The Long Decline

Canada used to have a vibrant critical culture. What happened?

Illustration by Neil Doshi

Toronto is the city in which I have been disabused of any number of notions, where I have lost a certain innocence. I would have lost it in London or Paris, Tokyo or Port of Spain. No doubt. But my education has happened here, in Toronto, during a long decline in Canadian critical culture.

Where to start?

I am writing these words on January 1, 2010, almost exactly twenty-three years after I first came to Toronto. The Toronto Star’s book section is small, ineptly edited, and not worth reading. (And when I say ineptly edited, I mean that the current book editor, in allowing personal attacks and collegiate vitriol to stand as “book reviews,” has directly contributed to the irrelevance of the two measly pages the Star now puts out, dutifully, Sunday after Sunday.) The Globe and Mail’s book section has been reduced from a stand-alone magazine to a handful of pages in the Focus section. As a contributing Globe reviewer, I have found the slow deterioration of the paper’s book coverage even more painful to witness than the Star’s. It is the last remaining book section worthy of the name, I suppose, but it’s a shadow of its former self. Its editor, Martin Levin, still manages to dig up capable reviewers now and then, but one wonders if the newspaper itself really cares, since it has decided to pander to popular taste (or, more accurately, the decline in popular taste) by shortening the reviews and including more breezy interviews with “interesting” authors. Neither the Sun nor the National Post has book sections worth mentioning. And one also wonders: is it to some feeling of guilt that we owe such book sections as remain in our newspapers, like vestigial limbs?

But why should the death of book review sections matter?

My answer to that question is entangled in my idealism. For me, book sections have been (even if only potentially) necessary forums for the exchange of ideas. When I read The New York Review of Books or The Times Literary Supplement, I can, if I choose, find out what John Searle thinks about relativism. I can read about Tariq Ali or Ian Buruma’s thoughts on Islam in Europe. I can revisit Galileo’s relationship to the church or Stephen J. Gould’s thoughts on baseball. Books are where ideas come to you without a middleman, but the reception books and ideas are given is itself an echo from the agora, the place where men and women work out what it is they think about politics, religion, science, art, and beauty.

Obviously, there are any number of agorae. The audience for The New York Review of Books (leftist) is not identical to that for The Times Literary Supplement (rightist). A good book review section gives us a strong picture of a particular agora. In the ’80s, the Globe and Mail’s book section was an inspiring venue for Canadian intellectual life, one that allowed me to believe in the seriousness of my fellow countrymen. Stan Persky—one of my favourite Canadian reviewers—wrote for the Globe, as did Jay Scott, though he was one of the paper’s film reviewers. (In fact, for a moment there, the intellectual aspirations of our reviewers was almost baffling. I remember being pleasantly stunned when Jay Scott spoke of Roland Barthes in the course of reviewing a Hollywood picture.)

In other words, a book section isn’t only about letting people know that such-and-such a work has been published. It’s a place where consideration happens—and the nature of a consideration is important, whatever book or idea sets it in motion. Consideration, for me, isn’t so much a matter of determining the ultimate value of a work, but rather of allowing a community to participate in the evaluation of the work.

So, in answer to my own question: for me, the loss or decline of book sections has been part of the loss or decline of my community.

There is another aspect of this decline.

These days, Canadian literary reviewers are so woefully incompetent, it makes you wonder if there’s something in our culture that poisons critics in their cradles. I was once told, by a short, pompous man with thick, dark-rimmed glasses (a self-styled “critic”), that criticism is “the rich loam out of which literature blooms.” If that were the case, Canadian literature would have withered, died, and blown away long ago. The failure of our country to produce a single literary critic of any worth, at least since the death of Northrop Frye, is striking. And in this age when book review pages disappear from our dying newspapers, things are likely to get worse. That is, we’re likely to be left with nothing but the sheer opinion spreading that passes for critical thought these days.

