John Metcalf Photo by Lynn Ball/The Ottawa Citizen

Barbara Kay: In the progressive era, even literary critics aren’t safe

Literary icon John Metcalf left his post at Humber College after being unfairly attacked for criticizing the writing of someone who happens to be of Indian descent
In 1981, Toni Morrison wrote, “If there were better criticism, there would be better books.” Better can mean negative — sometimes even harsh — criticism. There was a time when that was received wisdom. No longer.

John Metcalf, a transplant to Montreal from England, has for 55 years toiled in Canada’s various literary vineyards: teaching, editing (300-plus books), publishing (Porcupine Press and Biblioasis, where he has his own imprint) — and, of course, writing.

Barbara Kay: In the progressive era, even literary critics aren't safe Back to video Metcalf is an accomplished novelist and short-story writer. He has personally published some 18 books. He received an Order of Canada in 2004. In 2014, he was voted editor of the year by the Canadian Booksellers Association. Metcalf has been a writer-in-residence at the University of New Brunswick, McGill, Concordia and the University of Bologna.

As a critic, Metcalf sets a high bar for excellence, so he has numerous enemies, but also many fans. Of Metcalf’s criticism, University of Toronto English Prof. Sam Solecki testifies: “You must admit that it’s better written … and simply more interesting than almost anything written on Canadian literature within the academy.” Nobel Prize-winning short-story writer Alice Munro said he is “bracing and encouraging,” and that, “Praise from him, you feel, is real gold.”

Yet if Metcalf’s praise is gold to brilliant writers, to those he considers mediocre or worse, his negative criticism must seem like tungsten. To wit:

“The writing (of three-time Governor General’s Award-winning author Rudy Wiebe) is ponderous and inept. It reminds me of a circus elephant mounting its tub and heaving its vast sad bulk into a begging position”; “It is not so much a question of having to decide if Mavis Gallant is a better writer than Alice Munro, but is more a matter of understanding that both are in a different class from Margaret Atwood”; and “Canada still clasped to its bosom the warty crudities of Hugh Garner and the slick heartwarming hayseedery of W.O. Mitchell.”

Metcalf is an unabashed elitist. Comparing Canadian writing to that of the United Kingdom and the United States, he says: “We’re not even on the same planet.”

Metcalf is a curmudgeonly type, common amongst critics in England, not so much here. He reminds me of another uncommon Canadian elitist, Toronto’s famously rebarbative 1950s drama critic, Nathan Cohen. Both Metcalf and Cohen regard their critical vocation, in T.S. Eliot’s words, as “the common pursuit of true judgment and the correction of taste.”

Taste? That’s so over for progressive ideologues. Today, the critic’s function is the “correction” of colonialism, racism, LGBTphobia and historic under-representation.

For 20 years, Metcalf has been on contract with Humber College in Toronto as a mentor in its School for Writers. In mid-December, he received a formal letter from Guillermo Acosta, senior dean of Humber’s faculty of media and creative arts, which informed him that one of the three students he was mentoring (“from an equity-seeking group,” according to Humber’s communications director, Andrew Leopold) had complained to the dean regarding remarks Metcalf made about the writing of Giller-winning Canadian novelist M. G. Vassanji, who is of Indian descent, in a 2009 interview with writer and bibliophile Nigel Beale.

Acosta wrote: “Your opinions in this interview can be interpreted as race-based discrimination … I find your remarks on Mr. Vassanji’s writing problematic given your position.”

The word “problematic” is woke-speak for “unacceptable.” I find a few things about this pretty “problematic” myself. I listened to the 2009 interview. Metcalf’s critique of Vassanji’s writing was indeed damning: “He cannot write English, (it) reads like a translation,” Metcalf avers, and says it is “laughable” that Munro and Vassanji could have both been granted a Giller Award.

But the discussion with Beale was wide-ranging. In the same interview, Metcalf opines that (white, old-stock Canadian) Ann-Marie MacDonald’s novel, “Fall on Your Knees,” was “so grossly written,” he needed two bottles of scotch to finish it, and describes (white, old-stock Canadian) Robertson Davies as “one of the biggest windbags I have ever come across.” Metcalf explains this vituperation as a visceral response to bad writing, which he experiences as “almost an assault on everything I hold most sacred.” For Metcalf, good writing is wine; bad writing is vinegar.

In his letter, Acosta — who has an extensive background in information technology and administration, none in literature — asked if, since 2009, Metcalf’s views had changed and “whether or not you are approaching your work with a broader EDI (equity, diversity, inclusion) lens.” He invited Metcalf to call or write if he wanted “to have a conversation about this issue.”

Metcalf attempted to initiate such a “conversation” in multiple letters between December and early March, primarily to explain that he had criticized Vassanji’s writing, not Vassanji personally. But he did not receive a response from Acosta or, when finally appealed to, from Humber president Christopher Whitaker. Metcalf resigned from his gig at Humber on March 6.

Following my inquiries, Metcalf ultimately received a letter from Acosta dated March 22, which apologized for not responding to Metcalf’s previous three letters and explaining that his initial letter “was not intended as an accusation of racism.” Nevertheless, that’s exactly how it came across. In a telephone interview explaining his resignation, Metcalf told me he felt Humber had “branded” him as a racist, a charge that would stick forever. “I feel I have been dishonoured,” he said, “falsely accused.”

Agree or disagree with Metcalf’s judgments, enjoy or feel repulsed by his savage wit, one thing is clear: the man is oblivious to a writer’s race, gender and ethnicity. If Acosta had taken the time to probe a bit before rushing to judgment, he might have discovered that Metcalf has praised another Indian writer, V.S. Naipaul, as “one of the ornaments of prose writing in the 20th century.” He might also have discovered that Metcalf is the adoptive father of two Indian children, a strange life choice for someone who allegedly holds racist views of Indians.

But these exculpating facts are irrelevant to the EDI-fixated mind, which is standard in academia. Critics must first consider the intersectionality status of the writer, after which they are obliged to tailor their opinions accordingly. A critic may “punch up” to white writers, but may not “punch down” to designated equity victims.

Even more ironically, as critic Andy Lamey noted in a balanced 2017 article on Metcalf in the Literary Review of Canada, Metcalf was once a pariah in Canada for championing style over the prevailing cultural nationalism in this country that privileged old-stock writers, however fusty their output, an attitude Metcalf sought vigorously to change.

“We take it for granted today that immigrant literature is a central part of Canadian literature,” Lamey wrote, “while the notion of the Canadian duty read has gone into a long decline.” Metcalf played a large role in this change.

John Metcalf was instrumental in bringing Canadian literature into the modernist mainstream, and remains an indefatigable builder of Canada’s excellence-based literary canon. Leopold assured me of Humber’s “respect for the literary and intellectual autonomy of all of our School for Writers mentors.” But these words ring hollow beside Acosta’s failure to convey that principle to the complaining student, the wording of his initial letter to Metcalf and the pregnant silence that followed.

Metcalf inferred (correctly, I think) that he was no longer wanted on the voyage. He sadly, but wisely, disembarked before he was tossed overboard. Humber College’s and CanLit’s loss, nobody’s gain.

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