This post has been updated (October 4, 2011, 8:47 a.m.)
Rumour has it that the mysterious cabal comprising the Swedish Academy will announce this year’s recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature later this week, and I’d like to take this opportunity to add my name to The Millions’ endorsement of Philip Roth for the honour.
When Roth published Sabbath’s Theater in 1995, there were those who suggested it was his magnum opus; with Sabbath’s Theater the author had reached the logical culmination of everything he had been working toward and he might thereafter be expected to retire gracefully into the sunset. Two years later, in 1997, Roth published American Pastoral, the first novel in his American Trilogy – a book that not only proved the predictions wrong, but which stands today as the author’s finest achievement and, in my opinion, one of the finest American postwar novels, period. It won the Pulitzer Prize. The third novel in the trilogy, The Human Stain, won the PEN-Faulkner Award, as did Roth’s 2006 novel Everyman, which made the author the only three-time winner in the award’s history (he also won in 1993 for Operation Shylock). In 2006, when The New York Times Book Review unveiled its list of the best American books published in the past twenty-five years, no fewer than six of Roth’s novels made the cut: The Counterlife, Operation Shylock, Sabbath’s Theater, American Pastoral, The Human Stain, and The Plot Against America.
In 2010, Roth won the Man Booker International Prize, a laurel that did not come without controversy. One of the jurors, Carmen Callil, resigned the jury in protest, saying at the time, “I don’t rate him as a writer at all … Emperor’s clothes: in 20 years’ time will anyone read him?” What I would say in response is simply this: Roth’s very first book, Goodbye Columbus, which won the National Book Award, was published in 1959. His most (in)famous novel, Portnoy’s Complaint, which appeared on both the Modern Library list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century and on Time magazine’s list of the 100 best English-language novels published between 1923 and 2005, appeared in 1969. Both remain in print today. (As, indeed, does Roth’s entire backlist.) Roth is the only living writer to have his works included in the canonical Library of America series.
But none of the awards and recognitions that have been bestowed on Roth adequately testify to the power of his prose, or to the coruscating effect of reading him. What many of his detractors fail to mention is Roth’s apparent inability to write an uninteresting sentence; his blistering irony; his searing intensity.
What critics seem most often to focus on is his putative misogyny, his self-hating Jewishness, and the explicit sex in his novels. Much of the trouble seems to arise out of Roth’s almost defiant recourse to the facts of his autobiography in his fiction. When Roth published I Married a Communist, a novel that centres on a tell-all book by the protagonist’s estranged wife, many people remarked on the fact that Roth’s own ex-wife, the actress Claire Bloom, had the year before published a tell-all book called Leaving a Doll’s House, about her life with the author. The writer Linda Grant enumerated the similarities between Eve Frame, the wife in Roth’s novel, and Roth’s own recent biography: “Frame is a Jewish actress, so is Bloom. Frame’s second husband is a financier, so was Bloom’s. Eve Frame has a daughter who is a harpist, Bloom’s girl is an opera singer. Ira tells the daughter to move out, Roth did the same. Ira has an affair with the daughter’s best friend; Roth, Bloom alleged, came on to her own daughter’s best friend.” If Roth has a response, it is arguably contained in his novel Exit Ghost, when he has his narrator, Nathan Zuckerman, remark on “the deadly literal-mindedness and vulgarity that attributes everything to its source in a wholly stupid way.”
Regardless, Grant goes on to say that she “would rather read a dozen books of Rothian misogyny (and if there ever was a misogynist, Roth is one) than a single page of Alison Lurie or Carol Shields or Margaret Atwood or E. Annie Proulx,” because in her estimation “Roth may be the last gasp of the novel, the dominating authorial voice with some ideas on how to live and how to live with others: how we are strangers to so many of the details of our own life stories.” Roth’s “dominating authorial voice,” which is inextricably tied up with his power to provoke, is one of the quintessential aspects that gives his work such force. As The Millions accurately points out:
The case for Roth’s candidacy for a Nobel Prize isn’t that he’s a nice guy; it is that he’s a genius, and in Roth’s case, his genius lies in his audacity. Audacity doesn’t play nice. It isn’t politically correct. The peculiar power of audacity lies in its willingness to break rules, trample taboos, shake us awake – and, yes, sometimes, piss us off mightily. Audacity without intelligence begets mindless spectacle, but Philip Roth is the smartest living writer in America, and his work, good and bad, brilliant and puerile, is among the best this country has ever produced.
