Metcalf reflects on all things Canadian literature in new volume

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:

<p>Photo by Ellen Carey</p>
<p>Among his many goals, John Metcalf criticizes the Canada Council for the Arts, calling it “bourgeois-meals-on-wheels do-gooders.”</p>
<p>Ellen Carey photo</p>
<p>Among his many goals, John Metcalf criticizes the Canada Council for the Arts, calling it “bourgeois meals on wheels”.</p>
<p>“Mr.  Metcalf—an immigrant—constantly, and in the most annoying way, has the audacity to preach to Canadians about their own literature.”			</p>
<p>Metcalf, now 83, was born in England but has lived most of his life in Canada, where he has edited over 200 books and written some fine fiction (<em>The Museum at the End of the World</em>).  His two previous non-fiction books (<em>Shut up, he explained </em>2007 and <em>An aesthetic background </em>in 2003) were billed as a memoir, but they addressed some of the same concerns he discusses in his latest.			</p>
<p>Metcalf has read widely and among the Canadian writers he admires are Clark Blaise, Leon Rooke, Ray Smith, Alice Munro, Hugh Hood and Linda Svendsen.  He refers to the “Mud and Mire of Al Purdy, bp Nichol, bill bissett, Dionne Brand, [and] Victor Coleman,” while claiming that Robert Kroetsch’s “only serious competitor in the Unreadability Stakes is Rudy Wiebe.” Meanwhile, he dismisses Margaret Atwoods <em>Surviving: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature </em>as “stupefying” and “dumbing”.			</p>
<p>Metcalf criticizes the federal government’s attempts to stimulate literature, for example, through the CBC:			</p>
<p>“Canada reads.			</p>
<p>“That’s new to me!			</p>
<p>“These nauseating CBC voices, jovial, caring, cooing, earnest, sincere, sincere, understanding, inclusive, empathetic, open-minded – words fail the depth of my disgust – and reduce the experience of literature to a Dumbo game show.”			</p>
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<p>Audacity & Gall</p>
<p>Audacity & Gall</p>
<p>Metcalf is particularly upset with the Canada Council for the Arts, whose motivation boils down to “petty-bourgeois food-on-wheels do-gooders.”  Despite changes over the years, “any system of government arts funding is doomed to reward mediocrity.”  The Canada Council’s stated purpose is to promote excellence in the arts, but in 2017 the Council’s CEO pledged to “get more money into the hands of first-time applicants, Indigenous artists and those from different communities.”  ‘ Why,’ Metcalf asks, ‘would he swear if he hadn’t seen a sudden and hitherto hidden surge of convincing artistry?’			</p>
<p>The Canada Council aims to give Canadian writers “the opportunity to ‘tell our own stories…’, according to the Heritage Minister.			</p>
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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.

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