Narrowness, curiosity, and the Gilmour Effect

September 26, 2013 by · 5 Comments 

David_Gilmour“When that review came out,” David Gilmour told National Post books editor Mark Medley in 2011, referring to a review of his Governor General’s Literary Award–winning novel A Perfect Night to Go to China, “I went out looking for him.” The “him” in question was novelist and critic André Alexis, who had given Gilmour’s novel a less-than-stellar write-up. “I thought, ‘I’m going to beat the living shit out of this guy, and I don’t give a fuck what happens – this guy is going down.’ Because I know that that is a piece of personal vitriol. China was a beautiful book. Nobody but a guy who had a chip on his shoulder, or had some problem with chicks or something, would come after me for this book.”

Flash forward two years and one could be forgiven for thinking it’s Gilmour, not Alexis, who has “some problem with chicks.” On Wednesday, the Twittersphere was set alight by an installment of Emily M. Keeler’s “Shelf Esteem” series, which appears on the Random House blog Hazlitt. The series involves Keeler interviewing writers, editors, and other literary personalities about the contents of their personal bookshelves. In the course of interviewing Gilmour – whose latest novel, Extraordinary, has been longlisted for the 2013 Scotiabank Giller Prize – Keeler noted the author did not have many books by women in his collection. Gilmour, who teaches literature to first- and third-year students at the University of Toronto, responded thusly:

I teach mostly Russian and American authors. Not much on the Canadian front. But I can only teach stuff I love. I can’t teach stuff that I don’t, and I haven’t encountered any Canadian writers yet that I love enough to teach.

I’m not interested in teaching books by women. Virginia Woolf is the only writer that interests me as a woman writer, so I do teach one of her short stories. But once again, when I was given this job I said I would only teach the people that I truly, truly love. Unfortunately, none of those happen to be Chinese, or women. Except for Virginia Woolf. And when I tried to teach Virginia Woolf, she’s too sophisticated, even for a third-year class. Usually at the beginning of the semester a hand shoots up and someone asks why there aren’t any women writers in the course. I say I don’t love women writers enough to teach them, if you want women writers go down the hall. What I teach is guys. Serious heterosexual guys. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Chekhov, Tolstoy. Real guy-guys. Henry Miller. Philip Roth.

Gilmour explains that he teaches Miller and Roth as a means of distinguishing between pornography and literature (fair enough), then concludes, “I teach only the best.” The clear implication is that “the best” does not, in Gilmour’s opinion, include “books by women” (other than Woolf), books by Canadians, or – bizarrely – books by Chinese authors. (Gilmour later claimed this was meant as a joke: I confess I don’t get it.)

We can argue about what constitutes “the best”: Gilmour identifies Proust, Tolstoy, and Chekhov as the high-water marks of literature, and you’d be hard pressed to find too many serious scholars who would disagree. However, by ignoring women, he is erasing from consideration such canonical writers as Austen, the Brontës, George Eliot, Edith Wharton, Eudora Welty, Mary Woolstonecraft Shelley, Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers, Lady Murasaki, Djuna Barnes, Collette, Edna O’Brien, Patricia Highsmith, Muriel Spark, Jean Rhys, and Isak Dinesen. By ignoring Canadians (he claims to admire Munro), he is eliding Atwood, Gallant, Laurence, Richler, Davies, Cohen, Sheila Watson, Norman Levine, Adele Wiseman, Hubert Aquin, Robert Kroetsch, Leon Rooke, Austin Clarke, and Marian Engel. And by ignoring Chinese writers, he is missing out on Mo Yan, Eileen Chang, Ma Jian, Gao Xingjian, and Wang Xiaobo.

What is notable about these lists is how diverse the authors are in terms of style, themes, and subject matter. The most distressing thing about Gilmour’s approach to literature – especially as a teacher – is how narrow it is. Like David Shields, Gilmour seems interested only in writing that reflects his own experience back to him: “I’m a middle-aged writer and I’m very interested in the middle-aged writer’s experience,” he told Medley in a follow-up interview addressing the controversy that had sprung up around the Hazlitt piece. “I’m sorry for hurting your sensibilities, but there isn’t a racist or a sexist bone in my body.”

