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August 3, 2009

Weed whacking?

From Alex Good’s piece on negative book reviews: “Critics in this country are often accused of enviously cutting down our tallest poppies. For the record, I don’t see a lot of this happening, but even if I did, I would be inclined to think it good horticulture rather than conduct motivated by one of the seven deadly sins. The tallest poppies are precisely the ones that need the attention of a critical weed whacker. They suck up all the oxygen and take the most nutrients from the soil, crowding out all of the up-and-coming green. Better to pull such plants out of the ground, shake the dirt from their roots and toss them on the weed pile.”

Inarguable. The problem, however, is that Good’s metaphor is all too apt, and “whackage” seems to all too often pass for literary criticism in Canada, all clumsiness, frantic motion and violence implied. Is a poppy always necessarily a weed either? All thoughtfulness and consideration go out the window, and we’re left with paragraphs such as the following (from here):

For Atwood, despite her dowager status in Canlit, is a writer who, with very little in the way of linguistic flare and visionary intensity, writes (or wrote) a kind of period poetry that gives the impression of having long passed its “best before” date. As with most of the characters in her novels, so with the words in her poems: predictable, unvarying, wooden, truncated, connotatively flaccid, oddly nasal in their timbre, and devoid of real signifying power because relying for their effect on a near-perfect correlation with the cultural temper of an audience desperate for corroboration. Owing to this bizarre resonance, Atwood was spared the labour of development as she was exempted from the struggle with language. She had only to be herself as she was – facile, clever, priggish – for the reader’s easy identification with a recognizable and idealized self to occur – but a self not qualitatively different from the one already in place. Atwood owes her success to the fact that the reader does not transact so much with the poetry or the fiction as with a privileged double with whom she or he merges and assimilates, doubt assuaged and dispossession overcome, whether as a woman, an intellectual or a Canadian. Readers of Atwood merely impersonate themselves at a slightly higher elevation but undergo no spiritual change or evolution whatsoever.

I have chosen this one example (which, admittedly, comes not from a review, but from an essay about Canada’s critical climate) because it’s so typical. The writer engages not at all with said poppy’s work, but instead their reputation. One could get the sense from these generalities and such immediate dismissal that the writer has read very little Atwood, actually, or none at all, relying instead on quipsy barbs overheard at literary dinner parties. This sort of thing is boring, lacking substance, and also alienating to readers who will read it and, no doubt, regardless of where their sensibilities lie, will then “merely impersonate themselves at a slightly higher elevation but undergo no spiritual change or evolution whatsoever.

Whacking, no. Pruning, perhaps, which in lacking bombasticism will earn the reviewer far less attention, but might begin a literary conversation that actually takes us somewhere.

One thought on “Weed whacking?”

  1. Patrick McEvoy-Halston says:

    The thesis is that we keep our authors from realizing their own potential, because we are too in need of comfort to dare consider prodding them to move on from where we're comfortable with. I don't know about Atwood, but seems a fair assessment of the way things are, and a fair conversation starter to get us to consider reaching out, or at least to be better understand why we just cannot now broach doing so (you'll get your arms lobbed off, that's why).

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