Best Canadian Essays 1990

by Douglas Fetherling
322 pages,
ISBN: 0920079636

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Assaying The Essay
by Geoff Hancock

THE SECOND APPEARANCE of this annual anthology strives for a wholly balanced view of Canadian magazine culture. The intentions of the editor, Douglas Fetherling, are sound and his selections wide ranging, but various contradictory criteria are called upon; as a result, the book lacks a coherent central aesthetic. The aim of Best Canadian Essays 1990, to use Roland Barthes`s words, is to be interesting but not notable. It sits there, non-partisan, a cautious gathering of all possible viewpoints, neither innovative nor progressive. The anthology does contain some fine examples of skilled journalism from John Mills, George Woodcock, and Michael Ignatieff. A successful magazine piece, however, is not necessarily a great essay. Too many pieces here feel like feature articles bereft of their sidebars, artwork, and ads. Fetherling claims his selections are "meta-reportorial" because they take "a deeper bite" than journalism usually does. But here "deeper" may merely mean essays several thousand words in length. A good writer clarifies complex subjects. Anne Collins`s "Trial by CSIS" is a fascinating and clear account of intrigue and dirty play by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, the RCMP, and people suspected of treason. Paul Wilson`s brilliant "Growing Up with Orwell," a memoir of Czechoslovakia, is a personal confrontation with language, censorship, ideology, and autobiography. Paul Dutton`s "The Broken Thread: Ariadne in the Works of R. Murray Schafer" is a profound meditation on the Jungian symbolism of sound; I`ve read Dutton`s other essays on composers, and serious publishers should scramble for a collection. The poet Maggie Helwig grows in strength with every publication: her piece "Hunger" is a startling and moving essay on her eight-year bout with anorexia. Canada appears to have missed a stage in the evolution of prose. There`s no Gonzo journalism here: no Lester Bangs, no Hunter S. Thompson, no Nora Ephron, no Tom Wolfe, no one contending with the textuality of the writing, no one really stretching the possibilities of prose. Fetherling opts for the traditional essay style from periodicals as varied as Descant, The Idler, Saturday Night, Fuse, This Magazine, event, and Vanity Fair. For the inspiration behind the anthology, he cites a 1958 textbook, Leslie Fiedler`s The Art of the Essay (second edition 1969). Had Fetherling looked ahead a few years, he would see that Fiedler`s essay "The New Mutants" spoke for madness, incoherence, disorder, and psychotic inner space, best exemplified by the works of William Burroughs. It`s even more disturbing to me that Fetherling approves a long quotation from the right-wing conservative writer Norman Podhoretz -- it raises questions about the book`s underlying premise. The conservative Right softened the ground for the neo-conservative America of Reagan and the Tories in Canada, politics that made liberal a dirty name. The rightwing writers undercut the achievements of the `60s Left in establishing the rights of blacks, women, gays, and artists. A conservative streak runs through the essay selections: nothing radical, outrageous, dangerous. Nothing on sexual politics, on censorship, on the breaking of boundaries, on pulling labels apart. No movie reviews, no book reviews, no art criticism, nothing that questions the barriers between mass, pop, or low culture. The dominant mood does not challenge form or content or canon. One would think Canada had not a single punk, gay, rock and roller, or deconstructionist. Best Canadian Essays 1990 is also a white book, though some fine essays have been written by Marlene Nourbese Philip (Fuse), Ven Begamudre (Freelance), Daniel David Moses (what), and Himani Bannerji (Tiger Lily). To present these essays as the "best" shortchanges the role and purpose of Canada`s non-fiction writers

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