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To the Editor
Varieties of Customs Experience

I am always wary when the censorious describe books. Michael Coren describes Dennis Cooper's Frisk (April) with the same venom, tone of disbelief, and quotations out of context that the Bible-thumpers used when lambasting Margaret Laurence. Having described the book in such a way that presumably only the most sick and twisted would want to enjoy it, he then muses whether the goodie-two-shoes at Harbourfront who protested Customs' prior restraint of text would be so enthusiastic were this filth by Cooper to cross their paths.

But he misses the point. Buzz Hargrove, Jay Ingram, and several other eminent Canadians from outside the book trade took to the Harbourfront Reading Series stage at the end of February and read from classics which have been banned from Canada Customs exactly because none of us believes that Customs officers ought to be the arbiters of what adults can read. The main purpose of the evening was to make Canadians aware of just how contemptuous Customs has become of our freedom to read. Thousands of titles by internationally acclaimed authors are being banned at the border every year. Not dozens. Not hundreds. Thousands. And worse, Customs refuses to say why it bans books. Even when it unbans a book, it often bans it again a week, or a month, later. Kathy Acker, for example, has been banned and unbanned five times in the last decade.

Coren wants "intelligent censorship". Like "British cuisine", or "Mike Harris supports Canadian culture", this is a contradiction in terms. Coren maintains that "we draw lines of limitation every day and give MPs, judges, police officers, and teachers the authority to use ethical pencils." Yet with each of the occupations he cites, a member of the public has a right to prompt appeal of their ethical decisions. But a prompt appeal is not possible with Customs' seizures. These usually take up to a year to resolve and, Star-Chamber-like, are conducted in near-total anonymity; regardless, the seizures are almost always too prohibitively expensive to appeal.

"There is no reason," Coren says, "why a panel of judges should not decide on what is allowed to enter the country." He is right. There is not one reason-there are several. First, who appoints the judges? Perhaps the same people who do such a great job now appointing political hacks as judges to the immigration appeal board? Perhaps he had another kind of judge in mind. Given the thousands of books that Customs' officers will be sending the judges' way, what is now a slow process will become minutely glacial under Coren's utopian scheme.

Why is a noted voice for the political right asking for yet another layer of government bureaucracy? And would Coren be so anxious to have a Cerberus of judges deciding what books came into the country if the judges were appointed by a social democratic party? As he says, I wonder.

As for the value of loaded descriptions, try this: a young woman, apparently under eighteen, her diaphanous clothing in disarray, reclines seductively like a shameless tramp. She spreads her legs, and practically begs a nearly-nude young man towering over her to stab her again and again; her face delirious with the self-willed pain, the woman expires in orgasmic frenzy the more she is stabbed. Worse, this filth is given pride of place on an altar in a church. Some people have the nerve to call this trash art. I call it "The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa" by Bernini.

Greg Gatenby


Thou Shalt Not Say "Shall"

There were oxymorons, false logic, fusty conservatism, and just plain silliness in Michael Coren's column on censorship (April).

1. "Intelligent censorship", Mr. Coren calls it, and, of course, there is no such thing. The constraining of the literary imagination is absolutely incompatible with anything even faintly resembling intelligence.

2. A "responsible journalist", Mr. Coren calls himself for refusing to quote from "a repugnantly graphic story about incestuous rape". Well, a truly responsible journalist should give us both (or all one hundred) sides, and should not presume that we are as squeamish as he is about having the facts illustrated. Again: "I shall not quote from the piece." That "shall" says it all: self-satisfied and old-fashioned judgmentalism.

3. Mr. Coren cites the fact that Paul Bernardo collected pornography as the "last word" on the connection between porn and crime. Where is the logic there? What about all those men (and women) who collect porn but never commit crimes? Bernardo also drove a Nissan: perhaps that led him to crime?

The main point that Mr. Coren misses is that works of the imagination are, well, imagined. They are not describing what the author did, or does, or would like to do. They are not inciting sheepish readers to rape and torture and kill. Like a good dictionary, they are describing, not prescribing.