Finally, this is probably the source of Roth’s enduring power: his willingness to take his material further than pretty much any other writer around, and if readers don’t enjoy the experience, well, he couldn’t really care less. Because, in the end, it’s the emotional honesty of the work that’s important. It’s a kind of brutal honesty that makes a lot of people uncomfortable. But to my reading, it’s unparalleled in modern fiction.
UPDATE: And for those who disagree, there’s always this (via The Lisa Simpson Book Club and the CBC’s Erin Balser):
The fall book season is now well underway and true to form, the preponderance of book festivals, awards lists, launches, and other noisy ephemera of the literary world serve only to emphasize how much I haven’t read. Practically daily, I’m asked if I’ve read the latest buzz book, or some obscure outrider from a small Norwegian publisher, and my answer is almost always a strained, “No.” This is inevitably accompanied by downcast eyes and a shameful countenance, despite the fact that no single human being could possibly read even a fraction of the books that get published in a given year.
Writing in Maclean’s, Sarah Weinman suggests that this year’s crop of fall fiction is less impressive than 2009′s, “which featured new books by awards regulars such as Philip Roth, Margaret Atwood, Hilary Mantel, A.S. Byatt, Jonathan Lethem, and John Irving. By comparison, this year’s slate seems a bit thin.” All I can say in response is that if my to-read pile (a.k.a. the “wishful thinking” pile or the “Hail Mary” pile) is any indication, there is a veritable cornucopia of interesting fiction out now or forthcoming in the next few weeks.
Here is a short list of titles I’m looking forward to reading, presuming I ever get the chance:
C by Tom McCarthy: Zadie Smith called McCarthy’s debut novel, 2005′s Remainder, “one of the great English novels of the past 10 years.” The new book is an historical novel set at the turn of the 20th century and focusing on Serge Carrefax, the son of an inventor who runs a school for deaf children. Carrefax suffers from “black bile,” competes with Marconi to develop wireless technology, and travels to an archeological dig in Egypt. The Guardian calls the book, which is the odds-on favourite to win this year’s Man Booker Prize, “a 1960s-style anti-novel that’s fundamentally hostile to the notion of character and dramatises, or encodes, a set of ideas concerning subjectivity.”
Sourland by Joyce Carol Oates: John Gardner famously referred to “that alarming phenomenon Joyce Carol Oates,” and in a career that has spanned close to five decades, she has done her best to live up to this description. Now in her seventies, Oates still averages two to three books each year; even her most devoted fans find it difficult to keep abreast of her astonishing literary output. Sourland, her latest collection of short stories, was described in The New York Times as “angry and tough and deeply, viscerally unsettling.”
Freedom by Jonathan Franzen: Well, come on.
When Fenlon Falls by Dorothy Ellen Palmer: Set during the summer of 1969, this debut novel from Canadian author Palmer tells the story of Jordan May March, a 14-year-old adoptee who was conceived during Hurricane Hazel and concocts a diary in which she imagines different circumstances for her conception. The metafictional narrative involves the CHUM Top 30 hit parade, JFK, Queen Elizabeth, and a caged, butter-tart-eating bear named Yogi.
Room by Emma Donoghue: Loosely based on the real-life case of Josef Fritzl, an Austrian who kept his daughter imprisoned for 24 years and fathered several children by her, Donoghue’s novel was overlooked by this year’s Scotiabank Giller Prize jury but has received glowing accolades both here and abroad and has landed a spot on the 2010 Man Booker Prize shortlist. Narrated in the voice of five-year-old Jack, the book is split into two halves: the first taking place within the small room that has been his only home since birth, the second following his release with his mother, and centred on the new set of perils he must navigate in the outside world.
