Reviewing with Andre


When contributing editor Zachariah Wells read Andre Alexis’ critical essay “The Long Decline” in a recent issue of The Walrus, he had a nagging feeling of déjà vu. A couple of days later, he realized why…


February 1, 2010


Dear Mr. Alexis,


Thank you very much for submitting your essay, “The Long Decline,” to Canadian Notes & Queries. We are by no means averse to critical prose that casts a harsh light on the work of CNQ editors, as yours does, and we certainly sympathise with your frustration in the face of the inarguable and, it would seem, ineluctable decline of book coverage in Canada’s major dailies (although our Senior Editor, John Metcalf, might demur, since he was already saying, thirty years ago, that “our newspaper reviews are not unusually illiterate”). We also, as I’m sure you know, appreciate pugnacity in the criticism that we publish and your piece is imbued with that quality from beginning to end. That said, I’m afraid we can’t accept your essay, at least not in its present shape.


Because your work shows a fighting spirit we like and because critics willing to be blunt are thin on the ground, our editorial board thought that instead of sending you a form rejection letter, we’d provide you with an editorial critique of your essay, in the sincere hope that if it’s not useful to you in revising this piece, it at least helps you sharpen any future critical undertakings.


Some of the problems with your essay are architectural and others are more in the details. I’ll start with the big picture concerns.


STRUCTURE


I hope it doesn’t seem condescending to trot out a bit of standard-issue undergraduate advice: before you start writing, you should figure out what your thesis is and plot an outline of your essay, ensuring that all major points and sub-points of each paragraph are pertinent to that thesis. It’s clear that you haven’t done this by your second paragraph, in which you ask “Where to start?” The muddle you’re in becomes apparent again later, when you write: “How we reached this pass is difficult to articulate. Or, rather, there are so many interesting narratives, it’s difficult to settle on any single one.” But the demands of the critical essay are such that, before submitting a draft to an editor, the critic, as a minimum requirement, needs to have figured out what narrative it is he’s trying to articulate. The most disappointing aspect of your essay is that it fails to do this, repeatedly.


At the outset, it seems that you are intent on excoriating the tattered hide of newspaper review sections. But you’ve barely got started on this essay about editorial and publishing problems when you abruptly change topics, lamenting how “woefully incompetent” reviewers are “these days.” You make a token gesture back to the disappearance of reviews from “our dying newspapers,” but this is a non-sequitur in your new topic; is the problem not enough reviews, or is the problem too many badly written ones? Some combination thereof, presumably, but you don’t spend enough time developing your arguments for the reader to know what exactly you’re getting at. Another non-sequitur in this paragraph is the assertion that Canada has failed “to produce a single literary critic of any worth, at least since the death of Northrop Frye.” Besides the fact that this is objectively incorrect (since, for example, Peterborough’s own Hugh Kenner, a critic with a substantial international reputation who is widely credited with restoring Ezra Pound’s literary credibility and whose book The Pound Era is a critical classic, was still alive and writing for a good decade after Frye’s death; if by “produced,” you mean that we haven’t had a new critical voice of that stature emerge, I would remind you that Frye has only been dead for 18 years, so we can’t possibly know what critics the country will produce in the post-Frye era), by including this statement in a paragraph about the incompetence of reviewers, you elide the manifest differences between someone who writes a review for a newspaper or periodical and a scholarly critic. Such distinctions between practitioners and genres must be made if a reader is to have a proper idea of what it is you are writing about.


From there, we have another awkward transition to a long, rambly paragraph about British critic James Wood—whose relevance to an essay about Canadian newspapers/reviewing/criticism you don’t make clear—and from there, somehow back to “our reviews,” which begets another non-sequential shift to a paragraph about how John Metcalf—who to the best of my knowledge has never been an employee of a newspaper—is to blame “for this state of affairs.” By this point, you’ve taken so many quicksilver twists that the reader must be forgiven for wondering precisely what state of affairs it is you’re talking about.


Next, we move on—again with no connective tissue to speak of—to a third topic: Northrop Frye and Margaret Atwood, whose “academic” approach, we learn, was the burr under Metcalf’s saddle. If you were writing an essay about John Metcalf’s criticism, this might not be a bad place to start. Indeed, the seven paragraphs of this section are easily the most cohesive of your essay—although even here, you tend to wander, saying in one breath that Metcalf is at fault and then later saying that it’s not so much him as the people “who have been influenced by him,” which seems to me a bit like blaming Christ for the sins of St. Paul. Were this section focused on and fleshed out, I have every reason to believe—well, to hope at least—that you’d be able, with editorial assistance, to produce a piece of criticism we could publish.


However, your need to tie in this relatively extended take on Metcalf to the Problem With Today’s Reviewing—the former, given the structure of your essay, amounts to a lengthy digression—sabotages any such hopes. Before you can say anything of real substance about Metcalf’s criticism, you are making another abruptly clumsy segue—“So, one could legitimately say that Metcalf has turned a generation of reviewers away from “academic” evaluations of literature”—back to your original complaint: that Canadian book reviewing has been going downhill for twenty years.


Finally, for reasons that are again far from clear, you end your piece on Canadian review culture by talking about James Wood. It is perhaps apposite that a series of ill-connected pensées should be capped by one last non-sequitur—but it is nevertheless unfortunate.


I have spent so much time on the structure of your piece because I believe that this major flaw of your essay is the chief begetter of its manifest infelicities. Your failure to plan and plot your structure, your negligence when it comes to measuring twice before you cut, has led to a house in which, to borrow from American poet Alan Dugan, “nothing is plumb, level or square.” In such a house, one must force things into place, stretching, bending and cutting in a graceless, Procrustean manner to make everything fit.


Some examples:


LACK OF QUOTATIONS TO SUBSTANTIATE ARGUMENTS


Because you have tried to cram so many things into one essay, you have left yourself little space in which to quote. There are no quotations of any length; the longest you use is no more than a few words. This is a significant lacuna in an essay that is almost 3500 words long, and it calls into serious question the authority of your arguments.


One of the only things you do quote is a remark by Philip Marchand to the effect 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. … 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.


