John Metcalf’s name was once at the top of Canada’s literary blacklist. In 1989 Metcalf and another writer, Leon Rooke, co-edited The Second Macmillan Anthology. The collection included a section called “Position Papers,” in which writers outlined their aesthetic principles. The section had been Rooke’s idea, and in the introduction he divulged that more than one writer he approached had turned him down, “out of firm disagreement with John Metcalf for his variety of stands on assorted issues related to art and society.” Metcalf felt betrayed by Rooke’s disclosure and the two writers were temporarily estranged. Writing about the affair in his memoirs, however, Metcalf acknowledged that the ill will directed against him was real. “I did not doubt that what Leon was reporting was accurate. As [Leon’s wife] Connie Rooke said to me about this time, ‘You have no idea how many enemies you’ve got out there.’” The enmity once directed at Metcalf is worth revisiting, not only for what it says about Canada’s literary history, but for what it says about Metcalf’s changing place within it. Where he was once a literary pariah, Metcalf today appears closer to a prophet.
There are many reasons why we might prefer not to look back at Canada during the early 1980s. Joe Clark’s prime ministership was fresh in public memory, the Royal Canadian Air Farce had both a radio and a TV show, and leg warmers were widely considered cool. In hindsight, however, the period was important for a shift that was taking place in how the country’s literature was received. That shift was one that Metcalf hastened along in his 1982 essay collection, Kicking Against the Pricks.
The change in question concerned cultural nationalism. A benign version of this doctrine holds that people should be able to see their own experiences reflected in art. On this reasonable view, it was a negative fact of Canadian life that up until the 1960s there were comparatively few works of Canadian fiction set here and even fewer taught in Canadian schools, where the curriculum focused on British, and then also American, works. English Canada went through its own quiet revolution in the late 1960s and ’70s as the boomer generation affirmed the value of Canadian art and culture. To this day, many theatre companies, small presses and Canadian studies programs trace their origin to this period of cultural ferment.
The cultural nationalism that was ascendant in Canada in the long 1970s was necessary and valuable. It also had blind spots and excesses. Mordecai Richler captured them by recounting a conversation with Mavis Gallant, who had lived in Europe for years before returning to Canada in the 1970s for a university reading tour. “She had been astonished by the hostility of Canadian cultural nationalists who demanded to know why she wrote stories about damn foreigners and why she continued to live abroad, as if that were an act of treachery.”
Gallant was born to Canadian parents and spent most of her formative years in Canada, but among some cultural nationalists this was not enough to establish her as a Canadian writer. Nationalist critics also had limited interest in immigrant authors, along with ex-patriots. In place of both they lionized writers of traditional settler stock. Typical in this regard were works such as Margaret Atwood’s Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature and Robin Mathews’ Canadian Literature: Surrender or Revolution. Atwood justified her lack of interest in immigrant fiction on the grounds that it was “dangerous to talk about ‘Canadian’ patterns of sensibility in the work of people who entered and/or entered-and-left the country at a developmentally late stage of their lives.” Mathews’ differences with Atwood included being slightly more open to immigrant literature, but, like Atwood, his primary goal was to argue for a uniquely Canadian literary tradition, one that celebrated musty 19th-century authors such as John Richardson, Susanna Moodie and Charles G.D. Roberts. If these writers received more measured assessments from outside critics, Mathews retorted that this was the result of colonialism. “If the foreign critics are described properly, they almost always have to be called ‘cultural imperialists.’”
Metcalf was Canada’s first major critic of 1970s nationalism. To be sure, there had been essays by other authors challenging the nationalist zeitgeist. Kicking Against the Pricks, however, was the first book to argue against it at length. As Metcalf continued his argument in later works, particularly What Is a Canadian Literature? and Freedom from Culture: Selected Essays 1982–92, offering an alternative to literary nationalism became his abiding theme.
