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Nigle Beale, John Metcalf, and Negative Reviewing

In the third of today’s three Canadian-centric posts, I thought I’d highlight this interview Nigel Beale did recently with John Metcalf, a Canadian book critic and fiction editor at Biblioasis.

The focus of the interview is on “negative reviewing,” and I have to admit, Metcalf’s defense of critical criticism and his various attacks (especially on M.G. Vassanji — more on him in a minute) are pretty over-the-top and hysterical. Makes me want to read more Canadian book criticism . . .

Vassanji’s writing really pisses Metcalf off . . . especially the fact that Vassanji won the Giller prize twice, and that a “member of the illiterate society” would assume that if he won the Giller and Alice Munro did as well, their books must be of equal value. He goes on to explain that his hatred of Vassanji’s writing isn’t just “his opinion” that if you read one paragraph of Vassanji you can tell that he can’t “handle the English language.”

So, here goes. Here’s the opening of the Giller Prize winning The In-Between World of Vikram Lall (longer sample here):

My name is Vikram Lall. I have the distinction of having been numbered one of Africa’s most corrupt men, a cheat of monstrous and reptilian cunning. To me has been attributed the emptying of a large part of my troubled country’s treasury in recent years. I head my country’s List of Shame. These and other descriptions actually flatter my intelligence, if not my moral sensibility. But I do not intend here to defend myself or even seek redemption through confession; I simply crave to tell my story. In this clement retreat to which I have withdrawn myself, away from the torrid current temper of my country, I find myself with all the time and seclusion I may ever need for my purpose. I have even come upon a small revelation — and as I proceed daily to recall and reflect, and lay out on the page, it is with an increasing conviction of its truth, that if more of us told our stories to each other, where I come from, we would be a far happier and less nervous people.

“I have the the distinction of having” and “to me has been attributed” are both a bit awkward, although it’s possible that this is intentionally stilted, and that it’s only this particular character who speaks in strange ways . . . But I doubt it.

To end on a positive note, Metcalf claims that the only Canadian novel from the past fifteen years that has meant anything to him at all is Mordecai Richler’s St. Urbain’s Horseman, which, well, isn’t available here in America . . . But every single Vassanji book is . . .



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