Post Your Opinion
Author And Critic
by Matt Cohen

SCENE ONE: A blank page, anywhere, any time.

"It's the damn whiteness," Hemingway is reported to have complained, but perhaps he only meant the snow during his stint at the Toronto Star. But the concept of the blank page fascinates. Where he has any, the prestige of the writer derives from the notion that ?? artistically, financially, culturally ?? he faces the abyss every time he sits down to compose.

On the other hand, it might equally be claimed that the idea of the heroic writer facing the blank page is no more than a myth ?? writers seeing themselves as cowboys or space heroes riding off into the great unknown ?? and that in reality all imaginative literature is predetermined by the writer's gender, psychological topography, conscious or unconscious internal agendas, social and political class, race, and country, and by literary genre, historical reality, etc., etc. Critics in particular like to hold this view; it assists them in their labelling and classification of whatever the writer writes.

Thus, for the critic, the blank tablet of infinite possibilities onto which the writer scribbles his creation does not exist. There is only the dilemma he himself confronts when deciding which of many possible literary?critical theories or strategies to apply to the material at hand.

Writers, for obvious reasons, tend to find this quite appalling.

SCENE TWO: The Great Wall Restaurant, Toronto, January 1988.

It was a cold and greasy day. Inside the Great Wall Restaurant I was explaining the above theory to a certain D. Lee. With the passing of time my theory had become a little tainted; now it emerged as a statement that critics, jealous of writers' (unjustified) hogging of the limelight, had invented modem criticism in order to have an excuse to replace the original texts with their own.

D. Lee, who long ago edited a masterpiece that was later drowned in a warehouse fire ?? of which we'll speak later ?? as well as many other excellent books by numerous authors, nodded sagely as I explicated. He was eating chow mein noodles; mine were Shanghai.

"My problem is," I explained, "that I have to refine my theory in order to deliver it as a speech to a group of critics."
"Did I ever tell you the one about Franz Kafka?' Lee asked, rather typically.
"Do you think they'll be offended?"
"It was when he was still living with his parents."
"Did I tell you that I read somewhere, the other day, that it's been definitely proven that deconstructionism is Nazi propaganda?"
"Among his intimates, Kafka was famous for his love of picnics."
"I know a French psychoanalyst. Maybe I'll tell her my theory."
"Are you sure you haven't heard this?"

In fact I hadn't, so while the noodles unwound, D. Lee told me the famous Franz Kafka elephant joke: the one where Kafka wakes up to discover that overnight he has been transformed into a raging bull elephant. Of course to some people this might be a welcome development, but for Franz Kafka ?? given his love of picnics and the small size of the family vehicle ?? his metamorphosis into an elephant was entirely unwanted: trapped in his bedroom he gazed imploringly at the vase of anemones to which he prayed morning and evening for inner strength and inspiration to carry out the task that literary history had thrust on him. The vase, in fact was a family heirloom on the maternal side ?? but it's a long story ?? it lasted for half a dish of Shanghai noodles and a whole pot of tea. When the joke was finished, D. Lee looked around the restaurant. Everyone had left. I had the sudden insight that just as book critics reduce the text to the blank page so do cigar?smokers reduce restaurants to empty rooms.

On the other hand ?? from the critic's point of view ?? no doubt the authorcritic symbiosis is equally burdensome. "Mirror, mirror on the wall..." might begin the weary critic's appraisal of what authors want from them. In Canada the situation is especially acute. Feminist critics, nationalist critics, regional critics, postmodernist critics, thematic critics, semiotic?etc.?etc. critics ?each and every critic is under pressure to be a mirror reflecting the genius of his chosen few. And this pressure is far from abstract. Since Canada is a small country, filled with conferences, lectures, interviews, readings, booklaunches, creative?writing seminars, and so on, critical judgements usually take place not in a philosophical empty room but between people who know each other (or will soon). The politics of friendship, university English departments, geography, political, or gender groupings, shared publishers, and/or agents would require a computerized

Machiavelli to untangle. In a country as literarily inbred as ours, where authors, critics, and readers often seem to form a single and very tiny club (even if it is against their will), the critic who can take a truly unbiased, original tack is almost as rare as the mythical blank page.

SCENE 11MEE: The Red Lion, Toronto, 1972.

The old Red Lion, recently nonexistent but now reincarnated, used to be on Jarvis Street, within a bottle's throw of the CBC building. You could sit outside, with five lanes of traffic flowing by and the afternoon sun beating down. You had to drink fast in order to bear it.