Metcalf argued that 1970s-style nationalists advanced a narrow and blinkered view of Canadian literature. As he put it in a 1987 magazine article, “for more than a decade, I have been arguing that the experience of immigrants both here and in their countries of origin must inevitably form a large and fascinating part of Canadian literature yet to be written.” He also criticized nationalists for inventing Canadian literary traditions. Not only did their sweeping claims for the influence of antiquarian works crumble when subjected to historical investigation, but they also failed to acknowledge the inevitable influence of international literature on Canadian writers. One critic, for example, argued that Alice Munro was influenced by In the Village of Viger, an obscure 19th-century Canadian story cycle. When Metcalf asked Munro whether this was true she wryly replied, “Tell them that the book that influenced me was Winesburg, Ohio,” referencing Sherwood Anderson’s famous work, which was published in New York.
Metcalf sought to replace the nationalist hunt for uniquely Canadian themes and traditions with an emphasis on style. In explaining his preferred approach, Metcalf has often noted that it derives from 20th-century British critic Cyril Connolly. Connolly believed that literary criticism should focus on individual passages in isolation from the rest of the works in which they appear. As Connolly put it, “an expert should be able to tell a carpet by one skein of it; a vintage by rinsing a glassful round his mouth.” Metcalf has called this sentence his Damascus Road experience. As he wrote in Freedom from Culture, “this sentence changed the way I thought and felt about prose. As the sentence grew in my mind, the implications and ramifications continued to amaze me.”
Perhaps the most fundamental ramification Metcalf drew was a distinction between writing that we experience and writing that we understand. Literary texts do not just convey information and ideas. They also occasion an emotional experience in the reader. This is what distinguishes them from philosophical treatises, workplace memos and other writing. Non-literary prose speaks to us from the neck up, whereas literature engages the whole self. Applying this idea to cultural nationalism, Metcalf charged that its proponents were insufficiently attentive to the status of literature as something we experience, which resulted in their celebrating emotionally dead antiquarian works simply because they were Canadian.
A second conclusion that Metcalf drew was that prose should be read with the intensity normally associated with poetry. He is fond of Randall Jarrell’s description of the novel as “a prose narrative of some length that has something wrong with it.” Short stories, by contrast, are more likely to survive the intense sentence-by-sentence scrutiny that Metcalf favours. In keeping with this Metcalf has long argued that the best writing Canada has produced has been stories. In particular, he has long championed Alice Munro and Mavis Gallant as our two greatest writers. They are followed closely in Metcalf’s estimation by Norman Levine and Clark Blaise, who Metcalf argues are underappreciated by the general public (although not by their fellow writers).
Bringing this approach to bear on Canadian literature caused Metcalf to posit the mid 20th century as a fundamental dividing line. Different works cite different dates but the point Metcalf has most often cited is 1960. Prior to this time Canadian literature is distinguished in the main by a lack of formal innovation. There are exceptions here and there, and Metcalf does not dispute that literary works can be important on non-aesthetic grounds; Uncle Tom’s Cabin, for example, is important for encouraging abolitionism. But after 1960, when modernism finally arrives in Canada, everything changes. Writing from 1960 onward is artistically innovative and resonant. Nationalist critics who spurned this work to lovingly paw over 19th-century texts were committing the literary equivalent of necrophilia.
Writers sympathetic to cultural nationalism probably would not have wanted to appear in the 1989 book Metcalf co-edited with Rooke. But Metcalf’s brief against cultural nationalism only goes so far in explaining his unpopularity. To fully understand his blacklisting requires noting two further aspects of his writings during the 1980s and ’90s, one political, the other more personal.
Metcalf has for decades called for the abolition of the Canada Council. He argued that subsidies given to writers and publishers distorted the country’s literary output. Government subsidies were distributed to particular regions, demographic groups or along other lines Metcalf considered anti-literary. More than anything, he argued, subsidy resulted in a literature that did not have to connect with readers who appreciated it enough to pay for it. As he put it in Kicking Against the Pricks, “our present ‘culture’ is a subsidized and legislated culture; it must become, however narrowly, a possession of real people.” Metcalf’s objection to subsidizing creative labour put him deeply at odds with many of his fellow writers, which was bad enough. That he advanced his campaign against the Canada Council in high-profile forums, including a pamphlet published by the right-wing Fraser Institute, only worsened his already bad odour.
