Reviewing the Reviewer
- Philip Marchand (Author)
Ripostes: Reflections on Canadian Literature. Porcupine's Quill (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by George Parker
There’s always the risk that newspaper articles may not successfully survive the transition into book form because last season’s literary topics now look passé. Philip Marchand, the book columnist for the Toronto Star, takes this chance by revising his pieces, removing their dates, and adding previously unpublished essays. He titles his collection Ripostes, with its suggestions of hasty replies, clever rebuttals, and—like the cover illustration featuring the dark, anonymous face of the swordsman—return thrusts in fencing. When he skewers the literary animal for closer scrutiny, some of the targets will squirm.
Readers will be tempted to look for a strategy behind Marchand’s stringent observations on a volatile decade in Canadian literature. For one thing, he uses individual books to illuminate the broader preoccupations of the Canadian imagination. The novels of Terry Griggs and Barbara Gowdy suggest a comparison between the Catholic and Protestant presentation of angels. Similarly, he observes that Douglas Glover and Rudy Wiebe sensitively handle pre-literate First Nations communities because they are comfortable in the "electronic collage of post-literate culture." Second, he often links motifs in Canadian and foreign literatures. He suggests lhat the relative absence of demonic father-figures in North American writers compared with the English and Europeans can be explained by the different historical traditions and social environment of the new world. He attributes the prevalence of the occult in Robin Skelton and Gwendolen MacEwan, and in the recent work of Findley and Atwood, to the influence of Jung, Nietzsche, and Heidegger. Third, he may focus on a characteristic that can evolve into a flaw. Thus he sees Margaret Laurence’s role as "moral conscience" as a sign of her limited mental horizons and her readers’ acceptance ofthat role as a lack of maturity in Canadian culture. He expresses strong reservations about Ondaatje’s The English Patient, and cites examples of its empty metaphors and its clichéd moral messages. It is, he claims, the "book most frequently begun but never finished by readers since Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time"
The weaknesses of some essays in this collection arise from their origins as short columns whose lengths are determined by space considerations rather than by the nature of the subject. The major pieces in particular suffer from this kind of brevity: the two final essays, on the male and female archetypes in Findley and Atwood, offer important insights, but each one trails off without a thorough development. I would have preferred far more discussion of the political jockeying among contemporary cultural critics in "Literature and Politics: Five Reviews."
In his own diagnosis of the literary landscape, Marchand has complained for years about the damage caused by the CanLit industry. Identifying the national literary vices of Americans (they flaunt their egos), the British (their Oxbridge glibness), and Canadians (their liberty to bore), he says
professors of Canadian literature, book reviewers, members of the writing and publishing ’community/ all bear serious responsibility for frequently sending Canadian readers a subliminal message: You may not enjoy this prose but you should read it because it’s good for you. It is a message, unfortunately, which writers as well as readers have picked up, and which partly explains the careers of such novelists as David Helwig and Rudy Wiebe.
His pages are full of these epigrammatic flippancies, and he pulls no punches in targeting those he holds responsible for encouraging and tolerating mediocrity, literary theorists who can’t write English, culture bureaucrats who dispense grants, and organizations who dish out too many literary prizes. Even The Writers’ Union is reprimanded for creating dissension among its members over issues of political correctness, race, and appropriation of voice. Occasionally he is disheartened by the feeling that "Canadian literature is beginning to flower in an age overwhelmingly unfavourable to great art."
Marchand quotes with approval Whitman’s statement that a great literature needs a great audience. He would include in that equation critics like Northrop Frye and George Woodcock, and in "Confessions of a Book Columnist" he lays out the principles that underlie his strategies. He steers a course between the Canadian tendencies either to denigrate success or boost anything labelled "Canadian literature." He brings international literary standards to bear on Canadian books through a familiarity with European and British literature. Thus "no one who has read these classics at all widely can read, say, Margaret Laurence or Margaret Atwood or Robertson Davies, and not recognize that they are, when all is said, minor writers. By ’minor’ I do not mean bad, or mediocre, or negligible." He must not be afraid to make value judgements if his reflections are to delight and stimulate his readers.
The majority of commentators on Canadian literature are academics, who for the most part prescribe what’s hot, and what’s not, to a very limited audience. Sadly, we have too few men—or persons—of letters who discuss our literature with the common reader from another vantage point. Happily, Marchand brings enthusiasm and commitment to his role as such a critic.
- How Free is Free? by Nanette Norris
Books reviewed: Silver by Pablo Urbanyi and The Free World by David Bezmozgis
- The Old World and the New by Britta Olinder
Books reviewed: Literary Environments: Canada and the Old World by Britta Olinder
- Traduire la poésie by Patricia Godbout
Books reviewed: La prison magique by Charlotte Melançon and Le tamis des jours by Marie Frankland and Robyn Sarah
- Elements of Craft by Jim Johnstone
Books reviewed: Afloat by John Reibetanz, Birds, Metals, Stones, and Rain by Russell Thornton, Meeting the Tormentors in Safeway by Alexandra Oliver, and Water Damage by Peter Norman
- The Writer and the Beast by Janice Fiamengo
Books reviewed: Other Selves: Animals in the Canadian Literary Imagination by Janice Fiamengo
MLA: Parker, George. Reviewing the Reviewer. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 25 Apr. 2015.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #164 (Spring 2000), (Atwood, Davis, Klein & Multiculturalism). (pg. 164 - 166)
***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.