One afternoon I was at the Red Lion after visiting my publisher, Anansi Press, then located beside the tavern. We had been discussing publication of my then forthcoming Columbus and The

Fat Lady, a collection of short stories that would sell 324 copies in its first year, after, but not because of, being labelled by writer?critic Rudy Wiebe as an excellent example of why the Canada Council should go out of business. Fortunately the future was unknown to me, and in a cheery mood, I went to join a few other writers in the garden of the Red Lion. One of these was a man I hadn't met, Harold ("Sonny") Ladoo. After we'd exchanged a few compliments and emptied a couple of pitchers, Ladoo looked at me, as though I had just arrived, and said, "I have always wanted to meet the man who wrote Korsoniloff." This was a reference to my first novel, a book destined for the remainder tables until ?? possibly sensing the disgraceful implications ?? a heroic fireman put it out of its misery by drowning it during a warehouse fire.

"Why?" I asked.

"Because," Ladoo said, and then added, "What do you think?"

Ladoo, an immensely gifted and selfconsuming man, then made it clear that he had decided (or wished to pretend he had decided) that my first novel was an icon of Western literature. No one else had ever thought this (nor have they since), so I invested in another pitcher of beer. A couple of hours later, when rush?hour traffic had flattened us, we parted.

During these hours I ?? cast in the role of elder statesman for the first time in my life ?? had tried to warn Ladoo of the perils of literary life in Canada. To all my warnings he was completely indifferent, for which I admired him, but he was interested in fame and fortune. These he saw as quasi?Platonic states, extraworldly spheres of existence to which novels did or did not belong by virtue of their inner qualities. The exhilarating implication was, of course, that human critics had no role to play in the process of elevation.

SCENE FOUR: 354 Jarvis Street, Toronto, summer 1969.

On the afternoon in question I was one of a group of writers invited to appear at a certain CBC studio. There we were to meet an eminent critic, who ?? in our presence ?? was going to tape a book programme discussing several first novels, of which we were the authors.

The fact that five first novels were being published simultaneously was supposed to be a signal event, in cultural if not literary terms. But I was not thinking of the future of Canadian fiction; in my mind were the wonderful stories about American writers whose reputations and fortunes had been made on publication day of their first book.

Of course I considered myself to be without illusion. I was willing to settle for a modest sale ?10,000 to 50,000 copies ?? and a black?and?white movie starring Peter O'Toole and Faye Dunaway.

Those who had read my novel (my editor and my fellow first?novelists) thought it was terrific, with certain serious reservations. I didn't mind these reservations. I had similar ones about their work. Nonetheless, we recognized in each other an extraordinary group.

Much anticipation had preceded this day. And on the day itself I found myself unbearably nervous. Ever since the process of editing and publishing had begun, I had been counting on this book to extricate me from a difficult situation: although I had reached my mid?20s, I had thought of nothing interesting to do during the daytime hours. Further, although it was short and flawed, my novel had not been easy to write. Almost two years for a hundred pages, and before those years, five of being unable to complete even a short story.

The idea was that the writers would occupy three sides of the table while the critic, William French, sat at the head and faced us all.

We all shook hands. William French looked terrifying. He was reputedly just back from a year at Harvard, and in addition to wearing a blazer and tie, he had a cigarette sticking out of his mouth. Under his arm was a thick file bulging with papers. When introduced to us he shook our hands and said ?? ominously, I thought, "Gentlemen." The other writers there included Peter Such, John Sandman and Russell Marois. A fifth book, by Quebec author Pierre Gravel, was also to be reviewed, but Gravel wasn't present.

After the introduction, French sat down and spread out his papers on the green velvet. To one side of his papers was a little stack of thin volumes. We, too, had been given copies of our books to hold. I remember thinking that the shiny plasticized covers all seemed to be streaked with moisture from sweating palms. The producer explained that William French would first read his review of our books, and then ask us what we thought of his critique. I was reminded of an English teacher I'd had in grade 10, a locally renowned musician who liked to hand back exams in (descending) order of the grades awarded. A friend received 59 per cent on the Christmas exam and was so humiliated by the public display that between then and the Easter exam he got up every morning at 6 a.m. to study English. On the Easter exam he improved to 60 per cent. Watching him suffer, I almost forgot about my own exam paper, which came back last, judged unworthy of marking because of faulty penmanship.

First, William French read out the review of the book he had liked. His favourite was that of the absent writer. Then he read out the reviews of the books he liked a little. Then he read out his review of my book and one other. "Mirror, mirror on the wall ...?"

SCENE FIVE: The Red Lion, 1972 (later on the afternoon described in scene three)

As rush hour approaches,, Ladoo admits he is, after all, nervous about the forthcoming publication of his first novel, No Pain Like This Body. Seeing him so eager, so intense, so wanting to explode, I decide not to tell him about the radio programme and William French.