This four-word quotation, for which you provide no context, comes from the autobiographical essay “Confessions of a Book Reviewer,” which serves as the introduction to Marchand’s book Ripostes—not from a review or a work of criticism. Marchand’s essay, I would add, is considerably more nuanced than you seem willing to admit. He even confesses to the sorts of doubts you say earlier that reviewers never admit to:


Every critic must sometimes suspect, upon feeling baffled by a book, that there are other, more acute readers who actually have understood the author’s intentions—understood them, and relished the results. They are not baffled. But meanwhile, intelligence has failed you, the critic. In a few cases, it may have failed so badly that your remarks will serve to amuse posterity.


He also says that Cat’s Eye—a novel written by a poet, which you say he’s against—is a good book, if not a major one. Marchand is not talking about something so picayune as liking Tolstoy (and let the record show that he has elsewhere sided with James and Tolstoy so far as to prefer Anna Karenina to War and Peace, to which he does not actually refer explicitly in his essay, by the bye). He’s saying that Tolstoy is a major writer who cannot be ignored; unfortunately, Henry James isn’t around to consult, but it’s hard to imagine him disagreeing, since he, after all, couldn’t ignore Tolstoy either. This isn’t about pleasure at all, but about perspective. He’s saying that it makes no sense to put Atwood next to Tolstoy and determine that Atwood is in the same league. By providing a sound-byte and by failing to contextualise that byte, you misrepresent what he is saying. Rather than engage with his argument, you opportunistically poach a pull-quote so that he might serve as your tackling dummy.


Your failure to use quotations is particularly troublesome in an essay that argues against criticism as mere opinion. Of Metcalf, you complain: “He takes sentences or paragraphs that he considers examples of brilliant writing and then does the written equivalent of pointing and saying, “There, you see?”” This is a fair criticism, if true, but not only do you provide no examples of this pointing, you fail to avoid it yourself. Metcalf’s approach, as portrayed by you, at least gives a reader some basis on which to agree or argue with him. As Marchand puts it in the same essay from which his maligned Tolstoy remark was untimely ripped (after juxtaposing two paragraphs and saying, in precise terms, what he likes in one and dislikes in the other): “The reader may feel free, at this point, to make his or her own judgements about the writer’s critical tastes.”


In consistently failing to provide examples, you go one worse than Metcalf and co. Consider, for example, your claim that Metcalf “tends to like finicky prose, and he particularly likes English versions of finicky prose. His own sentences, those he quotes as examples of “good writing,” are often overwritten and, at times, awkward in their frank desire to be good.” One expects at this point to see at the very least an example of such an overwrought, pre-pubescently awkward sentence, but one’s expectations are frustrated. It is truly unfortunate that you didn’t quote anything here because the “finickiness” of a sentence is something that can actually be quantified, using such mathematical tools as the Gunning Fog Index or the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level Readability Test. This is precisely the sort of analysis that Marchand does provide in his comparison of sentences by Michael Ondaatje and Russell Smith. The latter, it should be noted, is a writer whose fiction has been edited and published by Metcalf, and yet Marchand’s example of what he sees as a characteristic Smith sentence is demonstrably unfinicky in its diction and syntax. The least you could have done is provide an equally concrete example of what you deem to be “finicky prose.”


Rather than pointing, you gesture vaguely in the general direction of something and sniff, “Need I say more?” Your essay pays lip service to the idea that mere opinion is bad, but its manoeuvres betray another message: their opinions are bad, but mine are good—so good I don’t even need to defend them. You actually make this explicit when you say, “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 [ed: as Metcalf and by extension as Alexis] and don’t possess the same credibility, though they allow themselves to make the same kinds of pronouncements.” (Ah, so credibility justifies opinion. And how does one go about amassing this capital you call credibility? Or is it bestowed upon one by divine fiat like a birthmark, discernible only to those similarly endowed?) The assumption of one’s rectitude and others’ wrongitude is of course at the heart of most debates and there is nothing inherently wrong with it as a starting point, but it is disingenuous to pretend that one is against opinion as such—in an opinion piece.


POT AND KETTLE-ISMS


This is far from the only example of failing to practise what you preach. In the same essay in which you decry “personal attacks and collegiate vitriol,” as well as certain critics’ practise of “insulting” their targets, you write disdainfully of “a short, pompous man with thick, dark-rimmed glasses (a self-styled “critic”).” Just because, unlike Starnino and Bigge, you don’t name the person you’re belittling doesn’t mean that it isn’t an insult. It just means you’re less brave than they are in dishing it out. Either that, or this bespectacled little man’s a character you’ve invented.


In an essay that begins “Toronto is the city in which I have been disabused of any number of notions, where I have lost a certain innocence,” you later proclaim: “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.” (By the way, while I am aware of the details of Bigge vs. McLaren, it is not safe to assume that all your readers will be, so if you’re going to cite the conflict, you really need to explain it.) Throughout your piece, which you admit is prompted by your “idealism,” you tell us of your preferences, your sensibilities, your beliefs. You tell us that Stan Persky is “one of [your] favourite Canadian reviewers,” but you say absolutely nothing about why he is, never mind—pardon the repetition—quoting something from one of his putatively wonderful reviews.


BROADSTROKE GENERALISATIONS


By sidestepping the specific, you wander into the wilds of the general. A few cases in point, besides the aforementioned dismissal of all post-Frygian critics:


  1. You argue that the 80s era Globe Books was “an inspiring venue for Canadian intellectual life.” In defense of this thesis, you mention Persky (again, without reference to what made him a worthy critic) and nothing else. One can only assume you’re working from memory and can’t actually recall any other contributors. You do mention Jay Scott, but then admit that he didn’t write for the books section; what you don’t seem to be aware of is that this makes him an irrelevant addition to your essay, unless you think the fact that he quoted Barthes renders him sufficiently bookish to merit a mention.


  2. As noted above, you say that “Canadian literary reviewers are so woefully incompetent, it makes you wonder if there’s something in our culture that poisons critics in their cradles.” A reader can only assume that you believe that there is not a single book reviewer in a country of over 30 million who is even competent at his or her job. This in spite of earlier saying that Globe books editor Martin Levin “still manages to dig up capable reviewers now and then.” Is a capable reviewer not a competent one?