Wayne Jones


Ideal Public Intellectuals?

I'm sending my money to you for another year's subscription, but I would like to underscore my continued dislike of Michael Coren, who is, according to your advertising bumf, the writer "inspired to infuriate BiC readers." Why waste trees infuriating your readers? I don't have to agree with everything I read to find it useful reading, but Coren's self-serving comments and bigotry provide me with an intellectual vacuum. I prefer not to pay for nostalgia's lumber.

Why not invite the participation of one of the many informed intellectuals in Canada who have fewer and fewer spaces in the public sphere to debate literary and cultural issues? How come Barbara Carey doesn't write for you any longer? Her columns were funny and thoughtful. Or why not consider a woman columnist who might raise issues which occur outside of your fascinating region "Toronto"? I would suggest Nancy Huston, who is a fascinating novelist and essayist, but unfortunately she doesn't know "books in Canada" since she's closer to Paris-Luce Irigaray would say, "so far away".

Your recent issues feature public intellectuals who are men, interesting men, and a few women who write about the problems of feminism. Why is it that your ideal public intellectual is a woman who writes about the problems of feminism or a man who writes about anything under the sun?

I resubscribe in anticipation that you will mend your ways and give me more to think about than I know what to do with.

Janice Williamson


Apples & Oranges: Both Spherical Fruit

In her review of Elizabeth Fox-Genovese's book Feminism is Not the Story of My Life, Linda Rabieh (April) uses my book Lip Service as a point of comparison. Forget that old saying about apples and oranges-what does it really matter that Fox-Genovese's topic is why so many women do not call themselves feminists and my topic is the myth of female virtue in love, sex, and friendship? I mean, they're both books, right?

Anyway, Rabieh has a talent for imagining what I might have written had I ever addressed Fox-Genovese's topic: "Fillion's aggressive feminism seems to suggest that in so far as women hesitate to embrace the feminist label, it is because they are still attached to the myth of their moral superiority to men. While willing to take advantage of certain victories won by the feminist vanguard, they shy away from enlisting in the ranks for fear that to do so is to adopt the aggressive behaviour of men and therefore to renounce all pretence to superiority."

How interesting, especially to me. See, I've never written a word about women's reluctance to call themselves feminists, but I was under the impression that I agreed with Fox-Genovese: many women don't feel that feminism provides "an adequate story of their lives". I also thought my feminism was anything but "aggressive", since I consistently condemn aggression in Lip Service. Silly me. Apparently, describing female aggression is tantamount to endorsing it.

Another surprise: according to Rabieh, "Fillion's brand of feminism serves the interests of Cosmo girls." And I thought I'd argued strenuously against the find-a-man-at-all-costs Cosmo ethos! Finally, Rabieh declares that Fox-Genovese's book is based on "a much broader database" than my own and thus "deserves to be taken much more seriously." Gee. I interviewed more than twice as many people, and devoted half my book to an analysis of academic studies and random sample surveys that cover the experiences of tens of thousands of people, but I guess Rabieh knows best.

Here's the really weird part: Fox-Genovese and I are both members of the Women's Freedom Network, so I assumed we were both traditional liberal feminists. Thanks to Rabieh for setting me straight and defining my feminism for me. If I ever do write a book on feminism, I'll certainly call her for advice-she seems to know my mind better than I do.

Kate Fillion


Davies an Ideologue

Bill van Dyk (Letters, April) can shelve Robertson Davies right alongside Thomas Hardy on his bookshelf as much as he wants but he doesn't do justice to the nineteenth-century novel and flatters Davies too much. Davies just isn't comparable to any nineteenth-century English novelist: their main characters are focal points but they're not central to the action in the way the hero is in a romance or the way the first person narrators are in Davies's non-Salterton novels. Eliot, Dickens, Thackeray, and Trollope depict male and female characters who acquire self-knowledge by learning to discriminate between the false and the genuine, the evil and the good in the people and public institutions with which they're in contact. Davies's narrators grind out propaganda on behalf of his own self-serving revaluation of the social utility of art and the artist for the managerial elite.

