The Walrus Blog

The Long Tail of “The Long Decline”

Critical responses to André Alexis’s critique of Canadian literary criticism

Critical responses to André Alexis’s critique of literary criticism

Illustration by Neil Doshi
Illustration by Neil Doshi

The current, July/August issue of The Walrus includes an essay by André Alexis, “The Long Decline” (excerpted from House of Anansi Press’s forthcoming collection, Beauty and Sadness), which voices concern about the current state of Canadian literary criticism. Our newspapers publish less and less of it, and this loss, Alexis argues, robs our literary culture of an integral element: the communal activity of considering and evaluating literary works. Moreover, according to him, what remains of Canadian criticism has undergone “a kind of populist critical rebellion,” after which, “Our reviews have become, at their worst, about the revelation of the reviewer’s opinion, not about a consideration of the book… Reviews have turned into a species of autobiography, with the book under review being a pretext for personal revelation.”

Alexis singles out novelist and critic John Metcalf as a major instigator of this backlash against the supposedly elitist tradition of aesthetic critique, as Metcalf has “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.” Pungent put-downs and other unreflective expressions of opinion are now, Alexis laments, par for the course among the current generation of Canadian critics; he suggests that they move away from this sort of literary subjectivism and back toward the idea of shared aesthetic standards. The essay’s polemical tone and naming of names seemed sure to provoke — and certainly have. We document excerpts from the resultant, ongoing kerfuffle below.

The ‘woefully incompetent’ and ‘pugnacious’ André Alexis” by Nigel Beale (June 16, Nigel Beale Nota Bene Books):

“Save for the fact that his arguments are so flabby, ill-considered and peevish, André Alexis’s recent lamentation in Walrus [m]agazine about the poor state of Canadian literary reviewing could have yielded a pleasing irony. As it stands the piece is just laughable, exemplifying exactly the kind of ‘woeful incompetence’ and ‘unfounded’ pugnacity he sees in others.”

In this post’s comments field, André Alexis himself responds with further elucidation of his views. Nitpicking ensues, but everything resolves fairly amiably.

John Metcalf is not the enemyby Jeet Heer (July 3, the National Post’s The Afterword blog):

“I would love to live in a Canada where critical discourse was strongly shaped by Metcalf’s writing, but that’s not the country we currently inhabit. And there is no way that Metcalf can be plausibly linked to the woes that Alexis bemoans, such as the shrinking coverage of books in newspapers or the rising snarkiness of reviewers (what he calls ‘the shallow, self-aggrandizing rhetoric that now passes for criticism’).”

Snark Vs. Legitimate Criticism: Reprint of National Post Article on Canadian Book Reviewers” by Ryan Bigge (July 3, The Bigge Idea):

“Girding the Snark debate in Canada is an unspoken lack of confidence about our literary traditions. Rick Moody has not retired, nor will Martin Amis or Margaret Atwood pawn their keyboards because of a few sharp words. We need to learn to utter unpopular opinions more often, otherwise, as Carolyne Van Der Meer argues in subTerrain, [a scrappy lit-mag out of Vancouver,] ‘Too many pedestrian books will continue to get published and find their way into literary culture, ultimately muddying the distinction between banal writing and first-rate literature.’”

One in a series of reaction posts by Bigge — others are here and here — a reviewer who is among the named names in Alexis’s essay.

A comment on the online version of “The Long Decline” by Gordon Phinn (July 4, walrusmagazine.com):

“While I am normally loath to comment on an article excerpted from a book, for fear that the editing may have been quick and dirty, I shall risk the venture this time out as Alexis’s theme rather duplicates my own ‘Metcalf: A Counterblaste’ from a decade ago. Cast into the netherworld of limited chapbook distribution, it did, however, receive its very own eternity in the form of online notoriety, courtesy Michael Bryson’s Danforth Review.

“While Metcalf has undoubtedly had a deleterious influence on critical thinking in our literary culture, encouraging a host of young disciples to splurge their passionate but poorly argued opinions onto print as an antidote to the groaning weight of Canlit boosterism and nationalist dogma left over from the seventies, it remains a perilous proposition as the actual lasting effect of his ‘capering cap and bells’ comedic prancing is still in doubt.”

A matter of taste: revivifying CanLit criticism” by Steven W. Beattie (July 5, That Shakespearean Rag):

“To say that a critic must be possessed of good taste is a highly contentious statement, for the obvious question arises: Who determines what qualifies as ‘good taste’? Is one person’s taste not as valid as anyone else’s? To answer in the negative is to invite accusations of elitism, but it is difficult to ignore the irrefutable truth that a lifetime devoted to reading deeply and widely, to studying the history of literature and literary theory, will have the effect of refining a person’s taste.”

Beattie defends yet another critic, the Toronto Star’s Philip Marchand, against Alexis’s remarks, and agrees with Heer and Bigge that the Canadian literary world needs less backscratching more direly than it needs less nastiness.

To be, we presume, continued.

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  • http://mrsokana.wordpress.com Anakana Schofield

    Even the critical responses omit the mention of the lack of a mention of any single woman critic, anywhere in the world.
    Bellyaching boy scouts be off with ya! Get outta the way! And give over only heeding the gurgles of your own gasses ….
    Try reading for what is there rather than reading for who you think matters.

    Ditto get beyond the pages of newspapers who no longer even pretend to be interested in literature.

    • Whokebe

      Can you put the second part in English please, Anakana?

      Do you have a coherent critique of the practice of criticism to offer or is this just a feminist driveby?

      • jobitek

        Perhaps you “young folks” could who are forced to put down our Bigge-riddled Canadian broadsheets and go stateside to find any younger critics with any argumentative chops”
        While you’re there, you could hire a translator.

    • mitchell cox

      If women want to be represented, then they have to join the fray. No one is stopping females from sitting down and writing a response to Mr. Alexis. Or Mr. Wells, for that matter. So how does your comment have anything to do with the substance of the discussion? Liberate yourself from the fixation on gender and the myth that there’s this cabal of men preventing women from making their voices heard. Move on and join the real world. You’ll be glad you did.

      • McCandless

        Mitchell, it seems to me “if women want to be represented” in a discussion of Canadian literary criticism, they should be a) writing and b) reviewing fiction in Canada. They are–plenty of them. So why no mention of them anywhere in this debate?

        If none have presumed to hurl themselves onto this big sweaty dogpile, it could have something to do with the implicit NO GIRLS ALLOWED sign slapped on the front door.

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  • Another Actual Woman

    False debate? AA is calling for more intellectual analysis and criticism, an approach that will be appreciated by a specific kind of reader. (Academics, other writers, and the highly educated.) Newspapers, on the other hand, are directed at a broader audience: they print what are essentially subjective consumer reviews of books for general readers. Both approaches seem fine in their place when done well.

    So is this angst over who gets paid for reviewing, and how prominently their reviews appear? Or, from a novelist’s perspective, how seriously one’s books are taken in mainstream media culture? As a reader, these are not my questions.

    P.S. Don’t know about his critical offshoots, but I do appreciate John Metcalf as an editor, who has encouraged many stylistically exciting fiction writers: Annabel Lyon, Michael Winter, etc.

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