  3. By promoting Metcalf as the prime mover of all incompetent and vicious critics, you do exactly what you say Metcalf is guilty of: you paint yourself into a corner. You concede that it is “rhetorical to blame any single person for the current state of critical affairs.” Personally, another “r” adjective comes to mind to describe such a perversely hyperbolic statement—Metcalf himself would be more than a little surprised to learn of how widespread his pernicious influence has been—but in spite of your caveat lector, you proceed to make the case against Metcalf anyway. Because the case is, by your own admission, dubious, the “facts” you corral to bolster it do not hold up to scrutiny. You say that Solway, Starnino, Marchand and Bigge are followers of Metcalf, as evidenced by the fact that Metcalf has “edited or published” them. While it’s true that Metcalf has edited collections of prose by Solway, Starnino and Marchand, it should be noted that Solway is only a couple of years younger than Metcalf and was engaged in sorties against the literary establishment long before he made contact with him. Further, one could with some accuracy claim that Starnino learned a thing or two from Solway, who actually was a mentor to the younger critic, but the Montreal Gazette had far more to do with giving Starnino his start as a reviewer than Metcalf did. Much as Marchand, as you’ll know from having read “Confessions of a Book Reviewer,” cut his critical teeth in the pages of the Toronto Star. All three of these writers have indeed published books edited by Metcalf, but the vast majority of the content in those books had been previously published by people other than Metcalf. It is certainly reasonable to posit that all four of these men share a certain outlook or sensibility, but it is a Reed Richardsesque stretch to call Solway, Marchand and Starnino Metcalf’s “children,” as you do. With Ryan Bigge, the case is weaker yet—no better than speculation, really. The only piece of evidence I know of linking Bigge to Metcalf is Bigge’s publication of a review of a book by Andrew Pyper in Canadian Notes & Queries. While Metcalf has long been on CNQ’s masthead, he is not the reviews editor. That job, at the time of Bigge’s review, belonged to Michael Darling, who also once commissioned me to write a review for CNQ. I subsequently joined CNQ as an editor and replaced Michael as reviews editor when he stepped down in 2006. I have served in that capacity for approximately four years, during which time I have had very limited exchanges with John Metcalf, who has never once told me what to have reviewed, nor whom I should hire to write for CNQ. I therefore think it entirely probable that Ryan Bigge has never had so much as a conversation with Metcalf, never mind the paranoid notion that Bigge is some kind of Metcalf acolyte.


  4. If the Metcalf, Marchand, Starnino or Bigge of your essay appeared in a novel, say, the author of that novel might justly be charged with creating cardboard characters. It strikes me as a singular failure of imagination on your part—a failure made wilful by the suppression of facts—that you can only see, or choose only to portray, one dimension of these rather complex individuals. You speak of “the shallow, self-aggrandizing rhetoric that now passes for criticism.” Do you really want to go there? In this essay? Do you really believe that all Carmine Starnino does is insult poets? Or was this another rhetorical flourish? You leave an informed reader in the position of having to decide if you’re being ignorant or dishonest and neither option, needless to say, redounds to your credit. Is Bigge’s review of Leah McLaren’s book actually representative of his normal reviewing approach? Is this someone who reviews for the sole purpose of avenging hurts suffered? Is he allowed no mulligans on your course? I’ve already pointed out nuances in Marchand’s writing that you’ve missed/glossed over. Do I really need to remind you that Metcalf—whom you paint as an occasionally amusing curmudgeon with good taste but bad judgment—was appointed to the Order of Canada for his contributions to culture in this country, most notably for his role as mentor and editor to dozens of writers? Don’t take my word for it; how about Alice Munro’s: “I have the feeling he is the one person who can tell what’s fake, what’s shoddy, what’s an evasion, maybe even mark the place where a loss of faith hit you … It won’t matter what compliments you’ve been getting from other quarters.” You should be familiar with those words, as they appear on the jacket of An Aesthetic Underground, a book to which you refer. This isn’t to say that Metcalf is or should be beyond criticism. He isn’t. But he has earned a great deal more respect than you seem willing to grant him. And here’s the thing: your failure to give him his due does no harm to Metcalf, but rather to your own argument against him; assaults this feeble invariably wind up with the assailant more badly wounded than the intended target.


LIMITED KNOWLEDGE OF THE FIELD


All of these leaps, stretches, elisions, omissions and errors of fact accumulate to convince this reader that you have a very limited knowledge of the field you are writing about. That James Wood’s name is “the one” you hear mentioned is a rather dismal indictment of the literary company you keep. In conversations I have with other writers, names like David Orr, Helen Vendler, Harold Bloom, Tom Paulin, Marjorie Perloff, Michael Hoffmann, Ange Mlinko, James Fenton, the recently deceased Thomas Disch, Seamus Heaney, Paul Muldoon, Clive James, Stephen Burt, Edna Longley—to name randomly a few off the top of my head—come up routinely. One can certainly argue about the relative merits of each writer’s criticism, but they are by no means low-profile figures; several of them are practically celebrities, at least as well known as Wood, if not better. They are, it is true, primarily critics and/or reviewers of poetry; that they occur to me is reflective of my own primary interests and reading habits. It could be that the fiction field is comparatively barren—my own knowledge of it is too limited to agree or disagree with such a statement, though even I can at least summon the name of Sven Birkerts without undue strain—but if so, you would have done better to restrict the scope of your essay to fiction reviewing or fiction criticism, instead of using the broader “literary” rubric. Since you have invited Solway and Starnino into your essay, however, it is clear that you did not intend to focus exclusively on fiction reviewing. At any rate, if you hope to salvage anything from this essay, I urge you to acquaint yourself with the writing of today’s prominent literary critics. If nothing else, it should provide you many hours of pleasure and stimulation.


