canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

An Aesthetic Underground 
by John Metcalf
Thomas & Allen Publishers, 2003

Reviewed by Shane Neilson

See also Metcalf: A Counterblaste by Gordon Phinn

John Metcalf is not a delicate soul prone to puffing up our national literature. The idea of him acting as an empty-headed cheerleader would provoke guffaws amongst those who know him. In fact, Metcalf has carved a niche amongst our letters as one of Canlit’s most astringent critics- part of this due, no doubt, to his status as British émigré. He arrived ready to establish himself on these shores, such as he found them, and he mostly found them lacking. Here are a few telling quotes from his latest memoir, An Aesthetic Underground:

  • On contemporary Canadian life: "I suffered from the delusion that Canada could be improved. Since then, I feel that year by year Canada has been in continuous cultural decline. Our schools are a disaster. Our public life is a grim farce…"
  • On Imperialism and art: "In 1963 W.H. Auden wrote: ‘The dominions… are for me tiefste Provinz, places which have produced no art and are inhabited by the kind of person with whom I have least in common.’ Difficult not to concur."
  • On how bad we were: "In the sixties Canada was an intellectual and creative wasteland with a large percentage of its population functionally illiterate."
  • On Canlit academia: "Canadian literary studies and ‘scholarship’ have always been lax and undemanding. It is a field which attracts second- and third-rate minds."
  • On Maritime society: " Nova Scotia and New Brunswick are drunken and violent societies. Drinking is equated with manliness."
  • Some unapologetic un-Canadian un-political correctness when talking about his brief experience as a teacher in Cold Lake, Alberta: "The contiguous Indian reserve with its abandoned cars and tumbledown hovels patched with sheet tin was a persuasive argument for assimilation."

All of Metcalf’s objections could be thought to be merely an exaggerated form of culture shock from an imperial if it weren’t for his redeeming flip side. Metcalf the artist, essayist, critic and novelist, and perhaps more importantly, Metcalf the editor. In this capacity he has cultivated one of the few legends that exist in our literature- renowned for his ascerbicness, toughness, fairness, and eye for quality. He’s worked undeniably hard at it:

[When I arrived in Canada in the late fifties] there was no Canadian tradition or body of work I could hope to join. The country lacked what would be called today an "infrastructure"- the literary equivalent of roads, sewers, electric power, railroad tracks- and I’ve spent nearly all my life in Canada… in a probably vain attempt to help put the necessary infrastructure in place.

Yes- if Metcalf’s abrasiveness weren’t tempered by the utter truth of these lines from An Aesthetic Undergound, then he might only be another bitter imperial among colonials. But his labour has resulted in some impressive accomplishments in two chief ways. The first and lesser way is in the propagation of an annual anthology of Canadian short stories through the 1970’s and 80’s that is widely credited with nurturing and propagating the form to its current preeminence today as practiced by worthies like Mavis Gallant, Alice Munro, and Leon Rooke. Though Metcalf did not found the institution, he (with help from coeditors along the way) built it into the seminal piece of infrastructure that the series is today.

The second and more important piece of genre-building Metcalf performed was his editorial stewardship of what is arguably Canada’s best small press, Tim and Elke Inkster’s Porcupine’s Quill. Assuming editorial control in the early 1980’s, Metcalf made an unmistakable mark on the press- a signature that could be described as uncompromising and a near-guarantee of quality. The stature of this press is such amongst my colleagues that we clamor to publish our manuscripts there. The names are by now almost boring to mention, so often have they been intoned: Stephen Heighton, Russell Smith, Andrew Pyper, Michael Winter, Annabel Lyon, Rohinton Mistry.

And there is gentleness despite the touted toughness. When Metcalf describes the moment of publication of his first book, the disarming moment goes far to redeem the contrarian:

There is for a writer nothing quite like the experience of a first book. No subsequent book means as much. To hold that first book in one’s hands is to hold proof that one indeed is what one has for years dared and hoped to be. I was so elated by [my first book] that I put copies in every room in the apartment so that I could see it and stroke it wherever I was.

Similarly, Metcalf’s unabashed love for his friends comes through in An Aesthetic Underground- when he writes of Hugh Hood and many others, the strength of his affection counteracts his equally vehement disgust for inferiority. That Canlit’s dominant imported firebreather could care so much not only for his contacts but also their writings –one gets the sense that both are necessary for Metcalfian approval- is a kind of honest tenderness. The severity of the reputation is enough. Metcalf half-praising someone signals the apocalypse. The book’s personal details –marriages, children, a divorce, and too few professional triumphs- temper his relentless questioning of the Canlit enterprise. To read about his parenting of several refugee children is to see the man in an entirely different light. No matter how much one disagrees with Metcalf the critic, one cannot characterize him as a one-dimensional ‘literary curmudgeon’ as so many of his enemies have done.

This reputation is largely due to Kicking Against the Pricks, an instant classic in Canadian Literature upon publication in the torpor of 1982. It arrived with the brawling enthusiasm of an undefeatable self-confidence, a fearlessness towards telling the truth no matter what the professional cost. In relation to this preceding book, AEU suffers from anachronism. Metcalf already memorably tussled with badness on that earlier outing, and when he writes in this memoir about his history, it’s often already recorded history: large passages are taken verbatim from his other books. Perhaps a quarter or more of AEU is recycled from KATP.

