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John Metcalf
Toronto, ECW Press, 1994. 264pp, paper, $17.95
ISBN 1-55022-202-3. Distributed by General Distribution Services. CIP


Reviewed by Alan Thomas

Volume 22 Number 5
1994 October

John Metcalf is a literary man with opinions. He writes and he edits and he argues - and from a reading of his essays it is probably fair to say that most of all he likes to argue. The necessary grain in his oyster which produces the pearl of argument is the official support of literature. The arts in Canada rely to a considerable degree upon grant-giving agencies. Metcalf has, accordingly, set himself fundamentally against the way things are done here. He challenges the giving of grants to writers and to publishing houses and he mocks nationalist promotion of the CanLit idea, being relentless in exposing the benign flaccidity of well-intentioned judgements on Canadian literature. And, since he never appears to fear naming names and quarrels with some well-known figures of the literary scene, his polemics often contain a degree of delightful revelation. Nor is he afraid of biting the hand that feeds him; this collection contains a lengthy prefatory list of the granting agencies that supported its publication.

Metcalf is a writer's writer - he lives by the word and its arrangement, and a feeling for language and style is asserted here as the essential literary need. On the negative side, there is certainly an obsessive quality to a series of essays in which we see our hero foil, or turn, his opponent and return to the attack for the second and third time. Attacking government is a little too easy these days. But, in Metcalf's defence, he does not appear to be a fashionable ideologist of the free market.

His argument that government should get out and allow literature to survive as best it may is not pressed as liberation of the marketplace. He is not concerned about the health of commerce. Rather, he takes the view that official subsidy damages the writer and, by extension, the reader by making everyone self-conscious about national affirmation. Consequently, books are written and read for the wrong reasons, as Canadian Books, not as good books.

This is a debate that should continue.

Alan Thomas teaches at Scarborough College, University of Toronto, in Toronto, Ontario.

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