I hope you can see, Mr. Alexis, why CNQ can’t accept your submission. If nothing else, it is an affront to the array of very talented reviewers whose work has graced our pages in recent issues, but which seems to have flown over your radar, set as it is to scan the ground immediately in front of you. I suggest you sample some of our back issues before submitting to us again. Read, for example, Anita Lahey’s mettlesome re-appraisal of Gwendolyn MacEwen; James Pollock’s bracing overview of the oeuvre-to-date of Jeffery Donaldson; Carmine Starnino’s generously spirited assessment of Karen Solie’s achievements (a far cry from the insults you seem to suggest is all he’s capable of dispensing). I don’t mean to suggest, either, that CNQ is the only venue for thought-provoking literary reviews. While the newspaper situation does indeed seem rather sad, there are a few smaller-circulation publications dedicated to criticism that is substantial in terms not only of column inches but also in rigour and erudition. Some of these are print magazines, such as Arc and The New Quarterly. Others are internet-based. Speaking of which, I’m puzzled, if not altogether surprised, that you neglected to tell readers that the reviews of Stan Persky, for example, can still be read online at Dooney’s Cafe. Clearly, he’s moved on from the Globe and Mail. Would that you followed his lead.


I’ll detain you no longer, sir. If you decide to rework the material in your essay, you are more than welcome to resubmit the results to us. If, however, you decide to seek another market for the piece as is, I’m sure you’ll have little trouble finding one. As you say, editorial standards in this country are, by and large, depressingly low.


Best regards,


Zachariah Wells

42 Responses to Reviewing with Andre

  1. Jake Mooney says:

    I’m concerned that this is going to be one of those literary arguments that, as the responses and counter-responses grow from mere paragraphs to structured, 5000 word plus diatribes of increasing verbosity, the actual content of what’s being communicate will narrow further and further down towards, “You’re stupid.” Followed by, “No, you are.” And then, “No, you”…

  2. Jeet Heer says:

    A great response to Alexis but a quick question. Did Alexis really originally submit his piece to CNQ and did you really send him this response? Or is this a poetic conceit?

  3. [...] Zachariah Wells’ truly devastating response in Canadian Notes and Queries, which can be found here. It should be called My Deathmatch with [...]

  4. Andy L. says:

    I had the opposite reaction to Jake Mooney. Rather than a diatribe, this struck me as a thoughtful and controlled piece of writing. If it is long, it is because it takes the time to offer reasons and evidence for its conclusions, as opposed to insults, as anyone who reads it carefully can see. Well done.

  5. A forceful but fair response. I too was troubled by Andre’s lack of supporting quotations.

  6. Katherine L. says:

    I agree with Andy. Wells’ response was thoughtful and controlled. He took time out to offer Alexis extremely valuable criticism, and the chance to re-work his essay into a logical, well-supported piece of writing. It’s a shame bad he didn’t take the advice.

  7. Zachariah Wells says:

    Since some confusion has arisen, I’d like to make it clear that this is not an actual rejection letter of an actual submission. The letter format is a literary conceit, the date chosen to suggest that Alexis’ essay (in which he indicates January as the date of composition) was hastily written and published. Apologies for any ambiguity.

  8. Alex Good says:

    The confusion that has arisen is testament to the author’s skill with a knife.

  9. Andre Alexis says:

    february 10, 2010

    dear mr CN&Q,

    i am, of course, devastated by your rejection of my piece. i had so hoped “canadian notes and queries” would validate my thinking (and give me some of the real money true writers earn) that i am crushed by your demurral. however, i wonder if you would allow me a few words in my own defense:

    STRUCTURE

    first: “the walrus” is not a literary review. it is a magazine whose chief interest is provoking response. as such, my piece was edited, by jared bland, to … wait for it … provoke a response. in the rather shallow pool of those interested in canadian literary criticism, it HAS provoked a response. happy “walrus”. unhappy me, though, since publication in “canadian notes and queries” would have meant a wide readership and would have made my literary reputation.

    second: it is very amusing to imagine that a polemic – and, after all, a piece that was edited to provoke a response is a polemic rather more than it is a scholarly essay – should conform to the rules of the scholarly essay. again, i’ll mention the venue: the walrus, not the new york review of books. if “canadian notes and queries” is willing to give me the 7000 – 8000 words i need to execute a formal essay, i’ll happily take you up on the offer and provide all the quotes, notes and references you desire. still, i can’t help thinking that having confused both the intent of a polemic and ignored the venue, you think of the piece as something other than it is. i’m not complaining, mind. having written – knowingly written – a polemic against polemics, i was prepared for cognitive dissonance.

    a point: though hugh kenner was born in 1923 and frye in 1912, most would consider him and frye to be contemporaries. “Paradox in Chesterton” (early kenner) was published in 1947 as was “Fearful Symmetry” (early frye). your going on about kenner’s worth is amusing, but entirely beside the point. on the other hand, my words “since the death of northrop frye” were – and are – misleading. my bad. i meant to suggest “since the eighties”. which is what i should have written. as you were entirely unable to catch my drift, my apologies.

    third: “at the outset” of the piece in walrus i state – rather clearly i would have thought – that my “education” has taken place during “a long decline in canadian critical culture”. as you have, evidently, misconstrued this to mean that i set out to “excoriat[e] newspaper review sections”, i invite you to look at the phrase again. “a long decline in canadian CRITICAL CULTURE”. to me, as a speaker of english, this suggests that canadian critical culture is the subject, here. newspaper review sections are, of course, a part of that culture.

    having chosen to write about “a long decline in canadian CRITICAL CULTURE” and being aware that “critical culture” has many aspects, i naturally wondered “Where to begin?”. because you seem to have great difficulty with this concept, allow me to elaborate: i could have begun by talking about film criticism or art criticism or any number of critical cultures. i chose to begin – mirabile dictu – with newspapers where, for most of us, “popular criticism” takes place. i wrote about jay scott because his criticism was a part of the “canadian critical culture” i admired and because his range of reference was wide and not confined to his personal feelings.

    your objection that i did not clearly distinguish between “someone who writes a review for a newspaper or periodical” and a “scholarly critic” is, of course, entirely fair. on the other hand, the essay is, in part, ABOUT the denigration of “scholarly criticism” by literary journalists (metcalf, for one) and what happens when reviewers – set adrift from the standards of criticism – assume the authority of the critic without the critical apparatus. in other words: the essay bemoans the collapsing of the distinction between “scholarly critic” and “reviewer”. for those who are slow on the uptake, i should have written the sentence: “yo, people, we’re living through an unfortunate collapse of the distinction between “scholarly criticism” and “reviewing”, okay?”. if ever CN&Q prints my re-write of “the long decline”, i’ll certainly add that sentence so you can more easily understand the point.