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. Is Canadian literary reviewing worse than British or American reviewing? In that there is less of it, yes. In that there are fewer venues for it, yes. But neither the British nor the Americans have produced any particularly compelling critics lately, either. James Wood, the one name anyone mentions—and there is a kind of desperation in the mentioning—is, by his own choice, a limited critic. His assumption is that his judgment, a decision on whether or not such-and-such a work is “good,” is the most important aspect of criticism has led to lively enough talk, but he has not found an original perspective (his recent book, How Fiction Works, aside) from which to look on literature. In his way, Wood is a throwback to practitioner/reviewers like Nabokov or Tolstoy, whose judgments are part of their own aesthetic processes, having more to do with how they create than with understanding the work under consideration. (Think, for instance, of Nabokov’s schoolmarmish condescension toward Dostoyevsky, or Tolstoy’s inability to see any value in Shakespeare’s work.) Wood’s inability to appreciate Paul Auster or Thomas Pynchon is in no way a victory for the critical consciousness. It’s a defeat. And part of what is wrong is the forgetting that there is such a thing as a defeat of the reviewer. Reviewing is, by its nature, the chronicle of a small community: writer, book, reader. It is, for the brief time it exists, a community of equals. A reader/reviewer who fails to appreciate or understand a book tends to blame the book or the writer. And, in fact, it may well be that the book is ineptly done or that the writer is at fault. But readers are generally blind to their own deficiencies, and reviewers even more so. It’s very, very rare to find a reviewer—whose job, after all, is to convince us that he or she knows whereof he or she speaks—who will even admit the possibility that he or she is the weak member in the community he or she is chronicling.

Well, yes, but what should the reviewer do? Begin any negative review with a mea culpa, with an apology for his or her betrayal of the book under consideration? No, obviously, that would be fatuous. The problem is, rather, in the approach. Our reviews have become, at their worst, about the revelation of the reviewer’s opinion, not about a consideration of the book or an account of the small world that briefly held writer and reviewer in the orbit of a book. Reviews have turned into a species of autobiography, with the book under review being a pretext for personal revelation.

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

Northrop Frye was a great critic, but his work—and some of the work he influenced, Margaret Atwood’s Survival, above all—was one of the catalysts for a kind of populist critical rebellion. Frye’s work was academic, specialized, and structuralist. Anatomy of Criticism is a book that, it has been suggested, put methodology first and, to an extent, the literary works it was scrutinizing second. I don’t think that’s entirely fair. Frye’s respect for the literary work was, to me, inspiring. And he was a good practical critic (or reviewer). He could write a clear evaluation of Wallace Stevens, say, that was accessible to all, whether you had read Anatomy of Criticism or not.

Atwood’s Survival was also academic and, perhaps, a little rigidly methodological. It put classification above aesthetic consideration. The works Atwood writes about are put into categories she has devised, their importance based on taxonomy. Personally, I think Survival is a brilliant book, but a common complaint of Metcalf’s, and of those influenced by him, was that critics like Atwood rated books more highly than they should have because, for instance, those books were examples of “Canadian gothic” or some other such category. Books by Frederick Philip Grove, which, practically speaking had little real influence on Canadian writing, were highlighted because they were exemplars of certain tendencies in Canadian literature. To Metcalf, this meant that academics had created or were creating a distorted version of Canadian literature. Worse, academic classification, as an end in itself, gave the impression that academics are the ones best equipped to deal with literary works. Refusing to address whether a book was actually any good or not, refusing to judge a work’s sheer aesthetic worth, led to a breach. On one side, in their ivory towers, were the academics, who rarely allowed themselves to be troubled by trivial things like the pleasure a book gives. On the other side were writers like John Metcalf, who insisted that not only was the pleasure a book gave important, but that the pleasure it gave was likely a better indication of the book’s influence as well. That is, people read and love The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. They don’t read, unless forced to, Settlers of the Marsh. So, what does “influence” mean if you can call Settlers of the Marsh as influential a work as Duddy Kravitz simply because Settlers is an exemplar of the immigrants’ tale?

In the ’80s, Metcalf waged an effective campaign against “academic” criticism. In Kicking Against the Pricks, which is by some distance his best book, he makes a convincing case for his concerns. For one thing, in an essay called “Punctuation as Score,” he demonstrates a sensitivity to language, and he makes that something of a calling card. (It’s as if he were saying: I’ve meditated on words, on what they can do, and on how they are most effectively used. Have you?) An essay like “Punctuation as Score” is, for me at any rate, so amusing—and instructive—that it’s possible to forgive the shaky foundation of his argument in other parts of the book. Foremost among the shaky premises is the idea that “good writing” is easily distinguished from bad. Anyone who has actually tried to set down rules to help discriminate between good and bad writing knows just how difficult this is. Metcalf doesn’t set down rules, though. 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? ” Having spent so much time arguing against the “academic,” there really isn’t much more that Metcalf can do. He has painted himself into a corner where any introduction of system or method would itself be considered “academic.” Not surprisingly, he and his followers do a lot of pointing.

Another problem for those who wander into his critical books looking for help in finding “good writing” is 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. It wouldn’t usually be fair to point to the failings in a writer’s prose as a sign that he or she does not know good prose from bad. There are great critics who can recognize the good in art without being able to reproduce it themselves. But Metcalf is a special case. In his 2003 autobiographical book, An Aesthetic Underground: A Literary Memoir, he compares literature to fine wine and speaks of his sensibility as if it were a highly developed palate. His argument implies that as a connoisseur of wine can tell good wine from bad with a sip, so the trained literary mind can tell a good book after a page or two. He has made his sensibility the issue.

