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Taste of a Good and Eccentric Sort
by Michael Darling

In a tribute to John Metcalf published several years ago in The New Quarterly, Leon Rooke admitted that he was particularly impressed by Metcalf's refusal to wear shoes without laces. "A gentleman," wrote Rooke, "does not wear such shoes." Taste¨"of a good and eccentric sort," to borrow Rooke's phrase¨is what characterizes Metcalf's approach to life and literature. It is the exercise of his taste¨good or, in the opinion of the academic establishment, decidedly eccentric¨that has made Metcalf one of the best editors of fiction we have had and, without a doubt, our most outspoken and controversial critic. Who else has dared to say that "most Canadian writing up until about 1950 is rubbish"? Who else has felt it necessary to say so?
Those who find Metcalf's iconoclasm offensive tend to describe him dismissively, as does the new Encyclopedia of Literature in Canada, as "the British Canadian critic John Metcalf," as if Britishness were some sort of congenital disease that forty years' residence in Canada has done little to ameliorate. But in that time¨the years in exile, perhaps?¨he has compiled some 30 anthologies of Canadian¨not British¨fiction, and edited for the Porcupine's Quill Press another 100 volumes¨all by Canadian writers. So the question remains: if John Metcalf's life has not been devoted to the cause of Canadian fiction, then whose has?
It's probably necessary to point out, however, that when we talk about fiction in connection with Metcalf, we are talking about "short" fiction. It is his contention that the best writers in Canada are those who work mainly in the genre of the short story¨Alice Munro, Mavis Gallant, Leon Rooke, Norman Levine, Clark Blaise, Hugh Hood, Ray Smith. And Metcalf is as aware as anyone that a badly-written, extravagantly-hyped novel will bring a young writer far more attention, income, prizes, and so on, than the finest-crafted collection of short stories. Case in point: Dennis Bock's The Ash Garden, a much-praised first novel that is vastly inferior to his collection of short stories, Olympia. By choosing to devote his talents as a writer and editor almost exclusively to the short story, Metcalf has ensured that he will always be part of "an aesthetic underground"¨ the aptly-chosen title of his memoir, published this spring by Thomas Allen. Harold Bloom is the source of the phrase:

"Every teaching institution will have its department of cultural studies, an ox not to be gored, and an aesthetic underground will flourish, restoring something of the romance of reading."

Clearly, Metcalf has always relished the guerrilla tactics of the literary underground, delightedly sniping at cultural nationalists, literary theorists, feminists, Marxists, the trendy, the overpraised, and the stolidly bovine:
"The Canada Council is the cultural counterpart to Meals on Wheels."

"The activities of a Northrop Frye, for example, strike me as being of about the same level of fascination and usefulness as the contrivance of giant-size crossword puzzles."

"What books do Canadians hold in their hearts? What are the books that all Canadians have read and loved? What books from the Canadian past live on with us? What, simply put, are our books? Wacousta?"

Perhaps only a teacher who has struggled to ignore the sheer awfulness of that aforementioned novel while promoting it as a significant contribution to the Canadian tradition in fiction can appreciate how the very word Wacousta sends shivers down the spine.
Unsurprisingly, Metcalf's loathing of nineteenth-century Canadiana is not appreciated by those academics who claim to trace a continuous line of development from the pioneer sketch to the formal complexity of a Gallant or a Munro. A particularly fatuous argument describing Munro as a regional writer drew the following riposte from Metcalf: "This vision of a 'regional' Alice Munro daubed with sheepshit and with vagrant straws sticking out of her hair . . . is certainly not the Alice Munro I know." Munro herself has said that she thinks of John Metcalf as "somebody sitting out there not being fooled," which is probably as fine a tribute as anyone could wish.
Unlike most who have set themselves up as critics of Canadian literature, Metcalf writes for the common reader. His judgments may seem less than generous, but his arguments are always supported by quotations from the primary sources and by research of an unexpectedly thorough kind. The classic example is his long essay on the reception of Duncan Campbell Scott's In the Village of Viger, a collection of tales regarded by many literary historians as a seminal work in the development of the Canadian short story. With the assistance of rare book dealers, Metcalf showed that the book could have sold scarcely more than a few hundred copies through most of the twentieth century, and thus simply wasn't read, much less revered. He then decided on a unique course of action to determine the extent of Scott's alleged influence on contemporary writers.

