Metcalf in the Moment
by Alex Good

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John Metcalf

For half a century now, John Metcalf has been our greatest champion and most essential critic of the Canadian short story. As author, editor, teacher, and anthologist he has influenced several generations of writers, remaining firm in his guiding aesthetic principles while the literary culture around him has changed with incoming and outgoing tides of fashion.

This constancy is all the more remarkable given that what we talk about when we talk about literature is never the same one year to the next. Canadian writing is a lush ecosystem of interconnected elements—including politics, technology, and economic factors—the varying character and health of which all contribute to defining the culture we’re living, writing, and reading in. That Metcalf’s message has remained relevant is an achievement that The Canadian Short Story, his recently published summa on the subject, allows us to reconsider and evaluate in light of our own particular moment.

Metcalf’s aesthetic critical approach is well outside the current cultural mainstream. The basic idea behind aesthetic criticism is that a work of art should be judged primarily by aesthetic criteria and not by its political or moral message, or considerations of social context or biography . Aesthetic criticism is directed inward, away from the prevailing zeitgeist. It’s often simplified as a close examination of “the words on the page” directed toward matters of style, the writer’s craft, and an interest (using Metcalf’s language) in “the how rather than the what, in technique rather than content.”

This focus lends itself, in turn, to a particular literary form: the teaching-anthology-as-manifesto. Think of books like Ezra Pound’s ABC of Reading, Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren’s Understanding Poetry, and Harold Bloom’s The Best Poems of the English Language. “The proper METHOD for studying poetry and good letters,” Pound argued, “is the method of contemporary biologists, that is careful first-hand examination of the matter, and continual COMPARISON of one ‘slide’ or specimen with another.” The teacher/anthologist’s goal is to provide students with a selection of the best material, the assembled words on the page being its slides and specimens. Little more is needed. Introducing a short passage by Caroline Adderson, Metcalf writes: “Were I teaching I’d be saying ‘Read it aloud. Listen to it. Read it again.’”

And of course Metcalf is teaching. The Canadian Short Story is an education, a short course on the short story. It’s a book very much in the tradition I just mentioned: a hybrid that mixes critical manifesto and reading list, running pithy statements on the practice of good prose and exercises in close reading alongside a gallery of exhibits that form a Canadian short-story canon that Metcalf dubs the Century List.

(A necessary digression on terminology: Canon is not a word Metcalf himself likes, though I prefer it to the Century List, which is a terrible label having nothing to do with either a hundred years or a hundred authors. The list, which constitutes roughly two-thirds of The Canadian Short Story, was so called because in its original 2007 version it only included work written in the twentieth century. Even then, however, it was a misnomer since this particular “century” effectively began in 1950. Since 2007 the list has been expanded to take in the first decade-and-a-half of the twenty-first century, allowing us to now “think of 1950-2015 as a Hobsbawmian ‘long’ fifty years.”)

For Metcalf, the Century List is a living tree: a conversation-starter and point of departure, something constantly evolving and adapting rather than a fixed list of 100 Books to Read Before You Die. The key point is that it is a forum for action, with critics being just as involved as authors in its shaping. This is, in turn, what Metcalf sees as the critic’s primary function. By stimulating and provoking them, teasing them out of thought and forcing them to exercise their mental muscles, he’s trying to educate writers as well as readers. The critic is thus “serving literature” (Metcalf’s emphasis) by contributing to its better understanding and enjoyment. One shouldn’t just appreciate great writing but thrill to it. Otherwise, what’s the point?

Metcalf demonstrates “how to read” then not like a professional (if we can assume that reading still constitutes a professional skill) but rather like any one possessed of intelligence, sensitivity, and a passion for language. The Canadian Short Story is not a book meant to be read cover to cover: you can dip into the Century List at any point and get a taste for how it works. Metcalf’s commentary on a brief passage from Cynthia Flood’s “Dog and Sheep” is typical in its infectious joy and excitement, its emphases and exclamations: “I loved those bleating questions marks. . . The proximity of those last two lines defines the banality of ‘shocking’. . .  There’s something offensive about ‘total’ in the first sentence, slangy, somehow smart-ass, ballcap. . . The opening is a blitzkrieg of exposition and characterization so skilfully performed that we scarcely notice it as performance. . .” And here:

These tiny details, noticed in my first reading of the story, nicked at me when I read the next sentence:

“Then this dog rose out of a ditch.”

