By Martin Amis
By David Solway
By Dubravka Ugresic

Now let’s try and get a couple of things straight:

Democracy means government by the people. It is a political theory. As a political theory it has a colorful history, with passionate champions and critics from Plato down to the present day.

When culture critics these days start talking about democracy there are few champions. Whitman's Democratic Vistas opened onto America in the nineteenth century. They were the product of a very particular time and place. Those vistas soon closed. In a Chaotic Age (I'm borrowing Harold Bloom's Viconian system) there is an increasing insistence on the separation between high art and low, the intellectuals and the masses. And who is it doing all the insisting? The Tastemakers. Literature may not be elitist, but literary criticism is very much a snob's game. As that Grand Old Man of the Western Canon (the aforementioned Bloom) puts it: "literary criticism, as an art, always was and always will be an elitist phenomenon."

Well, those are the ground rules. And so if you want to be a literary critic, or even a respected book reviewer, you better start learning how to play the game. Come out swinging, as Ray Robertson does in Mental Hygeine, and define yourself as "cruelly elitist." That settles it. Your opinions matter. You have standards. You stand out like a rock against the crashing waves of mediocrity, consumerism, populism, relativism, mass taste, and the leveling forces of democracy.

Now what is it that makes a canonical work canonical? What makes an elite, elite? What standards are we talking about?

Tough one! Why? Because there is no absolute scale of value in the arts. Saying anything is canonical just means it's been around for a while and has exercised a certain cultural influence. This tells us nothing about the work itself. The reception of a work of art, be it critical or popular, never does. Great art may find an audience and it may not. Sometimes the trash rises to the top, and sometimes it sinks. Reputations for genius rise and fall. There simply is no correlation possible between the nature and quality of a work of art and how it is received, by this or any other generation.

Is Shakespeare better than Superman? Better for what? What timeless, universal standards do the great works of literature (we won’t get into music or the visual arts) share? To find out, let's ask a few of the Tastemakers.

Martin Amis. Now this guy is a critic. And he isn't one of those nice guys like John Updike who take a "levelling" view of literature. You can tell from the way he scowls at you from the cover of The War Against Cliché that he means business. He pronounces literary criticism "dead and gone" right off the bat. It was, we only find out now, "inherently doomed":

Explicitly or otherwise it had based itself on a structure of echelons and hierarchies; it was about the talent elite. And the structure atomized as soon as the forces of democratization gave their next concerted push.

These evil (and "concerted"!) forces of democratization, "incomparably the most potent in our culture," have led to an "equality of sentiments." Why, people even post book reviews on the Web! It seems everyone's opinion counts. Each of us has a vote!

Those who despise "democratic" art are not railing against the art (Amis rather enjoys Michael Crichton), but against the demos, the people, the "great beast." They are the kind of people who only watch football (soccer) on television because they don't want to rub shoulders with the greasy mob, "the solid mass of swearing, sweating, retching, belching humanity" ("our football suffers from the dominance of its working-class ethos"). They watch horror films but just don't get what the fuss is all about:

As the credits rolled on Child's Play 3, I felt no urge or prompting to go out and kill somebody. And I also knew why. It's nothing to boast about, but there is too much going on in my head for Chucky to gain sway there.

But it is something to boast about - why else would you be boasting about it? New Yorker readers, the audience for this essay, are obviously too intellectually advanced to be influenced by Chucky. That’s for the trogs. They may get ideas from Chucky and get off on porn but people like Amis . . . well, they don’t get ideas from Chucky.

A real proper literary snob has to demonstrate a certain laziness and indifference toward his material. There are many ways of doing this. You can make throwaway observations that are just plain wrong or else so obscure as to be meaningless. (Examples: "Genre fiction is, very broadly,  idea fiction." Not true. Westerns, mysteries and romances are not idea fiction. What Amis means to say is that SF is idea fiction. Elsewhere the expression "avidly hungrily" is described as a tautology "because avidly already means greedily." I have no idea what he's getting at with this, but he seems to think he has scored a point.) Or you can focus on picking out little clichés in other people's writing (which is a much, much easier trick than it seems). Or you write a five-page review of The Soccer Tribe by Desmond Morris and only mention the book in the final paragraph. Or you write a review without even reading the whole book (Empson's edition of Coleridge's poems). Or you make a review out of nothing but a string of quotations (Bellow's Adventures of Augie March). Or you rely on Fowler for dishing out pedantic advice on style.

(This point may need spelling out. Amis gives the following sentence as an example of the historian David Herbert Donald's "futile dexterity" with the language: "If the president seemed to support the Radicals in New York, in Washington he appeared to back the Conservatives." The change from "seemed to support" to "appeared to back" is called the "scurviest of false graces, Elegant Variation." But is this a scurvy grace? And is that worse than no grace at all? Would Amis have enjoyed the sentence better with a simple repetition?)

