Literary Criticism – or the body of critics – should be to the writer what the Roman senate was to the Roman general in the field: an unseen presence sitting sternly in judgment over his blunders; but also voting him a triumph if he did his duty well. Shall I indulge in the sarcasm of the question. Is that what (with, oh, so few exceptions) literary criticism is in Canada to-day?
From It Needs to be Said… by Frederick Philip Grove (MacMillan, 1929)
Well Frederick, it wasn’t in 1929, and it still isn’t in 2009. Readers interested in literature as art have had precious few stern seated senators over the years judging Canada’s literary blunders. For the most part we’ve been brainwashed into believing that all of our Generals are heroes on the field.
For this, some have blamed Northrop Frye. In the concluding chapter of the first edition of The Literary History of Canada (ed. Carl Klinck, 1965) he writes: “Had evaluation been their guiding principle, this book would, if written at all, have been only a huge debunking project, leaving Canadian literature a poor naked alouette plucked of every feather of decency and dignity.”
Over the years there have been a few lonely voices calling for Canadian literature to get plucked. A.J.M. Smith, for example, in his review of Klinck’s book, advocated a comprehensive ‘critical history’ by a single author who “can combine scholarly research with imagination and interpretation, and who has enough faith in the literary quality of the best work drawn from all kinds of writing…to make evaluation his first business and let the chips fall where they may.”
Smith’s prescription is quoted in An Independent Stance “Literature as academic study is covered in scholarly fashion; literature as enjoyment, as intellectual stimulation, as a dance of words, is sadly absent.”
Of Frye’s refusal to assess degrees of greatness, George Woodcock said in ‘Canadian Literature’ 1971 from The Rejection of Politics (1972). “if Frye’s critical conscience and — I suspect — his personal kindness, debar him from debunking, they also debar him from the kind of idiotic inflation of the claims of Canadian writing which has so often marred what in this country passes for criticism. He does not seek greatness or futility in a work, for these, it seem to him, are irrelevant to the central task of finding what the writer has sought to do and discussing how well he has done it.”
In addition to Frye’s disinclination to debunk, there is also the contention that academia’s scientific bent has neutered evaluative criticism. As Keith puts it in Canadian Literature in English (Vol. ll) “ ‘Scholarship’, which could seek out facts and produce genuine and permanent contributions to knowledge, was judged to be more substantial than ‘criticism’, which disseminated merely subjective opinions and unprovable impressions.”
Finally, outside of academe, there’s the question of ‘survival.’ It’s very difficult to butter parsnips on a freelance book reviewer/literary critic’s income. Literary magazines have no money, and book coverage in the mainstream media is now scrunched up into the margins. Earning a living as a literary critic in Canada is about as easy as finding water lilies north of Churchill, Manitoba.
Thus, a four headed – economic, academic, altruistic, nationalistic – deterrent has bitten the head off any substantive body of criticism in Canada, killing most attempts at stern evaluation in its path.
The Importance of Evaluative Criticism
According to critic Helen Gardner the primary act of criticism is judgment – the determination of whether or not a work has significance or value. Judgment is exercised through the rationalization of felt value: description of what the work says, explanation of how it says it, and argument supporting why what it says is important to us.
She also contends that quibbling over whether or not Jane Eyre is a better novel than Wuthering Heights, is stupid; that ranking novels that have already made it into the canon serves little purpose. If, however, there is no established canon – as is the case in Canada – then ranking, at least to the extent that it determines which books make the cut and which don’t, does serve an important role.
Canada does not have a canon to speak of because there have not been enough ‘makers’ to construct and argue over one. How else is a canon established, if not through opinionated judgment and prolonged argument?
Of course it is difficult to identify an objective ‘best,’ – or ‘truth’ for that matter – when it comes to art. This ‘best’ business is simply a way to goad people into describing and defending what they contend has merit. Stimulating engagement of this sort encourages the provoked to better scrutinize and understand their own likes and dislikes. And when you think of it, what could be more important than knowing the answers to these questions?
It’s natural to pass judgment. What is life, if not a series of lived likes and dislikes. Choices which determine what we do; who we hang out with; how we develop our minds and bodies; where, if they exist, our souls will end up; what we eat, how we dress, what wine we drink, who we marry, who we’re governed by, whether or not we get up in the morning…
Figuring out how an engine runs, or how an algebraic formula works can be satisfying and make for engaging conversation with other enthusiasts – but nowhere near as engaging, or fun, – or instructive – as when opinions are aired. Cold logic is fine, but contention – the exchange of heated opinion about relative merit, this is where new ideas are most often forged, strengthened and changed.
Without forthright argument, criticism lacks torque. Regardless of whether or not a ‘right’ or ‘best’ exists in literary analysis, the fight for and bullish championing of one work over another, tends, like natural selection, to eliminate the weak contenders, and, over time, determine the winners.
Accurate description and analysis of how a novel or poem or essay, for example, works – provides criticism with its essential foundation, but if this is all there is, the writing will be pretty damned dry…like drinking sand…which, needless to say, wont foster much reader enthusiasm. Lively criticism is essential to the literary vigour of a country. It is born when passion arrives: where arguments are gathered and built and persuasively presented. Exegesis is interesting enough. It helps with reading and comprehension – but we’re talking doorknobs here: dense inanimates, useless unless twisted or pulled to open entrances letting others in to dispute, wrangle, agree and disagree.
Northrop Frye, in typical self-contradictory style, supported this contention in The Educated Imagination where he wrote that “the arts follow the path of the emotions, and of the tendency of the emotions to separate the world into a half that we like and a half that we don’t like.
Evaluative criticism identifies what is ‘good’, what is ‘valuable’; it bases these findings on solid argument, and advises on where best to spend time; in short it explores likes and dislikes. It prompts us to understand how and why we react to art in the ways we do. In this way it helps us, crucially, to define ourselves.
Throughout his long career studying, editing, writing and critiquing Canadian short stories, John Metcalf has with honesty and gusto delivered a body of trenchantly argued opinion detailing what he considers to be ‘good and bad’ writing. His literary memoir Shut Up He Said contains a 110 page chapter entitled ‘The Century List,’ which – pre-empting the ‘bald scavengers’ of academe – presents what he posits are the best Canadian short stories written in the 20th century.
Statements about ‘bests’ or ‘worsts’ are, I think, following D. G. Myers, best taken as interrogative challenges. Claims caboosed with understood questions: St. Urbain’s Horseman is the greatest English-language Canadian novel ever written, [isn’t it? What else is, then?.
Metcalf’s list is valuable for many reasons, most pressingly because it sets a stake in the Shield – presents a line of reasoning that can be questioned, countered, argued with or upheld in ways that can only enrich the quality of short story writing in Canada.
Just as training to compete successfully against the world’s best proved to be so rewarding at the recent Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver, so, Canadian fiction, subjected to Metcalf’s brand of analysis, can only continue to improve in ways which will help us respond clearly and forcefully to a question that has failed for centuries to be answered with any authority. Surely it is time, now, eighty years after Frederick Philip Grove’s sarcasm, for a new breed of Metcalfian critic to step forward, to write The Ten Greatest Canadian Novels ever Written; to tell Canadians in detail, exactly who they are.