Finally, there is Metcalf’s writing style, which has been well described by retired University of Toronto English professor Sam Solecki: “agree or disagree with it, you must admit that it’s better written, more energetic, more various in its effects, more witty, more provocative, and simply more interesting than almost anything written on Canadian literature within the academy.” There is great passion and personality in everything Metcalf writes, and this makes his criticism memorable and vivid in two opposing but equally central modes.
Metcalf’s generous mode is on display in his affectionate portraits of Canadian writers he admires. It also informs poignant essays he has written on autobiographical subjects, such as his experience growing up as a bookish boy in post-war Britain, or taking his daughter to see the slaughter of a pig in rural Ontario. He is at his most profoundly affirmative on the topic of fine prose, whether it is by an established master such as Munro, or one of the many young writers he has published in his capacity as a literary press editor. In these passages Metcalf has no enemies, only a deep and transformative capacity for admiration.
Metcalf’s destructive mode is evident in the many passages in his criticism that assume an oppositional stance. It comes to the fore when he is writing about the Canada Council, cultural nationalists, the modern university and many other subjects of which he disapproves. Particularly when he is engaged in a struggle for critical authority, as when dispatching a critic whose views he considers pernicious, Metcalf can be quite scathing and insulting.
These passages are often witty and, I confess, entertaining. In Freedom from Culture, for example, Metcalf responds to a defence of the Canada Council offered by a now-forgotten journalist. While Metcalf addresses her argument in detail, the most memorable moment may come when he turns his attention to how the author identified herself. “[She] was described in the by-line as ‘a Toronto writer and the author of A Woman and Catholicism: My Break with the Roman Catholic Church.’ The comic immodesty of this title reminded me of Spike Milligan’s memoirs of his World War II career as a private and lance-corporal. His book was called Hitler: My Part in His Downfall.”
At other times, however, Metcalf’s negative mode is less entertaining, and suggests an attitude of sneering superiority. This is particularly true of the passages in his anti-nationalist trilogy that bemoan the low sales and other indignities of being a writer in Canada. In Kicking Against the Pricks, for example, Metcalf complains about the fate of an anthology he edited: “squat, unblinking, ready to engulf and absorb it leaving not a trace, sits the vast warty toad of Canadian taste.” Elsewhere in the book he laments that “Canada remains so very much the land of Anne Murray, Anne of Green Gables and Toller Cranston.”
Bitter passages such as these gave rise to the view that Metcalf was anti-Canadian. This perception was not fair. As Metcalf also wrote in Kicking Against the Pricks, “while I would describe myself as an ardent Canadian nationalist, I have little time for narrow nationalist concerns in literature.” It was, however, easy to lose sight of Metcalf’s positive attitude toward Canada amid the many passages complaining about the deformities of Canadian taste. This, together with the fulsome stream of insults that Metcalf’s books direct at prominent writers, journalists and academics, whom Metcalf always took the trouble to name, only reinforced Metcalf’s pariah status among his literary peers.
Today, with the benefit of hindsight, it is possible to come to a more nuanced view of Metcalf’s legacy. Seeing its importance requires looking past his cranky passages. It may not have been clear to his critics at the time, but during the 1980s Metcalf took grief for defending ideas that would later be widely accepted.
This is least true of Metcalf’s writing on the Canada Council. His view of the institution as a pernicious force is hard to square with his view that Canadian literature dramatically improves around 1960, three years after the Council was established. His argument that a paying audience is the sole factor that sustains quality literature would also seem to overlook how paying audiences can fail to appreciate contemporary works that posterity later recognizes as masterpieces, as famously happened with Moby-Dick. A carefully administered subsidy program seems a more realistic guard against this problem than the revolution in literary taste that Metcalf calls for.