Notwithstanding this protestation, Gilmour refuses to refer to Keeler by name, or even to allow her the designation of “reporter” or “interviewer,” instead repeatedly calling her “this young woman” and suggesting her motivation was “to make a little name for herself.” He also says that he was only paying her partial attention during the interview, distracted as he was by a conversation he was carrying on simultaneously, in French, with a (male) colleague: “I was speaking to a Frenchman, so I was more concerned with my French than I was with what I was saying to this young woman.” These remarks certainly testify to a streak of unexamined sexism, but I leave it to others to pursue this line of argument.

Here’s the thing: I like Gilmour’s novels. I liked A Perfect Night to Go to China, I liked Sparrow Nights and An Affair with the Moon and The Perfect Order of Things. I haven’t read Extraordinary yet, but I probably will. I do not agree with Scott Carter’s suggestion that you must be in sympathy with an author’s character or ideologies to appreciate his work. And I have in the past admired Gilmour’s damn-the-torpedoes willingness to say what he thinks and not care whether people like it or not. (When he told Medley in 2011, “Writers don’t wish each other well. They wish each other death and failure,” I couldn’t help but suppose that, on one level, he was absolutely right.) And if, as a personal choice, Gilmour decides he’d rather not read books by women, or Chinese or homosexual writers, that is his prerogative.

But Gilmour is – adamantly and proudly – a university lecturer, charged with forming young minds and forging young sensibilities. This is a large responsibility, and anyone who undertakes it should be intellectually curious enough to at least remain open to the possibility of being surprised by a work of literature that exists outside his usual tastes or reading habits. If nothing else, in order to remain cognizant of the landscape of his chosen subject matter, it would behoove Gilmour to expose himself to the broadest possible array of writers, and to the possibility that what constitutes “the best” in literature doesn’t always equate with “what best reflects my life as I have come to understand it.”

In any event, saying one doesn’t like books by women is somewhat akin to saying one doesn’t like music: the category is so large, so diverse, so heterogeneous, that to paint it all with the same brush is virtually impossible. Willa Cather has as much in common with Renata Adler as Elmore Leonard has with James Joyce. And although, as Jared Bland points out, the Western canon is dominated by dead white men, it is nevertheless possible to admit women authors to the ranks of “the best” without sacrificing any standards of quality or importance. Ask English lit scholars what the finest novel in the language is, and a good number of them might say Middlemarch (nor do you have to enjoy it to recognize its inherent quality – trust me on this one). And there are those (myself included) who would argue that the first novel – Lady Murasaki’s The Tale of Genji, which remains in print to this day – was written by a woman, some 600 years before Cervantes wrote Don Quixote.

Gilmour claims he doesn’t teach women writers because he doesn’t feel “passionately” about them, or about their books, and those who wish to be exposed to these works can go “down the hall.” But it seems odd that someone like Gilmour – a novelist and teacher – who can be assumed to maintain an abiding interest in the human experience in all its forms, should not be able to find among women writers more than one short story by Virginia Woolf that he is able to care passionately about. This seems to indicate a lack of openness on the part of the reader, not a lack of quality or variety among writers. And after all, isn’t one of literature’s functions to expose its recipients to ideas, experiences, and perspectives that are foreign to their own?

It is this narrowness, this blinkered idea of what qualifies as most worthy of our attention, that is troublesome. This is something that, as Canadian novelist Amanda Leduc (yes, she has two strikes against her) points out, is shared by our award culture, which tends to crowd out different voices and approaches in the process of anointing “unknown stories” told in “familiar ways.” In this sense, the Giller Effect and the Gilmour Effect are not all that far removed.

Given the tenor of Gilmour’s comments, it is appropriate to give a woman the last word. Here’s Leduc:

I love books. I believe in books. More importantly, I believe in the fact that books have long lives that transcend any kind of initial attention. And I agree with Gilmour when he says, in the Hazlitt article, that “the shadows on the pages move around” in great literature. Truly good books always do that – you notice different things your second and third and even fourth time around. Great art is never static.

But what happens when the view of great art itself becomes the thing that does not change? As a result of his refusal to read anything by women (or by writers who are Chinese, or Canadian, or whatever), does David Gilmour then, in essence, make himself into that Andy Warhol painting that looks the same on every view? Essentially he’s telling us the same story, here, that we heard in the article in 2011. It’s just a little more pointed, a little more specific. (And backed, apparently, by the University of Toronto.)

