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The Force of Vocation: The Literary Career of Adele Wiseman

by Ruth Panofsky

Ruth Panofsky has already produced an annotated bibliography of the novelist Adele Wiseman (who died in 1992) and edited Wiseman’s correspondence with Margaret Laurence. Now she turns to a study of Wiseman’s tangled business relationships. Wiseman’s first novel, The Sacrifice, was published in 1956 to great acclaim in Canada, the U.S., and Britain. But her unwieldy second one, The Crackpot, evolved too slowly, was rejected by 26 publishers, and didn’t finally appear until 1974, to what could be kindly called a mixed reception. Question: what was Wiseman doing for most of the intervening 18 years? Answer: ignoring good advice.

Her supporters – and she had many important ones – felt she should have followed up The Sacrifice more quickly. Instead, with no experience in dramatic writing, she stubbornly spent years on two three-act plays so unstageable they’ve never been produced to this day. All the while, she supported herself with menial projects. In one case, she got small advances for a travel book on China. When the Chinese refused her a visa, she then tried unsuccessfully to sell a book about that.

In short, Panofsky writes, “Wiseman’s career can be read as the progressive loss of readership and literary recognition….” Panofsky attributes the slide to Wiseman’s rare artistic integrity, while also pointing to male domination of the literary world (when, in fact, except for Laurence and later Margaret Atwood, the many who most patiently tried to help her were figures such as Jack McClelland, John Gray, Kildare Dobbs, Robert Weaver, Malcolm Ross, Richard Teleky, and John Pearce).

It’s true that Wiseman’s belief in her own imaginative vision was enviably immovable. But it’s also true that many found her “testy,” not to say corrosive, and that she grew “convinced that she was working against the tide of agents, editors, and publishers [who became] recipients of her ire.” Panofsky notes this worsening tendency, but doesn’t “speculate as to the psychological motivation.” As she explains: “I hesitate to privilege psychological interpretation, which may be subjective, over empirical evidentiary analysis.”

Her aspiration to scientific detachment does bring a certain freshness to the book’s portrait of a personality type familiar to everyone in the writing world. Ultimately, though, it’s not Panofsky’s methodology that sets this book apart, but her love for a writer who “challenged, among other prevailing stereotypes, modern notions of the Jew, female sexuality and desire, and the cultural value of art.”


Reviewer: George Fetherling

Publisher: University of Manitoba Press


Price: $19.95

Page Count: 204 pp

Format: Paper

ISBN: 0-88755-689-2

Released: June

Issue Date: 2006-7

Categories: Memoir & Biography