The long, long, long decline

September 28, 2010 by · 5 Comments 

Over at Nigel Beale’s blog, André Alexis provides a lengthy rejoinder to the responses he has received in the wake of his essay about the dismal state of Canadian literary criticism, “The Long Decline,” which appeared earlier this year in The Walrus. In the course of making his arguments, he points to the lists of over- and underrated authors that Alex Good and I published in the National Post last month, lists that Alexis feels are emblematic of the problems plaguing literary criticism in this country:

Good n’ Beattie allow that these lists are always “somewhat subjective,” but this list is, of course, entirely subjective because neither man has anything approaching the desire to establish ground rules that focus on the work itself. Leaving aside the fact that the writers on the “overrated” list are the usual bêtes noires of CNQ/Marchand-doting snobs, both lists are made up of literary writers whose aims and objectives are similar. (Genre writers like Howard Engel are on neither list.) For Good n’ Beattie, writer “A” has money, power, and reputation. So, writer “A” is overrated. Writer “B” who has not (or not yet) gained money, power, and reputation is “underrated.” As it stands, “underrated” or “overrated” are not aesthetic categories. They are social ones. The discussion is about power and status, but it’s disguised as a literary discussion.  (A terrible disguise, by the way: putting the literary “failings” of one set of writers against the literary “virtues” of another is so childish in its desire to provoke one wonders if Good n’ Beattie are out of high school.)

These lists – clichés justified by the arguments they’re meant to stimulate – are part of the stultifying process we’re going through. They’re media-driven “shocks” meant to sell papers, not to help us think about how literature matters or what is crucial in our literature.

Despite the fact that Alexis here buys into the increasingly common tendency (especially on the Internet) to dismiss anyone with whom he disagrees by calling them “snobs” and/or “childish” (his … um … childish quip about high school is a bit ironic after writing earlier in his own piece that “Those who reach thirty and still need to belittle others in print are plain bullies and have nothing to do with the literary climate,” but never mind), the point about “shock” standing in for complex critical thought is well-taken. Of course, the Post lists were never meant to embody complex critical thought: it’s impossible to do any writer, let alone any single work of literature, justice in 50 words or less – which is, after all, precisely Alexis’s point.

Alexis goes on to say that he thinks the more appropriate thing would be to put together a list of Canada’s most overrated critics but, upon reflection, he was only able to come up with Philip Marchand as a candidate. Although he would no doubt suggest that I’m being self-serving, I’d say that this is a huge part of the problem. Marchand is the only person currently writing in Canada who is able to make a living as a literary critic. The climate has become so inimical, the prospects so grim, that no one in her right mind would want to pursue serious criticism in this country, because to do so is to consign oneself to an impecunious existence in which one is more or less ignored by all but a handful of like-minded fellows.

Alexis closes his piece by musing on this aspect of the reviewing life. He quotes Jeet Heer: “The problems you’ve identified are real enough but they are rooted in a much larger problem, the fact that the number of people who are interested in serious literature, let alone serious Canadian literature – is not very large.” Alexis goes on:

I find it depressing that I can point to a number of interesting reviewers from the U.K. and America and to so few from my own home. Canada, the culture that has made me, is in some ways inadequate to the discussion it’s inspired. At times, it feels as if Canada were not worth the emotion spent to defend or belabour it.

If this is the conclusion Alexis has reached as a result of the discussion surrounding “The Long Decline,” that’s a shame. Personally, I’ve become more optimistic about the state of this country’s literature over the past few months. Despite the fact that the landscape is so desolate, there are writers who remain passionately committed to an engagement with Canada’s literary output. Alexis is one of them. He writes that if he had to do it all over again, he would not publish “The Long Decline.” This too is a shame. Now more than ever, we need writing that reminds us there are people out there who care about literature. Alexis calls my writing “execrable” (it means “shitty” – I looked it up), but I wouldn’t retract a word of it. I’m saddened to discover that he doesn’t feel likewise.


5 Responses to “The long, long, long decline”
  1. “Marchand is the only person currently writing in Canada who is able to make a living as a literary critic”–except for all the English professors, some of whom do a lot to promote and encourage love of literature, at least in the classroom. Unfortunately, most of their criticism is not aimed at, accessible to, the broader reading public. If more of them wrote blogs showing the same enthusiasm but also the same rigor they show in their teaching, that might do a lot to fill the void!