Having become intrigued by the sheer nerve of the "story cycle" invention and knowing most of the writers for whom Scott is supposed to have been a "precursor," I decided to phone them all and ask them without prior conversation if they'd ever read In the Village of Viger. Hugh Hood, Alice Munro, Sandra Birdsell, Edna Alford, W.P. Kinsella, George Elliott, and Jack Hodgins. Of these seven writers cited as being in the tradition, not a single one had read the book. Not a single one had heard of it.
As neat a demolition job as anyone could hope to achieve, you might have thought. Unfazed, however, was Professor Gerald Lynch of the University of Ottawa, whose English Department has been described by Metcalf (a long-time Ottawa resident, incidentally) as "a gathering of soured accountants." In his recent book, The One and the Many: English-Canadian Short Story Cycles, Lynch dismisses Metcalf's argument as "naive and anxious," as opposed to his own preference for the concept of "genre memory," which suggests that writers may be influenced by works even if they've never heard of them. It's hard to argue with that kind of logic.
When Metcalf asks the question What Is A Canadian Literature? (the title of his book-length essay published in 1988), he means by "literature" a dynamic relationship between books and their readers, a relationship in which value is accorded to books on the basis of aesthetic rather than thematic criteria. And he expects us to derive our aesthetic standards from the best international writers. Evaluative judgments should be based on an understanding of technique, an appreciation of elegance and formal innovation. The best works of Canadian Literature, then, aren't necessarily (Metcalf would probably say almost never) those works that teach us what it is to be a Canadian. A novel set in Bombay or Lima might be a more lasting addition to the canon than one set in Moose Jaw or Manotick. Forget about setting. Or plot or characterization or theme. "All that I want to remember," says Metcalf, "is the way a writer writes." He often quotes Cyril Connolly on the appreciation of style: "An expert should be able to tell a carpet by one skein of it; a vintage by rinsing a glassful round his mouth." And he brings to his criticism of fiction the equivalent of a carpenter's knowledge of wood. Read, for example, his essay on Alice Munro's "Walker Brothers Cowboy" (reprinted in Freedom from Culture, 1994), possibly the most insightful piece on Munro ever written.
And despite the curmudgeonly image, Metcalf is widely praised for his generosity and kindness towards young writers. Many of the best young fiction writers have had their first manuscripts carefully nurtured by Metcalf in his role as Senior Editor for the Porcupine's Quill Press. The list includes Terry Griggs, Caroline Adderson, Russell Smith, K.D. Miller, Steven Heighton, Elise Levine, Mary Borsky, Andrew Pyper, Mike Barnes, Annabel Lyon, Michael Winter, and Sandra Sabatini. To see how much space he devotes in his memoir to promoting the work of other writers is to realize that Metcalf views the writer's life as one of engagement with rather than withdrawal from the culture. Taking nothing away from our respected senior writers, it's nevertheless the accepted norm that a writer should publish, tour, and then return to private life. Metcalf, on the other hand, regards the "fierce vocation" of the writer's life as demanding more than the steady appearance of his own work. His role, as he sees it, is to shape both the literature of the past, by a relentless, sometimes vicious pruning of the deadwood, and the literature of the future, by means of instruction and encouragement of the best writers he can find. As a collector, he has put together the most complete collection of modern Canadian short fiction ever assembled, which was recently purchased by McGill University, and as the editor of Canadian Notes and Queries, he has provided a forum outside of the academic journals for controversial reviews and criticism.
All this, it must be admitted, comes at a cost. Metcalf's own fiction has, in recent years, been shunted to the back burner. His last collection of new work, Adult Entertainment, appeared in 1986. That's a long hiatus for any creative artist, and some would hazard the opinion that a new story by John Metcalf would be worth any number of first books by younger writers. But a reading of An Aesthetic Underground confirms that Metcalf sees his fiction and his non-fiction as the expression of the same sensibility. And it's almost impossible not to view Robert Forde, the protagonist of his most recent novellas, "Travelling Northward" and "Forde Abroad", as Metcalf's surrogate, a mouthpiece for some of his creator's perceptions of literature and the literary life. Forde's determination to visit the little town of North Portage, nurturing a spark of culture in one of the dark places of the earth, suggests something of the missionary zeal of Metcalf the editor and polemicist.
"The idea," he said, "the idea that there's this tiny town somewhere up there. Remote. Isolated from everything that's going on. God knows what they do up there. Lumber, let's say. Fishing. Mining something, maybe.
. . . . . . . . . . .
"There's a pizza joint run by a Greek and a Builder's Supplies yard and a weird store that sells Royal Doulton figurines and tartan scarves in cellophane boxes. Next to that there's Dolores: Modern Hair Stylings. And then there's the Re-Lax Restaurant, red plastic booths with individual juke-box selectors, Chinese and Canadian Cuisine. All the food's with red sauce and canned pineapple and there's a big Molson Beer clock and calendars of Chinese cuties from that plum sauce sachet distributor in Montreal.
"Are you with me?
. . . . . . . . . . . .
"And in the midst of all this desolation there's a small group¨you see, it doesn't matter how many¨there's a small group who feel there's a bit more to life than whooping it up on skidoos with a thermos of ready-mixed Harvey Wallbangers.
"So there they are gathered together in an upper room above Berman's Dry Goods and Winter Storage. Who are they? I don't know. How do I know? It might be the young reporter from the North Portage Intelligencer and Weekly Record and a couple of middle-aged women who'd taken piano lessons when they were girls and the volunteer lady with the collapsing hair who administers the library-loan system on Tuesday and Thursday evenings and can never figure out the date-stamp. Who else? The obese young man, say, who works in the family hardware store on the main street and has tendencies. Maybe even some gentle, leftover hippie who's into honey and stained glass. A couple of kids, perhaps, from the Regional High School. Misfits. They've picked it up from somewhere. . . ."

This is a satiric vision of a particular kind of small-town hell that you would expect someone like Forde the well-known writer to avoid like the plague. And yet he relishes the idea of going there. He says to his wife that he feels "some kind of obligation" to the town, and beneath the obvious pretentiousness which his wife promptly skewers ("It's a long time since I've heard so much bullshit. Even from you.") can be heard the writer's urgent need to reach out to an audience¨any audience. Like his protagonist, Metcalf feels a sense of obligation¨not just to write well, but to show how a literary life ought to be led. ˛

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