Friday, July 30, 2010

The League of Extraordinary Critics

Canadian criticism is in crisis mode right now and, as always, provocateur Zach Wells is at the epi-centre of it all. Andre Alexis wrote a polemical essay entitled The Long Decline for The Walrus Magazine about all the things he sees plaguing Canadian criticism at the moment: personal attacks and collegiate vitriol standing in for “book reviews”, the incompetence of reviewers who rely on subjective opinion rather than critical thought, and he lays the lion share of the blame at critic John Metcalf’s feet for inspiring a self-aggrandizing rhetorical style in younger critics who do not possess the same depth of knowledge as him.

There is a whole lot to chew on in this essay, and I am not sure I agree with everything, but it does articulate many things my colleagues and I have been thinking about for some time.

What is perhaps not surprising is that Zach Wells, having felt stung as he always does in such circumstances, wrote a satirical rejection letter as if Andre Alexis had first submitted the essay to CNQ magazine. He posted this response on the CNQ blog where it has spawned a “casserole of ridiculousness” as Jake Mooney has rightly pronounced on his blog Vox Populism.

It is not so much that Andre Alexis is entirely right but that the Sons of Metcalf, having gathered, are now linking arms and shouting in unison “You’re entirely wrong Mr. Alexis”. You know, like a whole tribe of critics who do not want to listen to anyone but themselves. I had already written in a previous post about the inherent dangers of aesthetic tribalism attaching itself to critical culture in Canada and here we are six months later with this wonderful public squabble with the participants proving Alexis's point and my own.

People can make their own judgments but this needs to be witnessed to be believed.


  1. Sadly I just lost my comment to the ether...

    What I want to say is, that it seems to me the complaining is really purile and uninteresting. Can't we simply create the kinds of conversations that we want to read?

    More and more I think blogs are not helping, but rather hindering, or perhaps liquefying what little solid core there might be in our sprawling cultural landscape. I keep hoping that new configurations might arise, but Canada feels hopelessly trapped in a deadlock of ideology made more problematic by a dearth of sharp editorial visions and outlets for a diversity of voices.

    In short there are few sources, few conversations that excite me.

    Where are the editors?

  2. It's not just in Canada. Jessica Smith has a somewhat-related story about a gang of petty thugs and cyber-bullies who have laid siege to the comments section on Ron Silliman's blog, stifling any useful literary commentary in the process.

  3. I feel I need to source that "casserole of ridiculousness" quote as coming from funniest-man-in-the-world, Patton Oswalt, before I get credited for first utterance. I can't find the youtube link, but it's on his new album I believe.

  4. Does a few people fighting on the internet really make something a "crisis"? If so, isn't everything that has to do with poetry (or, for that matter, with anything) in permanent crisis mode?

    A "casserole of ridiculousness" - now that I can get on board with. I would also be ok with "meatloaf of madness" or "soufflé of silliness".

    Ok, time for lunch!

  5. Rob, you certainly do not have to agree with me but, yes, I think Canadian criticism is in a crisis because of who is fighting and their unwillingness to admit Alexis has even one point. In their heads, he is just wrong, stupid, naive,an object of ridicule, etc. No one I know takes Canadian criticism seriously or reads it without at least contemplating some of the same kinds of questions Alexis brings up in his essay. That is a problem. Too much black-slapping and inbreeding. I'll publish your reviews if you publish mine. I'll write an essay about one of your poems if you publish a review of my book in some magazine you're guest-editing. Where are the editors? This is what they are doing. Where are the new editors? Well, I imagine they are not jumping in to the pond because of personal attacks and collegiate vitriol, fear of the self-aggrandizinng style of younger critics who...... Again, no one has to agree with me but this is what I think.