|The Ottawa Citizen|
Monday, September 24, 2007
John Metcalf -- fine short story writer, mentor to a generation of upcoming Canadian writers, and gadfly to the Canadian literary establishment -- is back with a new book and a set of opinions as pointed, uncompromising and heartfelt as ever.
Metcalf will be reading from his latest book, Shut Up He Explained, at the Manx Pub on Saturday. That will be the book's launch, part of the Plan 99 Reading Series that has been running for seven years.
For years, Metcalf was senior editor at the Porcupine's Quill, perhaps the country's premier small press. Now 69, and newly installed as fiction editor at Biblioasis, a small press based in Windsor, he says he's caught new breath at an age at which he was starting to feel he should fade into the background.
The new book, he says, is "something strange, something that goes in three or four directions -- part memoir, part history, part criticism, and part an attempt to engage people with good prose and show them how to read it."
Canadians, he's been saying for decades, have never really learned to read well. They've been seduced by the belief that Canadian writing takes its virtue from being Canadian, and not from any intrinsic merit in the quality of the prose.
"We've had almost a total confusion between literature and nationalism. Large claims have been made for books simply because they are written by Canadians -- and I have irritated many people by insisting that this is an appalling basis for judgment."
He spends a good deal of time demonstrating, persuasively, that Morley Callaghan, "the father of the Canadian short story," as he's often called, is, in fact, a second-rate writer. And he's scandalized that M. G. Vassanji has twice won the Giller Prize and is again on this year's short list for The Assassin's Song.
"It's peculiar that this country's most prestigious prize has been given twice to a man who really is barely capable of writing a sentence in English," Metcalf says. "And this isn't a matter open to dispute -- all you really have to do is read a paragraph, and it's awful."
People sense more negativity in his work than is really there, Metcalf says. He's never disputed that there are many fine Canadian writers -- Alice Munro, Mavis Gallant, Leon Rooke, Clark Blaise and Norman Levine, among others. And he sees many up and coming writers -- "at least 30" -- who are doing work respectable according to any international standard.
Sitting in a sunlit room in his art-filled Centretown home, Metcalf, all reputation for ferocity aside, is a picture of owlish amiability, listening closely to questions and often laughing as his mind makes connections as names are mentioned and old controversies revisited. His English origins -- he came to Canada in 1962 -- are evident in his accent and unusual precision of speech.
He smiles when a line in his book about his mood of four years ago is read to him: "It was a cumulative exhaustion," he writes, "the exhaustion of years. I was feeling deeply weary of swimming against the tide, deeply weary of living embattled."
"That's not the feeling I have today," he says, as he talks about Dan Wells, the owner of Biblioasis, for which Metcalf plans to serve for several years as fiction editor.
"I was going to withdraw, but then I met Dan and was quite revitalized by his enthusiasm, his youth, and his energy. I think we can make Biblioasis the best literary publisher in the country, just as I believe I'd done with Porcupine's Quill."
Metcalf says he's always told the Canadian literary establishment "not to circle their wagons, but to straighten them out and look outward." And Biblioasis, he's happy to say, is already looking at the wider world.
"We will have lots of Canadians on our list, but we've already moved to publish some Americans, and in fact we're just moving to publish a writer from Angola, in a translation from Portuguese. We don't plan to be inward-looking at all."
There will be lots of space for young Canadian writers, many of whom he quotes in brief passages in the new book.
"I want to celebrate a whole generation of new young Canadian writers," he says. "And when I quote pieces of their prose, I want readers to treat it as a buffet, where you sample something, find you like it, and perhaps get the book that it was taken from.
"If I can be instrumental in getting even a handful of people to read those books, then that is reward enough."
Among the writers are Mike Barnes, Mary Borsky, Ann Copeland, Keath Fraser, Lisa Moore, Diane Schoemperlen and Russell Smith. (There are also such old hands as Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, Mavis Gallant, Hugh Hood, Margaret Laurence, Alistair MacLeod and Norman Levine.)
In the book, he writes of feeling several years ago that, by 70, he would no longer be on top of the game, "perhaps too hidebound" to hear the voices of emerging young writers.
Now only one year away from that milestone, he finds that fear has vanished.
"I think I'm hearing the new voices loud and clear," he says. "And I'm perfectly confident that Dan Wells and I are going to produce a very interesting list."
As part of the Plan 99 Reading Series, John Metcalf will be reading at the Manx Pub, 370 Elgin St., on Saturday, Sept. 29 at 5 p.m. Seating is not guaranteed.