    having begun thinking about canadian critical culture, having posited a falling off in newspaper coverage of books (i’m settling on books, now, you follow?), i then wonder if literary critical culture has declined elsewhere in the world. in an stunningly bold move, i then talk about james wood. in discussions of literary culture, james wood is fairly well known. apparently, you at CN&Q have no idea who he is (or need his relevance “made clear”) or feel he is irrelevant when compared to clive james. as you’re bewildered at mention of james wood, i understand your confusion at my mention of his work. however, for those of us who actually read and are influenced by work NOT written by canadians, a look at the practice of james wood has great – and obvious – relevance to a discussion of canadian critical culture. why? because many of us don’t regard a discussion of canadian literary culture as being limited to canadians. there is, of course, another, more glaring reason why i mention james wood: his situation and his approach directly mirror some of the defects i see in canadian criticism. i CHOSE to focus on him. this is called foreshadowing. i wouldn’t have thought this was obscure or all that “rambly”, but then this is my first encounter with the stringent editing at CN&Q.

    that you don’t understand what state of affairs i’m referring to after i’ve written “reviews have turned into a species of autobiography, with the book under review being a pretext for personal revelation” is indicative of blindness or brain damage. i can’t help you in either case, and i’m not convinced it’s my duty to lead readers by the hand. having decided i was writing about newspapers, you have gotten lost at EVERY turn in the road. am i to write so that the slowest of readers can keep up? no doubt that’s how you proceed at CN&Q. and good for you. but you might want to consider that your inability to keep up is your fault, not mine.

    now, searching around as you do for ONE topic you can grasp (any topic other than the one i’ve told you was mine), refusing as you do to see that the elements gathered together in the essay are gathered to paint a portrait of a cultural decline, it’s no wonder you get off on the seven paragraphs about metcalf … well, sort of get off on because, even here, you have difficulty understanding. for instance, i nowhere suggest, re: Metcalf, that “it’s not him so much as the people that have been influenced by him”. what i explicitly say is that i find myself in agreement with metcalf’s judgements. the implication being that such an agreement has nothing to do with an accord with his methods, that when his METHODS/tone are used by, say, ryan bigge, we can see clearly their flaws.

    the final section – again featuring the obscure and un-canadian james wood! – must indeed have seemed mysterious to you. it contained, however, the suggestion that methodology – far from being a scourge – might be a way towards the establishment of common ground from which to judge. judgement, critical judgement, the status of opinion, critical culture were and are the matter of this essay.

    LACK OF QUOTATIONS TO SUBSTANTIATE ARGUMENT

    honestly, it feels at times as if you at CN&Q suffer from some debilitating condition that shrouds your whereabouts from you. in what universe do you live in which popular magazines like walrus feature extensive literary quotes and notes? for the record, the extensive notes which accompany the piece in “beauty and sadness” were – for the most part – eliminated or folded into the piece. (not that the notes will mean anything to the likes of you.)

    but, yes, let’s look at what marchand has written. his words about tolstoy, which i call “autobiography” not evaluation, are exactly what i call them: autobiography. he pushes them forward as grounded opinion, as the bedrock of his evaluative self. that he elsewhere expresses doubts about his opinions changes nothing. a man who tells you he believes in god, then tells you he has doubts about god, then castigates someone for refusing to accept his god … this man is doing what, exactly? how does one evaluate the man’s belief? by emphasizing his statement of belief? by pointing to his statement of doubt? or by observing his behaviour where god is concerned? i choose to judge his behaviour. when marchand clearly stated – in a review of a book by michael redhill – that poets shouldn’t write novels, in effect castigating redhill for trying fiction, what was he expressing? his doubts or his belief in his beliefs? to me, he was behaving like someone sure of the ground on which he was standing. to me, that speaks more clearly about the status of marchand’s assertions than his doubts do.

    now, speaking of taking marchand out of context, let’s just look at that quote at the start of “ripostes”. he’s not talking about tolstoy at all, really, he’s talking about himself: “I also read several nineteenth century French and Russian novels, in translation. All this does help to give one a sense of ‘literary standards’ – a phrase one has to put in quotation marks these days because it has become, in the language of the academy, ‘problematic’. It’s not all that problematic for me, actually. The way I put it is, someone who reads Tolstoy and doesn’t recognize the presence of a towering genius is deficient in taste, period.”

    a “towering genius?”. how nuanced. i believe these words are EXACTLY as i qualified them: an autobiographical assertion – a truth about himself – disguised as aesthetic judgement. that he, in the same essay, pulls himself back from the brink of the entirely egotistical is, in your view, nuance. in mine, it is an unconvincing attempt at modesty.

    you’re of course exaggerating, CN&Q. i nowhere qualify metcalf’s sentences as “pre-pubescently awkward”. there is a difference between that and “at times awkward in their frank desire to be good”. i COULD have quoted a sentence by metcalf that i thought finicky, but that would have turned the piece – however briefly – into an evaluation of metcalf’s writing. and, again, that is not what “the long decline” was about. on the other hand, if CN&Q will pay me to read “general ludd” again, i will happily provide an essay in which i show you exactly what i mean. (by the way, i think i’m just as capable of pointing out his good qualities.)

    once again: my essay is about the consequence of the divorce of reviewing from any systematic thought. it is a lament for the “doing together” that is the best aspect of academico-critical endeavour, whatever the flaws of academic criticism might be. that’s why it ends with a quote from octavio paz in favour of a kind of commonality, and with a look at the movement towards a more “academic” form of evaluation by the un-canadian james wood. “opinion” and “autobiography” are not things i disdain, except when they make use of the authority we give to the systematically thought out. i’m not at all certain you at CN&Q can appreciate the difference between “x” and “x disguised as y”- between “opinion” and “opinion disguised as grounded judgement”. again: i think of “opinion” as exactly what it is: entertainment that should in no way have the authority of systematic thought. nor do i think my OWN opinions have a deeper status than metcalf’s or marchand’s or anybody else’s. and nowhere do i say or suggest that i do. on the contrary, i leave in the contradictions.

    when i assert that i believe metcalf and i share a sensibility, i am not crediting myself with his status. i am saying: i object to metcalf’s rejection of “academic critical thinking”, despite the fact that i have no doubt we both love many of the same types of books: russell smith’s, for instance. (and, by the way, the fact that metcalf loves russell’s style is in no way proof that metcalf is not an sometimes over-finicky writer. just saying, CN&Q.)

    as far as i know, ryan bigge and i may love the same kinds of book as well, but he has nowhere written anything approaching “punctuation as score”, nowhere scruppled to make his assumptions plain, though he passes judgement as if he had, relying – i think – on the same tone as metcalf has in his attacks.