On the topic of immigrant writing, however Metcalf was ahead of his time. The nationalist generation had a narrow view of what counted as Canadian, which Metcalf was right to challenge. Metcalf was also prophetic in making an issue of the nationalist generation’s lack of interest in aesthetic questions. Canadian writers of the generation that immediately followed the boomers often satirized the view of Canadian literature as something to be read out of a grim sense of obligation. In his 1996 novel, Chump Change, for example, Toronto writer David Eddie has his protagonist scan the nationalities of the authors on an older character’s bookshelf: “heavy on the Brits … along with a sprinkling of Europeans and Americans, and a fairly heavy medicinal dose of Canadian writers.” Douglas Coupland clearly spoke for more than one member of generation X when he told a 1991 interviewer, “there’s such a problem in Canada with duty reads, and there’s no such thing as a duty read in the States.”
For Canadian readers such as myself who came of age in the aftermath of the boomers, one of the most liberating effects of reading Metcalf is to destroy the medicinal view of Canadian literature. If Metcalf has long been in a death struggle with cultural nationalism, he has also long been a passionate evangelist on behalf of Canadian literature. He has a rare gift for analyzing and explaining literary technique, which, when he brings it to bear on the work of Munro and other writers becomes infectious. One puts down a book by Metcalf impatient to read the many Canadian authors who excite him, excitement he instils like few other critics.
Metcalf’s abiding preoccupation with Canadian authors distinguishes him from Connolly and other critics who were supremely concerned with the elucidation of style. It is often overlooked how this preoccupation complicates Metcalf’s anti-nationalism. McGill professor Robert Lecker is a rare critic who has picked up on it. As Lecker mischievously remarks, “Metcalf is a nationalist who refuses to acknowledge that fact.” Metcalf clearly rejects the critical tenets of cultural nationalism, but one way he has always been a kind of nationalist himself is on an institutional level. He is a great believer in the value of anthologies, presses and journals specifically devoted to Canadian literature. Although Metcalf and Robin Mathews would come to blows if they had to edit a Canadian literary organ together, they share the view that a specifically Canadian literary infrastructure is necessary (even if, for Metcalf, that infrastructure should be private rather than public).
On all of the subjects—immigrant fiction, duty reads, institutional rather than cultural nationalism—Metcalf’s writing foreshadows views that are now quite conventional. We take it for granted today that immigrant literature is a central part of Canadian literature, while the notion of the Canadian duty read has gone into a long decline. (How many millennials are even familiar with it?) We can debate the role of the Canada Council, but the idea that specifically Canadian media and other institutions are worth preserving remains popular. The once common nationalist pastime of reading authors of the Confederation era with an eye to unpacking their “garrison mentality” does not.
To say that Metcalf was ahead of his time is not to say that he caused the decline of cultural nationalism. Enduring multicultural demographic trends surely made the marginalization of immigrant fiction unsustainable. The generations that have come after the boomers may also have been more comfortable with post-nationalism in part because the boomers succeeded at many of their goals. Robin Mathews, for example, achieved fame not as a literary critic but as a campaigner for the “Canadianization” of Canadian universities. When he took up the issue in the late 1960s, it was the norm for Americans to outnumber Canadians in many departments and for Canadian subjects, literary and otherwise, to be neglected. After Mathews’ efforts resulted in a 1981 law giving hiring priority to Canadian academics, the issue subsided. If post-boomer Canadians are less anxious about Canadian culture, it may be partly because its value is more widely recognized and protected than when the boomers came of age.
Even if Kicking Against the Pricks did not single-handedly usher in the post-nationalist age, it remains a historically important work. Only four years separate Metcalf’s book from Mathews’ Canadian Literature, yet Mathews’ work today feels badly dated in a way that Metcalf’s does not. More than any other book, Metcalf’s essay collection marks the end of the long 1970s in Canadian literary criticism. In this area if no other, the early 1980s were not so hideous after all.
After Freedom from Culture, Metcalf published two volumes of memoirs: An Aesthetic Underground in 2003 and Shut Up He Explained in 2007. These later works have fine passages, including a moving account of the extraordinary steps Metcalf and his wife took to help John Newlove, who won the Governor General’s Award for Poetry in 1972, after Newlove succumbed to life-threatening alcoholism. But, on the whole, the memoirs do not rise to the same level as the trilogy. Metcalf often recycles sections and chapters from book to book. He has also long made a practice of including many lengthy block quotes, both from works by other writers whom he wishes to praise or disparage, and from his own fiction. Both of these traits, more or less under control in the trilogy, swell to problematic proportions in the memoirs, to the point that Metcalf sometimes seems inspired by Walter Benjamin’s dream of a book composed entirely of quotations.