  2. You’re right to say that it would be a shame for Alexis not to have published his essay in the Walrus. It was a thought-provoking read even if it seemed incredibly sloppy.

    What emerges for me as a reader who is interested in these debates is that Alexis’ pieces seem motivated by something other than a passion for literature or a desire to encourage people to open their thinking to new ideas.

    They seem angry, desperate & despairing. Some might even believe that they represent the standard issue arrogance of the self-styled literati – the main reason that people turn their backs on criticism.

    Pointing to the UK and America (whatever that is, let’s assume he means Honduras) in a typical attempt to shame the audience into accepting his argument is as old and unimaginative a tactic as any graffiti in any high school bathroom anywhere in ‘America’ or the UK.

  3. Andrew S says:

    You know, I wrote something really smart here, and then I got the wrong security code, so I’m just going to write something really dumb instead. Which is appropriate, I guess, to this debate.

    1. What long decline? Alexis has declined at an alarming rate. To go from the Walrus piece to schoolyard taunts and ad hominem arguments took how long, exactly?
    2. Just what are these “shared standards” he keeps babbling about? Alexis seems to be asserting that anyone who doesn’t share his view is violating our “shared standards” for criticism and ought to be cast out. I’m concerned, because I don’t seem to have a copy of the Canlit Procedures Manual.
    3. First, Alexis said he concurs with Metcalf’s judgments, if not his behaviour. Now, he shares not one of his opinions. Will the real Andre Alexis please stand up? And stop with the disingenuous bullshit?
    4. Why is it that all negative reviews are automatically considered undisciplined expressions of the reviewer’s personal taste, but positive reviews are not? Real Andre Alexis, please clarify.

    Alexis has made some good points, although he has also made some very silly ones. But now he’s making a fool of himself.

  4. Kerry Clare says:

    All so depressingly boring. (And what’s up with the numbered lists?)

  5. andre alexis says:

    steven, I’m not really inclined to answer your post, but you’re a friend of Sean Dixon’s and I love Sean Dixon, so I feel – after hearing his recommendation that you’re an honest person – that I should address some of your points, here and in the piece you wrote about my assessment of Philip Marchand.

    First, a word about a couple of your, to me disingenuous, points:
    “Despite the fact that Alexis here buys into the increasingly common tendency (especially on the Internet) to dismiss anyone with whom he disagrees by calling them “snobs” and/or “childish””

    you and alex good were being, precisely, snobs. i was not using the word exclusively as an insult.
    here’s a definition: “One who affects an offensive air of self-satisfied superiority in matters of taste or intellect.” you need to read again your dismissal of vincent lam. it was a self-satisfied slap at a writer who does not write “good enough” for you. you seem not to realize that your dismissal of him is, again precisely, a example of “self-satisfied superiority”. if either you or good had a modicum of self-doubt (doubt about the absolute rightness of your echelon), you would have been more circumspect, less inclined to insult a writer whose sin is not to have met your standards. (and, by the way, you and good – in your essay – do not meet the standards you’ve held vincent lam to. your essay was badly written and clichée-ridden. in my books that makes you a hypocrite.)

    Second, you write:
    [Alexis’] … um … childish quip about high school is a bit ironic after writing earlier in his own piece that “Those who reach thirty and still need to belittle others in print are plain bullies and have nothing to do with the literary climate,” but never mind …

    i don’t know if your forgetting to mention that i was referring to book reviews – and not the internet – is willful or ignorant. i’m not sure how honest you are. but i was referring to a belittling that happens “in print” (as opposed to online) for a reason. a book review can have no real answer. a newspaper or magazine prints a review and the writer who has received a review – negative or positive – must wait until the editors print – if they print it at all – his or her rebuttal (or acquiescence) of a review. the original context being gone, no written rebuttal in a newspaper or magazine can be said to have the weight of a response. here, on the net, a writer can, if he or she chooses, immediately counter a negative review or attack. there is, on the net, the possibility of seeing both the initial provocation and the counter-attack at once. this feels more democratic and demotic to me, and i treat my responses online differently than i do the responses for which i’m paid. i’m not sure you understand this, because you may take your blogged opinion for something that has the weight of a piece that appears in print. as far as i’m concerned, it doesn’t, and that means that to me it’s dishonest of you to treat my writing on a blog as having the consideration/weight as the writing i do for newspapers and magazines. (also, newspaper and magazine writing is moderated, in part for fear of legal reprisal. newspaper or magazine writing is accepted as “official – ie. sanctionable – speech”, while blogging is not or should not be.) this isn’t a trivial distinction.