Eye kicks and allophanes: the art of literature according to George Bowering

December 12, 2011 by · 2 Comments 

How I Wrote Certain of My Books. George Bowering; $19.95 paper 978-1-894469-55-5, 168 pp., Mansfield Press

In my early days as review editor at Quill & Quire, I received an e-mail from George Bowering complaining about the number of typos that had found their way into the magazine. In particular, he singled out a reference to “Columbia” as referring to the South American country. (The fact that a TTC subway ad for the sitcom Modern Family on CITY-TV made the same mistake some years later remains cold comfort.) While being suitably embarrassed about my lack of due diligence and attention to detail, I would be lying if I didn’t confess to being a bit chuffed that George Bowering not only read the magazine I help edit, but took the time to write to me expressing his disappointment. Behind the chastisement was a very real and abiding concern for language that is everywhere in the author’s published work.

It is easy to forget that when Bowering burst onto the scene in the 1960s, CanLit as we know it today did not exist. It was largely due to the efforts of the TISH collective – Bowering, along with fellow poets Frank Davey, Daphne Marlatt, and Fred Wah, among others – and figures such as House of Anansi Press founders Dennis Lee and David Godfrey that Canadians began to take their national literature seriously.

Bowering has always been one of the most outspoken, irascible, and determinedly experimental writers in the Canadian literary pantheon. In his book, The Only Poetry that Matters: Reading the Kootenay School of Writing, Clint Burnham claims the TISH poets “contested” the avant garde tradition of Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Jack Spicer, and Robert Duncan, but this throwaway description discredits the very real influence these poets – especially Olson and Spicer – had on Bowering’s developing aesthetic. (To be fair, it is possible, if not probable, that Burnham means “contested” in the sense of “competed with” rather than “disputed.”)

Bowering refers to both Olson and Spicer in discussing A Short Sad Book, his 1977 text that ABC Bookworld says “has been categorized as a novel only for lack of a better definition.” Along with Robert Kroetsch, Bowering is one of the Canadian writers most frequently associated with the term “postmodernism” (although Bowering has always cleaved more closely to the literary avant garde than Kroetsch ever did). Although he claims to have been writing under the influence of Gertrude Stein (who, “of all the great Modernist writers … was the one who seemed kind of postmodern”), Bowering credits Olson with introducing him to the word, meaning something “post-historical, or rather something like his ‘Special View of History.’ As Olson was a kind of lapsed Catholic, he probably first heard it as it was used by the Church around the turn of the twentieth century.” As for Spicer, in addition to pointing out allusions to his work in A Short Sad Book, Bowering also credits him as “an important source for the efforts of the book to foreground everything, thus obviating perspective, making there here.”

These are the kinds of observations one finds throughout How I Wrote Certain of My Books, a mostly congenial, chatty consideration of more than twenty-five works from the author’s impressive output. The title is cribbed from Raymond Roussel, “patron saint of the Surrealists, the nouveau roman people and especially the OuLiPo crowd”; the borrowing testifies to Bowering’s habit of incorporating lines and allusions from the work of others into his poetry and prose writing, a habit that aligns him (perhaps unexpectedly) with such au courant apologists for collage and literary appropriation as David Shields and Jonathan Lethem. The gloss on Oulipian writing also attests to Bowering’s fascination with this literary movement, inaugurated by French writer Raymond Queneau and carried on through the work of Georges Perec and Italo Calvino right down to such contemporary Canadian practitioners as Christian Bök and André Alexis. Bowering repeatedly attests to writing books based on externally imposed “constraints,” mirroring the Oulipians and anticipating the impetus behind the Lars von Trier/Jørgen Leth film The Five Obstructions:

I had to set up a constraint that was not complicated but that was strict. Well, when I was a kid my favourite number was 3. When I was a young man it was 9. Now it is 27. So Shall I Compare is a love poem to Jean Baird, and it is interested in numbers. It enumerates her attractive parts, starting with her hair and heading for her toes. Each day there is a little poem made of twenty-seven words. Each has three step-down stanzas, and each step is made of three words. 3 x 3 = 27. Go thee forth and multiply, I heard the guy say. It adds up, I say, to a loving male gaze.

The alphabet is a favourite source for Bowering’s constraints, as becomes clear in his discussion of “Irritable Reaching,” a twenty-six page work that focuses each page on an acrostic poem dedicated to a different Canadian artist. “To make this a little more difficult, I decided that each poem would be composed of two stanzas, because the subjects’ names were in two pieces – well, except for the poem about novelist C.J. Newman. Okay, that was pretty difficult.” In addition, the poems had to make use of end rhyme and metre, “a couple of the oldest constraints I know.” Bowering’s joy in all of this is infectious; other Canadian scribes could do worse than read How I Wrote Certain of My Books and take note of how frequently the author employs the word “fun” to describe his writing.

