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Dr. Delicious: Memoirs of a Life in CanLit

by Robert Lecker

So who is Dr. Delicious? By day, Robert Lecker is a (relatively) mild-mannered academic, a professor of Canadian writing and criticism at McGill. He was also one of the founders of ECW Press, who championed their ongoing program of publishing Canadian criticism and headed that house’s Montreal office until closing the office and selling his 50% stake to co-founder Jack David in 2003.

Just under this respectably tweedy surface, however, lurks Dr. Delicious, the iconoclastic music fan who begins lectures by playing tracks from the Tragically Hip or Nine Inch Nails, who holds students rapt by lecturing on scotch, who led freewheeling field trips to art galleries to further illuminate Canadian writing. For Dr. Delicious – unlike Robert Lecker – nothing was out of bounds, including the writing of a memoir.

“Professor Lecker would be reluctant to tell stories about his own life,” he writes. “He would resist the temptation to make his life in Canadian literature personal. He would not gossip.” Dr. Delicious, on the other hand, “would take liberties with his life story. He would talk about the ups and downs of being a Canadian publisher.… He would write about his passions, his failures, how the whole business of CanLit drove him crazy, lost him sleep, drove him on.”

It’s a fairly weak premise for a book. The conceit, however, allows Lecker to create a memoir that is at once deeply personal and at times shockingly frank, as well as sweeping in its perspective on the development of Canadian literature, the fall of Canadian criticism, and the quixotic folly that is small-press publishing.

Lecker’s book succeeds admirably as a straightforward memoir. He writes with pithy self-effacement as he recounts his difficulties with higher education, his exile to teach Canadian literature in Maine (where his office was down the hall from “a strange man who was always typing” named Stephen King), and his assumption of a professorship at McGill, a university that rejected him as a student. From his brief notoriety as an outspoken Canadian nationalist in the wake of the Quebec referendums to his encounters with students both delightful and crazy, the memoir is of a life well-lived and, in retrospect, satisfying.

At the heart of that life is Lecker’s long affiliation with ECW Press and his role in the development of a native Canadian criticism. While Lecker writes appreciatively of this role, it was a life of considerable difficulty and stress. Financing ECW out of little more than personal loans and passion, Lecker and David’s lives were inextricably linked to their work, living and dying not by its merits but by its successes. This is a crucial distinction when it comes to ECW’s unique (schizophrenic?) devotion to Canadian criticism and literature and its profitable sidelines in quickie celebrity biographies and wrestling titles.

Anyone who has lamented the quality of Canadian criticism or bemoaned the role of grants in Canadian publishing will find much fuel for those respective fires here. Lecker writes at length of the insanity of the granting process and of unmarketable books being brought to market solely to capitalize on grants that would both make the individual titles profitable and buy a few weeks more life for the press as a whole. Many readers will find themselves shaking their heads at the waste, while others will nod in silent acknowledgement of the role of such grants in preserving a legacy of Canadian writing and criticism that would not otherwise exist.

For a book rooted in the minutiae of academic publishing, Dr. Delicious is surprisingly readable and well-paced. Lecker puts a human face on intangibles and manages to capture the passion and frustration that fuelled (and at some points nearly destroyed) his life. There are some minor problems with the writing, though. Authors and their work, for example, are repeatedly described using a fairly proscribed set of descriptors (as one might expect from a professor), while his repetitious descriptions of “the growing rift” between ECW’s Montreal and Toronto offices would have benefitted from a thesaurus. This is a fairly trivial concern for a book that, one hopes, will be read more widely than most of the books that Lecker shepherded through ECW Press.