Rose?

What a peculiar word! All sorts of meanings attach to it: religious associations, “come to life again,”

“rise from the dead,” “rise (ascend) into heaven,” then “rising in the sense of “uprising,” then the idea of something rising up through water to the surface; I had the strong feeling that I would never have written of a dog that it “rose out of a ditch” unless I had ulterior motive.

It was the word “rose” that alerted me to something going on in this this story I hadn’t been expecting. . . .

And once more we are off to the races.

Again and again Metcalf presents lengthy excerpts—think of Pound’s slides and specimens—for “pedagogical purposes”: to show what good writing looks and sounds like and to provide concrete examples of how it’s done. I say excerpt rather than quotation because he often likes to give a very full taste of an author’s prose, even to the point of including an entire story by Katherine Mansfield. He’ll then drop in to ask us if we noticed some significant detail: a particular word, like Flood’s “rose,” or some minor bit of punctuation.

By describing how Metcalf’s criticism operates and saying what it is we are also saying what it is not. Concerned with technique more than content, it is not interested in themes, or the sort of mythic criticism practised by Northrop Frye (Frye being a bit of a bête noire for Metcalf, though I think that they have more in common than he acknowledges). When it comes to ideas presented in fiction, Metcalf’s disinterest is nearly absolute. In The Canadian Short Story he tells of how, while editing a book by Kathy Page, he rejected two stories for being “thinner in texture, and therefore thinner in feeling, too obviously vehicles for ideas.” Feeling and texture (that is, the texture of prose, its vocabulary, punctuation, syntax, and rhythm) are joined at the hip. Ideas, on the other hand, are disposable. “Oh, how I distrust ideas!” Metcalf laments. It’s a testament to how essential a position this is that the last word in The Canadian Short Story is given over to Oscar Wilde: “Everything matters in art except the subject.”

His disinterest in the ideas presented in fictional works means Metcalf has little interest in the politics of literature. It’s in keeping with this aesthetic orientation that Metcalf is dismissive of today’s literature of social redress, with its tendency to distort literature and treat it merely as fodder for “scarcely comprehensible forays into sociology, politics, philosophy, race, feminism, sexual orientation, etc.” “Writers,” he tells us, “do not sit down to address ‘society,’ pluralistic or otherwise; they sit down to wrestle with language. The anthologist must understand that struggle and concern himself solely with the words on the page, the placement of commas.”

A contrarian stance indeed in the present cultural moment.

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Aesthetic criticism’s present-day alternative is what I’ll call the perspective of social awareness (to avoid labels like the school of resentment, culture of complaint, or grievance studies—popular terms of abuse given by its critics). Social awareness as a form of criticism is less concerned with aesthetic matters than with the moral, social, and political messaging that literature performs. You’d expect such a perspective to be ascendant during politically and socially active cultural moments, and I think that is in fact the case today.

That we live in hyper-political times is something that hits you in the face as soon as you open The Best American Short Stories 2018. Series editor Heidi Pitlor begins by describing how “the rapidly changing condition of American democracy has become an absorbing narrative of its own,” and then proceeds to outline various White House scandals ranging from Russian meddling in the 2016 election to hush-money payments the President made to a porn star. And what, one may ask, does this have to do with short stories? “Fiction writers,” Pitlor tells us, “are now faced with the significant challenge of producing work that will sustain a reader’s attention amid this larger narrative.” How can any fictioneer compete with the reality of the Trump Show?

Pitlor apparently received some criticism for bringing up the subject of Trump’s election in her foreword to the 2017 volume of The Best American Short Stories, but here she is, unapologetic, quoting George Orwell saying that “The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.” This is also clearly the belief of 2018 editor Roxane Gay, who commences her introduction in much the same spirit as Pitlor. “We are in the midst of a significant cultural moment,” she declares, before taking a quick dive into the madness of the Trump White House. “The world feels like it is coming apart.”

Gay, again like Pitlor, argues “that the very act of writing” is always “deeply political” no matter what an author is writing about. There is, in other words, a lot more going on than just “the words on the page.” Yes, it’s important that a story be well told, and demonstrate imagination and the writer’s craft, but politics was also a consideration in her selection of this year’s line-up, and not a secondary consideration either.

