MENTAL HYGIENE: ESSAYS ON WRITERS AND WRITING
By Ray Robertson
Mental Hygiene is a collection of book reviews and essays written by Toronto novelist Ray Robertson over the past five years. The title is an indication of what Robertson sees the critical task as entailing. This is to be a no-nonsense practitioner’s guide to cleaning-up the literary landscape.
Which means, in the first place, enlisting the aid of that ultimate critical arbiter: the Standards. When critics invoke standards they usually want you to believe that they are appealing to a set of universally respected, objective criteria for separating the wheat from the chaff. This is, of course, never the case. Writer/critics have an obvious personal stake in their prescriptions, as Robertson acknowledges. He uses Wordsworth as authority for the proposition that “there is no less self-interested desire than to help create the critical taste by which one hopes one’s own work will be understood and enjoyed.” Or, as Martin Amis has it, “all artist-critics are to some extent secret proselytizers for their own work.” If Ray Robertson’s idea of the perfect novel sounds a lot like a Ray Robertson novel, you can’t say you weren’t warned.
In promoting his vision of literary hygiene, the doctor-critic begins with his diagnosis. Canada’s literary scene is “rigidly, even dogmatically conservative.” It is dominated by the forces of “McCanLit”: an awkward coinage that suggests a meeting of McDonald’s and McLuhan in the global media marketplace. McCanLit is dull and humourless. Its sacred dictum is that “solemnity is one of the central tenets of good art.” Its representative genre is the “Domestic Dilemma” novel, featuring “broken hearts, bad parent-child relations, uneasy childhoods.” This type of writing is “thoroughly middle-class in every possible sense of the word.” And that is not a good thing at all.
In contrast, Robertson’s standards are unashamedly, even “cruelly elitist.” Democracy won’t work for art. As an antidote to the dullness of McCanLit’s “paint-by-numbers” prose (a cliché itself that he repeats at least three times) and leaden story-telling, Robertson would require writers to develop a sense of humour, experiment with narrative, and use language in a way that is inventive, complex and musical.
It should be clear from this that Robertson’s location of literary value is a lot more democratic than he thinks. Who wouldn’t want to read books that are livelier, funnier and more entertaining? The books Robertson is complaining about (and there have been a chorus of voices making the same complaint for years) are books whose reputations are, in fact, made by elites (in our big media, universities, etc.). They are the books that nobody actually reads but which win literary prizes after being gushed over by reviewers who should know better. (And while on that topic, I have to note my amusement at Robertson’s call for banning promotional puffery from dustjackets when the back cover of Mental Hygiene features a quote from the Globe and Mail saying that Robertson “writes with penetrating insight of what needs to be written about: beauty, truth and goodness.” If that isn’t “book-jacket bumph” I don’t know what is.)
A good review doesn’t do much to maintain standards. Nor is it a lot of use as consumer research. It is a demonstration of the critical faculty in action that should encourage or inspire us to adopt a similar habit of mind. We are engaged but we don’t have to agree. To wit:
Literature is not elitist; like Robertson’s criticism it aspires to elitism, and there’s nothing more middle-class than that. Is there any more bourgeois a cultural artifact than the novel? Not yet. Elites, like standards, are part of the world of fashion and taste. An art that isn’t democratic – which is not the same thing as being popular, by the way – isn’t worth the name.
As for the particulars, it seems only fair to point out that one of Canada’s best writers, Alice Munro, has been writing Domestic Dilemma fiction her entire career. Her work hasn’t suffered. And after all, hasn’t a lot of great literature – from Hamlet to Great Expectations to The Sound and the Fury – been about domestic dilemmas? What’s wrong with that?
Robertson’s attack on plain, unadorned prose has to be understood as a response to the post-Raymond Carver school of style. It is not an obvious target. Most critics of CanLit’s pretentiousness rail against its verbosity, the overwritten “poetic” high style that wins Gillers and G-Gs. Minimalism is not as great a threat. It is the very complexity of today’s fine writing, its reaching after inappropriate metaphors and tropism for weird constructions that is self-defeating.
And so Robertson urges us on. Though intellectually erratic, Mental Hygiene is a brisk collection of material that gives some indication of what it is that saves a review from being yesterday’s newspaper clipping. It shows a mind at work, one that beckons us to join the fun.
Review first published June 28, 2003.