Nemesis by Philip Roth: Also in his seventies, Roth is not quite as prolific as Oates, but has been averaging one book a year for the last four years or so. His new novel, set in 1944, tells the story of Bucky Cantor, a polio victim whose ill health and bad eyesight have kept him out of the war. As the polio epidemic begins to inflict the small Jewish enclave of Weequahic, New Jersey, writes Tim Martin in the Telegraph, “Cantor finds himself pinned between desire and duty, and – since this is late Roth, after all – being dragged, grimly and inexorably, under life’s steamroller.”
I’m a Registered Nurse Not a Whore by Anne Perdue: I was on the jury that awarded Anne Perdue the Marina Nemat Award for creative writing from the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies, and couldn’t be happier to see her first book of short fiction making an appearance with Insomniac Press. Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall says that Perdue’s “voice is just as convincing in the body of a teenage dish-pig, an alcoholic grandmother, or a raging suburban dad. Her characters feel as real as anyone you’ve ever met; they’re scared and scarred, with wells of kindness pooling beneath the skin. And the universe they inhabit is much like ours – a cracked one, where fury, joy, madness, or molten lava could burst through the surface at any moment.”
The Hair Wreath and Other Stories by Halli Villegas: The publisher of Toronto-based Tightrope Books has a new collection of dark fantasy stories out with ChiZine Publications, a small press that is also publishing new work by Craig Davidson and Tony Burgess this season. So, basically, I want to read ChiZine’s entire fall list.
And there you have it. Books that command my attention this fall, if I can manage to tear myself away from the rest of my life for long enough to get to them. Stay tuned.
The Humbling. Philip Roth; Hamish Hamilton Canada, $30.00 cloth, 150 pp., 978-0-670-06971-2.
There’s no shortage of erotic fiction; what distinguishes Roth’s is its outrageousness. In a world where it is increasingly difficult to be “erotically” shocking, considerable feats of imagination are required to produce a charge of outrage adequate to his purposes. It is therefore not easy to understand why people complain and say things like “this time he’s gone over the top” by being too outrageous about women, the Japanese, the British, his friends and acquaintances, and so forth. For if nobody feels outraged the whole strategy has failed.
– Frank Kermode
Yes, ever since Roth had poor, neurotic Portnoy violate that hunk of raw liver, one facet of his ongoing project has been to imagine and describe increasingly outrageous sex acts in all their … um … naked glory. Fetishism, voyeurism, water sports, onanism, older women with younger men, older men with younger women, sodomy, threesomes: at one point or another all of these and more have made appearances in Roth’s fiction. And, indeed, the response to what critic Mark Shechner has called Roth’s “testosterobatics” has been, from many circles, outrage – in particular, because the priapism in Roth’s novels is presented without any trace of moralizing judgment or qualification. Referring to Sabbath’s Theater, perhaps the most extensive and explicit catalogue of sexual escapades and peccadilloes in Roth’s not insubstantial oeuvre (and the book that prompted the Kermode comment above), Shechner avers that the novel “refuses to justify itself, to claim its outlawry to be more than outlawry, its naked psychic spillage more than naked psychic spillage.”
Of course, “naked psychic spillage” on its own would be entirely uninteresting, except from the perspective of pornography; what elevates Roth’s writing is his brazen intensity, his unvarnished honesty in laying bare the often uncomfortable truths about the masculine psyche, his seething anger at our commonly accepted societal hypocrisies, and his apparent inability to craft a boring sentence. Moreover, for a literary writer of Roth’s stature, his late-career output has been astounding, on both a qualitative and quantitative level.
Indeed, when Sabbath’s Theater appeared in 1995, it was suggested that the novel represented the apogee of everything the author had intended to say in his career; following its publication, many expected Roth to retreat into a cozy retirement. Two years later, he published American Pastoral, the first of a monumental trilogy that eviscerated postwar America in a furious volley of righteous indignation. American Pastoral is not only one of the greatest American novels of the last 25 years, it signalled the onset of a late-career rebirth for Roth. Volume after volume appeared, on an almost annual basis, each one as potent as the last.
