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Mental Hygiene: Essays on Writers and Writing

by Ray Robertson

Ray Robertson is a novelist (best known for his long goodbye to the 1960s, Moody Food), teacher at the University of Toronto, book reviewer, TV pundit, and, most importantly, a perceptive, light-on-his-feet heavyweight critic and reader who takes genius wherever he finds it. In other words, he is a fan of both Bertrand Russell and Gram Parsons.

Happily, Robertson assumes that you, too, are as coolly learned as he is; that you, too, have admired a variety of writers from a variety of cultural strata; that you, too, have both a body and a head; and that you, too, can be transported six ways to heaven by both the high seriousness of philosophy and by pop culture’s shiny, finely crafted entertainment.

But here’s Mental Hygiene’s main thrust: too bad CanLit doesn’t see the world that way. This collection of Robertson’s non-fiction reprints 40-odd book reviews and articles and is divided into three sections: “Us” (Robertson’s reviews of books by national stars such as Leacock and Richler, and relative newcomers such as Paul Quarrington and Nino Ricci); “Them” (covering works by mainly bigwig international authors such as Amis, Updike, and Burgess); and “Me.” This last section is where the book stops being about other people’s work and starts being about Robertson busting his own moves, including his thoughts on small presses, how Canadian publishing really works, and the significance of creative writing courses.

All of this provides a table setting for Robertson’s favourite gripe, which is that Canadian literature is not, in fact, as brilliant as our tastemakers would have it: “A remarkable amount of recent fiction by Canadian writers … is thinly disguised journal writing chiefly concerned with the domestic dilemmas faced by boring, middle class, self-absorbed writer types but ostensibly about life’s BIG questions.”

Robertson’s term for the whole oversweetened, flaccid Canuck canon is McCanLit; this is the stuff of domestic dilemma fiction, where accounts of parental emotional neglect and painful love affairs rule, not to mention all those dire “600-page saga(s) about five generations of Nova Scotia fish filleters.”

Practically every page contains such broadsides. Swipe-happy Robertson is forced to admit that he’s making a meal of zeal, but who can blame him? Many will believe that the man is right: any country that prizes Fugitive Pieces (“Time is a blind guide” – sure it is, on Planet Pretention) is, well, Canada.

But at least Robertson identifies the craft deficit behind the problem: “Contrary to prevailing literary wisdom, to successfully explore a significant theme in a work of fiction requires telling a story. In other words, it’s not enough to simply inform the reader that sexual abuse is painful, or that misogyny is bad or that love is confusing.”

In the review section, the articles on Morley Callaghan and Stephen King are spot on, and the three-parter on Amis pére et fils should be a cut-out-and-keep requirement for aspiring expositionists. Still, there’s one aspect of the book that is surprisingly fumble-handed: women are underrepresented. Not because they don’t get equal time in the review portion, but because females aren’t in the chapters that count, where Robertson examines the literary giants and heroes that fire his imagination.

One of the few female pantheon members discussed at length is “Bold, Brilliant, and Beautiful” Mary McCarthy; laddish references to McCarthy’s appearance would be easier to take if Robertson billed Martin Amis as “Bold, Brilliant, and in His Prime Totally Hot.”

And for all Robertson’s castigations of weepy, overembroidered Canadian novels, who does he think actually buys the things? Robertson knows full well that female consumers almost single-handedly keep Canadian fiction publishers afloat. He understands – but dares not tackle (no one in this country does) – the implications of his critique, which is that the book-buying female public might have tastes that many critics don’t share.