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Me And My Gang
by Brian Fawcett

THIS MORNING while I was lounging around my new office in the Golden Griddle at Toronto`s Davisville and Yonge streets, I got to musing about a column the Toronto Star book columnist Philip Marchand wrote about my October Books in Canada review of Margaret Atwood`s Wilderness Tips. What I had to say about the book was, as they say, favourable. I thought the book was wise, intelligent, and decent, and I went on to say that those same attributes can now be applied to Atwood herself. In a way; I was responding not just to the new book, but to the outbreak of "let`s-bash-Atwood" rancour that seems to be in the air these days. Predictably Wilderness Tips has since received a surprising number of unkind reviews across the country. Most of them were hawkish about the fact that some of the characters in Atwood`s stories resemble recognizable Canadian cultural figures -Robert Fulford, Barbara Frum, Timothy Findley, and various others. My more wild-eyed informants claim that Conrad Black, Peter Jennings, and a host of others have been parodied. Is Leonard Cohen hiding disguised by a pair of glasses and slight alteration of dress-style and occupation? Might the heroine of "Hairball" be Sheila Copps, or is it CTV`s Ms. Renaldo, and if so, which august Toronto couple was the victim of her somewhat strange sense of humour? Ignoring the fact that most of these reviews flout the well-known truism that the sources of fiction are less important than the fictional figures and their actions (this is the distinction between Life and Art, folks), there is something very smelly going on here. All this concern over the privacy of literary celebrities strikes me as being better evidence of how far the air-headed Entertainment Tonight universe has penetrated our collective consciousness than it is of any serious critical objections to Atwood`s story-building skills or her discretion. The reviewers seem alternately insulted at what they see as an invasion of privacy and disappointed that they weren`t themselves targeted for the alleged invasions. It`s worth noting that the rancour seems to be spreading beyond literary circles. This morning on the radio, I heard a recording by a Vancouver group called the Sarcastic Mannequins that suggested Atwood has a Canadian flag tattooed on her posterior, and that the Mannequins - the lead singer, anyway - wanted to commit certain indignities upon the flag or Atwood. It`s a scary, bewildering phenomenon. Marchand`s comments were considerably more careful than most. He expressed surprise that I had "declared personal fealty` to Atwood, and went on to suggest that perhaps both Atwood and Wilderness Tips might be overrated. It`s both inappropriate and impolite to reargue my evaluation of Atwood and Wilderness Tips here, but I think the crack about declaring "personal fealty` to Atwood is a bit unjust. In a country famed for its critical bootlicking, my tongue is a perfect shade of pink. If I say one nice thing about Margaret Atwood, does that somehow mean I`m on bended knee to the whole senile pantheon of CanLit? Not bloody likely. I still wish that Professor Davies would drop the phoney British accent and give up trying to convince us that Englishdepartment hallway witticisms are the limits of discourse. I remain convinced that Irving Layton suffers from a surfeit of (as Marchand notes) bombast, I still think that Alice Munro is an antiquarian miniaturist, that John Metcalf should stop trying to convince us of the virtues of Capitalist High Culture (there is no such thing), and that Alberto Manguel and Michael Ignatieff have impeccable taste and sensibilities but, well, arerit novelists. After I reread Marchand - he`s normally Canadas most thoughtful literary critic and may just have been having a bad day (he also called Survival a novel) - I hung around for a while waiting for Graeme Gibson to walk in, tap me on the shoulder with the CanLit Excalibur, and rename me Sir Brian of Atwood ...until I realized that both Gibson and Atwood are in France for a year, being Euro-fashionable. When I was sure Graeme wasrit going to show, I started thinking about just exactly where my loyalties do lie, and whom, if I were into the practice, I would bend my knee to. Well, let`s start with the novelists Susan Swan and Barbara Gowdy, who have as much literary courage and sense of the present Canadian dilemma (and comedy) as Saturday Night`s entire raft of contributing editors put togethereven though it includes Atwood. Then there are creative documentarists like Myrna Kostash, Susan Crean, and Merrily Weisbord, who are trying to loosen the ossified boundary between literary fiction and fact-based writing. I`d go the whole nine yards for the work of David McFadden, T E Rigelhof, Stephen Vizinczey, or Stan Persky, who is this country`s clearest and mast unorthodox critical thinker. How about Peter Cully, Clifton Joseph, and Sheri-D Wilson, who are young enough to have figured out that poetry must have more intelligence and performance panache than we`re seeing if it is going to survive as a viable art form? What about Douglas Coupland, whose extraordinarily witty and entertaining Generation X is probably the most interesting book to come out of this country in several years, but who couldrit even get a Canadian publisher for it? I`d want all these people in my gang - if I wanted to be a gang member. I like Margaret Atwood, and it disturbs me that so many people are envious of her achievements and her skills. It`s fun to bash people for being silly or ostentatious, but right now, she doesn`t qualify on either ground. Marchand, I suspect, feels that she`s "overexposed" that we`re seeing too much of her. I`m not sure if that is the case, particularly if we stand her up against Brian Mulroney, Kim Campbell, Michael Wilson, and the rest of the 85 people Rick Salutin reckons make up the media population of Canada. When I consider that group and their overexposure, I realize how absolutely I meant it when I said that I`d vote for Atwood if she ran for prime minister. But what I also meant by that remark, and by several other respectful judgements I made, had a much more sober side to it. I was saying that Margaret Atwood is the only member of her generation of writers who could not justifiably be asked "How does it feel to have been an important writer?" Meanwhile, I`m afraid that "fealty" just isn`t part of my operating vocabulary. We need a Canadian culture that puts an end to feudalism, no matter how seductive its form.

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