The main problem with Metcalf’s memoirs, however, is their tone of complaint. Metcalf has often drawn attention to the fact that his short stories have been excluded from almost every national trade anthology published in Canada since 1980. (The second edition of The Oxford Book of Canadian Short Stories in English, edited by Margaret Atwood and Robert Weaver, is the only exception I know of.) As he wrote in Freedom from Culture, “this would suggest either that my work is by common agreement very bad indeed or that the anthologists in question are possibly allowing extraliterary concerns to colour their judgement.” Reviewers of Metcalf’s fiction have concurred, rightly, in my view, that his work is unfairly neglected. But Metcalf’s memoirs are marred by bitterness about the vagaries of literary life.
I wince at his cold treatment of a literary journalist I once worked with. She kept no blacklist and always spoke well of Metcalf. But when she has the temerity to mention in passing the low sales of an author published by Metcalf he snarls, “What a squalid little mind she has!” Kafka wrote that literature must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. Too many of Metcalf’s later passages extend the ice rather than attack it.
Ten years have passed since Metcalf’s last work of non-fiction. One picks up a new work by him with a certain amount of trepidation. The optimistic hope is for a late-career work written entirely in his generous mode. The realistic hope is to brace for something else.
Metcalf’s The Canadian Short Story outlines a history of the short story. In the 19th century, stories had the structure of a tale. The emphasis was on plot contrivance, which readers would follow for the pleasure of discovering what happens next. The tale structure lent itself naturally to stories of adventure set in exotic locales, as in the work of Robert Louis Stevenson or Rudyard Kipling. Their stories, like the realist novels of Dickens and Hardy, gently pulled the reader along and so could be enjoyed by a wide audience.
The arrival of modernism changed everything. By the 1920s, story writers such as Katherine Mansfield and James Joyce had come to view the tale structure as imposing a false order and tidiness on the chaos and flow of experience. Their work is deliberately fragmented, allusive and more demanding of the reader. The modernist story therefore “banishes the urbane, charming Master of Ceremonies who explains, provides a commentary, suggests where laughter or tears are required.” As a result, the short story genre splits away from mass-market entertainment.
Early modernist story writers were influenced by film, from which they learned the jump-cut technique, and by poetry. In 1913, Ezra Pound codified the tenets of Imagism, according to which poets were advised to strip away all superfluous words, and to not use a phrase such as “dim lands of peace.” According to Pound, “it dulls the image. It mixes an abstraction with the concrete. It comes from the writer’s not realizing that the natural object is always the adequate symbol.” During the same decade, Gertrude Stein published experimental works that broke radically free of 19th-century diction. Pound and Stein influenced modernist writers such as Ernest Hemingway and Sherwood Anderson, who strove to cut away all “familiarity, conventional diction [and] routine deadness of observation” from their writing.
Canadian story writers lagged behind. Some, such as Raymond Knister (1899–1932) aspired to modernism in prose but failed. Others continued to write tales well into the 20th century. Then, in the 1950s, Munro, Gallant, Blaise and Levine (whose postgraduate study was on Pound) began to produce bodies of work deeply stamped by modernism. In 1962, Hugh Hood published Flying a Red Kite, the first Canadian book of modernist short stories. An effervescence of great Canadian story writing began, one that continues into the 21st century.
Part of what causes Canadian story writers to excel is their recognition of a problem faced by modernist story writers of all nationalities after the mid 20th century. By this time, the modernist story has developed a familiar and predictable structure organized around an epiphany. A character would experience a sudden rush of insight, a revelation that would “neatly [deliver] little packages of emotional ‘growth’ and ‘fulfillment,’” as Metcalf puts it. Contemporary writers shared with earlier modernists a dubious attitude toward tales. At the same time, however, the modernist story structure had for them become an obstacle, one that stood in the way of formal innovation. Different writers respond to this challenge with different forms. Munro, the supreme master, revolutionizes the story structure with frequent jumps backward and forward in time and subtle shifts in perspective. But Canadian story writing as a whole is now too diverse to generalize about, beyond a commitment to innovation itself and an ongoing willingness to make demands on the reader that separate stories from light entertainment.
