oronto 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.
here 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.
orthrop 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
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?