As I considered the 120 stories I read for The Best American Stories 2018, I thought about this cultural moment and what it means to both write politically and read politically. If writers have a responsibility for how they narrate the world, certainly readers have a responsibility for what they consume and from whom. . . . I wanted to make sure that the diversity of identity was represented in terms of the writers I selected and the stories they told and how those stories were told. Reading for this year’s anthology was as much a political act, and a way of taking a stand, as my writing.

The stand taken by Pitlor and Gay is by no means unique, even within this year’s crop of Best American books. Trump’s influence is felt everywhere. Introducing The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2018, editor Sheila Heti expresses her surprise, “looking at the collection, that there is no mention of the man who acted as president in 2017.” And in his introduction to The Best American Essays 2018, Hilton Als gives us a memoir-flavoured take on our “broken world” that ends with him offering up Donald Glover’s angry music-video polemic “This Is America” as a charged political essay that perfectly captures the violent and divisive spirit of the age.

The 2018 prize for political editorializing, however, goes to N. K. Jemisin, editor of The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2018. Recognizing that SF and fantasy aren’t escapist forms of literature but rather attempts to describe the way we live now by way of metaphor, Jemison sees authors as leading the resistance: “Right now a shadowy cabal seeking to bring about a fascist new order has become more than a thought exercise. . . . How, then, have science fiction and fantasy answered, in 2017?

With a whole lot of goddamn revolution.”

The revolution Jemisin describes is one driven by fiction’s gunpowder: ideas. It is the ideas speculative fiction puts forth that have the power to change the world. “What can be more revolutionary than ‘what if?’ when that speculation speaks truth to power?”

We are, I think it’s fair to say, a long way from Metcalf’s aestheticism and distrust of ideas in fiction. Whatever else Jemisin means in calling for a revolution, it’s not Pound’s Revolution of the Word.

Well, that’s America. But Canada has also witnessed the inflection of politics into literature and social awareness into the field of literary criticism. For evidence of CanLit as “woke” political battleground we need look no further than Refuse: CanLit in Ruins (Book*hug, 2018). A look at Canadian writing at the “key cultural moment” or “rupture event” of the Steven Galloway affair, this anthology tells us something important in relation to what’s going on in the interconnected elements that make up what I’ve referred to previously as our national literary ecosystem; that is, the various forces that shape what and how we read. Without getting involved in the specific issues, I want to make a couple of points about what Refuse characterizes, repeatedly, as the “raging dumpster fire” of CanLit that I hope are politically neutral and that illustrate how dominant the socially aware view of literature now is.

First, what we talk about when we talk about CanLit today has little if anything to do with actual Canadian writing. What the authors in Refuse are writing about, exclusively, are hierarchies and systems of power, the often dirty game of who’s in and who’s out, and who’s doing what to whom. This is what today’s CanLit is, and while critics see the shifting of focus away from the text to the social and political matrix shaping it as transforming whole swaths of the humanities into an endless airing of grievances, proponents call it a revolution or resistance movement against the exploitation and violence inherent in racist, sexist, ableist institutions (meaning, primarily, universities and the media).

Whichever side you take, the resulting arguments are more concerned with tracking market fluctuations in cultural capital than with jejune questions of literary craft, less interested in comma placement than in the business of determining who is an oppressor and who is a victim/survivor. As Mike Spry put it most directly in a polemical essay he published online: “Institutional CanLit isn’t about art; it’s about hierarchy and power.” You won’t find a more absolute expression of the anti-aesthetic tenor of our time.

The second, related point to make is that a lot of attention is now being directed at these political debates. You may recall the fuss over Hal Niedzviecki’s call (meant as a joke) for the awarding of an appropriation prize in 2017. But do you remember the name of the magazine it appeared in? For the few of you who may be interested, it was Write, a publication put out by the Writer’s Union of Canada. I don’t think more than a handful of union members read it, and I’m pretty sure no one who isn’t a union member has ever heard of it. That is, until Niedzviecki made his gaffe. Yet at the height of the scandal, the National Post was running up to three opinion pieces a day about Niedzviecki’s editorial, with the CBC not far behind. In much the same way, the Galloway affair made that award-winning author into perhaps the most talked-about writer in Canada over the course of the past three years, despite his not publishing anything in all that time.