One emerges from a reading of Bowering’s book with the overwhelming sense of having been for a moment in the company of a prodigious talent who has written voluminously, but also with a kind of sadness that the author is not better known by the general public in 2011, and that, despite having twice won the Governor General’s Literary Award, his work is not more readily available. The relative lack of interest in Bowering’s work cannot entirely be explained by its experimental nature: the author is approachable enough when he wants to be, and in the chapter on his feminist neo-Western Caprice, he displays a sensibility that spans both high and popular culture. (Bowering, it should be noted, was experimenting with the clichés and tropes of the Western genre decades before Patrick DeWitt gained acclaim and award recognition for writing The Sisters Brothers.)

Perhaps his provocatively anti-American tendencies are partially to blame; how it must have rankled in some quarters when in 2002 Bowering was named Canada’s inaugural Parliamentary Poet Laureate. Or perhaps it is the impression he conveys, implicitly in some cases, more directly in others, that he is smarter than the rest of us, and that he knows it. “Oh it was fun writing this sequence,” he says at one point (and note the return of that significant “f” word), “and embedding little secrets for the Romantics teachers to find. My daughter’s name was and is Thea. Section VII, which dopily adumbrates Shelley’s ‘Queen Mab,’ claims that ‘I & Thea’ took a ride in the faerie’s car. If you get it, I apologize.” It’s little wonder those who don’t get it might feel condescended to; after five decades in the trenches of a national literature he helped to create and nurture, Bowering has arguably earned the right to a bit of this haughty tone.

Looking back, looking ahead

January 1, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

It’s the first day of 2011 and perusing the Internets, I notice a bunch of literary types looking back and making resolutions about moving forward. The Globe and Mail recently published a list of thirty writers’ choices for their favourite books from 2010. Contributors include Alison Pick, Charlotte Gray, André Alexis, and Karen Solie; the resulting list is predictably eclectic and intriguing. Over at Pickle Me This, Kerry Clare has put together a list of worthy books she read last year that were not published in calendar year 2010. Jessa Crispin reflects on how a slim volume about Coco Chanel set the tone and the path for her entire reading experience in 2010. And The Washington Post‘s Jonathan Yardley confesses disappointment in the fiction of 2010 (and the state of American literature in general).

Looking ahead to the coming year, The Los Angeles Times‘ book blog, Jacket Copy, provides a list of 37 resolutions by writers, critics, and bloggers. The contributors variously vow to ignore Goodreads, to be more engaged with Goodreads, to read Infinite Jest, to finish reading Infinite Jest, and to drink less. Of the group, the resolution closest to my heart is that of writer and bookseller Emma Straub:

In 2011, I’m going to challenge myself more as a reader. More nonfiction! More esoteric subjects! I want to give myself the chance to say, you know, that really wasn’t for me, and the chance to be surprised by loving something unexpected.

This dovetails with something Stephen Burn says in his contribution to The New York Timesseries of essays about why, in 2011, criticism still matters:

I sometimes fear that a narrow artistic palette can be mistaken for critical standards, and I believe it’s past time to dispense with prejudices about character, emotivity, and realism that hardened during the 19th century: a strongly realist character-based novel isn’t a bad thing, but it isn’t the only thing. A contemporary novel offers an opportunity to measure fiction’s mutating forms – to note, perhaps, the dominance of time as a thematic obsession in works of the last 20 years, or the emergence of the family epic, with its generational conflicts, as it becomes perhaps the signature subgenre of the American novel today. Equally, critics might overhaul their sense of a static literary past and think instead of the novel actively engaging with its forebears.

The entire series is well worth reading, but perhaps I’ll give the last word about criticism to Kate Roiphe, and wish you all a very happy and prosperous 2011:

If the critic has to compete with the seductions of Facebook, with shrewdly written television, with culturally relevant movies – with, in short, every bright thing that flies to the surface of the iPhone – that’s all the more reason for him to write dramatically, vividly, beautifully, to have, as Alfred Kazin wrote in 1960, a “sense of the age in his bones.” The critic could take all of this healthy competition, the challenge of dwindling review pages, the slash in pay, as a sign to be better, to be irreplaceable, to transcend.

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.