Following the corrosively political American Trilogy (American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, and The Human Stain), Roth, by then approaching his 70s, turned his attention to the twin subjects of aging and death. With the exception of his Sinclair Lewis–inspired alternate history, The Plot Against America, and the college-age protagonist of last year’s Indignation, Roth’s novels became meditations on the various ways the body betrays us as we make our inevitable march to the grave. They were also paeans to masculine sexuality, which remains potent long after the ravages of the body have removed the ability to do anything about it. Both David Kepesh in The Dying Animal and Nathan Zuckerman in Exit Ghost try to recapture some of their lost youth by becoming involved with much younger women, a tactic that is also employed by Simon Axler in Roth’s latest novel, The Humbling.
Axler, who is 65 when the novel opens, is described as “the last of the best of the classical American stage actors” (substitute the word “writers” and this description could easily fit Axler’s creator). But unlike Zuckerman in Exit Ghost, rendered impotent by an operation on a cancerous prostate, Axler’s impotence is of a different kind: he has lost the ability to act. Cast as Prospero and Macbeth in productions at the Kennedy Center, “he failed appallingly at both.” “He couldn’t do low-intensity Shakespeare,” Roth writes, “and he couldn’t do high-intensity Shakespeare – and he’d been doing Shakespeare all his life. His Macbeth was ludicrous and everyone who saw it said as much, and so did many who hadn’t seen it.”
Filled with existential dread at the prospect of losing the one thing that gave his life meaning Axler retreats into a state of despair that causes his wife to leave him and sends him into a downward spiral of suicidal depression. What lifts him out of his torpor – at least temporarily – is the affair that he initiates with Pegeen Mike Stapleford, the daughter of an acting couple who were once Axler’s good friends. Pegeen is 25 years Axler’s junior. She is also a lesbian. When Pegeen drops by to visit Axler one day, she tends to his scraped hand after he takes a tumble and offers him a glass of water; this act of common tenderness arouses dormant erotic feelings in Axler, who seduces the younger woman. Pegeen comes bearing emotional baggage – her long-term girlfriend has betrayed her by undergoing hormone therapy and deciding to pursue sex reassignment surgery – and a toy chest full of goodies such as a cat o’ nine tails and a strap-on dildo.
This, of course, is where Roth brings on the outrage. The sex in the novel is typically explicit, but also traffics in a kind of adolescent male wish-fulfillment fantasy aspect:
At first she lost her know-how up there and he had to guide her with his two hands to give her the idea. “I don’t know what to do,” Pegeen said shyly. “You’re on a horse,” Axler told her. “Ride it.” When he worked his thumb into her ass she sighed with pleasure and whispered, “Nobody’s ever put anything in there before” – “Unlikely,” he whispered back – and when later he put his cock in there, she took as much as she could of it until she couldn’t take any more. “Did it hurt?” he asked her. “It hurt, but it’s you.” Often she would hold his cock in her palm afterward and stare as the erection subsided. “What are you contemplating?” he asked. “It fills you up,” she said, “the way dildos and fingers don’t. It’s alive. It’s a living thing.”
There is quite a lot of this kind of thing, much of it playing off a rather tired recapitulation of the Madonna/whore dichotomy.
Although the novel attempts to imply that the act of embarking on a sexual affair with Axler was done under Pegeen’s volition, impelled by her sense of anger and betrayal at her ex-girlfriend’s decision – “If Priscilla could become a heterosexual male, Pegeen could become a heterosexual female” – the active agent in the early stages is Axler, who seduces the younger woman by playing a Schubert recording for her, then keeps her by buying her expensive clothes and Prada shoes. The caricaturing of the lesbian character as obviously indulgent in the fetishism of sex toys is offensive, and the notion that a homosexual woman can be easily “turned” by a suitably potent and generous male reflects the perpetuation of a pernicious misogynist myth. It is unclear what the point is of making Pegeen a lesbian in the first place – if it is meant as a skewering of our politically correct sanctimonies, this hardly comes across, and if, as Frank Kermode suggests, it is meant to produce “a charge of outrage adequate to [Roth's] purposes,” what that purpose might be remains, in this instance, obscure.
