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JOHN METCALF

Published in Canadian Notes and Queries, Number 88.


"Editors are like the people who bought and sold in the Book of Revelation; there is not one but has the mark of the beast upon him."
—Samuel Butler


I wrote a memoir. It was both an exhilarating and a humiliating experience - exhilarating because I was, in the process, introduced to a whole new view of prose, which changed forever how I read books. And humiliating because of my editor and writing mentor, John Metcalf. Metcalf revealed himself as a bully and a bully of the worst sort; he seemed to think that just because he has written quite a few books and edited probably hundreds more and I had nothing to show except a half dozen essays printed in obscure journals, that meant he knew more then I did about writing and somehow that gave him the right to interfere with my vision.

I also found that he would often justify his atrocious hackings and slashings of my texts by claiming his years of teaching also gave him the justification to mutilate my prose.

Even worse, he would often attempt to impose his clearly faulty editorial judgments on my work.

One particularly galling attempt occurred when he arbitrarily threw out the relation of one of the seminal events of my childhood.

When I protested, he became a bit testy. "Nobody gives a damn about you getting the strap in grade six, David. They want to read about books."

"But you don't understand, John," I replied, trying to control my rising irritation. "I was innocent. That was probably the first public injustice perpetrated on me in my life. It's true there were the two earlier spankings - one when I was also innocent - and the other time being an accident which could have happened to anyone and which should never have gotten me a spanking; it was like treating manslaughter as murder. But I dealt with it and I prevailed. This one in school stamped me; this is what made me what I am today. And you say it meant nothing?"

"Dave, I know you see it as crucial, but anyone who buys your book has a right to expect that it will be about books and bookselling - no matter how transcendental the experience was for you."
"And all those other appalling injustices since, too - and there've been lots of them. And always, I was innocent. And you say that they didn't matter? Injustices like that can scar an artist for life. I bet Tolstoy and Kafka had humiliations like that inflicted on them too. I know Joyce did."

But John won that one too and I added another of his crimes to my long list of resentments.
But the weird thing is that I can't any longer remember how he won - not only that dispute, but all the many others we had as he slowly altered my torturous prose and dredged through the morass of my endless meanderings and finally, made a book of it all.
He would just smile and agree, then gently lead me in the other direction and it would be the next day before I realized I had lost again. Time after time I would call him to protest yet another of his desecrations, this time determined to win and have what I considered an essential section re-instated, only to find after a lengthy conversation that not only was my life in the wastebasket, but it deserved to be.

"That will make a wonderful essay elsewhere, Dave," he would say. Or, "Brilliant work Dave, but it interrupts the narrative flow. I hate to cut it, but we must." "We need pace here Dave, these wonderful observations of yours - it is deeply painful for me to excise them, but we must."

"Some bridges are needed here, Dave," he would say as he threw out three-quarters of two distinct anecdotes. "A bit of work here, a couple of sentences to connect them, and it'll be perfect. A wonderful essay you'll make of those other parts - somewhere else, later."

Pace, narrative flow - I got sick of hearing about them. And then, inevitably, something that even my now deeply-damaged ego couldn't dispute -space.

Always there was an explanation - a gentle, but insidious one - and always I lost.

I happened to be discussing these matters recently with Bob Fulford and Ben McNally, both men who know something of books. I told them my new theory, the one about editors.

"It's true," I said, "that editors often can very cleverly change a word here, or reverse a phrase there, and suddenly your sentence goes from something that even you could sense was slightly awkward, or didn't quite work, into the brilliant form you intended all along but couldn't quite get. That's true and it's a wonderful help. And I realize that editors know about commas and all that stuff; they even seem to understand the semi-colon and the colon: but this is art we're talking about here, not pedantry. But what I've discovered is that a lot of their editing really comes down to their opinion versus mine. They change my sentence into the sentence they would have written if it was their book. But it's not their book, it's mine. And I'm getting to the stage where I'm sick of it and I'm going to start talking back. I'm going to start telling them that it's their opinion against mine, and all in all, I usually prefer my own opinion."
Fulford turned to McNally. Straight-faced, he said, "Already! Just like every writer." McNally seemed to think that was very funny and I started wondering whose side he was really on.

I joke, of course. Sort of ...

But there also came a point where, without having a fight, I realized from one of John's edits, that I bore a great deal more responsibility for these edits than I had thought.

In a long sequence recounting a number of thefts, both working for Jerry Sherlock and then on my own, John made several complete excisions of anecdotal accounts - a necessary act given my natural verbosity. But it was his manner of doing so which made me finally understand that I was deferring to his literary skills, but at the expense of my bookselling sensibilities. I had become so acclimatized to his literary superiority that I had become forgetful about my superiority in what I was writing about: books and bookselling.

In this case he left in an anecdote of several booksellers apprehending a thief but he edited out the second and third parts of the anecdote - about how the Toronto dealers sorted and reclaimed their stolen books at the police station, which, I think, shows several aspects of bookselling which very strongly differ from normal business; and another part dealing with the long range implication for the thief who ended up back in another part of the country. I thought these demanded inclusion for they clearly demonstrated the long-term implications of theft in the small book world. Without them, the anecdote was just another account of yet another thief. Any bookseller would instantly see these secondary anecdotes as the real point. But John didn't.

It showed me that John was editing my book from a proper literary view-point, but it also demonstrated much more strongly that my mandate demanded that I restore the original text; my responsibility was to recount the essence of the booktrade accurately, not defer to literary sensibilities, no matter how astute they were.

