Shut Up He Explained

By John Metcalf

The explanation behind the odd title of this second volume of John Metcalf’s literary memoirs, which is taken from the punch line of a Ring Lardner story, comes as part of an introductory chapter on the matter of “Titles.”

It is, however, the subtitle that requires comment. Coming close on the heels of 2003’s An Aesthetic Underground, Metcalf’s Shut Up He Explained: A Literary Memoir Vol. II, is not a memoir at all. It talks a bit about what the sometimes controversial author and editor has been up to in the last couple of years – primarily cruising the Mediterranean and taking the editorial reins at Biblioasis, another small press — but its focus is less on autobiography than other matters.

The form it takes is that of a Metcalf Reader or Miscellany, a book that, like Ezra Pound’s ABC of Reading, both serves as a statement of aesthetic principles and a demonstration of those principles in action. An unreconstructed modernist, Metcalf believes in showing rather than telling, and so his prescription is to read by example. The result is a wandering, untidy book that proceeds by digression, anecdote and much cut-and-paste. But it is also an essential part of any discussion of Canadian writing today.

Metcalf realizes that his is a select audience, as “very few readers actually read words. They read themes, characters, and plots and so are deaf to the blandishments and subtleties of our better writers.” His corrective position – sometimes referred to as the “aesthetic approach” – is very much an editor’s-eye view of literature, one as fascinated with the writing process as the reading experience. It also requires a great deal of quotation, often at length, which is an occasionally alienating luxury not afforded to reviewers (one reason style is a subject rarely dealt with in reviews).

Much of what Metcalf has to say will be familiar to anyone who has followed his crusades over the years against bad writing, thematic or political criticism, the irresponsibility and incompetence of the academic establishment and the “malignantly stupid pride” of Canadian cultural nationalism. Indeed a fair bit of material has been recycled.

But there is some interesting new stuff as well, including a fascinating exercise in reading himself and a lengthy introduction to a projected anthology of the best Canadian short story collections from the past century.

Ironically, the book feels in need of an editor. Even given the messiness of the miscellany form and Metcalf’s cut-and-paste method, the presentation could have been tightened considerably. A couple of chapters might have been left out without losing anything, and many of the quotations – though it’s nice to enjoy the luxury of quoting anything at length these days – go on far longer than is necessary to illustrate the points being made.

Metcalf is aware enough of his reputation as the crank of Canadian letters to reference it himself. And it would be surprising for a writer whose signature motif is entropy – “decline, fallings away, defeat, degeneration” – to not be a bit of a grouch.

But the crank label is only part of it, and neither the largest nor the most important part.

Metcalf has always been a passionate as well as a provocative observer, actively concerned over the progress of cultural decay. For decades now he has been a vocal champion of the aesthetic approach and the sort of writing represented in the alternative canon of his Century List.

Style, he goes so far as to say, can be a form of “salvation.” Entropy, though ineluctable, may be redeemed.

Review first published in the Toronto Star October 14, 2007.

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