Far too many Canadians don’t read books, and of those that do, far too many only read American bestsellers. All attempts to rectify this situation – particularly those by the government – have proved futile, leaving Canadian literature more or less in tatters.
This is one of many provocative observations made by Ottawa-based author, editor and critic John Metcalf in his new book Audacity & Gall. It’s a lively, well-informed, and often hilarious response to something Canadian author WP (Shoeless Joe) Kinsella said about him years ago:
Ministers uniformly seem too stupid to understand that our stories are neither here nor there; what matters is the way you tell it.”
Metcalf explores this point with many examples of authors who provide intriguing or emotionally engaging storytelling. He values compelling language, be it presentation, description or dialogue.
Ironically, after arguing that he knows more about Canadian writing than most Canadians, he offers many British authors as models for new and different storytelling. His favorites include Philip Larkin, Beryl Bainbridge, Keith Waterhouse, Kingsley Amis, Ivy Compton-Burnett, Evelyn Waugh, Henry Green and Barbara Pym. His views on literature were influenced by the English critic Cyril Connolly, who is often quoted in this book.
Given that most of these authors date from the mid-20th century, it is not surprising that Metcalf has become a dedicated collector of old books. The number in his library totals 4,000, and probably the rarest is “advanced evidence of Loving [by Henry Green]’ cost him $2,000.
Audacity & Gall is obviously a must-read for book lovers, but as it presents Metcalf’s energetic wanderings from a Montreal storytellers’ reunion through colorful observation and unabashed opinion, it can be enjoyed by anyone looking for intellectual stimulation.
Dave Williamson is a Winnipeg writer who met John Metcalf 30 years ago at the Eden Mills Writers Festival.