Where angels fear to tread: the rebuttal

September 24, 2009 by · 2 Comments 

So, the raging tsunami of ire directed toward Victoria Glendinning for her recent Financial Times piece about the current state of CanLit hasn’t reached the superheated peak that yr. humble correspondent expected it to. Indeed, most of the responses to Glendinning’s piece that I’ve read have merely shrugged off her criticisms as shopworn and somewhat ineffectual.

Not so Noah Richler, whose article in today’s Globe and Mail is a masterpiece of righteous indignation. Criticizing Glendinning for bad manners is one thing, although Richler’s approach here (comparing her perceived slight on Jack Rabinovitch’s largesse in inviting her to be a Giller juror to mortification “at the prospect of having to say thank you for [an] unsolicited cup of tea”) doesn’t have quite the same satirical effect as George Murray’s characterization of being invited to a dinner party and then wiping your ass on the host’s curtains. But Richler goes on to respond to Glendinning’s comments about “Canada’s superfluity of ‘dreadful’ novels and their ‘flashbacks to Granny’s youth in the Ukraine or wherever'” (a fairly accurate description of much CanLit, by the way) by launching into his own petulant attack on the ills of British fiction:

The bulk of English novels, even the good ones (Ian McEwan and Julian Barnes come to mind), are written by authors parcelling out their ideas frugally, a couple for the book at hand and others reserved for the next. This is the same sad way the English make fish pie: one piece of cod mixed in with many, many potatoes.

Take that, Victoria!

Honestly, is this the best we can do? Instead of offering specific examples of Canadian literature that would refute Glendinning’s claims (perhaps because he would have to search to find them), Richler chooses to engage in a schoolyard shouting match: “Our national literature is mediocre? Yeah, well, yours is mediocre-er!” “Is not!” “Is too! And your fish pie sucks.” As if that weren’t bad enough, he also slips in a superfluous plug for his own book, This Is My Country, What’s Yours?, again in the service of insulting what he sees as “just how tight are the English upper middle classes.”

Let’s be clear: it was undoubtedly bad form for a sitting juror adjudicating a literary prize to comment publicly on the work she is judging. However, that in no way discredits the validity of much of what Glendinning had to say. There is “a striking homogeneity in the muddy middle range of [Canadian] novels,” many of which are indeed “about families down the generations with multiple points of view and flashbacks.” And Glendinning’s cavil about self-indulgent acknowledgments thanking everyone from the writer’s editor to her writing group to her masseuse and personal trainer seems beyond reproach.

What is most striking about the difference between Glendinning’s approach and Richler’s, however, is that the former has the good sense to be funny. True, it is a particularly British kind of dry humour (think Ricky Gervais rather than Jim Carrey), but it is humour nonetheless, a quality that is entirely absent from Richler’s earnest, unsmiling riposte. (Richler’s straight-faced seriousness is, come to think of it, still another predominant aspect of much CanLit.) There’s nothing wrong with standing up for Canadian writers. But would it kill us to smile while we’re at it?


2 Responses to “Where angels fear to tread: the rebuttal”
  1. Steven: Great post, couldn’t agree more.

    Here’s what I find interesting about this beyond what you’ve already written – though I am totally in agreement that some humour would help the situation.

    Firstly: No one really cares. The whole ‘controversy’ is a fatuous construction of an imagined affront. And the basis for whatever outrage Ms Glendinning may have caused is her right to her opinion. Imagine that! The precious Canadian literary establishment can’t take a shot in the arm from time to time.

    Secondly: The Globe and Mail is no longer a bully pulpit for Establishment Windbags to ply their trade. Take a look at the comments to Mr Richler’s piece, many telling him to take his weak-ass argument – complete with shameless plug about his own book and lame argument about thrift – out to the yard and shoot it.

    The comments to Mr Richler’s article are far more interesting than anything he has to say.

  2. Andrew S says:

    “Let’s be clear: it was undoubtedly bad form for a sitting juror adjudicating a literary prize to comment publicly on the work she is judging. However, that in no way discredits the validity of much of what Glendinning had to say.”

    Except that she didn’t comment on the work she is judging; the long list has been announced, and she’s commenting on the work that was judged. Poor form, but not the deadly faux pas people are making it out to be.

    She was invited, in a sense, to comment on Canlit; we can’t complain that we don’t like her opinion, and pretending that its merely a problem of timing is disingenuous.

    We can complain, however, about the ignorant remarks in her third paragraph, and in particular the assertion that any fool can get a novel published here, as long as he’s Canadian. This is where she wiped her ass on the curtains. Bad novels get published everywhere.

    But our critics are too busy agreeing that Canlit is tepid to take her to task on that.