Canadian Writers and Their Works; Fiction Series, Volume Six
Contains Bibliography, Index
Terry Goldie is an associate professor of English at York University and
author of Fear and Temptation.
It is easy to be nit-picky about reference works such as Canadian Writers and Their Works. There tend to be errors and problems because of the very scope of the task. It is far too much to seek another Leon Edel at work here. The task for a reviewer is rather to check to see whether the editors have wound up employing Mortimer Snerd.
So full points to ECW Press. All of the contributors in this, volume six of the fiction series, are at least competent, and most are more than that. The most likely users of the volume, undergraduate university students, will find the information they need, particularly on authors such as Hugh Garner and Adele Wiseman, who have not generally been given much critical attention.
There might be a few more questions, however, with the essays on figures such as Robertson Davies and Mordecai Richler, who have oft been “tackled” before. Paul Stuewe’s “Hugh Garner” and Michael Greenstein’s “Adele Wiseman” are careful commentaries on figures whom the critics clearly esteem, but John Mills’s “Robertson Davies” seems rather begrudging. In particular, he is not very kindly disposed to the Deptford trilogy, which most feel is Davies’ best work. I suppose such idiosyncrasy is all right, but not necessarily in a work that seems to aspire to the category of standard reference.
Kerry McSweeney on Mordecai Richler comes a bit closer to fitting the role of dispassionate yet interested summer-up. Stylistically he is a bit strange, in his devotion to the old art of the first person plural (“When Andre thinks...we know...”). More important is his display of the book’s one apparent flirtation with literary theory. McSweeney makes great claims for Richler’s “deconstructive energy” but he seems to mean “destructive.” There is no sense in Richler or McSweeney of the careful unbuilding that is so much a part of deconstruction as critical practice. And yet even this un-theoretical bit of theory is exceptional. Perhaps a bit more flair, a bit more of the unusual insight, should have been sought by the editors for more well-known figures such as Richler and Davies, even if this had necessitated breaking down the standard CWTW form of “biography,” “tradition and milieu,” etc.
The one essay left to note, Beverley Mitchell’s view of Ethel Wilson, is generally adequate but at times irritating and, in a negative way, exemplary. Mitchell wanders through some comments on the “Canadian literary tradition” that are superficial to the point of being juvenile. They recall the Twayne World Authors series at its worst — which CWTW seldom does. Like Twayne, CWTW succumbs to paraphrase and description rather than developed criticism, but unlike Twayne it is elucidatory paraphrase and accurate description, with a wealth of background material seldom to be found, even in books that provide better analysis. As a volume, CWTW Fiction 6 is competent and useful. As a series CWTW is amazing — and essential.