On the final day of the festival, I got to sit in on a conversation between acclaimed writer and professor Randy Boyagoda, and renowned writer, editor, and literary critic, John Metcalf. John edited my collection of stories for Biblioasis (Debris), and I managed to hand him the last loose pages for the novel we are working on for next fall. Nonetheless, I would’ve advised any serious writers and readers to get to that event and hear the truth from a man who has given his entire life to Canadian literature, and who doesn’t shy away from sharing his opinions on the strengths and shortcomings of CanLit.
John Metcalf has quietly been shaping part of Canada’s literary scene for the better part of forty years now. Working with dozens of writers, especially emerging writers with a distinct voice and a focus on craft. His emphasis on quality over shine has created entire generations of excellent writers and prose stylists. Though Metcalf has no bones about telling people what books he thinks are terrible, he has undeniably contributed to our national literature by focusing intensely on what he thinks is good writing, with no concern for CanLit trends or the market at large.
“If you think what you’re writing is sellable, you’re demented,” said Metcalf from the stage at his IFOA event. If this seemed like a disconcerting statement, I would suggest that you think of it as a very Metcalfian way to say that a great deal of fine literature, and art, does not always land in whatever sweet spot the market is turned toward at that time. To bend to the market could spoil the very thing that makes the writing interesting, and, in some cases, difficult to sell.
What Metcalf’s approach dictates, as evidenced by his own career, is the belief that marketing and promotion should be a secondary concern when you are trying to produce the best literary work. That the focus necessary for the best kind of lines, and books, should not be polluted by the bigger picture thinking that comes with trying to eat and make it in the industry. That success may somehow come, but if you are doing something interesting, and breaking new ground, you’d be best not to hold your breath. Metcalf as editor and critic would tell a writer that they should not let “success,” or the promise of it, change their approach and efforts to the actual work. But if they stick to their craft, however unsexy that may be, they might just reshape our national literature in a much more substantial way than the pursuit of sales and casual readers. Nonetheless, even with Metcalf’s editorial focus entirely on the quality of the writing, the weight of the work, wider success has been found by many of books and authors he has worked on.
You need only look at the writers that have had a real, sustained literary impact during or after working with Metcalf to see that he knows how to spot and develop the very best writing, and that readers will support it. A shortlist would include: Russell Smith, Kathy Page, Caroline Adderson, Steven Heighton, Andrew Pyper, Annabel Lyon, K.D. Miller, Michael Winter, Amy Jones, Anakana Schofield, Rebecca Rosenblum and so on. He worked for eighteen years as editor for Porcupine’s Quill, without pay, before bringing his skills to Biblioasis (his memoir, An Aesthetic Underground, had a considerable impact on publisher Dan Wells). Metcalf’s approach has helped Biblioasis build a groundswell of success over the past few years, with a focus on quality above all, and the fruits of their labour are plain. Few Canadian publishing houses have produced such a wide range of unique and interesting titles in recent years, with all of them linked by the fact that they are damn well written, and have real literary weight and staying power. Since landing on the Giller Prize shortlist in 2010 with Light Lifting by Alexander MacLeod, Biblioasis has had books in contention for various major Canadian prizes. Anakana Schofield won the Amazon First Novel Award for Malarky, and was later shortlisted for the Giller for Martin John, sharing that space with Samuel Archibald’s translated collection, Arvida. Kathy Page has been on the Giller longlist twice in the past three years, and the translation of Catherine Leroux’s The Party Wall was shortlisted this year. Even lowly writer, Kevin Hardcastle, won the Trillium Book Award for his Metcalf-edited title, Debris.
The interviewer at IFOA, Randy Boyagoda, was clearly very familiar with the work Metcalf has done, and Boyagoda zeroed in on one of the most overlooked things about John Metcalf. That he is a gifted writer and prose stylist, praised by the likes of Alice Munro, and that comes to bear on his editorial and critical eye. This event came on the heels of the publication of his first book in twenty-six years, The Museum at the End of the World. His skill as a writer is often overlooked amidst all of the focus on his editorial and critical volume, but it is that skill and eye that allows him to edit and critique so surgically. Metcalf spoke at length about how he brings a level of precision to his own writing, to each line, and to each word. He said that good lines “change to reader to an active participant in the story,” with the work provoking a “deliberate emotional response” from the reader. He also stated the he tries for a natural flow that borders on the poetic, and thinks that it should tend toward that in aesthetic and sound. He even told Mr. Boyagoda that he thinks about the rhythm and cadence of his writing as “being part of music.”
A highlight of the event came when Boyagoda brought up an exchange that he’d had with Metcalf before the talk. In that conversation, he has suggested that Metcalf’s latest work could have been a novel, instead of a collection of stories and novellas, and for this he apparently received a “stern warning from John” about such ideas. “If you did (suggest it should be a novel), you would be misreading,” said Metcalf. He went on to clarify that he chose the form that suited the writing, and said that “if (The Museum at the End of the World) was a novel, there would have to be a lot of padding,” and that he hoped, by writing it as needed, that there was not “a single bit of wadding” in the book. If anyone knows about Metcalf’s work in writing and developing short fiction in Canada, none of this will come as a surprise.
Above all, Metcalf has championed the short story in Canada, a form that most of his writers have excelled in. It is how he has discovered so many talented writers throughout the country, and how he often measures them against some of their peers or predecessors. The short story collection is something that is produced in Canada regularly, often the first book for a writer. But Metcalf’s short story writers are those who value the form as integral and essential, regardless of the opinions of most publishers and readers, and other foreign markets, and so it is no surprise that they are on board with his philosophies on writing, and that this has often been channelled into novels and other works that have put them more squarely in the spotlight of CanLit.
It was plain from the conversation that Metcalf has not wavered on his aesthetic approach to writing, and that he hasn’t softened on some of the lesser points of the writing life. Especially with regards to the lives and sometimes hilarious experiences of being a noted Canadian author. In his own writing, the character Robert Forde often traverses the space that a “Canadian author” occupies, a mix of inflated solemnity, genuine appreciation, achievements simultaneously celebrated and rendered invisible. Still, his dedication to those writers that strive for greatness on the page cannot be questioned. If he might brush off his impact on Canadian literature as his job, something that deserves no public praise, there are many others in the community that will not let him skate on that. Metcalf once plainly told me that I must have “sweated blood” to do some work that seemed straightforward enough on the page. I would say that the man has done the same for the most of his professional life, without public fanfare, but so many significant members of the literary community have seen that blood colour countless pages of essential Canadian literature. Irreversibly so. And they are glad for it.
By guest blogger Kevin Hardcastle. Follow Kevin on Twitter @KHardcase