    (here, because your dictionary has obviously gone missing, is a definition of “credibility”: “the quality or power of inspiring belief.” it’s not a difficult word and i use it precisely. metcalf inspires belief, MY belief, and bigge does not. this said DESPITE my problems with metcalf’s approach.)

    POT AND KETTLE-ISMS

    i do think it amazing that anyone could write the phrase “… it is disingenuous to pretend that one is against opinion as such—in an opinion piece” without wondering if the irony at the heart of said opinion piece were accidental or intended. you either have a cloth ear for tone or a cloth mind for irony. (could i be questioning the status of opinion, i wonder?)

    and again: i find it just as astounding that that you could point out the evident contradictions in the piece without once stopping to wonder if they are there for reasons beyond your ken.

    now, you have no way of knowing that the original piece from which “the long decline” was taken is, in fact, some 20,000 words long and an autobiography. it’s an account of the contrary state of both belonging and not belonging to literary society in toronto. it is filled with consciously written contradictions. so, in a way, this section of your letter is among the most interesting accounts of the machinations, irony and play in the work. but i’m baffled by what this section says about YOU, CN&Q.

    if you truly believe the contradictions in “the long decline” are unintended, you’d have to think me more than a little stupid. but why on earth would you write thousands of words trying to disprove the polemic of someone who must be, by your own thinking, so unintelligent?

    as to the bigge-maclaren set-to: google them, CN&Q.
    in an age when all this information is available in seconds, the insistence on essay-clogging detail of this sort is just pig-headed. of course, this pigheadedness is, no doubt, what makes CN&Q the touchstone for critical writing in canada.

    BROADSTROKE GENERALISATIONS

    1. you want a list of who i read in the eighties – and no doubt an account of why i think they’re any good? longer essay, different kind of essay.

    2. a joke gone horribly wrong, but i would have thought it was OBVIOUS hyperbole. not, apparently, to the brainiacs at CN&Q.

    3. i wonder what you think the word “influence” means that you believe some influences cancel others out? do you think that solway having influenced starnino more than metcalf means that metcalf has had negliable influence on starnino? are you suggesting that metcalf, the procurer and editor of books of criticism when he was at porcupine’s quill, was null in the transaction, that if metcalf had not been at porcupine’s quill, all would have been as it is now? is influence understood only as demonstrable literary precedence, so that metcalf can’t have influenced solway? (i’ve been influenced by EVERYONE who’s edited me. not solway?)

    i do wonder – especially after my essay was published – if people know how important metcalf has been to canadian criticism. (i wonder if HE knows?) or is it, perhaps, that he’s simply been important to me? (you should consider that my argument with metcalf is an argument with a critic i’ve read attentively. as you’re incapable of seeing my essay as anything but an attack on metcalf, i take it you’re also incapable of appreciating how deeply his criticism has affected me. this is your fault, not mine.)

    here’s an incomplete account of the books of criticism – by himself and others – he’s edited/published:

    Selected Essays of Clark Blaise (2008)
    Writers Talking (2003)
    How Stories Mean (1993)
    Volleys (1990)
    What Is Canadian Literature (1988)
    Carry On Bumping (1988)
    Freedom From Culture (1987)
    The Bumper Book (1986)
    Kicking Against the Pricks (1982)

    he’s also published books of criticism by David Solway, Terrence Rigelhof, Carmine Starnino, Philip Marchand, Stephen Henighan … i could list and name these books but the point is: how can a man who has shepherded so many books of criticism into print (who has edited do many) who has had a hand on so many tillers NOT be influential, especially in light of the combative tone these writers share?

    and again: you seem utterly incapable of getting the point of what i, mistakenly it appears, take to be clear and meaningful declarations of caution. when i say that it is rhetorical to blame any one man for the present state of criticism, i am telling you that what you are reading is a polemic. it is rhetorical. that is not the same as “empty”. it is, rather, an invitation to vigorously engage with the ideas: my ideas, metcalf’s ideas, wood’s ideas, octavio paz’ ideas.

    the one reproach i DO accept, in this section, is the tenuousness of ryan bigge’s connection to metcalf. metcalf was/is the founder of CN&Q. i took that as too much of a coincidence to be entirely fortuitous. as it seems i’m wrong, if there’s another edition of the book, i’ll happily write ryan bigge out.

    4. a couple of things: i have not read all of starnino. that’s a lot of reading to do. i have read “a lover’s quarrel” and some of his essays in “books in Canada”, and i think i could easily make my case against him, if i had the space and the money. has he changed since i read “a lover’s quarrel”? well, yes, he’s admitted that his early criticism was at times an attack on the writers he was reviewing, an attempt to hurt. if starnino has had a change of heart, i’ll need time to catch up to him. this doesn’t, of course, negate what i said about the work of his i DO know. your opinion that i’m being either dishonest or ignorant is, well, stupid.

    i take it that your own rhetorical flourish here – an adversion to metcalf’s order of canada ™ and a glowing quote from alice munro – happened while you were temporarily insane. (or was this the moment in the evening when john metcalf leaned over your shoulder and said “be sure to mention my order of canada ™”) a little question, CN&Q: did morley callaghan’s order of canada ™ or the admiration mordecai richler had for callaghan’s work stop metcalf from his crude attack on callaghan’s fiction? let me answer that for you, since i’m pretty sure david orr hasn’t dealt with the matter: no. nor SHOULD these things have stopped him. honours and accolades have zilch to do with the viability of ideas or the quality of a man’s work. fuck the “order of canada” ™.