As a novelist, Davies was an indifferent craftsman who wrote unevenly. His tales were guided by a view of twentieth-century man that it's only wishful thinking to call "antiquated"; it remains all too current among those who think there is some wisdom to be found in neo-conservatism. Like Joseph Campbell, that other celebrated popularizer of C. G. Jung, Robertson Davies helps legitimize the rise of ideology at the expense of serious thinking about the fix we're in. His celebrated "carnival" is just a Punch and Judy show in which it's the audience that gets clobbered.

T. F. Rigelhof

Westmount, Que.

Good & Bad Reviewers

I have read with amusement the letters to your journal regarding the new format you have adopted, and for the most part, find their shallow, idiotic comments about appearance to be annoying. What matters most is content: how competent and reliable are the reviews and editorials. What form or paper-stock is used in irrelevant, or should be for an intelligent reader.

However, I must take issue with some of your reviewers. I must ask your editors to be more careful in their selection, mainly, individuals who can read and then report credibly upon what they have read. In your March 1996 issue, Charles Levin and Donna Nurse showed exemplary skill, and actually told me, as a reader, the faults and merits of the books they were charged with reviewing. Not so with Bruce Meyer who decided to demonstrate exactly how much arrogance an individual can muster in their writing. As for Ates Tanin, he wrote a fascinating article about science, but neglected to mention anything about the book he was reviewing, excepting two cursory paragraphs. George Elliott Clarke wrote an impressive bibliography, which would make an impressive conclusion to an essay; unfortunately one was not submitted.

Then there is Ezra Levant, who decided to use his allotted space as a political platform for his ideological position regarding health care. My reply to his stance is this: Freedom is a much-bantered-about commodity, especially in dealing with health care. A person who has no money and is sick cannot exercise patient choice; however, this reviewer seems to feel human dignity is not the underlying moral question, rather, that free market forces are. (Ethics, smethics-what does Charles Keating say? screams the review!) Yet the reviewer then equates human health care with that of pets, an interesting conjecture, wholly unsubstantiated and not pertinent to the review at hand.

His gross statements are not qualified from any sections of the book at hand, and leave me wondering where he has garnered his inferences, and at the end of the review, I am none the wiser whether I should buy the book or not. A disastrous review and one not worthy of a high school book report. Nonetheless, I could forgive all this if the reviewer had related any of his diatribe to the book in question: unfortunately this was beyond him. He instead chose to make sweeping statements regarding outside issues, and after reading, I was still no closer to understanding what the book was about, good or bad.

So let's be a wee bit more careful about who reviews what, and essentially I am asking for competent and skilled writers who have studied the art of reading, writing, and reviewing, and are not just using the space provided as platforms for their own issues and agendas, or as political statements-I have bought your magazine to learn about books, not reviewers.

William D. Sinkins

London, Ont.

A Non-Review

I expect reviews, whether laudatory or highly critical or someplace in between, to tell me something about the book in question. To accomplish this there must be a modicum of intelligent objectivity, and a willingness to enter the world of that book.

Judith Fitzgerald's review of Di Brandt's Jerusalem, beloved (March) didn't make an attempt. What it most obviously did was display an apparent personal venom. The tone of the piece was reprehensible, its intention dishonourable. In short, this was not a review.

No-one is served by such poison.

Patrick Friesen


Living Room Compassion

I have read Clifford Orwin's essay "Compassion and the Globalization of the Spectacle of Suffering" with considerable interest, particularly the reference to Mrs. Jellyby in Bleak House, "so preoccupied with the plight of the natives of Borrio-boola-Gha and so blind to the sufferings of the London poor and even to the needs of her own children."

I could not help but wonder what "our mutual friend" Mr. Charles Dickens, the reporter par excellence, would have made of the Donna Mercier affair, in which, through media appeals to the global village, $112,000 was raised for a woman who claimed she was dying of cancer after alleging her purse had been stolen.