Axler is a stage actor, and the middle section of the novel, titled “The Transformation,” clearly evokes Pygmalion; Axler is a kind of latter-day Henry Higgins, outfitting his Eliza Doolittle in designer clothes and jewellery, buying her “luxurious lingerie to replace the sport bras and gay briefs” and “little satin babydolls to replace her flannel pajamas.” He takes her to a hair stylist so that she can have her hair cut “in a style unlike the cropped mannish one she’d favored throughout her adult life.” Watching his reluctant charge in the hairdresser’s chair, “sitting there at the edge of humiliation, unable even to look at her reflection,” Axler begins to question the motivation behind the affair:
What is the draw of a woman like this to a man who is losing so much? Wasn’t he making her pretend to be someone other than who she was? Wasn’t he dressing her up in costume as though a costly skirt could dispose of nearly two decades of lived experience? Wasn’t he distorting her while telling himself a lie – and a lie that in the end might be anything but harmless? What if he proved to be no more than a brief male intrusion into a lesbian life?
The conflict between Axler’s impulse to dress Pegeen in the costume of a heterosexual woman – as though she were merely playing a role on the stage, one that she can easily slough off once the performance is over – and the larger implications of indulging in “a lie that in the end might be anything but harmless” provides the middle section of the book with a kind of ironic tension, but whether this is sufficient to overcome the misogynistic stereotyping that pervades the narrative is a question that even the most sympathetic reader will have difficulty answering in the affirmative.
Of course, Roth is a tragedian, which means that things don’t turn out well for Axler. Whether Pegeen was or was not an active accomplice in initiating the affair, whether it was indeed her conscious decision to renounce her experience with her ex-girlfriend in the most dramatic way she could imagine, in the final section of the book she becomes the driving force in determining Axler’s fate; individual readers will have to decide whether her role in Axler’s humbling is sufficient to rescue the novel from the cartoonish nature of what has gone before.
In the book’s final 10 pages, Roth does manage to hit his stride: the pent-up rage that Axler feels over his own inadequacies is finally released in a furious outburst of indignation. The closing pages of The Humbling recall the best of Roth: the intensity, the anger, the bracing, Chekhovian tragedy. (Chekhov’s tragic hero Konstantin Gavrilovich Treplev figures prominently in the novel’s final scene.) At a brief 140 printed pages, The Humbling – little more than a novella – is minor Roth: a short, ultimately unsatisfying detour in an otherwise extraordinary literary career.
We’re into the waning months of the first decade of the 21st century, and it seems as though people feel that it’s an appropriate moment to assess the temper of the times vis à vis world literature. To that end, The Millions has published a list of the 25 20 best books of the new millennium (so far), as voted on by a coterie of noted writers and critics.
The list contains some strong titles, and some surprising ones. The list in full:
#20: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
#19: American Genius, A Comedy by Lynne Tillman
#18: Stranger Things Happen by Kelly Link
#17: The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem
#16: Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
#15: Varieties of Disturbance by Lydia Davis
#14: Atonement by Ian McEwan
#13: Mortals by Norman Rush
#12: Twilight of the Superheroes by Deborah Eisenberg
#11: The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz
#10: Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
#9: Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage by Alice Munro
#8: Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson
#7: Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald
#6: The Road by Cormac McCarthy
#5: Pastoralia by George Saunders
#4: 2666 by Roberto Bolaño
#3: Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
#2: The Known World by Edward P. Jones
#1: The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
As ever with lists like this, the results are somewhat arbitrary, and immediately open to debate. It would be difficult to argue, for example, that Roberto Bolaño doesn’t deserve a spot on the list, but whether the specific title should be 2666 or The Savage Detectives is up in the air. (Speaking of which, Up in the Air by Walter Kirn didn’t make the list.) Noah Richler would likely complain that there’s only one Canadian title represented. I’d respond that this just goes to show that Victoria Glendinning was more right than many CanLit pundits would care to admit.
