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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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?
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.
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.