Ripostes by Philip Marchand
Ripostes is a collection of essays on some salient features of the Canadian literary landscape, a number of which were first published in the Toronto Star, many of which appear in these pages for the first time. Included are essays on Atwood, Findley, Ondaatje and Margaret Laurence, as well as thematic explorations of Canadian literature such as an account of the demise of the Survival school of Canadian writing, a look at the recent history of the Writers’ Union of Canada, an examination of the role of fathers in Canadian fiction, a study of the strange attraction of many of our writers to the occult, and so on.
The tone is considered, and critical rather than celebratory, although the essays are respectful of the genuine achievements of Canadian literature in the past few decades. They try to clear the air, as it were, of boosterism, political correctness, and other attitudes which hinder the appreciation and reception of good writing.
This is an honest re-appraisal of Canadian literature, undertaken at a time when we need no longer be overcome with relief and euphoria over the fact that some of our authors are now world famous, or at least world famous in Hoboken, New Jersey.
Table of contents
Confessions of a Book Columnist
For Want of a Reader
The English Patient
Margaret Laurence: Soul Woman
Are Literary Prizes Necessary?
Writers Just Want to Have Fun
Beyond the Veil: Canadian Writers and the Occult
The Demidenko Affair
Why Everybody Loves Indians
The Curse of the Duty Read
Literature and Politics: Five Reviews
The State of Canadian Poetry
Terry Griggs and Barbara Gowdy
A Chronicle of the Writers’ Union of Canada
A Final Word from Two Canadian Critics
Top Ten People I Never Want to Meet in Print Again
Timothy Findley as Gothic Novelist
The Atwood Heroine
‘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, 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.’
‘These days, when party banter turns to the subject of Canadian fiction two matters are raised more often than any others: ‘‘Have you read Fugitive Pieces yet?’’ and, ‘‘Could you believe that Philip Marchand thing in Saturday Night?’’ For those who like their culture laced with a little dirt, the latter question is of far greater interest. What’s all the fuss about? In short, Marchand’s essay is a sweeping dismissal of virtually every author belonging to the first tier of CanLit. ... But what’s far more important than the substance of Marchand’s particular remarks is the fact that he went to the trouble of making them in the first place. As a gesture of shit-disturbing spilled ink, as an invitation for discussion about our critical culture, it is to be admired.’
‘Ripostes are quick sharp replies. The word comes from the world of swordplay: in fencing, they’re quick return thrusts. In Philip Marchand’s hands, Ripostes is a book of necessary answers to the Professor Panglosses of Canadian letters. You know, the ones who ejaculate ‘‘Atwood’’ and ‘‘Ondaatje’’ as answers to any suggestion that things aren’t just fine and dandy in CanLitLand -- the best of all possible post-colonial, post-patriarchal, post-modern book worlds. Ripostes is going to aggravate, annoy, gall, irk, miff, peeve, rankle, vex and just generally bug quite a few people. It thoroughly delights me. The author is a realist and a truth teller and I prefer truths and reality, even when i’s hard, to soft and pleasing fantasies. Like Marchand, I’d rather read Russell Smith’s How Insensitive than Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient.’
Philip Marchand was the book columnist for the Toronto Star for eighteen years, before retiring to write books in 2008. He is the author of Just Looking, Thank You, a collection of magazine journalism (Macmillan, 1976); Marshall McLuhan: The Medium and the Messenger (Random House of Canada, 1989); Deadly Spirits, a crime novel (Stoddart, 1994); Ripostes, a collection of literary criticism (Porcupine’s Quill, 1998); and most recently Ghost Empire: How the French Almost Conquered North America (McClelland & Stewart, 2005). His revised edition of Marshall McLuhan: The Medium and the Messenger has been reissued by Random House of Canada and MIT Press in the United States.