Metcalf devotes approximately a hundred pages to this history, interspersed with detailed examinations of particular stories, including “Miss Brill,” by Mansfield, which is reprinted in its entirety. There are also many asides on stylistic matters, including a thought-provoking criticism of similes. (“Similes usually clog up the works and do nothing a well-chosen verb can’t do better, and besides, tempt writers into “Look, Ma! No hands!’ showing off.”) But the majority of the book is devoted to discussing the Century List. It is Metcalf’s estimate of the 50 best short story collections published in Canada. Metcalf originally conceived the list as starting in 1900 and ending in 2000, hence the name. But both the beginning and end dates soon proved nominal. The list does not include any stories published before 1950, the dividing line Metcalf appears to have settled on, while it does include 21st-century collections Metcalf found too essential to ignore. The name notwithstanding, the Century List is a guide to the best short fiction published in Canada between 1950 and 2015.
The 50 collections on Metcalf’s list include authors whom Metcalf has edited (Steven Heighton, Annabel Lyon, Russell Smith) alongside well-known names who achieved international prominence independent of Metcalf (Margaret Atwood, Alistair MacLeod, Carol Shields). There are collections by writers whose names are familiar from recent prize lists (Zsuzsi Gartner, Lisa Moore, Kathleen Winter) and by members of an older generation whose names were, at least to me, obscure (Ann Copeland, Shirley Faessler, Isabel Huggan). In entries on each collection Metcalf makes the case for its inclusion, often accompanied by notes on literary form solicited from the author in question. The list as a whole Metcalf describes as “the starting point for a literary discussion which has not yet taken place but that is essential for our literary sanity.”
Metcalf is again in recycle mode. Of the 50 story collections named, 40 appeared in a previous version of the Century List published in Shut Up He Explained. There is again a battery of block quotations and the narrative is sometimes disorganized. The first five pages denounce Quill and Quire magazine, Josef Skvorecky, Al Purdy, Margaret Atwood, Robertson Davies, the editors of the New Canadian Library reprint series and Ottawa Citizen journalist Bruce Ward, as well as “big house publishers, bleating media savants, agents and low-wattage academics, hacks, hucksters, and flacks.” Yet despite its flaws, The Canadian Short Story is a rich and rewarding book, at times even a great one.
After the opening pages, Metcalf chops off few hands and instead offers a sustained affirmation of Canadian writing. More than once he engages in a prolonged examination of an individual story, each time offering a tour-de-force example of craft-based criticism. I cannot recommend highly enough his brilliant analysis of Munro’s piece, “Walker Brothers Cowboy.” Metcalf lifts up the watch face of the story to illuminate how its rhetorical mechanics achieve emotional effects. Also superb are Metcalf’s analyses of stories by Gallant and Mansfield. The essays on Munro and Gallant have appeared in print before, but having all three in one volume helps make this Metcalf’s most generous and admiring book to date.
The Canadian Short Story ultimately highlights a theme running through all of Metcalf’s work since Kicking Against the Pricks. It is Metcalf’s fraught relationship with academia. As he wrote in his memoirs, “not for me logic-chopping in a littered classroom with orange plastic chairs but, rather, intense concentration in the presence of the thing.” Metcalf’s oppositional stance toward academia is reinforced by the fact that the nationalist critics his trilogy went after were often professors. A noteworthy feature of The Canadian Short Story is that it updates Metcalf’s status as an academic outsider in a way that is relevant for the 21st century. As with his previous works of criticism, Metcalf’s latest is a helpful corrective to the current tics and quirks of literary academe.
