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What critics like Metcalf—and Connolly before him—have done is to declare the fineness of their own sensibilities sufficient to tell good work from bad. But, of course, they are the only possessors of their sensibilities. There is no basis for a universal aesthetic scale, unless the thought behind a sensibility is unpacked. Just to be clear: I’m convinced Metcalf and I, if we sat down together and read a page from a certain book, would agree, maybe eight times out of ten, on what is good and what is not. On the evidence, I think Metcalf and I have similar sensibilities. But those who have been influenced by him—Ryan Bigge, for instance—are not on the same level and don’t possess the same credibility, though they allow themselves to make the same kinds of pronouncements.
was a great critic, but his work—and some of the work he influenced, Margaret Atwood’s Survival, above all—was one of the catalysts for a kind of populist critical rebellion. Frye’s work was academic, specialized, and structuralist. Anatomy of Criticism is a book that, it has been suggested, put methodology first and, to an extent, the literary works it was scrutinizing second. I don’t think that’s entirely fair. Frye’s respect for the literary work was, to me, inspiring. And he was a good practical critic (or reviewer). He could write a clear evaluation of Wallace Stevens, say, that was accessible to all, whether you had read Anatomy of Criticism or not.
If I had to blame one Canadian writer for this state of affairs, I’d blame novelist and critic John Metcalf. Yes, it’s rhetorical to blame any single person for the current state of critical affairs. But Metcalf, with his early books of essays and through his encouragement of “critics” like David Solway and Ryan Bigge, has been, at the very least, a spur to the shallow, self-aggrandizing rhetoric that now passes for criticism.
Obviously, there are any number of agorae. The audience for The New York Review of Books (leftist) is not identical to that for The Times Literary Supplement (rightist). A good book review section gives us a strong picture of a particular agora. In the ’80s, the Globe and Mail’s book section was an inspiring venue for Canadian intellectual life, one that allowed me to believe in the seriousness of my fellow countrymen. Stan Persky—one of my favourite Canadian reviewers—wrote for the Globe, as did Jay Scott, though he was one of the paper’s film reviewers. (In fact, for a moment there, the intellectual aspirations of our reviewers was almost baffling. I remember being pleasantly stunned when Jay Scott spoke of Roland Barthes in the course of reviewing a Hollywood picture.)
So, one could legitimately say that Metcalf has turned a generation of reviewers away from “academic” evaluations of literature. His work suggests that pleasure is the most important aspect of any work (as Philip Larkin, in an essay called “The Pleasure Principle,” did before him), and he made the critic’s own pleasure, or non-pleasure, the accepted content in an evaluation of literary works. Finally, in anthologies like The Bumper Book, which he edited, Metcalf encouraged reviewers to vividly express their opinions, especially their unfavourable opinions, in the belief, first, that it leads to discussion and, second, that a pungent put-down is more entertaining.
My answer to that question is entangled in my idealism. For me, book sections have been (even if only potentially) necessary forums for the exchange of ideas. When I read The New York Review of Books or The Times Literary Supplement, I can, if I choose, find out what John Searle thinks about relativism. I can read about Tariq Ali or Ian Buruma’s thoughts on Islam in Europe. I can revisit Galileo’s relationship to the church or Stephen J. Gould’s thoughts on baseball. Books are where ideas come to you without a middleman, but the reception books and ideas are given is itself an echo from the agora, the place where men and women work out what it is they think about politics, religion, science, art, and beauty.