Mental Hygiene: Essays on Writers and Writing
by Ray Robertson
Insomniac Press, 2003
Reviewed by Michael Bryson
Mental Hygiene has a picture of a brain on the
cover; that's what's in the middle of the yellow circle on the left. The
brain is surrounded by spikes of colour, as if the brain was radiant
like the sun. The hygienic brain shines, the cover suggests. Mental
Hygiene is a book about shiny brains.
Once the reader moves beyond the cover, however, it
soon becomes clear that Mental Hygiene is not a book about shiny
brains. It's a book about Ray Robertson's shiny brain. The book's
subtitle is also misleading. Mental Hygiene is not a book of
"Essays on Writers and Writing";
it's mostly a collection of book reviews. In fact,
Mental Hygiene begins with an acknowledgement page that thanks
the Toronto Star, the Globe and Mail, Quill and Quire,
Books In Canada, Canadian Bookseller, Fine Print: The
Magazine, and side/lines: A New Canadian Poetics for
permission to reprint these reviews ("All have been rewritten, some
So what? What about what's actually between the
Mental Hygiene is divided into three sections:
Us, Them, Me. "Us" collects reviews of Canadian books;
"Them" reviews non-Canadian books; "Me" concerns the
author. However, as previously mentioned "me", appears
throughout the book -- and it is this first person narrator that
provides the continuity for this wildly experimental post-modern novel
..... I mean, non-fiction collection.
The first book reviewed is Morley Callaghan's The
New Yorker Stories. Consisting of nine paragraphs, this review
begins to discuss the book under consideration in paragraph six. The
review begins with Robertson reminiscing about seeing Callaghan at the
University of Toronto. Robertson was a second-year undergraduate, and
Callaghan was an 85-year-old writer who once knew Hemingway. Now about
those New Yorker stories -- Are they any good? Robertson tells
us: "Anyone acquainted with Callaghan's later work won't be
surprised by or disappointed with these early stories." Which is
good news -- but a long way from critical commentary.
Critical commentary (i.e., close reading) clearly
isn't what Robertson is after. No other conclusion is possible when he
begins Mental Hygiene as he does. Robertson provides no
discussion of the literary quality of Callaghan's stories,
but he does make a point that he will repeat throughout the book:
"there is no such thing as Canadian writers but only writers who
happen to be Canadian." Robertson favourably quotes Callaghan:
"Forget all about the words 'identity' and 'culture,' just never
mention them. Seek only excellence and in good time people all over the
world will ask about Canadians."
Now the ironic point is that it is Robertson (and
Callaghan) who have mentioned "identity" and
"culture" -- even though the advice they are promoting is to
disavow them; indeed, the advice is to "never mention them."
But they have mentioned them. One clearly must ask: Why? As the reader
moves deeper into Mental Hygiene, the answer emerges. Robertson
shares his strongest polemics for Canadian literary nationalists; he lambastes
the rhetoric of literary nationalism at every opportunity. He even coins
the phrase "McCanLit" to describe all that is wrong with
literature in Canada.
What is McCanLit? It is the reactionary label
Robertson uses to describe everything that he dislikes about writing in
Canada. What does he dislike? Here's a list:
- "boring, static fiction about humourless,
self-obsessed protagonists" (p35)
- "heartbreakingly tender stories set in bucolic
Newfoundland at the turn of the twentieth century" (p37)
- "sublime waterfalls, majestic snow owls and a
stamp-sized headshot of the author and her cat" (p40)
- novels that "focus on nothing more complex ...
than (a) the difficulties of romantic love and/or (b) the
difficulties of sorting through one's familial past" (p43)
- writers who "keep it simple, keep it plain and
above all don't draw attention to [themselves] stylistically"
- "short stories and novels about parental
emotional neglect and love affairs gone painfully awry" (p60)
- "the so-solemn-it-hurts school of Canadian
- "the staples of McCanLit -- family, history,
These are only some of the most salient examples.
Robertson also attacks the literary nationalists personally -- though
one wonders at whom he is specifically aiming his cannon fire.
Robertson begins a review of a new edition of Stephen Leacock's Sunshine
Sketches of a Little Town as follows:
Contrary to what the sunny caretakers of CanLit
would have us believe, Stephen Leacock was a much more interesting man
than he was a writer. Naturally, this can't be said in polite company
-- it being everyone in the culture business's best interest to
maintain the profitable illusion that we have just as many literary
geniuses per square hectare as any other country -- but the litmus
test of any writer's lasting worth is whether or not he or she
continues to be read voluntarily.