I can’t emphasize strongly enough just how important this is. It’s no exaggeration to say that these political battles within CanLit, most of them arising out of race or gender issues (what are referred to as “identity politics”), now dominate almost every public discussion of Canadian writers and writing. In an attention economy driven by the need to capture eyeballs and generate clicks, controversies like these have real value. To take just one recent example, the online success of Kristen Roupenian’s “Cat Person,” a short story about a sexual relationship gone wrong published in the New Yorker, led to a seven-figure advance for Roupenian’s debut collection. That means something.

Meanwhile, given how easily outrage is created it’s hardly surprising how this “significant cultural moment” is playing out. All writing has indeed become political, and politics has wholly absorbed the contemporary literary scene. Meanwhile, anything not so oriented has dropped right off the radar. This has led, in turn, to the near total disappearance of whatever sort of criticism you want to identify with close reading and textual analysis, which clearly doesn’t interest or engage today’s public nearly as much as the snap moral judgments triggered by the recently reinvigorated culture wars.

The ascendancy of socially aware criticism wasn’t brought about by Donald Trump, UBC Accountable, or the #Metoo movement. In Guilty Aesthetic Pleasures, Timothy Aubry describes the hegemony of political criticism in the academy for going on forty years now, a period during which the aesthetic approach has been forced into a “disreputable and subterranean position” (and, significantly, one “almost exclusively the province of non-academic critics”). Aubry refers to this as the “aesthetic unconscious,” a label that echoes Harold Bloom’s “aesthetic underground,” which was, in turn, borrowed by John Metcalf for the title of the first volume of his memoirs. And it is in An Aesthetic Underground that Metcalf tells the story of discovering Russell Smith.

Best Canadian Stories 2018 was edited by Smith (the previous year’s volume, the first to be published by Biblioasis after it took over the series from Tightrope Books, was helmed by Metcalf). In his introduction, Smith acknowledges the importance of both aesthetic criteria and the zeitgeist in his selection of stories. He begins by talking about Roupenian’s “Cat Person” and how “it describes a moment in a culture, a contemporary moment.” We are back in a moment again, of #Metoo and #Timesup. And this is not a bad thing, Smith argues. Today’s writers of fiction should engage with all that is going on about them. “This is what art does best,” he explains, “it situates the political in the body and the landscape.” In doing so “it rises above argument” and the merely didactic.

This point about resisting the didactic is one that all too often gets lost in today’s politicization of literature. The stories Smith selects address contemporary political questions, but they do so in ways that make those questions more complicated. In Bill Gaston’s “Kiint,” a fish farm is blown up by an eco-terrorist and we’re not sure if he’s a seductive hero or just a dangerous nut. Michael LaPointe’s “Candidate” goes behind the scenes and screens to show us the dark and damaged forces enabling the rise of a right-wing politician. And, in Lynn Coady’s “Someone Is Recording,” a #Metoo narrative plays out in a series of increasingly angry emails. In each of these stories we meet what Smith describes as “flawed and guilty people,” not heroes and villains. The political is problematized. In Coady’s story, for example, the usual he-said/she-said narrative is upset by the fact that we only hear what he said. Which means that even if we find his side of the story convincing we’re still left knowing that something, indeed a lot, is missing. Instead of taking sides we’re left questioning what it is we can be sure of.

Alicia Elliott’s “Tracks,” the story of a woman whose best friend commits suicide by jumping in front of a subway train, offers another good illustration of why it’s important to complicate the political message. I liked “Tracks,” particularly for the skilful way it handles the arrangement and gradual unravelling of its mysterious plot. It’s one of those stories that has a secret to reveal but doesn’t tease the reader as it does so. Instead, it proceeds through a series of mini-climaxes before springing the explanation behind all of the events in the final pages, as though we’re hearing a third shoe drop. There are various political asides throughout, but what stayed with me most was this demonstration of narrative art. Elliott isn’t a writer whose use of language amazes, but she does have the ability to fashion a story with momentum, and one can feel genuine enthusiasm for “Tracks.”

As it happens, Elliott achieved the rare double feat of having another, different story included in The Best American Short Stories 2018. Editor Roxane Gay, you’ll remember, made it clear that politics was an important consideration in her selection. The Elliott story she chose, “Unearth,” is about a Native woman who finds out that the body of her long-lost brother, who disappeared when he was sent off to a residential school over half a century ago, has been found in the excavation for a fast food restaurant.

