Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Criticizing the Critics -- Apparently I Stink

Andre Alexis doesn't like me:

If I had to blame one Canadian writer for this state of affairs, I’d blame novelist and critic John Metcalf. Yes, it’s rhetorical to blame any single person for the current state of critical affairs. But Metcalf, with his early books of essays and through his encouragement of “critics” like David Solway and Ryan Bigge, has been, at the very least, a spur to the shallow, self-aggrandizing rhetoric that now passes for criticism.


What critics like Metcalf — and Connolly before him — have done is to declare the fineness of their own sensibilities sufficient to tell good work from bad. But, of course, they are the only possessors of their sensibilities. There is no basis for a universal aesthetic scale, unless the thought behind a sensibility is unpacked. Just to be clear: I’m convinced Metcalf and I, if we sat down together and read a page from a certain book, would agree, maybe eight times out of ten, on what is good and what is not. On the evidence, I think Metcalf and I have similar sensibilities. But those who have been influenced by him — Ryan Bigge, for instance — are not on the same level and don’t possess the same credibility, though they allow themselves to make the same kinds of pronouncements.


For some twenty years now, we’ve had the discussions that unfounded, pugnacious reviews bring. What knowledge or understanding of literature have they given us? Ryan Bigge insulting Leah McLaren in the pages of the Toronto Star, Carmine Starnino insulting whoever doesn’t happen to share his preference for certain kinds of verse, Philip Marchand expressing the opinion that poets shouldn’t write novels. The discussion is rarely helpful in building a shareable aesthetic. One of the very few clear opinions shed by Philip Marchand, for instance, is his belief that anyone who does not appreciate the greatness of Tolstoy is “deficient in taste, period.” A dubious opinion, given that Henry James, who has as great a claim to “taste” as Marchand, disliked War and Peace, and the late-career Tolstoy felt that his own early work was too verbose. As with all Metcalf’s children — and all of the critics I’ve just mentioned have been edited or published by him — Marchand’s statement is about himself, his belief in War and Peace’s greatness. He offers no defence of his opinion, believing that none is required. And so, we have come to the point where the mere fact of an opinion is more important than the basis for it. This is neither criticism nor reviewing but autobiography. Marchand is telling me something about himself. Starnino is telling me about his sensibility and how much he believes in his beliefs. Bigge is settling a personal vendetta with McLaren.

I can appreciate that my infamous review of McLaren's book was problematic, but it would be fair, or at least useful to point out that I've provided thoughtful, nay, intelligent reviews of dozens of books since I began reviewing in 2001.

It might also strengthen Andre Alexis's argument to actually quote from a review I've written.

And I've never spoken with, emailed with or otherwise conversed with John Metcalf -- which makes the claim that he has "encouraged" me fairly weak, unless you consider publishing me in Canadian Notes and Queries to fulfill that definition.

(Oh, and by the way, I have an essay in the next Canadian Notes and Queries about the 2009 Giller short-list. Rest assured Andre Alexis is not going to like it very much.)

(Full attack here).

(Andre Alexis shows us all how to properly review a book).