    a side note: my responses to blogged speech are exclusively determined by the tone/approach of the blog’s writer. at cnq, the attack on me by cnq’s editor was, on the face of it, ridiculous. it was not an invitation to debate but an effort to be nasty. it was also incredibly stupid and i took it (still take it) lightly. it began with the assertion that i was wrong not to follow the rules of good essay writing. but, of course, the rules wells referred to were appropriate for a graduate essay or an essay to be held up to scholarly examination. leaving aside the fact that few essays published in cnq could withstand the honest application of the standards wells pretends to uphold, it seemed to me comical that no distinction was made between “the walrus” and “canadian notes and queries”. (you, for instance, didn’t mention this when you wrote in to cnq. why? do you seriously believe that the standards of published commentary should be universally the same?) it also seemed amusing that none of the readers of wells’ blog entry should ask him or herself about this blatant foolishness. wells then went on to suggest that as i had offended his standards i should stop writing reviews for the globe, following stan persky’s example. this is pure fascism. i write something cnq disagrees with, therefore i should shut up. really? ( and why didn’t you question this tendency to brown-shirtedness, steven? or do you also think i should shut up, having offended wells, whom i take to be a devoted, metcalfian ass-kisser?) to me, the proper response to this shit is not the polite whisker rubbing that our culture seems to want. the proper response, once it’s clear someone like zach wells has no desire to find common ground or argue sensibly, is to call zach wells a stunned, ass-kissing idiot. i wouldn’t do this in print, because however much disdain i feel for wells, i think print is the equivalent of public space. you could argue that i’m being a hypocrite, that i should speak/behave online as i do in print. i don’t agree. i think there needs to be public space – where one can escape from the private – as well as a (semi-)private space – where unconsidered opinions can be aired.

    this is in part why i was as frank as i could be about what i saw as the wretchedness of yours and good’s lists. they were badly written. they were cliched (at this point, it would be more original to DEFEND ondaatje). they were written by two men who never for an instant questioned the rightness of their personal preferences. they were the expression of a high school – yes, high school – desire to shame enemies and dick-stroke (or clit-stroke) your friends. they were the propagation of the shallow echelon making and numbering that are part of the worst tendency in our “thousand shocks per second” culture. (i may be wrong here, but the fact that you’ve written “Alexis calls my writing “execrable” (it means “shitty” – I looked it up), but I wouldn’t retract a word of it.” could be indicative of a lack of imagination on your part. you and good have contributed, i think, to the trivializing, list-making tendency rampant in our culture. that you can’t see this as a problem is not necessarily proof of your courage. (by the way: did you really not know what “execrable” means – it doesn’t mean “shitty”, it means loathsome – or were you trying to indicate a snobbishness on my part for using a word you had to look up? no shame not to know a word, but no shame to know it either is there?) to be honest, i wasn’t surprised to read good’s name as author of this list. i read his callous, thoughtless and arrogant dismissal of roo borson’s short journey upriver at the time at was nominated for the GG. good had no idea what borson was about, no ear for her work, no sense that short journey might be doing something valuable – this after a number of poets had nominated it for awards. his dismissal was the kind made by ignorant snobs. (see the definition above) but i had read your blog – before this national post piece – and found the overrated/underrated piece quite different from the work you do here. it isn’t my business to tell you how to think or write, but i can’t help feeling, as i said above, that your post piece was not good, and perhaps not reflective of how you normally go about things. (i hate to sound condescending, as if my own judgment of what is good or bad in your work were absolute. i’m speaking here of a feeling. i’m always ready to admit i could be wrong.)