It’s a powerful set-up, but “Unearth” is not a very good story. One feels it is too obviously, in Metcalf’s way of putting it, the vehicle for an idea. The symbolism is heavy-handed (eating as commodification and communion), the dialogue mechanical, and the wind-up almost mawkish. The writing frequently lapses into mere exposition, in the mode of what might be called the sentimental absolute (“Everything Beth ate was burnt black”; “It tasted better than any food she’d ever had”). And finally, there is no complexity to the message whatsoever, the only point or idea being that the protagonist’s family has been the victim of a great evil, perpetrated by a cruel and racist system. “Unearth” may stand as a fair indictment of the residential schools program, in a way that makes the story important in a torn-from-the-headlines way, but I much prefer Smith’s aesthetic judgment to Gay’s.

Is the aesthetic response today only an unconscious force or instinctual pull toward beauty? It may seem that way. While evaluative criticism isn’t dead, what we’re evaluating has clearly changed. Instead of close reading and textual analysis, the critic engages in a political and moral evaluation of the author’s ideas and point of view. It’s the sort of thing that stands behind a lot of the complaints against political correctness: that the author (and critic) are now set before a tribunal that judges them not on the quality of their work or the originality of their thought, but on whether they behave themselves properly (at the very least by not violating any morality clause in their contracts), hold the right sorts of beliefs, and say the right things. In short, on their character and the civic or social value of their political messaging.

This has had the effect of putting criticism in a straitjacket. In 2018, Canada’s Governor-General’s Award for fiction went to Sarah Henstra’s The Red Word, a novel about a group of feminist activists and the fallout from a campus rape, while the Scotiabank Giller Prize went to Esi Edugyan’s Washington Black, the story of an escaped slave in the nineteenth century. Obviously, these books have political themes, and their success in claiming Canada’s top two prizes for fiction may be taken as representative, once again, of writing in the moment. Have some sympathy then for the person called upon to review them.

I like both books, though The Red Word is too long and works its classical analogy too hard, while Washington Black has some very lazy writing. But then turn, as we must, to the matter of their ideas and one becomes aware of the very different standards used for judging these things.

Henstra complicates matters by making the feminist gang conflicted and culpable in their own downfall. The Red Word is, to use Smith’s terms, a book filled with “flawed and guilty people,” which is exactly what makes them interesting. In Washington Black, however, the good guys and bad guys are clearly demarcated. We meet a bad guy—he’s explicitly identified as “sinister” before Edugyan even begins to describe him—on page 2. This is the plantation owner Erasmus Wilde, and he is very bad and very, very white. Meanwhile, in an admiring review in the National Post, Robert Fulford had this to say about the book’s hero: “Wash is perfect. He’s instantly lovable and astonishingly clever; no one can avoid caring about him.”

I have difficulty accepting this as any kind of critical maxim. Why, I wonder, would anyone care about a perfect person? But such moral judgments are pretty much all a reviewer has left these days. Fulford doesn’t address questions of language and style, of showing vs. telling or round vs. flat characters. Instead, his appreciation of the novel ends with an appeal for us to remember that slavery is still an issue in the twenty-first century then signs off with an appeal to donate to the Free the Slaves foundation. So Washington Black is, finally, a successful bit of political messaging. For the socially aware, that messaging expands the novel’s meaning and relevance. For an aesthetic critic it is absurdly reductive, as it uses literature, and historical fiction in particular, only to teach basic moral lessons that can be easily graded.

This, then, is our present critical dispensation. It is so in large part because writing within our “significant cultural moment” is what gets attention. That moment works to define what and how we read, what books we talk about, and in what terms we talk about them.

In the face of all this, aesthetic critics remain hopeful. Aubry writes of how, in the present age, “Politics is in the lead, but aesthetic judgment plays its own quiet part.” Which sounds like a mild endorsement indeed, but it may be the best we can expect. Smith, meanwhile, concludes that “This ultimately is where we always return, regardless of subject or setting: to the extraordinary power of the surprising sentence.”

I would like that to be true. I am, however, no longer convinced that such a Metcalfian sentiment has much purchase. At no time in the past twenty years (the time I’ve been reviewing) have I felt the aesthetic qualities of good writing to be less relevant to either commercial or critical success than they are today. Put simply, good writing no longer matters very much. Or, if you rather: CanLit isn’t about art. This makes The Canadian Short Story a more necessary work than ever. It also, I’m afraid, makes it that much harder to appreciate.

—A CNQ Web Exclusive, April 2019

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