    LIMITED KNOWLEDGE OF THE FIELD

    i have absolutely no idea what to say about your list of critics. i’m always surprised by childishness of this order. wow, what a collection of deep thinkers! you’ve read clive james! and seamus heaney! yes, CN&Q, your penis is indeed impressive. please wash your hands before dinner.

    on the “moving on from the globe” score: why would i do that? to please some idiot who wants to parade metcalf’s honours? no, thank you. i’ll stay, but you’re free to stop reading me.

    one last thing: you mentioned elsewhere that you will now be publishing reviews sure to give me apoplexy. thank you for the laugh. i’m not sure what the name is for what happens at the sight of a clown tripping over his own feet. apoplexy isn’t it, though. if this letter is the best you can do, CN&Q, i shall be laughing whenever i see your magazine. (not often, but still …)

    yours with kindest regards
    andre alexis

  10. Nathan says:

    Shorter Andre Alexis: The flaws in my piece were not my fault – you should’ve read the longer version, which is not yet published. Also, there were no flaws. Canadian newspaper reviews are shitty – just look at what Ryan Bigge did years ago. CNQ is too pathetic and small for me to worry my beautiful mind about, which is why I will write this very long reply to your post. (And besides, I have not yet worked out how to capitalize letters on this blasted computer machine.)

    In closing, literary criticism is no place for personal invective, so fuck you, you fucking idiots.

  11. “[W]hy on earth would you write thousands of words trying to disprove the polemic of someone who must be, by your own thinking, so unintelligent?”

    Good question.

  12. Alex Good says:

    An eloquent response, but one that suffers from too heavy a reliance on those old stand-bys adopted by the offended in such situations: (1) missed ironic effect (also known as the “I didn’t really mean the stupid parts” defence), and (2) the piece would have been much stronger if it hadn’t been edited for length.

    With regard to the first point I am inclined more than ever to believe that Mr. Alexis was “only joking” in his essay and simply saying anything to provoke a response. I’m sure he really does respect the Toronto Star and the National Post (despite the negative things they have said about his work) as much as the Globe and Mail (the people who sign his cheques). After all, to think otherwise (as many have done) would mean writing the piece off as a big snit, which I would not want to do.

    As for the unfortunate damage done in forcing Mr. Alexis to cut his 7,000-8,000 word essay down into some bleeding chunks to fit magazine publication, I can only say that I look forward to reading the full version of this essay, complete with all the substantiating material, when it appears in book form shortly. That is the plan, right?

    Two minor points:

    John Metcalf most certainly was not the founder of CNQ. Google it, Andre.

    I take the final point made about the difficulty of finding CNQ at Mr. Alexis’ local bookstores to heart. We will try and remedy this. I know at my own hometown independent, Guelph’s The BookShelf, CNQ was recently put on prominent display as one of the Staff Picks! We love our indies! If I can return the favour to Mr. Alexis, I would point out that at the local Chapters, Asylum is now displayed, rather unattractively, only on the remainder tables. And not on top of those tables either. Should Mr. Alexis plan on any future career as a writer, he might want to see if something can be done about making his shortcomings a little less manifest.

  13. Scott says:

    I am nowhere near the intellect of most if not all the posters here. But something struck me as i read this. Fahrenheit 451. This is what Bradbury was talking about. This is how the scholarly and intellectual section of the world in fact lets the world become as it does. They are all too busy talking proverbial smack to one another – and lo ! before we realize! the working class Joe is further alienated from art and lit.

  14. Nathan says:

    Actually Scott, I think working class Joes and Janes turn off when literary culture turns humourless, passionless, dry, self-righteous, and overly academic.

    Books are on the road to getting burned when only those with high moral fibre are allowed to speak of them, and then only in certain prescribed ways.

  15. Nathan says:

    … upper middle-class Jonathans and Jillians may, however, find all this mud-slinging just terribly distasteful and quite beside the point, and feel that book talk should be, like water and skin cream, free of impurities.

  16. Kerry says:

    (But this IS “humourless, passionless, dry, self-righteous, and overly academic”)

  17. Nathan says:

    I dunno: I laughed.

  18. Jillian! Come quickly. See. There. They’re calling us names again. I told you this is what those sort of people really think of us.

  19. Degen says:

    Does anyone know who’s pitching for the Blue Jays tonight?

  20. Nathan says:

    Oh no! The old “this thread is so beyond boring that I feel compelled to comment on it dismissively and show how cool I am” gambit!

  21. Scott says:

    I honestly meant no insult. I am half way through an English degree. I love literature and in fact enjoy Zaq’s poetry very much. But this is not the kind of thing im looking to get involved in, in terms of the future of Canadian discussion. I have spent time with many circles of poets, from slam to new-formalist, and honestly, it seems the higher the education the greater chance it all slips into high-brow ego-wars. How does this accomplish anything? As i said, a simple opinion from a young student. But this, this is not what i will do with my education.

  22. Scott says:

    The best teacher is the one who suggests rather than dogmatizes, and inspires his listener with the wish to teach himself.
    — Edward Bulwer-Lytton

  23. August says:

    So strange and entertaining to see so much ink (for metaphorical values of “ink”) spilled over this, with folks whose work I admire and respect more or less equally all lining up in different camps. It’s like it’s my birthday and I’ve gotten a pony. I’ve been begging for a public spat like this for the better part of a decade.

    Carry on folks, I’ll spring for the popcorn.

  24. Nathan says:

    Scott – don’t apologize for having an opinion. And I don’t feel there was any insult intended in your original comment.

    You’re likely right about highbrow ego wars, and that is partly what this particular fraternal kerfuffle is about, but it’s also about arguing for the idea that literary criticism – or at least merely reviewing – is a strange hybrid of the elitist and the democratic, of semi-objective scholarship and utterly subjective opinion, of professional aptitude and amateur enthusiasm.

    It’s all very insider baseball, and it’s a little astonishing that it’s gained as much as attention as it has (I have chosen to see that fact as a good thing), but it’s not entirely pointless, nor is it entirely about ego. Arguing over ways of viewing ways of viewing literature can seem (and sometimes is) a little too much like the cataloguing of navel lint, but there is a serious point behind all this, which is that book reviewing need not be some dull affair that must adhere to a single, notion of what criticism is (however seemingly sane and sensible), that the ways and pleasures (really: they exist) of criticism can be multifarious, even to the point of eclipsing the books or works in question. So let a thousand critics bloom and all that.

