John Metcalf is an unrepentant elitist. This is not, nor should it be read as, a pejorative slam. The man himself would most likely embrace the designation, not seeing in it the epithet that it has become in a society besotted by the democratization and egalitarianism of absolutely everything. The problem, as Metcalf argues in his latest volume of memoir/criticism, “Temerity and Gall,” is that when it comes to literature, talent is not equally distributed. Nor is the ability to recognize the flash of the extraordinary in imaginative literature on the page.
Metcalf’s ability to do this — to root out clichés or potted language with an almost fanatical precision — results from a lifetime of reading and considering the ways good prose differs from that which is bad or, worse, merely competent.
His exacting eye and his ongoing willingness to call out what he considers substandard, inert, or deadening in our literary culture has earned him opprobrium, including from the late WP Kinsella, who provides Metcalf’s latest hybrid volume of memoir/criticism with its title. “Mr. Metcalf — an immigrant — continually and in the most galling manner has the temerity to preach to Canadians about their own literature,” Kinsella wrote in a letter to the editor of the Globe and Mail.
Leaving aside his slagging of Metcalf as an immigrant — a comment that wouldn’t go unchallenged today — he is, in at least one respect, correct. Metcalf continues to focus his critical ire on those elements of Canadian literature he finds wanting; the issue is that he sets his sights on the heavyweights, often beloved figures in our national establishment.
Jack McClelland, for example, possessed sensibilities that were “not particularly literary” and a reputation “vastly overblown.” Matt Cohen’s novels are “inept” and “too bloody boring” to even contemplate rereading. Robert Kroetsch was a “celebrated and laborious postmodernist.” Such gleeful enthusiasm for his scorched-earth policy where the mandarins of CanLit are concerned (he reserves special ire for Simon Brault of the Canada Council and the nationalist platitudes of the CBC: “Canada Reads. That it does is news to me!”) have secured his reputation as a divisive figure at best.
Such observations are also, of course, blisteringly funny and provide some of the sharpest and most energizing sections in “Temerity and Gall.” One need not agree with everything Metcalf says to find much to glaw on in his analyzes of the various ways literary technique and style — the twin shibboleths (in contemporary eyes) of Metcalf’s esthetic approach — are too often downgraded or outright ignored by a literary landscape more devoted to imaginative writing as a branch of sociology or moral betterment.
Unfortunately, such material in this new volume buckles under the weight of much extraneous detail. Metcalf is fond of quotation, often excerpting passages that run four or five pages or more from secondary sources that seem tangential at best. And one wonders whether it was really necessary to include better than 100 pages cataloging volumes from Metcalf’s personal library, all with requisite quotations and all indicating the price Metcalf paid at various antiquarian booksellers. It’s rare to find such an exacting editor so desperately in need of an editor.
That said, Metcalf’s volume, which takes as its structure a 2015 reunion tour of the surviving members of the Montreal Storytellers (who at the time included Metcalf, Ray Smith, since deceased, and Clark Blaise), is a useful introduction to his overall esthetic and the concerns that have dogged him throughout his career as a writer, editor and gadfly.
It is also illustrative of how important he has been as a curator; Metcalf is responsible for discovering some of the finest stylists to appear in Canada in the past half-century (including Caroline Adderson, Sharon English, KD Miller, Kevin Hardcastle, Paige Cooper, Steven Heighton, and Keath Fraser). While it’s amusing to wrestle with the temerity and gall of Metcalf’s settled esthetic standards (his choice for the 20th century’s greatest British novelists — Evelyn Waugh and Kingsley Amis — tells you pretty much everything you need to know), his achievement in translating this approach into practice as mentor and guiding light is invaluable and we are all in his debt.
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