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Shut Up He Explained

by John Metcalf

John Metcalf is tired of being called a literary crank. Right near the beginning of this fatally unbalanced collection of literary memoir, travel memoir, criticism, and belles-lettres sweepings, the author, literary critic, and former Porcupine’s Quill (now Biblioasis) editor complains that reviewers of his previous memoir-like book, An Aesthetic Underground, “took the ‘gadfly’ or ‘curmudgeon’ angle, that being simpler than having to think about language.”

What “angle” should one take for this new book? Shut Up He Explained includes accounts of the end of Metcalf’s tenure with Porcupine’s Quill and the beginning of his association with Biblioasis, a chapter-length analysis of an early Alice Munro story, the text of a speech he gave on the (dire) state of Canadian publishing, a touching memoir of author Norman Levine, pages of short-pants treacle about Metcalf’s mother country of England, and a whole lot of tilting at ramshackle windmills, mostly of the academic kind. Metcalf also includes “The Century List,” his vision of a Canadian short-fiction canon. That this list is dominated by work in which Metcalf himself had a hand as editor should probably not be a surprise.

What is more surprising is how much of a mess this all is. Metcalf has always filled his literary jeremiads with a lot of self-quotation and extraneous matter, but this tendency reaches near-pathological levels here. The book’s 12-page intro manages to quote from no fewer than 10 other people’s memoirs – some at length. A few chapters in, Metcalf provides a three-page quotation from An Aesthetic Underground. Later, Metcalf includes a chapter explaining that a lengthy travel interlude that seems like a complete non sequitur is actually a very subtle meditation upon the creative process. This he demonstrates by quoting, in toto, an early short story of his, followed by a full account of the story’s genesis that manages to include – amazingly – lengthy quotes from the story just reprinted.

At this point, even the most language-conscious reviewer starts to suspect that either Metcalf’s intentions aren’t serious (the “prankster” angle), or that he has reached a point in his career in which, utterly despairing of our ability to recognize literary greatness, he has given up even trying to make sense.

The shame of it is that all this obscures Metcalf’s legacy as both an editor and, yes, a literary gadfly. Many of the authors on his Century List are among our best short-fiction writers, and he should get credit for that. And many of his attacks on CanLit complacency  – “we embrace and honour stodge,” he writes – are as accurate and necessary as ever. But, like his protegé Stephen Henighan, Metcalf is much better at identifying symptoms than diagnosing the underlying illness, and he is no good at all at prescribing a cure – his beloved “aesthetic approach” to literature being just as likely to lead to empty, middlebrow doily-making as to James Joyce.

At one point in the book, Metcalf writes that “it is always instructive to listen to artists talking about art.” Yes it is, though sometimes that instruction comes in the form of a cautionary example.