I restored my full anecdote, threw out the second, now-superfluous (although obviously brilliant) account of the other thief and returned it to John, expecting that we would now have our first major confrontation.

Curiously, I was not disturbed at this impending confrontation, for I now knew that my view was correct, no matter John's skills and editing experience. I was prepared to explain, discuss, and reason - but not to back down.

But none of that was necessary. John didn't protest. Indeed, he barely said a word. I quickly understood that his edits were based on what he felt as a writer and editor were best for the book. But when I disagreed he deferred to me - it was my book, my story and I saw that all along he had been operating as my guide, not my manager.

This was probably the single most important thing John taught me in the entire process. I bore the responsibility for what was to be in my book and it was I who must be the judge of what was to be the finished form.

Another time, later, when he removed an anecdote which I loved -which illustrated the extent time can, and does, exacerbate some of the eccentricities one sees in bookselling - I simply re-inserted it. There was no comment from John. I had a guide and a teacher, but we both now knew that that's all he was, and that was all he had ever wanted to be. It was then that I realized that John cared about my book as much as he would have if it was his own. I was so moved by this realization that it took me a couple of days to absorb the significance of it. He actually wanted my book to be the best book it could be - he actually cared deeply about it - and it was my book, not his.

The more I thought about this, the more strongly it affected me. Why should he care that much about my book? Once past the superficial pleasure any craftsman feels when he contemplates an example of his craft and after he has helped make it better, surely self-interest and self-regard should reinstate itself.

And when I thought about it more it became even more confusing - there was no ordinary logic to it at all. Because no one but he and I was ever going to know his part in it.

Here was a guy putting eight or ten hours a day, Grafting, using his fifty-some years of experience and study of prose and literature to create a work of art - which was then going to belong to someone else. And no one but me would truly know the extent of • his contribution.
I realized then what was the only conceivable motive for all of this, everything he was putting into my book: he cared about literature more than he cared about his own ego.

And then, one day, we had a recognizable book, and in the end I was forced to forgive John his transgressions. In fact, I had to concede that they were necessary. I now understand why even great writers need an editor.

I have known John Metcalf for many years and I have read much of his work and I have long admired the cutting bite of his satire, especially in his essays, where he so effectively skewers so many of the provincial pretensions of so many Canadian literary reputations.
This has cost him dearly, of course. He has the reputation of being a cranky curmudgeon from whom no book or reputation is safe. But when one carefully reads his arguments it becomes apparent that his interest is not in attacking writers for fun; he believes that there are certain standards which literature demands. And he is demanding them of others as he demands them of himself.

John Metcalf is not just an ornery perfectionist, he is a nineteenth century version of that type - indeed, he may be one of the few survivors of that near-extinct species. I have appraised his papers several times: there are few emails in Metcalfs papers and literally none from him. It is always old-fashioned letters, mostly written in his neat, near-gothic hand which many, many Canadian writers would recognize instantly, as I do. He claims that Myrna won't allow his many friends and correspondents to clog up her computer with their emails. But I suspect that it is John's old-fashioned sense of the fitness of reasoned discourse - by hand and by post - that is the real reason one must actually still write him letters -and mail them at the post office. Curiously, I came to love John's methods - I eventually decided I was actually back in the nineteenth century, which is where I probably belong anyway.

So I would mail him huge swatches of computer-generated text, which would return to me with enormous sections completely disappeared, the only indication of excisions the gaps in page numbers. Or cut-ups and paste-ups -and, of course, sections simply dismissed with heavy lines through them.

And all the marginal notes were in John's impeccable, distinctive hand, which once experienced is always recognized and never forgotten, as any of the many writers he has edited will well know. And these edits were always accompanied by a lengthy handwritten letter explaining his motives and suggestions and the reasons for them.

It was an old-fashioned experience with an old-fashioned man of letters. The waits between mailings and returns was initially frustrating, but in the end I came to welcome all that time, for I came to see that during it all I was absorbing necessary things - skills, a sense of timing and a greater understanding of how writers decide how to put thought into a permanent form.

In the end, working with Metcalf was similar to taking a course, or even a degree, with the likes of McLuhan or Frye. I have not only acquired a very different view of style and form, and what literature really is, but I also have a very different view of myself and the world and my place in it. And it's not done yet.

I began to realize what I had really always admired in Metcalf all these years. He operates just like me. He cares about literature, his craft, the way I care about books and the way all people who have a real vocation of any sort do care. People who want to create something as close to perfect as they can make it do still exist. People who want to make the world better, people who have a vision of how things could be and won't give it up, not for money, or fame, or even recognition

- people who really believe we can be better than we are - and insist on trying

- in spite of indifference and ignorant dismissals and sheer stupidity.

I've known a fair number of such people, and seen them derided and dismissed as fools and crackpots. Now, apparent failures by any of the superficial measures of today's society, I see them continue to struggle, to refuse the offered compromises.

It all keeps coming back to that cliché my conservative banker father so often repeated to me in the fifties, "Try to find some work you can love and do it as best you can." Words that have haunted me now for fifty years -haunted me because I never got the chance to tell him he was right. The only philosophical advice my father ever gave me - but what advice. And I never got to thank him for it.

He would have approved of John Metcalf, my father would have. He would have held John Metcalf up as an example, an Exemplar. And I do too.



-David Mason

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