March 2017

Re: “Critical Un-favourite,” by Andy Lamey

A good analysis by Andy Lamey, but there are other aspects to John Metcalf’s character besides writer and critic.

As an editor, Metcalf reached out after reading a short story of mine in the Antigonish Review over 20 years ago and suggested there might be a book in it. Who did that sort of thing when publishing houses were overwhelmed by submissions?

Who else besides the Journey Prize jury and Coming Attractions editors is scanning the field to see what’s coming up? His devotion to editing in modestly paid jobs for publishers such as Oberon, Porcupine’s Quill and Biblioasis has been determined and monkish—no wonder he snaps when someone less deeply in the field makes an observation.

As to my experience with him, to have been edited by John Metcalf was exquisite torture, with the emphasis on exquisite. When I got over the shock, I made the prose better.

Metcalf identifies as a resident of a Canadian aesthetic underground. His first allegiance is to the sentence—it may not be flabby in any way. As an editor, he demands attention to prose that comes close to the attention paid to poetry. His second allegiance is to contemporary Canadian writing—no tying up of the O. Henry knots, please, no appeals to sentimentality, no well-worn homilies and, above all, no sacred cows. He loves humour, preferably wicked, and doesn’t care who it hurts.

Metcalf has taken flak for his positions on CanLit, even from me. I once accused him of being a literary mugger in a piece in Books in Canada. He is scrappy and impolite and I have met writers and critics angry with him or wounded by his comments, some of whom suggested my admiration for his many works was loyalty to the dark side.

As to his critical positions, he is sometimes right. Besides, who else is the great champion of the Canadian short story, whose glory we choose to share in the halos of Mavis Gallant and Alice Munro while so many of us vote with our feet to buy or write novels?

I’d argue we need his blistering comments. Those who don’t love him love to hate him. If John Metcalf didn’t exist, we’d need to create someone like him to puncture our sanctimony when that is what we are maintaining, or to force us to hold our positions more firmly in the knowledge we can withstand his attack.

If he were a federal politician, he’d be a terror in question period.

Antanas Sileika
Toronto, Ontario

Thank you to Andy Lamey for his overview of John Metcalf.

It made a lot of stuff on the Canadian literature scene make sense, from occasional snide remarks from authors, to guarded praise, to Metcalf’s absence from so many critical studies.

“Why the ignoring and hatred of John Metcalf?” I always wondered, but was too lazy to look into it. Lamey saved me a tonne of work!

Jason Blake
Ljubljana, Slovenia

Andy Lamey’s review of John Metcalf’s book, The Canadian Short Story, actually changed the way I think about Metcalf, and I believe I’m going to have to find a copy of the book and read it. I worked with Martin Levin in The Globe and Mail’s books section for 17 years, ending with my retirement in 2014. I read Metcalf’s Kicking Against the Pricks a million years ago, and that was pretty much everything I knew about him: sometimes funny, always cranky, a good editor (I heard) and a sort of fringe player in the world of Canadian literature. After reading Lamey’s review, however, I see he was much more than that. I have a new appreciation for Metcalf and his work over the years, and I will take the time now to read him and read more about him. (Why not? I’m retired. I have the time.) Thanks again.

Jack Kirchhoff
Toronto, Ontario

Re: “End Reefer Madness,” by James McIntosh

I read with interest the recent essay about marijuana laws by James McIntosh. I would like to add one element to the discussion with regard to medical marijuana.

With respect to the medical issues, I believe we should be guided by only one factor: does the treatment in question actually work? To that end, I believe it is worthwhile to review the actual scientific evidence.

Searching the internet, one can easily find claims that marijuana can be used for a wide range of conditions, including cancer, chronic pain, HIV, Alzheimer’s disease, epilepsy, glaucoma, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, cystic fibrosis and post-traumatic stress disorder.

However, the scientific evidence doesn’t support such a widespread use. In 2015 the Swiss Federal Office for Public Health commissioned a review of the evidence that was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (“Cannabinoids for Medical Use: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis,” by P.F. Whiting and colleagues, published in the June 23–30 issue that year). In 2017, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine issued their own report, which came to similar conclusions: that there was, in fact, good evidence to support the use of cannabis for chronic pain, with most of the evidence being for chronic nerve pain, and that cannabis helps lessen the nausea due to chemotherapy. There was also an improvement in muscle spasticity in patients who had multiple sclerosis. However, it is worth noting that this benefit was only seen in patient-reported symptoms, not when muscle spasticity was objectively measured.

But for all other conditions, the evidence is less than solid. There is limited evidence that it helps with conditions such as PTSD or social anxiety. Even its benefit to increase appetite and curb weight loss in patients with HIV or cancer or other wasting conditions is doubtful. Many readers will have heard anecdotes and testimonials about marijuana’s ability to treat epilepsy. The evidence unfortunately is lacking. Also, despite the widespread belief that marijuana will treat glaucoma, the evidence suggests it will not.

Part of the problem is that the marijuana plant, or Cannabis sativa, is only one species in the Cannabis genus—although it is the one that garners the most attention. There are hundreds of active substances in the plant, but the two main molecules are delta-9-tehydrocannibol and cannabidiol. THC is the main psychoactive component and CBD is the main non-psychoactive component. Traditionally, Cannabis sativa has had a high THC/CBD ratio, thus explaining its popularity as a recreational drug, while other species, such as Cannabis indica, have higher concentrations of CBD relative to THC. Some of the negative results when reviewing the scientific evidence may stem from the different pharmacologic actions of these two molecules.

Because every marijuana plant is obviously genetically and chemically distinct, plants with higher levels of CBD and lower levels of THC may have more medical benefit and fewer side effects. Indeed, it is the psychotropic side effects of marijuana that will most limit its use. Although the side effects are usually mild, it is important to remember that heavy use early in life can increase the risk of schizophrenia. Clearly, marijuana is not benign; no medical therapy is. The real danger in the current debate is that the enthusiasm for medical marijuana will outpace the science.

Christopher Labos
Toronto, Ontario

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