Personally, I’ve never been a huge fan of Cloud Atlas, finding it too much of a self-indulgent technical performance, and I don’t think that either Twilight of the Superheroes or Varieties of Disturbance are representative of the respective authors’ best work (although each collection does contain strong stories). And Atonement? Remove the postmodern framing device and you’re left with a fairly standard historical romance, complete with all the requisite frippery. I’d replace these with some of my pet MIAs, such as The Plot Against America by Philip Roth, Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami, or The Elementary Particles by Michel Houellebecq (which, to be fair, was published in the original French before the year 2000).
Also absent from the list are such talked-about books as Remainder by Tom McCarthy, Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris, and The Lazarus Project by Aleksandar Hemon.
Instead, three of the titles, including the top two, are books anointed by Oprah. Of the number one title, Scottish writer Margot Livesey writes:
The novel itself opens with a storm. “You could feel that something terrible was going to happen. The sun low in the sky, a minor light, a cooling star. Gust after gust of disorder.” In the gorgeous, cascading pages that follow, those gusts blow through the Lambert family. Illuminated by Jonathan Franzen’s brilliant prose, bill paying, grocery shopping, depression, Christmas holidays, a walk to the corner shop become subjects of breathless interest and, often, wild humor. Over and over he gives us the deep pleasure of seeing the world around us – and the world inside us – in new ways. For once, the prophets were right.
Meanwhile, over at Wasafiri, there’s a list of 25 books that have been most influential on the course of literature in the last quarter-century. Not all of the titles were published in the last 25 years; the list is meant to gauge which books have had the most sway over literary thought, practice, and trends in the recent past. Chosen by a panel of international experts, the list (along with each title’s respective champion) is:
Aminatta Forna: The Famished Road by Ben Okri
Amit Chaudhuri: Collected Poems by Elizabeth Bishop
Bernardine Evaristo: Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain by Peter Frye
Beverley Naidoo: Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor
Brian Chikwava: The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño
Blake Morrison: The Stories of Raymond Carver by Raymond Carver
Chika Unigwe: One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez
Daljit Nagra: North by Seamus Heaney
David Dabydeen: A House for Mr. Biswas by V.S. Naipaul
Elaine Feinstein: Birthday Letters by Ted Hughes
Fred D’Aguiar: Palace of the Peacock by Wilson Harris
Hirsh Sawhney: River of Fire by Quarratulain Hyder
Indra Sinha: Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
John Haynes: Philosophical Investigations by Ludwig Wittgenstein
Lesley Lokko: Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie
Maggie Gee: Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee
Marina Warner: Dreams from My Father by Barack Obama
Maya Jaggi: The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje
Michael Horovitz: Collected Poems by Allen Ginsberg
Minoli Salgado: Anil’s Ghost by Michael Ondaatje
Nii Parkes: One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez
Roger Robinson: Sula by Toni Morrison
Sujata Bhatt: One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez
Sukhdev Sandhu: The Private Life of Chairman Mao by Dr. Li Zhisui
Tabish Khair: The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie
Again, only one Canuck represented, albeit for two separate titles. And one title – One Hundred Years of Solitude – appears three times. (So, in fact, these are the 23 most influential books of the past 25 years, but who’s counting?) Of the Wasafiri project, Susheila Nasta says:
Writers have always moved worlds with words, transporting us beyond the known and familiar. The eclecticism of this selection showcases the true diversity which is international contemporary writing today. Twenty-five years ago “international writing” was considered off-centre. This selection shows how much the landscape has changed, with many of these titles now part of our literary canon.
So, what do people think? Are these lists representative, or do they need to be revised? Is such a project an exercise in futility from the very start? Or, at minimum, does it give literary types something to argue over at cocktail parties?
There’s a bit of a contretemps going on over at Quillblog (which seems these days to be where I’m getting all my material) about an interview that Nigel Beale did with John Metcalf, in which Metcalf defends the utility of negative reviews, even those that resort to invective and insult to make their points. I’ll let that debate simmer away over at Quill; what most interests me in the Beale/Metcalf interview comes later on, when Metcalf turns his attention to the Canadian canon and asks whether Canada can be said to have produced a world-class writer. In Metcalf’s view, this country has produced only one work worthy of being set alongside the best writing from England and the United States: Mordecai Richler’s St. Urbain’s Horseman. Beyond that single novel, Metcalf claims, anyone looking for important literary writing must look outside our home and native land:
Anybody with any literary sense whatsoever knows that a really important book of literary fiction comes maybe once every ten years, out of England or the United States and not here, because we don’t have an audience hard enough to exact one.
