May 14, 2009
I interviewed Canadian critic/editor/writer John Metcalf on his love of Books and Book Collecting. The same afternoon we also talked about the process of book reviewing, whether or not the use of insult and/or invective is ever justified and if so, when. John is known as a ‘blunt’ critic; one who tells his un-sugared truths directly, who is not reticent to attack ‘with savagery’ books he feels 'insult' him. The conversation refers, among other things, to the Salon des Refuses exercise undertaken by Canadian Notes and Queries and The New Quarterly magazines, personal slights, the problem of awarding the same prizes to authors of widely varying talents, and the importance to healthy literary culture of truth-telling critics.
(Lengthy sentence alert): There are predictable attacks on M.G. Vassanji, Ann Marie MacDonald, and Robertson Davies here, and there is praise too for many young Canadian short story writers, but perhaps the most evident feature of this discussion is Metcalf’s anger, precipitated, I’d say, primarily by a combative dedication to serving a cause larger than himself – excellence in literature – aggravated in small part both by the perceived inability of Canadians to recognize literary greatness, and personal rejection at the hands of this country’s ‘literary establishment’ – bolstered by a natural taste for confrontation and a glee in the fighting of a good fight.