SCENE Six: A parked car, 1983

Once, I agreed to be on a literary jury. As the man recruiting the jury said, "We want two of the judges to be writers," the implication being that writers, always complaining about the prejudice of critics, had a duty to show they could do better. Among the entries were some by people I knew. More than a year after the contest, I had dinner with one of the nonwinners. A person whose writing ?? with the exception of the contest entry ?? I much admire. After a pleasant evening he drove me home. When we arrived he turned off the motor and asked me why he hadn't won the contest. My first thought was to open the door and run away. But that would have been the path of cowardice. My second thought was to blame the other judges. But that would have been the path of wisdom. My third thought was to resolve never again to be on a jury that could lead me to a parked?car situation. Because, in my heart, I knew my nonwinning colleague was in the right. He had worked hard on his book and he wanted it to be recognized. Read from a certain point of view, his point of view, his book was a novel of tremendous energy and wit. And his point of view, I had to agree, was to be preferred over mine because whereas he, full of energy and hope, had written the book, 1, full of nothing but the need to eliminate the required number of entries, had merely read it.

SCENE SEVEN: The Sorbonne, Paris, February 1988

I was sitting at the head of a long rectangular table. On three sides of me were critics. They were assembled as part of a colloquium on the short story in English, the very event for which I had been polishing my theory on the blank page. Just before my own speech, a young French academic, using as text a Chesterton short story, delivered a humorous analysis entitled: "Le mystere de I'Anglicite." At the back of the room was my friend, the French psychoanalyst, and Eke the patient who dreams according to the theory of his therapist, I found myself wondering if all my thoughts about critics were in fact mere analogues of my dislike of authoritarian public? school teachers, especially a certain Mrs. Hyde, who had tried to teach me penmanship and subsequently starred in several years of waking nightmares. But, I reassured myself, such a theory was ridiculous: what about those critic?hating writers who had not taken penmanship from Mrs. Hyde?

The night before, possibly because of jet lag, I had woken up at 4 a.m. and elaborated my theory of the blank page into a 20?minute discourse. While trying to decide whether to deliver it to the congress, I listened to myself being introduced.

"Mr. Cohen is the author of numerous works," my presenter noted, "including two early experimental novels, which placed him among the world's foremost authors in this field. Without further ado..." (And without saying what field she had in mind ...)

Seated at the critics' table, I was faced with the need for an instant choice among three possibilities: one was my speech on blankness, the second was an unpublished short story, and the third was a speech on literary nationalism I'd never dared to give. Without thinking, I found myself launched into my diatribe on blankness. Very quickly it became apparent that this was a great mistake.

I had always known it would be. Why hadn't my alleged friend, D. Lee, warned me of this when we were sitting at the Great Wall Restaurant? Surely such warnings are what an editor, even a former editor, can reasonably be expected to provide. The more I thought about this, the more ineptly I stumbled through my unreadably scrawled paper.

Finally, the obvious became obvious. D. Lee, in his way, possibly influenced by the restaurant, had answered me by indirection: i.e., his advice had been to reject direct discourse. Stopping my speech in the middle, I looked about the table. Yes, the faces were frozen. The pens and pencils were not scratching. Eyes were willing themselves not to look at watches ?? or at least not to be caught looking by a guest from another country. Even my psychoanalyst friend seemed to be conjuring up a couch so she could take a nap.

"To illustrate what I've been saying,

I recommenced, "let me tell you a story." The faces unfroze. The couch disappeared. The hands holding pens and pencils retreated to more comfortable locations. Eyes moved from avoiding watches to the obvious short story manuscript that I had obviously shoved aside.

I launched into the Kafka joke. I explained Franz's terrible dilemma. Also that his family had made a pact never to open his bedroom door, lest the mood be broken. But Franz wanted to get out! A picnic had been planned and Franz was eager to get to the countryside. Uselessly he rattled the doorknob with his trunk. He stamped around the room. Finally, looking out the window, he saw his parents and two sisters climbing into the family vehicle. Franz, beside himself with frustration, smashed the window with his trunk. His parents and two sisters looked up. "There's an elephant in Franz's room!" they exclaimed in unison.

With this last touch, I had the critics' total and undivided attention. Pausing to let the giggles subside, I explained how the Kafka family ran upstairs and came to the door of Franz's room. "Franz," called Mr. Kafka. Franz bellowed. "Franz, I'm coming in," Mr. Kafka called. Then he opened the unlocked door and led his family into Franz's bedroom. Franz was nowhere to be seen.

"I've turned into elephant," Franz tried to say. Uselessly, because his mouth was incapable of speech. Also unnecessarily, because Franz, Sr., no fool ?? all things considered ?? had figured it out for himself!

"Franz has turned into an elephant, he said to Mrs. Kafka.

"Then do something," she retorted.

With that, Franz, Sr., strode to Franz's desk, picked up the vase of flowers, and threw them out of the broken window to the sidewalk, where the vase broke and the flowers lay scattered in disarray.

Mrs. Kafka, appalled, looked out the window at the shattered heirloom. "Why did you do that?"

"With Franz like this, who needs anemones?

IT SHOULD BE noted, for the record, that just the other day my psychoanalyst friend wrote to my wife saying how unexpected the speech had been, especially the joke with its punch fine that no one could understand.


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