I should say up front that Amis's reputation as any kind of a writer is a mystery to me. He is one of the worst English prose stylists of his generation. You simply cannot read him aloud. (Amis on Iris Murdoch: "But the prose has no basis in the rhythms of the spoken language. It is utterly utterly not English. It is non-writing, unwriting, anti-writing." You should know, Martin.) And so you may take his remark that "all artist-critics are to some extent secret proselytizers for their own work" as fair warning. I say warning because Amis's great hero, the standard-bearer for his talent elite, is Saul Bellow.

Now Saul Bellow, if you haven't tried him yet, is a really, really bad writer. And since "there is no means for distinguishing the excellent from the less excellent" in literature aside from quotation, Amis has to resort to quoting at length from The Adventures of Augie March to show how it is, indeed, the Great American Novel. He just goes on and on. And . . . well, here's a bit of Bellow's carefully selected genius with words:

I felt I had got trampled all over my body by a thing some way connected by weight with my mother and my brother George, who perhaps this very minute was working on a broom, or putting it down to shamble in to supper; or with Grandma Lausch in the Nelson home - somehow as though run over by the beast that kept them steady company and that I thought I was safely away from.

This is an awkward run-on jumble, to say the least. Just try reading that first part out loud. And why throw in the brother's name when we already know who he's talking about? And why "this very minute"? Where's Amis's cliché alarm when he needs it? This is the talent elite at work? With every paragraph Amis quotes I found myself reminded of how much trouble I have reading Bellow. I come to a long paragraph beginning "I wasn't enough of an enemy of such things but smiled at such ruining wives too for their female softnesses" and a little switch turns off. Click. You just can't pay me to read it. But Amis is in raptures:

As a critic . . . you feel no urge to interpose yourself. Your job is to work your way round to the bits you want to quote. You are a guide in a gallery where the signs say Silence Please; you are shepherding your group from spectacle to spectacle - awed, humbled, and trying, so far as possible, to keep your mouth shut.

A gallery filled with junk. The very first quotation after this gush begins like this: "Never but at such times, by necessity . . . ". Click. 

"One hardly needs to say that Bellow has an exquisite ear," our tour guide opines. Evidence? You've seen it. Or else you haven't. Amis has trouble making the case. Bellow's language, we learn, has "heavily sprung rhythms" (whatever that means), and his style "loves and embraces awkwardness [I'll  say!], spurning elegance as a false lead [no scurvy graces here!], words tumbling and rattling together in the order they choose." QED.

I began by saying that there is no absolute scale of value in the arts. Martin Amis believes there is. His ultimate proof is the work of Saul Bellow. My proof is his championing of the same. Apparently membership in the talent elite is not always a subject of agreement. I don't have any trouble with that. But then I don't despise a democracy of taste.

David Solway is another writer proud of his standards. Director's Cut is a fiery polemic on the state of Canadian poetry published by The Porcupine's Quill, a small press that seems to specialize in these kinds of books (most of them pretty good). 

I haven't read any of Solway's poetry, but I think I can now say that I've suffered through enough of his prose. What I'm sure he takes as a playful attitude toward words becomes in these pages an incredibly annoying stylistic tic. What I'm talking about is the peppering of the text with bizarre words and weird coinages like banausic, repristinate, haruspicy, anhedonic, nguhistic, emphysematous, preputial, semiolect and irumatic (these last three appear on the same page, which gives you some idea of just how heavy a seasoning it is).

If you make it through all this you can start to grapple with the argument being put forward. This isn't so much that Canadian poetry is bad (though he does say that "almost all of it" is "turgid, spurious and pedestrian stuff"), as that the culture of Canadian poetry (the whole system of reviewing, awards and grants) is rotten. The wrong poetry is being supported. We shower praise (and money) on plebs (e.g., Al Purdy) or cabbalists (e.g., Anne Carson). This has led to a cultural syndrome Solway calls the "Missing Emperor", "which is to say: it is not that the emperor has no clothes but that there is no emperor there in the first place to suffer the embarrassment of vestimentary disclosure" (yes, he always writes like this).

Solway does make a few good points. Let's face it, he has some easy targets. If you don't see the poetry in "huh  wu  wu/ nguh nguh nguh/  w_____h/ w_____h" then you'll probably get a smile out of his invective. "I am not mincing words here," is how he begins. And he doesn't (though he does make quite a few up). In a review of Brian Trehearne's The Montreal Forties he objects to the lack of "acerbic bite": "Like Baby Bear's porridge, the rhetorical temperature is remarkably even, which makes for an edible if at times slightly monotonous collation." But there is no need to fear the rhetorical temperature here.

But what, exactly, is he so angry about? He sees poetry as a higher calling, involving a lifetime of labour, a respect for the craft, an awareness of the tradition and a dedication to one's art. He has very strong feelings about what is real/true/genuine poetry and what is not. In other words, he has pretty high standards.