    a last word about this entry on my entry on your piece in the post: part of the reason i expressed sadness and despair about Canadian literary journalism has to do with the terrible, shoddy thought of some of those who concern themselves with this subject. for instance, your correspondent, Andrew S writes:

    4. Why is it that all negative reviews are automatically considered undisciplined expressions of the reviewer’s personal taste, but positive reviews are not? Real Andre Alexis, please clarify.

    this is almost unbelievably stupid. as i wrote in the piece hosted by nigel beale: “mindless cruelty is exactly as mindless as mindless kindness”. in other words, there is no difference between thoughtless praise and thoughtless blame. (i also took the time to praise mark twain’s nasty take down of fenimore cooper.) you’d have thought i’d been utterly clear. so, if people like Andrew S can’t understand clear statements (let alone nuance), and if Andrew S is representative of the type of mind that interests itself in literary journalism (as i fear it is), why should people who are serious about the state of our critical culture bother?

    about your defense of philip marchand’s work …
    in your entry, you write:

    “Say what you like about Marchand’s assessments here, they are the very antithesis of “pointing and saying, ‘There, you see?’” They are, instead, an explication of one critic’s reactions to a pair of texts based on a literary sensibility that has been shaped not by market forces, but by wide reading and careful comparisons of traditions, authors, and texts. They are assessments based on a refined and clearly delineated literary taste.”

    i don’t think you could be more wrong if you tried, steven. marchand’s comparison of a paragraph by russell smith to one by michael ondaatje fails the simplest of tests, that of understanding the necessities of a prose style. allow me a couple of questions:
    1. if you encountered a paragraph of russell smith’s in a novel by ondaatje, would the paragraph of smith’s be, automatically, better? or are styles the product of an ecology of creation? in other words, isn’t it true that Russell’s style has evolved to fit the needs of what Russell is expressing, just as michael’s has? so …
    2. can we judge the means a writer uses without reference to the writer’s sensibility? though jane austen is a brilliant writer, i do not want to encounter her style in a novel by pynchon or beckett or even harold robbins, for that matter. marchand is behaving as if smith’s prose were absolutely preferable, irrespective of the environment from which it springs. it isn’t. to put it in a slightly amusing way: smith would be a bad writer of ondaatje’s work while ondaatje would be a lousy writer of smith’s. (said with more pointed literary references: nabokov – who was, according to a self-evolved scale very much like marchand’s, a “better writer” than dostoievsky – could not have written a book as “sloppy” as “the devils”. he could not even have imagined it (says me) and, if he had, he might have been forced to use the means dostoievski uses to accomplish it. that is, nabokov would have been forced to write as “poorly” as dostoievsky in order to create “the devils”. reverse the situation and it’s clear dostoievsky could not have written Lolita, either.) marchand does not understand this and so, despite his surface thoughtfulness, he completely misunderstands what literary style is about, how styles evolve, the necessity for 5 adjectives in a paragraph.

    let’s look a little bit closer at marchand’s words about Ondaatje (my thoughts in parentheses, after the quotes)

    “The last sentence of the Ondaatje paragraph contains five adjectives. You don’t have to be Ernest Hemingway to consider that rather a lot for a sentence of no great length.”
    (but why hasn’t marchand asked what Ondaatje is trying to do, here. IS ondaatje trying to do what smith does and failing or is ondaatje after some other effect?)

    What is more to the point is the abstractness of the adjectives, their inability to focus vision. As they say in creative writing classes, this kind of writing is telling, not showing.
    (in creative writing classes, we deal with people who haven’t yet attained clarity, who need to get to it before they wander into their own preserves. ondaatje isn’t a beginner. if you want examples of his clarity, read his early poetry or billy the kid or even parts of coming through slaughter though, with slaughter, we come to a new anti-clarity in ondaatje’s work. the point is – and marchand seems not to understand this – ondaatje is trying to go elsewhere, to make words (adjectives) collide, his prose – by the time we come to the english patient – is frustrating our understand as much as it’s leading it along. a reader has every right to prefer the old clarity. the reader is not forced to read Ondaatje. he or she can vote with their feet. but a critic – and i’m not sure marchand is worthy of the name – should know better than to assume all writers are struggling to be clear in the way smith is clear. )