Where one finds these "sunny caretakers of CanLit"
Robertson doesn't say, nor can he -- because they don't exist except as
strawpeople for his arguments. One must also spare him the grotesque
structure of the second sentence in the above quotation in order to pull
any meaning out of it. Where does one find this "polite
company"? Presumably among those in the "culture
business," whatever that is. What does literary genius have to do
with profitability? And where does that "but" fit in?
The review of Sunshine Sketches is on page 69
of Mental Hygiene, a point at which this reader was ready to
throw the book across the room. And not because I'm a literary
nationalist. Because I'm not (nothing brings me to the boil quicker than
the fact that Margaret Atwood's Survival: A Thematic Guide to
Canadian Literature is still considered an authoritative reference
tool). It's because I don't know anyone who is -- at least in the terms
suggested by Robertson: those who argue that Canada has "just as
many literary geniuses per square hectare as any other country."
One is reminded of the argument about the number of angels on the head
of a needle; Robertson leads his readers to a place where nothing
relevant can be said.
(An aside: While literary nationalism peaked in the
1970s, bashing literary nationalism is enjoying a sprightly
- See John Metcalf's An
Aesthetic Underground and TDR's interviews with Carmine
Starnino and David
Solway, both of whom have books of literary criticism on the
- Holding up the other side of the argument -- but
extending it in the direction of post-colonialism -- is the lonely
Stephen Henighan with When
Words Deny The World: The Reshaping of Canadian Writing.
- Taking a sociological perspective is Robert
Wright in Hip and Trivial, which argues young-ish Canadians
have little interest in the cultural nationalism of the Expo '67
- Only T.F. Rigelhof in This
is Our Writing manages to follow Callaghan's advice and ignore
"identity" and "culture" in favour of close
Whatever one makes of Robertson's arguments, they
cannot be called mentally shiny. The lack of close reading, sustained
argument, and engagement with adversaries of substance is astonishing --
particularly given the promise of the title. Robertson also disappoints
by using phrases such as "genuine literature" and
"serious literature" (p26) -- these empty phrases beg the
question: What is literature but "genuine" and
"serious"? It is not "false" and
Many of Robertson's other categories aren't any
stronger. For example, he says Nino Ricci's Lives of the Saints "manages
to nicely balance ... linguistic artfulness and sustained story,"
while Ricci's In a Glass House "suffers from a significant
lack of narrative structure." Earlier in this review I pointed out
that Robertson eschews the simple; however, here it is his own argument
that needs complicating.
In the Ricci review, Robertson says, "Twenty-five
hundred years later, Aristotle's call for a beginning, middle and end
still rings true." This is the structure Robertson wants to find in
Ricci's novel, and on this basis he finds in In a Glass House
"a serious lack." However, in 2003, only the most conservative
of critics would fault novelists for not following Artistotle. Simply
put, post-modernism is already decades old -- and close readings of
literary texts of past centuries show that so-called contemporary
narrative strategies and structures go back well beyond Thomas Pynchon.
Milan Kundera called Cervantes the first post-modernist; Borges found
some of Kafka in the Book of Job.
Robertson's voice is contemporary and casual, but his
arguments often appeal to the authority of the past. He is a prodigious
name-dropper. The introduction alone cites: D.H. Lawrence, Jim Morrison,
Bertrand Russell, Wordsworth, Edmund Wilson, Hank Williams, Kingsley and
Martin Amis, Gore Vidal, Mary McCarthy, Mordecai Richler, Anthony
Burgess, Hemingway, Philip Larkin, Thomas McGuane, Margaret Atwood, F.
Scott Fitzgerald, and Montaige.
Mental Hygiene illustrates a lively literary
mind seeking to define itself against the pantheon of history. In this
task, it fails. Robertson does not distinguish himself as a literary
critic, however earnest he may be. And he is earnest, that much is
clear. He will continue up the mountain. Earnest readers should look
forward to his next attempt at reaching the high peaks. Despite all of
my criticisms, I'm keen to see Mental Hygiene 2.0.
Finally, this review hasn't said anything about the
"Them" and "Me" sections of Mental Hygiene.
Here's a few words about those sections. In "Them", Robertson
reviews books he considers worthy of veneration (making one wonder why
he reviewed such mediocre work in the "Us" section -- not all
Canadian literary works are astonishing, but surely Robertson could have
found more works that say "oui, oui" instead of consistently
carping "non, non"). The "Me" section is the thinnest
of the three divisions in Mental Hygiene; here Robertson
continues to mix high-culture references with laizzez faire linguistics.
This is his character evidently: not a compassionate conservative, but a
hip reactionary. Shine on you crazy diamond.
Michael Bryson is the
publisher/editor of The Danforth Review.