Metcalf was not the only critic dissatisfied with literary nationalism in the 1980s. New approaches to studying literature, often highly theoretical, were sweeping through literature departments. Today academic critics are interested in a wide variety of frameworks—queer theory, comparative literature, Asian-Canadian writing, eco-criticism—that eschew cultural nationalism. Like Canadian short stories, these frameworks are hard to generalize about, and certainly many offer valuable and important insights. Yet prominent within them is an approach that does not so much criticize works of literature as debunk them.
This strain was recently analyzed by University of Chicago English professor Lisa Ruddick in a widely read article, “When Nothing Is Cool.” After interviewing more than 70 graduate students in English, Ruddick noted the demoralizing effect their field of study sometimes had on them. Students were trained in critical approaches that were “all about the thrill of destruction. In the name of critique, anything except critique can be invaded or denatured.” More than one young academic Ruddick interviewed described being left with a feeling of numbness. “After a few years in the profession, they can hardly locate the part of themselves that can be moved by a poem or novel.”
Metcalf has one affinity with academic practitioners of critique. If they have often expressed skepticism about the idea of a canon, Metcalf has echoed them in going after one particular canon. Like his more theoretical counterparts, Metcalf draws attention to how questions of politics and power can make a purported canon seem more credible and authoritative than it really is. (Only in Metcalf’s view, it is not because the very idea of a canon is suspect, but because the works in question are pipsqueaks.) This affinity, however, is overshadowed by a crucial difference. Unlike wielders of critique, Metcalf is simultaneously a canon builder. The purpose of his Century List is to canonize those short story collections that in his estimation best succeed aesthetically. The passages he cites bring the reader directly in contact with that part of oneself that can be moved by literature. In this way, Metcalf’s book serves as a refreshing antidote to the excesses of critique.
The Canadian Short Story makes explicit that the story as something to be experienced is a feature that Metcalf associates with modernist stories but not earlier forms such as tales. This suggests that his critical method may not be well suited to analyzing the work of historically distant authors—Sophocles, Dante, Shakespeare—who are surely worth reading alongside Gallant and Munro (although I concede that Dante could dial down the religion, or at least change up the settings a bit). Many readers will also be reluctant to go the full Metcalf and rate stories better than novels.
But given his focus on contemporary stories Metcalf is well served by his method of quoting individual passages at length and subjecting them to loving, painstaking scrutiny. Among other benefits, his approach nicely showcases the work of previously unfamiliar writers. I was not familiar with the stories of Ann Copeland, Libby Creelman and Alexander MacLeod—to name just three—but put down the book haunted by their artistry.
Copeland, Creelman and MacLeod are edited by Metcalf or published by his presses. A cynic might say that such authors are overrepresented on Metcalf’s list. This would be short-sighted. Roy MacSkimming, in his history of Canadian publishing, has called Metcalf’s former press The Porcupine’s Quill “Canada’s pre-eminent literary press.” Metcalf’s legacy as an editor of short fiction is highly distinguished. One might dispute particular entries on Metcalf’s list, but it is consistent with Metcalf’s legacy and the size of Canada’s literary community for it to contain many writers he has edited.
Rather than self-promotion, Metcalf’s real motivation is his fealty to well-written sentences above all. There is a widespread view of story collections as a kind of apprenticeship before a writer turns to novels, which sell more. Similarly, when an author dies, interest in his or her work often falls off. Metcalf is indifferent to all such considerations of marketing. Many of the titles on the Century List are their author’s first collection, sometimes their first book. Others are by authors who died without reaching a large audience. In this way Metcalf resembles those passionate music fans, often musicians themselves, whose collections range beyond popular acts to include obscure bands that never made it big. The casual collector is caught up in celebrity, awards, sales. The serious ones love the sound above all or, in Metcalf’s case, the words on the page.
The beginning of cultural nationalism is often dated to 1967, Canada’s centennial year. There is something fitting about Metcalf’s book being published in 2017, Canada’s 150th anniversary year. As an exercise in advocacy on behalf of Canadian literature, it is more convincing than any 1970s work. The Canadian Short Story should finally confirm Metcalf’s status among critics of Canadian letters. Wayward and irascible his greatness may be, but it is greatness enough.