A matter of taste: revivifying CanLit criticism

July 5, 2010 by · 8 Comments 

Let’s begin with a premise that presumably we can all agree upon: literary criticism in Canada is struggling. Book review sections in our national press grow ever thinner, or disappear altogether; reviews get ever shorter, as a baleful capitulation to our attention-deficit culture; insult and invective stand in for reasoned argument; and the intellectual wattage of our critical discourse becomes dimmer and dimmer. The Internet allows anyone with an opinion on literary works – no matter how ill informed or poorly elucidated that opinion might be – the means by which to disseminate it. Book chat gets elevated to the status of critical thought. And enthusiastic amateurs are lauded while educated connoisseurs are pilloried as anti-democratic elitists. In short, Canadian literary criticism is withering on the vine.

This should be very bad news for anyone who takes literary culture at all seriously. Not because writers depend on literary critics to do their job; if critics were to vanish from the face of the earth tomorrow (as any number of writers doubtless wish they would) literature would not disappear along with them. On the contrary: writers would continue to write, books would continue to get published, and readers would continue to read them. However, an integral part of the literary ecology would have been lost. Critical dialogue is essential if a literary culture is to remain vibrant, for it is precisely this dialogue that emboldens innovation and progress, challenges complacency, and helps situate individual works in the context of literary tradition and history. Literary culture thrives alongside an incisive and provocative critical culture. The lack of a thriving critical culture in this country is arguably one reason why so much CanLit appears sclerotic and uninspired compared to the literature of other countries – notably Britain and America – that have more vigorous critical communities.

What factors might account for our current state of affairs?

In his influential 1968 volume Image Music Text Roland Barthes famously declared the death of the author. The author, Barthes insisted, had no claim to privilege over a text, and asserting authorial intention was an error that impinged upon the multiplicity of implications inherent in language itself. The death of the author, Barthes argued, allowed for the birth of the reader. In this sense, Barthes prefigured the democratization of critical response that the Internet unleashed. But as Rónán McDonald points out, what gets lost in the transaction is the authority to speak from a position of knowledge and expertise. The death of the author is coeval with the death of the critic, and the resultant flattening of literary discourse has a (perhaps counterintuitive) deleterious effect on the reader:

For all the supposed emancipation implicit in the pronouncement “we’re all critics now,” the loss of critical authority, of knowledgeable arbiters with some influence on public attention, actually diminishes the agency of choice of the reader. It plays into the hands of the monopolies who pedal [sic] fewer and fewer choices and whose primary interest is always the bottom line. What could be better suited to a ravenous consumer society, thriving on depthless and instant gratifications, than an ethos where judgements of cultural quality are down to everyone’s individual tastes and opinions? Like those phone-in polls so beloved of television and radio, this supposed “people power” decks out banality and uniformity in the guise of democracy and improvement.

The “wisdom of crowds” that is so valorized online is a mechanism for the promotion of herd instinct that undermines the critical impulse rather than encouraging it. As authoritative critical voices disappear, they are replaced by a populist mentality that cleaves in an unthinking way to trends and to what is being sold as the new big thing. Such a mentality is anti-intellectual and anti-critical at its core. McDonald points out that the word critic derives from the Greek word kritos, meaning “a judge.” The implication, McDonald argues, is that for criticism to have a broad public value, it must be evaluative. But on what should evaluative criticism be based? Surely not “everyone’s individual tastes and opinions”?

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. No one who has been properly exposed to the sublimity of Henry James’s finely turned sentences can possibly read the plodding and clanging prose of James Patterson and consider them literary equals. Or, as Philip Marchand put it, “someone who reads Tolstoy and doesn’t recognize the presence of a towering genius is deficient in taste, period.”

Marchand’s comment is held up for castigation by novelist André Alexis in an article titled “The Long Decline,” which appears in this month’s issue of The Walrus magazine. Alexis complains that “Marchand’s statement is about himself, his belief in War and Peace‘s greatness. He offers no defence of his opinion, believing that none is required. And so, we have come to the point where the mere fact of an opinion is more important than the basis for it.”* Alexis decontextualizes Marchand’s remark and forces it to stand for an entire critical methodology. He uses this as an example of what he elsewhere refers to as “the written equivalent of pointing and saying, ‘There, you see?'”

But Alexis is being disingenuous. The quip about Tolstoy comes from an essay entitled “Confessions of a Book Columnist.” A few pages on in his essay, Marchand extrapolates what he means by literary taste in an extended analysis of two passages from Canadian fiction:

Let us be more specific about the tastes of the writer before you who presumes to criticize literature. The following are two paragraphs from two recently published Canadian novels, both of which have received a great deal of praise. One paragraph I loved, the other I hated.