[ ... ]
The Canadian critic’s duty is to be vitally aware of what is happening in England and what is happening in the United States and to compare Canadian output with the best from those two countries. Of course, when you do that, the result is painful. I mean, we’re not even on the same planet.
Metcalf’s detractors will put this down to simply more colonial bitterness from an inveterate curmudgeon and complainer, but this knee-jerk response gives his argument short shrift. One presumes that Metcalf is confining his attention to literature written in English, which is why he singles out Britain and the United States (and not, say, Latin America) as the twin hubs of significant literary output. Were Metcalf to look past Canadian literature written in English, he might be surprised at the wealth of talent coming out of Quebec, even that small percentage that has appeared in translation. (It wouldn’t be hard, for example, to make a case for Marie-Claire Blais’s stature as a world-class author.) And there is a sense that Metcalf is engaging in a bit of hyperbole to make his point: even he admits that Alice Munro and Mavis Gallant are important Canadian writers.
Still, his basic contention is worth considering: if one were to build a literary canon of significant books from the past 50 years or so, how many works of Canadian literature would fit comfortably on it? I would suggest, for example, that Cat’s Eye and The Robber Bride – arguably Margaret Atwood’s two best novels – are important works in the annals of Canadian writing, but would their lustre not be the least bit diminished were they to be placed alongside the best of Philip Roth (Sabbath’s Theater, American Pastoral)? Or Don DeLillo (White Noise, Underworld)? Or Jeanette Winterson (The Passion, Written on the Body)? In such august company, would Atwood’s novels not come off looking just the slightest bit parochial and twee?
It’s been pointed out that in the chronology of world literatures, Canada’s is a relatively young one. We may indeed now be entering the period of literary development that the States found itself in at the mid-20th century. Still, by that point American literature had produced Faulkner, Fitzgerald, and Hemingway, not to mention Flannery O’Connor, Willa Cather, Nathanael West, James Baldwin, Katherine Anne Porter, Eudora Welty, Saul Bellow, and Carson McCullers. Where are the Canadian writers to compare with these canonical names? Where in Canada are we to find such technically audacious, philosophically inquisitive, or cosmopolitan writers as José Saramago, Julio Cortàzar, Vladimir Nabokov, A.S. Byatt, Iris Murdoch, Roberto Bolaño, Michel Houellebecq, Alasdair Gray?
In his essay “Confessions of a Book Columnist,” Philip Marchand wrote, “Not even the most fervent partisans of Canadian literature will say that Canadians have done fundamentally new things with the novel form, or changed the way we read in the manner, say, of a Joyce, a Kafka, a Nabokov, or a Garcia Marquez.” Perhaps this partially explains the experience of a colleague of mine on a trip to France. Speaking about her work in the field of CanLit, she was questioned about important Canadian writers. Atwood’s name drew blank stares. The people she was speaking to had some vague notion of who Michael Ondaatje is, but that was about it. If being world class means being recognized abroad, this anecdotal experience suggests that we’re not doing terribly well.
Metcalf thinks this is because we don’t have a culture of tough criticism, and I for one would be hard pressed to disagree. The culture of boosterism and cheerleading to which we have consigned ourselves precludes us developing “an audience hard enough to exact” a literature that is able to compete with the best of what’s being produced internationally. Even Canadian writers feel this: ask anyone working in the trenches of CanLit about what’s exciting them in literature these days, and they’re more likely to name Joseph O’Neill than Anne Michaels. This is a shame. Where are Canada’s answers to Bolaño and Saramago, to Ali Smith and Haruki Murakami? They don’t exist – yet. But it is only by holding ourselves to the highest literary standards that we may hope to rectify this situation. We need to develop the “hard” audience that Metcalf advocates. We should not hesitate to judge Canadian writing against the best of what is being produced internationally, nor should we hesitate to point out those instances in which our writing comes up wanting.