Indeed, this "artful dodger" case provides a classic illustration of "remote-control" compassion on the Information Highway.

The "CNN Factor" is, of course, alive and well in "Toronto the Good". The outpouring of compassion for Donna Mercier took (tele)mercy to its paradoxical limits: take a faceless, nameless individual, place her in the shadows on national television, and thousands line up, pockets opened, with their Good Samaritan donations. Once this mystery lady's true identity and medical condition became locally known (surely, a hardship tale nonetheless), the veil of ignorance was lifted and so were the limits of our compassion: we are all too ready to give to the televised remote person in the dark cave of our living room but not to the real live one in the light of the sky.

Martin Halpern

Hamilton, Ont.

In Fact, Normative

Donald Kjelmyr's treatment of my contribution to Rethinking Federalism ("You Say You Want a Devolution", March) is inaccurate in several crucial respects.

First of all, Kjelmyr describes my piece as an article on "federalism in Canada". In fact, my chapter is largely conceptual in nature, and draws on examples that include the United States, the European Union, and a number of developing countries.

Secondly, he suggests that I am in favour of radical decentralization "to citizen and community groups"; in fact, I argue for decentralization of the delivery of public services to such groups, not the devolution of power as such ( I am not a communitarian or an anarchist); and the overall argument of my essay is that we need a revival of leadership and policy imagination at the national level of government.

Thirdly, he claims that the authors of the volume (myself presumably included) view federalism as "a reflection of the political ideology (reflecting the power relations) of a particular time and society." In fact, my understanding of federalism is grounded in normative liberal political theory, not historicism or positivism-as is evident from the references in the piece to Tocqueville and J. S. Mill in the nineteenth century and Pierre Trudeau, Vaclav Havel, and Cass Sunstein in our own times.

Fourth, Kjelmyr takes the volume for task for not considering whether the "eighteenth-century concept" of federalism is really an appropriate tool to respond to today's challenges of governance. In fact, one of my major points is that the neat division of powers assumed by the classical model of federalism is at odds with the interdependence of policy fields in the late twentieth-century regulatory and social welfare state.

Finally, the possibility that the confederal dimension in Canadian federalism is "at odds with the purpose of federalism in a democracy," which Kjelmyr suggests is not addressed in this volume, is indeed addressed in my essay, where I discuss the democratic deficit of traditional executive federalism.

Robert Howse

Faculty of Law

University of Toronto


Children's Revival

I would like to thank you for the article "Lives for Children", which appeared in the April issue. I found Frieda Wishinsky's review of the recently published book Changing the Pattern: The Life of Emily Stowe [Napoleon Publishing] very enlightening. I am pleased to see that Books in Canada is taking a renewed interest in children's books, which have not received as much review coverage as we might have liked. I hope this article marks the beginning of a new trend and that we will see many more reviews of interesting new Canadian books for children.

Brigitte Shapiro

Director, Marketing & Sales

Scholastic Canada Ltd.

Richmond Hill, Ontario

Concept Album

Many thanks to Eva Tihanyi for her wonderful review of my first novel, Debut for a Spy (April). The novel's strong musical subtext and my own background naturally drew me to John Oughton's article on the Fab Four in the same issue of Books in Canada. In it, he stated that the Beatles, along with Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, had invented the "concept album".

These lads were certainly pioneers in many areas, but this was not one of them. The late 1940s album "Sing and Dance with Frank Sinatra", arranged and conducted by George Siravo on Columbia, is generally considered to be the first album of this type. In the early 1950s on Capitol, Sinatra went on to release a series of thematic albums beginning with "Songs For Young Lovers", which predate anything done by the Beatles or the Beach Boys.

By way of interest, while working as an entertainer in Britain in the 1960s, I had occasion to meet the Beatles a number of times, including one memorable day in 1967 when I was called in as a backup singer on "All You Need is Love". Thanks, John Oughton, for the inspiration; perhaps in the novel's sequel, Encore for a Spy, my protagonist, David Baird, will also cross paths with the young lads from Liverpool.

Harry Currie

Cambridge, Ontario


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