A. “The traffic began to stagger forward in five-yard increments. Ted’s breakfast moved around in him.”

B. “Her life with others no longer interests him. He wants only her stalking beauty, her theatre of expressions. He wants the minute and secret reflection between them, the depth of field minimal, their foreignness intimate like two pages of a closed book.”

Paragraph A is from Russell Smith’s How Insensitive, a satiric look at Toronto’s cultural life. Paragraph B is from Michael Ondaatje’s … The English Patient.

The two sentences from Russell Smith, which describe the progress of a badly hung-over hero in a taxi on Highway 401, contain not a single adjective, unless you count the word “five.” In the first sentence, the emphasis is on the verb “stagger” and the noun “increments,” both of which strike me as inspired choices. “Stagger,” for example, combines the suggestions of jerkiness and stupefaction – two qualities inseparable from anyone’s experience of rush hour traffic. “Increments” reminds the reader that the five yards are supposed to add up to something – to a journey, in this case, of several miles.

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. 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. 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. “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.

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.

What separates Marchand from the hundreds of Internet bloggers chattering incessantly about their favourite books of the moment is his adherence to an aesthetic that is explicable and forged out of a reasonable and logical approach to literature based on certain principles and standards. Distilled, this is what Coleridge meant when he wrote:

The ultimate end of criticism is much more to establish the principles of writing, than to furnish rules how to pass judgement on what has been written by others; if indeed it were possible that the two could be separated. But if it be asked, by what principles the poet is to regulate his own style, if he do not adhere closely to the sort and order of words which he hears in the market, wake, high-road, or plough-field? I reply; by principles, the ignorance or neglect of which would convict him of being no poet, but a silly or presumptuous usurper of the name! By the principles of grammar, logic, psychology! In one word by such a knowledge of the facts, material and spiritual, that most appertain to his art, as, if it have been governed and applied by good sense, and rendered instinctive by habit, becomes the representative and reward of our past conscious reasonings, insights, and conclusions, and acquires the name of TASTE.

Critical taste, according to Coleridge, is forged out of an understanding that literary standards can and do exist: that it is possible to objectively assert that book X is better than book Y based on literary principles (“grammar, logic, psychology”) and “knowledge of the facts, material and spiritual, that most appertain to” the work of art under consideration.

Alexis argues that James Wood, perhaps the most widely recognized literary critic writing today, was in his early work “exemplary of the worst of criticism” because he dared to render judgment over the works he was considering. In his 2008 study, How Fiction Works, “Wood has begun to move away from judgment and toward the contemplation of ideas,” which Alexis sees as a victory for criticism.

What Alexis would appear to advocate is what Rebecca West derided in a 1914 essay titled “The Duty of Harsh Criticism”: critics who “combine the gentleness of early Christians with a promiscuous polytheism,” who “reject not even the most barbarous or most fatuous gods.” Stating that there was at the time “no criticism in England,” but “merely a chorus of weak cheers … a mild kindliness that neither heats to enthusiasm nor reverses to anger,” West called for the establishment of “a new and abusive school of criticism.” Her call to arms, made just under one century ago, is today echoed by Jeet Heer, who, in his own response to Alexis’s article, published on The Afterword blog, writes, “A strong argument could be made that Canadian reviewers are too forgiving of bad writing and our literary culture is corrupted less by rampant snark than by habitual back-scratching and tireless log-rolling.”

Indeed, Heer points out that Northrop Frye, who Alexis calls “a good practical critic” whose “respect for the literary work was … inspiring,” himself adhered to high literary standards in his criticism:

It’s worth remembering that Frye explicitly stated that he would never apply the same high standards he used to judge world literature to evaluating the fiction and poetry of Canada. Frye described himself as a “paternal critic” and believed that it was his job to nurture Canadian writers by describing and categorizing their work rather than evaluating its merit (or lack thereof). The task of evaluation, Frye once wrote, would only be “a huge debunking project, leaving Canadian literature a poor naked alouette plucked of every feather of decency and dignity.”

Frye certainly could not be considered deficient in taste. When Alexis argues that Canada could benefit from more critics of Frye’s calibre, he is right, although not for the reasons he espouses.

*Marchand did not mention War and Peace in his comment; that was Alexis’s inference. But, we’ll let that one go for the moment.