Now, of course, many critics behave this way. Metcalf himself borrows the “connoisseur” analogy, quoting Cyril Connolly. But a novel or short story is different from wine in that, often and with the best work, you must finish it to know what is effective and what is not, to know where a work fits in. It’s easy to find bad sentences in Edgar Allen Poe’s work (Aldous Huxley does, and snickers at them). But Poe stays in the mind, awkward prose or not. (Crome Yellow? Not so much, though no doubt it is “better written.”) Dostoyevsky is a similar case. Yes, Nabokov was right to criticize Dostoyevsky’s writing. And yes, Demons is, for long stretches, badly written and tedious. But I defy anyone to point to the equivalent, anywhere in world literature, of the scene in which Kirillov, the nihilist, must decide whether or not to kill himself. Pure, unforgettable nightmare. Fanatics of “great prose,” like Metcalf (or Nabokov), reduce novels and stories to one of their elements and then insist that that element, style in this case, is the only legitimate one for critical consideration.

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

So, one could legitimately say that Metcalf has turned a generation of reviewers away from “academic” evaluations of literature. His work suggests that pleasure is the most important aspect of any work (as Philip Larkin, in an essay called “The Pleasure Principle,” did before him), and he made the critic’s own pleasure, or non-pleasure, the accepted content in an evaluation of literary works. Finally, in anthologies like The Bumper Book, which he edited, Metcalf encouraged reviewers to vividly express their opinions, especially their unfavourable opinions, in the belief, first, that it leads to discussion and, second, that a pungent put-down is more entertaining.

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

We have gone so far away from the idea of criticism, from the elaboration of a communal consideration of the books we read, that it really doesn’t matter who comments on our novels or poems or plays. One opinion is as valuable as any other, because the work is a pretext for talk about one’s opinions, or for the generation of high emotion. If, under the supposed tyranny of academic criticism, the literary object disappeared under a mountain of methodology, nowadays it vanishes beneath the ego of the reviewer or the reviewer’s desire to create talking points. It vanishes beneath the tyranny of someone else’s pleasure.

This is all, of course, part of a cycle. We move, as critical thinkers, toward the communal or away from it, toward the idea of a common critical enterprise or back to belief in the sanctity of opinion. So, perhaps the time has come to revisit the idea of literary theory, to reconsider a virtue at the heart of it.

In Alternating Current, Octavio Paz writes of criticism that it is “a world of ideas that as it develops creates an intellectual space: a critical sphere surrounding a work of literature, an echo that prolongs it or contradicts it. Such a space represents the meeting place with other works, the possibility of a dialogue between them.” Paz’s is a vision of criticism as communal construct, the creation of a place where books meet, but it can also be taken as the vision of a place where thinkers and lovers of literature can evolve a shareable language. At the end of any critical revolution, we are left with jargon. Words like “logocentrism” or “différance” are a stink given off by the corpse of that movement known as deconstructionism. It’s important to remember, though, that they once held ideas that were, for a time, useful in finding a new vantage point on literature, in creating a common ground for thinkers about literature.

Above, I spoke of James Wood. His early work is exemplary of the worst of criticism (or reviewing) as plastic surgery. If one enjoyed the theatre of operations, one could regularly watch Dr. Wood cutting away work that he felt wasn’t worthy of the pursuit that is “great literature.” But with How Fiction Works, something important has changed. Though the book doesn’t acknowledge its own prejudices and assumptions, James Wood has begun to move away from judgment and toward the contemplation of ideas (“free indirect style,” “detail,” the nature of “character” in fiction, etc.) that might serve as a useful ground from which we can all talk about novels or short stories. Today’s preoccupation with free indirect style has the potential to become the next decade’s “phallogocentrism,” but it was startling to read Wood write of David Foster Wallace and Thomas Pynchon with an eye not primarily to a dismissal of “hysterical realism,” but rather to an understanding of the necessity, the logic of their creation. And in that possibility of understanding, there is what is best about theory: the brief—inevitably brief, because every generation has to renovate the language and idea of criticism—sense that literature is one of the most startling things we humans do, our hive making, our adaptive coloration.

“The Long Decline” is adapted from Beauty and Sadness, a collection of non-fiction published by House of Anansi Press.

This appeared in the July/August 2010 issue.

André Alexis
Neil Doshi
Neil Doshi, a regular Walrus contributor, has designed products for and Poketo.