    Moreover, the figures of speech contained in the excerpt hardly stand up to scrutiny. Calling the relationship of pages in a closed book “intimate” has a kind of studied inappropriateness that many readers find vaguely foreign in flavour and therefore highly sophisticated, but it is tiresome, foreign-flavoured or not.
    (“tiresome” to whom, steven? and why? here’s a passage by ezra pound:

    We also made ghostly visits, and the stair
    That knew us, found us again on the turn of it,
    Knocking at empty rooms, seeking for buried beauty …

    i’m not suggesting that pound would have made a good novelist. reading the cantos is something one does for other reasons than the ones one has for reading novels – at least that’s the case for me. but, clearly, the kind of language and strategies on offer in the English patient are closer to those on offer in poetry. the question “is this legitimate?” or “do the strategies of poetry belong in prose?” have to be addressed EVEN if only to reject them. marchand doesn’t even ask these questions (in the passage you’ve quoted with such approval). here ALL marchand is doing is pointing and saying “yech” when he get to ondaatje. he nowhere addresses the implications or origins of ondaatje’s stylistic strategies because marchand is, here and elsewhere, a snob (there’s that word again), the self-possessor of an absolute gauge of what is good or what is bad in prose irrespective of the author’s strategies and wagers. he is an upholder of a personal preference as absolute standard.)

    “Stalking beauty” is another figure of speech that seems to resonate with terribly profound implications, like some of the bad metaphors in Shelley. It’s the kind of verbal embroidery that is called “beautiful prose” by people who like gobs of marmalade on their toast.
    (right. here, at least, he alludes to shelley. without drawing out the implications of ondaatje’s writing like a poet, he likens the worst of shelley’s metaphors as “gobs of marmalade” and is satisfied that he has explained why smith’s prose is preferable to ondaatje’s. preferable to whom and why might be questions to take seriously. i think it’s safe to say that The English Patient has outsold all of russell’s books together. “critics” like marchand, who have PERSONAL echelons that are contravened when books like the English patient are preferred to books like How Insensitive, have to denigrate readers of the English Patient (they like gob of marmalade, don’t they? they buy what’s fashionable, don’t they? they’re like grandmothers gaga for verbal embroidery, yeah?) because they haven’t the imagination to wonder what a writer is doing, or why certain strategies are effective at certain times. look up the word euphuistic, steven. the debate about the “overwrought” and “poetic” has been going on for a very very, long time in our language. isn’t it possible that some essential tension in our language is being plated out here? or, rather, played out again? “critics” like marchand who have read enough to evolve a preference but not enough to arrive at any kind of understanding about what’s behind literary language are, when they come up against prose they dislike, inarticulate, unable to guess why euphuistic prose appeals to people when, according to their personal echelons, people should not.)

    my point is: whether you like or dislike The English Patient, there ought to be more to criticism than saying “simple prose good, ornate prose bad” – and, in the end, that is ALL marchand has said in the passage you quote. he is a literary journalist with strong opinions – reference to Nabokov intended – and no depth (at least Nabokov was defending his own at times brilliant approach). in the passage you quoted, marchand is doing exactly what i accuse him of doing most often: pointing to what he likes, pointing to what he dislikes and saying “there, you see? this good. that bad.” you may be satisfied by this. you may even think it’s what’s required of literary journalists. i don’t. i want something deeper. and after reading your essay in the national post, i think you’re part of the problem with Canadian reviewing not the solution. (i think i’m part of the problem, too. i think cultures that rely on makers to criticize other makers are unfortunate. but this is another 1000 words.)

    no insult is intended in all this, steven. for all i know, in a little while, you’ll have some revelation that so far surpasses what i’m able to comprehend that i’ll be left breathless with admiration for your mind. but, be honest: do you really think that top ten lists in the national post are the beginning of your discovery of brilliance? and if not – as you strongly hint – why do such things, in that they only reinforce the shallowness that’s such a dreadful part of our culture? no need to answer me here, unless you want to carry this on, here. but if you’re not offended by what i’ve written and want to prove me wrong, why not come out with sean and i for a drink some wednesday? he speaks very highly of you and it would be amusing to talk.

    Yours truly,
    andre alexis