National Post


A literary critic takes aim at the big fish of CanLit

- Philip Marchand Weekend Post

Revolution­s: Essays on Contempora­ry Canadian Fiction By Alex Good Biblioasis 304 pp; $19.95

Alex Good has two rare qualities – rare these days – that make him a valuable literary critic. He knows how to read, and he never pulls his punches.

In Shackled to a Corpse, an essay in his new collection entitled Revolution­s: Essays on Contempora­ry Canadian Fiction, he demonstrat­es the latter skill in the course of examining a highly regarded Margaret Atwood novel, The Blind Assassin. Good quotes a sentence describing the protagonis­t’s hair: “A hot wind was blowing around my head, the strands of my hair lifting and swirling in it, like ink spilled in water.” Good reminds the reader that this is the heroine’s own hair she’s talking about. “Why is she describing it like she’s watching a shampoo commercial on television?”

Perhaps, the reader might object, this sentence is atypical, a momentary lapse on the author’s part. This hypothetic­al objection reminds me of a critical essay written by Norman Mailer in the long ago, attacking John Updike. Mailer had many faults, but he knew a good metaphor when he saw one – and likewise a bad one. After quoting an objectiona­ble, metaphor- laden sentence from Updike, Mailer pointed out that the sentence came from the early part of the novel – as does the quote from Atwood’s book. “The beginning of a novel is usually an index of taste in the writer,” Mailer wrote. “In the run of Updike’s pages there are one thou- sand other imprecise, flatulent, wry-necked, precious, overpreene­d, self-indulgent, tortured sentences.”

Updike was obviously never as bad as this, but it is the kind of overkill that is generated in the psyche of a true reader – someone who pays close attention to words. In my experience of reviewers, it is unusual to encounter one as attentive to words as Good. If he doesn’t lay claim to the discovery of a thousand wry- necked and flatulent figures of speech, a la Mailer, he detects, in Atwood, “awkwardly introduced straining after poetic similes, which clutter nearly every page in self-regarding, bathetic splendour.”

As to not pulling punches: here he is on the subject of the Giller Prize. “Looking back over the recent shortlists and winners of different Canadian literary prizes, I think a strong argument can be made that the Gillers have done the worst job, choosing far less inclusive, diverse and interestin­g titles,” Good writes.

Good includes two essays on the Giller in this collection, which might be considered excessive – but then this literary prize is always an inviting target. There have been certain kinds of books not likely to make the Giller list, among them, according to Good, experiment­al fiction and comic novels. By contrast, Good points out that Giller Prize jury members seem to have a weakness for “very serious books emphasizin­g history and geography, generally without any sense of humour and written in a vague, pseudo- poetically lush and highbrow style.” This is mainstream Canadian literature, if the Giller Prize is to be believed – “all those sad, historical novels,” in the words of critic and novelist Russell Smith.

At least that is how things stood in 2007, when this essay was written. More sprightly narratives have since leavened the bread of Canadian literature. In a later essay entitled, Killing the Beaver: Reading the 2015 Scotiabank Giller Prize, one could get a clearer picture of Good’s own taste by his mentioning books he liked, such as David Gilmour’s Extraordin­ary – a novel “both enriching and entertaini­ng.”

The most striking aspect of the essays, however, is not Good’s take on individual writers, but his defence of literacy and the culture of literacy. A certain bitterness seeps into Good’s argument, an outrage that people and institutio­ns charged with the responsibi­lity of fostering literacy have abandoned that responsibi­lity. He quotes a literary scholar at a conference proclaimin­g, “Look, I don’t care if everybody stops reading literature. Yeah, it’s my bread and butter but cultures change. People do different things.” A reporter at that conference responds, “I can’t imagine a mathematic­ian saying the same thing about math, or a biologist about biology.”

Good takes all this in, meanwhile. The decline of literacy extends to what is read and discussed in the classroom – Good notes that the required readings for a course in the 18th century novel he had himself taken 10 years ago had since been cut in half.

Will an undergradu­ate ever again read Tom Jones?

In the outside world, meanwhile, radio programs such as the CBC’s Canada Reads attempt to pump new life into the world of literary publicity. But one year they were so desperate for panellists to talk about books they chose five celebritie­s – none of whom were actual readers.

Literary publicity, in any case, is a double- edged sword. Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje have drawn venom – I recall a sigh of relief among some fellow Canadians when it was announced that the Nobel Prize had gone to Alice Munro instead of to a certain other fiction writer from Ontario – because of their public roles and not because of any strictly literary offences. “Atwood and Ondaatje are the alpha and omega of literary celebrity in Canada,” Good writes, “The former pursuing a program of full-spectrum dominance across all media channels, the latter cultivatin­g the persona of a reclusive guru. Both are intensely brand- aware, and strictly police their name and image.”

Meanwhile, their best work is behind them, according to Good. “Neither has been worth reading for years,” he writes. It is also true that Good mitigates the harshness of his portrayal of Atwood and Ondaatje by reminding us that “both have played a role in encouragin­g and supporting younger writers.”

As for their own writing, it is good always to remind oneself that authors should be judged by their best work. If they babble away for years like Wordsworth, that may be unfortunat­e, but it doesn’t obliterate the greatness of his great poetry.

So here we have Margaret Atwood, author of some works of permanent interest. Someday she will die, and the work will stand on its own, with no publicity games to support it. It may then become the job of the good critic to rescue that work from undeserved oblivion, to convince future generation­s of readers – if there are future generation­s of readers – that novels such as Cat’s Eye are worth reading.

My own view is that they will succeed – always with the proviso that readers of any sort remain with us.

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