    Good criticism, at one level, is good writing, and good writing should be encouraged, not pooh-poohed by humourless pedants.

    But in the end, if this ain’t your thang, there’s lots of other seas to fish in.

  25. Scott says:

    thanks Nathan – i appreciate that take. my issue was with both the authors attitudes and some of the posters even. its great to discuss. but why the potshots? both men are clearly passionate. but clearly that doesn’t guarantee a fair fight. or even a civil one. its funny we compare it to baseball, when i always liked the idea writers had more reserve and control than athletes. then, i do love a good charge to the mound ;)

  26. Degen says:

    Hey, did I do that? Was I the first here to mention baseball? – there are so many words to read, it’s hard to tell.

    Anyway, it was lefty Brad Mills for the Jays last night. Pitched a great game, and was then sent back to minor-league Las Vegas for his trouble. There’s an analogy in there somewhere.

  27. Scott says:

    i was referring to nathan saying its very insider baseball.

  28. [...] roughntumble word fights, but it’s nice to be reminded of how much worse these things can be. Witness the casserole of ridiculousness triggered by Andre Alexis’s response to Zach Wells’s critique of his Walrus piece I [...]

  29. Damn, I was on the train and missed the game. Just finished three 40 hour rounds of serving coffee to coach passengers, so not feeling terribly high brow au moment. Whoops. I meant to say “astheur.”

  30. Andre Alexis says:

    wonderful, all of metcalf’s least talented sycophants at once. nathan “i am so clever i ape the book writer’s style in my reviews” whitlock. no, nathan, dearie, the short alexis response would be:

    - a polemic is not a scholarly article, fool.
    - your inability to follow my arguments is your problem.
    - kissing john metcalf’s arse is YOUR job, not mine.

    oh, and there’s alex good, witless blogger.

    - hey, good, i’ll hide my literary shortcomings if you’ll agree to show anything approaching the ability to understand a text, any text. (i would accept commentary on colouring books, maybe you can get whitlock to help you with the crayons.) that your local bookstore has my book as a remainder (ouch! how terribly painful!) while displaying CN&Q would of course be a major victory in your cloudy mind. keep farming, son, maybe some day you’ll actually publish a book.

    as to bad reviews: to publish a book in canada is to play “bozo roulette”. every once in an unpredictable while, you get reviewed by a clown. that would be you, good, when it isn’t you and the red noses you gather to blog so eloquently about how little you know.

    as to the “substantiating material” in my book. no, mr good. there are no “substantiating” quotes or notes in my book. i took them out so that pretentious bullies like you would drop dead at the insult done your guru.

  31. That _was_ a seriously impressive outing by Mills. I look forward to seeing more from him.

  32. Alex Good says:

    Oh, my. Are we down to name-calling?

    I really don’t want to prolong Mr. Alexis’ embarrassment. Those interested in the facts, however, might want to check out the review of “Shut Up He Explained” by noted Metcalf “sycophant” and arse [sic] kisser Nathan Whitlock in Quill & Quire. The link is here: http://www.quillandquire.com/reviews/review.cfm?review_id=5862

    Andre you might want to take a look at it, too. If you can stand it, you should also see my review in the Star, which was far from glowing.

    I do intend to keep farming, at least for a little while. I don’t run a blog, so I can’t properly respond to that part.

    No malice was intended in my pointing out the mortifying fate of Asylum. But really: a five-hundred page brick about the lives and loves of mid-level Ottawa bureaucrats set in the 1980s? Andre, I would like to find out whoever gave that project the green light and punch them right in the nose!

    For the both of us!

  33. Nathan says:

    Now it’s not so funny; in fact it’s kind of sad.

  34. Mr. Big says:

    Serious muscle begets serious muscle. Serious posturing begets serious posturing.

    Who wins?

    Not the reader unfortunately.

  35. [...] 2, 2010 Zach Wells’ dismantling of Andre Alexis’ critical essay “The Long Decline” (published a recent issue of [...]

  36. Jeet Heer says:

    I have to say, really regret the nasty turn this conversation has taken since there are real issues raised by Alexis’s original piece (which Zach did a good job tackling on an intellectual level). There is a serious debate to be had on this topic, and it’s sad that such a promising discussion has degenerated into an all too typical internet food fight.

  37. Gradey23 says:

    You know what’s a bummer? If this debate (this specific debate, I mean) was raging, say, twenty years ago, it would all be taking place on the printed page, giving our eager participants the necessary time to craft more thoughtful, tempered, incisive responses. Instead we’re getting (what clearly appears to be) a bunch of reckless, middle-of-the-night (possibly drunken) publish-button punching.

    I mean, you gotta believe that Double-A must now be regretting his bullied-kid’s backtalk (desperate name-calling as he’s being pushed into a locker by the otherwise passive nerds who, en masse, have discovered their confidence), and A-Good is a better writer than to wield as a weapon my grandmother’s lame sarcasm (“Oh my!” *hooks finger in collar Paul Lynde-style*).

    How great — how much more relevant — would this little feud be if Z had an editor to pare down his bloated, back-patting counterattack, or if someone close to Double-A had leaned over his shoulder while he was madly typing and wiping away the tears and said to him, dude, come on, you’re better than this…

  38. Scott says:

    well said gradey23

  39. omnivore says:

    “And so did the debate between the fleas and the bedbugs proceed, each trying their best to prove that they were the greatest. But just as it seemed a winner might prevail, whether bedbug or flea, a small and careless child happened to step upon the pebble that they had erected to be the grounds that they would contest, without noticing that they were there, or had ever existed, and crushed them all, everyone.”

    –Aesop

    Now lights out, and try to get some sleep, children.

  40. [...] of the pricklier elements of said squabbles was laid at the feet of the medium. Near the end of the CNQ response to the Andre Alexis thing in the Walrus, a poster by the name of Gradey23 said the following, much to the agreement of a handful of [...]

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