Perhaps Metcalf’s general stance to Canadian Literature- that its minorness is inexcusable, that it could do better, that inferiority shouldn’t be promoted for the sake of nationalism- is because of a small passage that, for me, serves as the key to understanding his smouldering inferiority complex, the actual inverse of nationalism. In a surprising turn, Metcalf writes:

Neither [a fellow emigrant] or I at the time had any idea of England permanently. My life split between a decaying past which exercised a great power over me and a present which was unbearable and stretched ahead like a life sentence…. Had my job [in England] been interesting and comfortable, I’d doubtless have succumbed to the dream and lived out the rest of my life clad in tweed with vacations spent taking brass rubbings in medieval churches.

But it wasn’t, so he came to Canada, where he survived as a writer and editor. Perhaps it rankles that the possibility exists that the same might not be true if he had stayed in the mother country. At any rate, psychological speculation is moot. Metcalf has made an important contribution to the literature he has a dual relationship with, one of scorn and love; the words he grooms –his own and those of others- often turn into gold, and that is enough.


There are some difficult passages to read in AEU, largely due to their sense of non-achievement. In one section Metcalf writes about Richard Yates circa 1964, describing him as a great writer whose prose he quickly responded to. Then Metcalf sadly mentions history’s long view by quoting Stewart O’Nan, who wrote in 1999, "Where has Richard Yates’ reputation gone?" One gets the sense that Metcalf identifies with Yates less for the disappearance of his art in the face of posterity’s idiocy and more for his own personal example. It’s true now that since Metcalf has had more recent success with editing, he has inadvertently diverted critical attention away from his own writing. At one point he reads as almost bitter:

Between 1980 and 1994 my writing was excluded from every trade anthology of national scope. I was excluded from The Oxford Book of Canadian Short Stories in English edited by Margaret Atwood and Robert Weaver. I was excluded from Weaver’s Canadian Short Stories: Fourth Series and Fifth Series. I was excluded from Wayne Grady’s Penguin Book of Canadian Short Stories and from The Penguin Book of Modern Canadian Stories. I was excluded from Michael Ondaatje’s From Ink Lake.

This list of names comes to mind when I read in Adam Gopnik’s Paris to the Moon, ‘The logic of nationalism always flows downhill, toward the gutter.’

It’s hard not to sympathize with the man who promoted the Canadian short story before it really came into being. After all, it was the heavy lifting of his annual anthologies that are largely responsible for our current skill with the form. And in terms of merit, Metcalf certainly has written several that stand up- certainly vastly better than those of his favourite straw men and women, Callaghan, Garner, and Atwood. Considering Metcalf’s abrasive literary persona it’s hard not to give credence to his book-length supposition that Canadian writing often is evaluated on more than aesthetic quality. There is also the matter of literary politics to account for. This is a writer who serially took on the sacred cows of our literature- the Writer’s Union of Canada, the Canada Council, the idea of the Writer-in-Residence, our so-called canon…. to say that Metcalf injured his career is an understatement.

The central moment in AEU occurs when Mavis Gallant asks Metcalf why he sacrifices his writing energy to his anthologizing. Metcalf finally responds many years later in this volume:

…as a writer, citizen, and teacher I feel I have responsibilities to the literature. But there’s nothing particularly virtuous in all this. I’m just very much involved with this society, locked in mortal combat with the bloody place. I feel I have to attempt to shape taste, to encourage younger writers, to edit, to criticize- and anthologies are an expression of that.

For all of Metcalf’s prickliness and unabashed literary elitism, one has to respect the nobility of such a position. His latest memoir is a testament to a dogged war against artlessness in Canadian letters. Further irony exists in that such a figure, operating outside the polite norms of Canadian society, was instrumental in prodding Canadian aesthetics to improve and mature into respectability. Much reviled for his opinions even today, it could be said that he is hated even more for being right. His stint as editor-in-chief of the Porcupine’s Quill press has borne out his excellent taste; no other venue is as attractive to young writers, and the press’ reputation owes to its aforementioned exemplary track record. I suspect that his creative work will eventually be divorced from his purposeful critical controversy and Metcalf will eventually be included in anthologies of two types- surveys of Canadian fiction in the latter twentieth-century, and the too-thin volume of collected Canadian criticism from the same period.

Though there are some unfortunate gratuitous plugs- Metcalf’s invocation of his wife and son’s restaurant in Ottawa is embarrassing. Do we need to know about his personal aversion to poutine?- and some strange, extended promotion of largely unknown artist friends Tony Calvetta and Sam Tata, the book primarily sticks to its billing as a literary memoir. Who else can claim to have presided over our coming of age, who else can be credited with establishing the indigenous short story as an art form? Is there a more esteemed editor in the land? Though not as bracing as Kicking Against the Pricks and certainly more circumspect, Metcalf has in An Aesthetic Underground –so named after the literary community his editorship has created- reprised the important autobiographical bits of the earlier volume and also updated us on the progress of his campaign against mediocrity. Where will the next salvo come from? Who will be his next champion?

Shane Neilson is a poetry editor with The Danforth Review.







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