972 there were only four women among the 24 contributors, and no contributions from minority cultures. Donna Bennett, Eleanor Wachtel, Irene McGuire, Linda Hutcheon, and Sam Solecki all agree that the emergence of other voices - of women, of ethnic minorities - and of what is termed by several the "internationalization", of Canadian literature has been the greatest, and healthiest, change. As Hutcheon perceptively writes,

The once ignorable "margins" have become the productive "fringe" 7-- and, of course, the fringe is the cultural space where exciting things have always happened.

On the other hand, Douglas Fetherling, Larry Scanlan, and Alberto Manguel emphasize various kinds of failures in recent developments - the proliferation of bad books, the lack of any decent critical response, the Americanizing of Canadian literature, and so on. George Woodcock celebrates the proliferation of Canadian books and publishing and the increase in "the restless variegation which is the sign of a mature literature." So it goes. The opinions bounce around and do not interact.

On the question, "Is there a discernible change in the audience for Canadian books?" - Doris Cowan responds: "Besides the slight increase in

the Canadian public's awareness of its writers, there is a much larger audience for Canadian writers outside Canada." Larry Scanlan observes, "Keath Fraser once told me that his audience would fit in the back seat of a Honda. He wasn't just being humble." Donna Bennett is pessimistic" David Colbert is optimistic about the prospect for Canadian books. I guess where you stand - in the classroom, the bookstore, the agency, workroom, the editor's office -, at least partly forms your opinion about the nature of and prospects for Can Lit. Obviously, the jury is still out.

There follows a series of position papers by 37 Canadian writers on the nature of their craft. Forty-three others were asked, but didn't contribute. Leon Rooke posed such questions to them as: "Is the humanist tradition largely defunct?" "What does postmodernism mean to you?" and "Why do you write?" The answers are as various as one would expect from a bunch of writers. A surprising number ignored the questions and wrote various versions of autobiog raphy as an indirect way of answering them. These turn out to be the most in teresting contributions of all. Clark Blaise says magnificently, "I am an archaeologist of the self' and goes on toexplain the centrality of his personal past. Strangely enough, Rudy Wiebeuses exactly the same metaphor: "I'm more archaeologist than inventor." P. K. Page contributes a poem on the subject "Why I write." The last line is: "because the unknown is writing me" - surely one of the most acute responses possible for a creative writer.

D. G. Jones confesses - much to my regret - that he is much too occupied with taxes, academic crises, lumber, and a septic tank to write any poetry. He adds that Milton's "Lycidas" led him to start writing which tells us something about his poetic style. Susan Musgrave also explains why she isn't writing: she has a six-year-old daughter. Rachel Wyatt relates her experience as an immigrant to Canada to her concern with displacement in her fiction. Linda Spalding recalls two-week summer vacations spent in her grandmother's house in Kansas City. Her grandmother left her alone, supplied her with paper, showed her by example how to be self-sufficient - and created a writer! Similarly, Jane Urquhart, left much to herself as a child, created fictional worlds with plastic cars and trucks in her sandbox, fell in love with language and became a writer.

A great deal of nonsense has been talked about postmodernism. In response to Rooke's question, some of it finds its way into this collection. Stephen Scobie goes out of his way to justify the jargon that is endemic to postmodern literary theory. "It seems to me very naive," he writes, for readers to suppose that an advanced discussion of a literary text would be any less difficult than an advanced discussion in nuclear physics or dentistry.

Not to put too fine a point on it - what a load of pernicious rubbish! Literature is not: thank God, either physics or dentistry. If a critic can't write about it in a way that can be understood by the educated layman, he ought to be in some other business, perhaps physics or dentistry. Carol Shields, on the other hand, is eminently sensible when she points out that - postmodernism seemed to offer a new perspective to writers but it proved to be too tendentious and labyrinthine to be useful. "Language," she writes, "which might have been liberated, instead shrivelled; we have seen how writers, overdosed on theory, became incomprehensible." W. P. Kinsella puts it more succinctly: The average book buyer does not give a flying fuck about the overwhelming influence of French theory on current critical writing, nor should he. . . Books should have an audience before they are published; the pretentious few can exchange pretentious correspondence.

As even this short summary should indicate, this section, on writers responding to questions about their work is full of interesting, even exciting, stuff. It alone is worth the price of the book. Further bonuses are a long, brilliant review of the past year's best writing by Smaro Kamboureli, and an essay by Louis Dudek, "Reflections on Failure," that is everything a literary essay should be, lucid, analytical, reflective, ironic, and yet strangely moving. "The life of the Canadian writer," he writes, "is one of a perpetual and deep-rooted sense of failure'. It has to be." He talks about the eternal gap between the projected and the actual work, and then about its reception. He quotes Joseph Heller's piercing observation: Success and failure are both difficult to endure. Along with success come drugs, divorce, fornication, bullying, travel, medication, depression, neurosis and suicide. With failure comes failure. The best advice then that Dudek can give any young writer is "Prepare for failure."


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