Standards, however, should be universal. They have to apply to everyone, in all situations. A critic with real standards can't be seen to be inconsistent. And this is where Solway really gets into trouble.

An early essay, "The Colour of Literature" takes on those "supposedly intelligent" people who oppose "voice appropriation" (that is, writers who presume to write in the voice of a suffering minority). I don't know if people still complain about this, but it was part of the whole political correctness/culture wars debate a few years back. Solway, writing in the National Post, is entirely dismissive of the idea. And I agree. It was silly.

I was then surprised to find Solway arraigning Anne Carson only a few pages later on very similar charges. Indeed he even refers to her "appropriation" of the great victim-poets Akhmatova and Celan. Carson fails in her borrowing of a "wounded style" (emphasis in the original) from Celan because she "has no comparable and validating experience." And her poetic homage to Akhmatova is brushed aside as merely "hubris": "far better to go to the poetry of Akhmatova herself, the poetry of genuine witness and suffering and the only creditable account of the experience."

Perhaps there are only certain voices that are off-limits. But that is a problem for me.

A more glaring inconsistency comes in his discussion of the "Montreal Poets." These English language poets live in a condition of "double exile": their voices are unheard in Toronto or Quebec City. But this has not been a bad thing at all:

Unlike their peers in the rest of the country whose work is publicized and aggressively circulated and who group together to safeguard the perks they enjoy and to collect ideological pogey, these Montreal writers have worked in substantial isolation not only from the various nationally syndicated poetries at large - the West Coast school. the Prairie school, the Southern Ontario school, the Torontocentric school, and so on - but from one another.

This passage is both ugly and stupid. As Solway goes on to point out, a number of these poets do "engage in mutual critique." They have even formed their own school: the Jubilate Circle. The function of the League of Canadian Poets is said by Solway to be cronyism, not collegiality. Given that Director's Cut is, in fact, dedicated to the Jubilate Circle, I'm not sure what he sees the difference as being. After all, isn't Anne Carson a Montreal poet? Why isn't she included in this essay? Doesn't she go to JC parties?

What makes Solway's rant worse is the bitterness and envy that he doesn't even try to conceal. All those lucky poets "in the rest of the country" who get publicized and circulated while the poor Montreal poets struggle in their double exile. What total nonsense. Later in the same essay mention is made of the "cuddled poets in Victoria, Calgary and Toronto." Does anyone know the name of a poet currently being cuddled in Calgary? I like to stay up on these things. Please get in touch and let me know. I can only assume Solway has someone specific in mind, but their state of cuddlement must be well below the media radar.

"No committed poet ever doubted the sad truism that there is no money in poetry and no serious poet ever put pen to paper with that in mind. Why even mention it?"

Why indeed. And yet it is precisely Anne Carson's success - in terms of fame and money - that drives Solway to distraction. Either through blind luck or "promotional cunning" she has triumphed in the literary marketplace. Is this a bad thing? It may send a bad signal (especially if you consider Carson to be a bad poet), but in the end it means nothing. One has to accept the fact I began by pointing out: that the public and critical response to a work of art has no correlation to the work itself. You simply cannot draw any kind of line between the two.

It is the literary marketplace that obsesses Dubravka Ugresic. And she brings an interesting perspective to it. A Croatian exile, she finds the move from Communism to a "market-oriented literary culture" a form of shock treatment. The essays collected in Thank You for Not Reading are attempts at finding her place in this brave new world.

In doing so she has a lot to say about the "democratization of culture." This is not an easy idea to nail down, in part because it means so many things. Democratization is populism, a leveling of the high and low, and a glut of mass production. Most of all, however, it means the triumph of globalization and the market.

I had a problem with this. The market, after all, is not a democratic structure. Democracy is all about one person having one vote. In a market money votes, and it is not held equally. This also colours what Ugresic has to say about populism and a mass audience. As Northrop Frye once pointed out, "mass culture" is a misnomer since it is not produced by the masses. It is something imposed on them. When Ugresic identifies contemporary market literature with socialist realism I think this is what she is getting at. Just as under Communism, in the capitalist system the "Planners" ("manipulators, advertising experts") are running the show. Her description of mass culture as democratic, educational and moral really describes a system of consumer-oriented ideological propaganda.

What makes Ugresic's essays so interesting (aside from all of the wonderful little observations, like how the most attractive thing about shit is its availability) is the conflict in them between the positions she describes as "cultural optimist" and "cultural pessimst." The pessimist stands for tradition and the Canon, "elitist, conservative, dogmatic," a defender of value judgments and standards. The optimist is a denigrator of elitist culture, hierarchies and class, and puts faith in the market, technology, and the consumer's choice. Ugresic wants to be an optimist, but the identification is never complete. She is too much a double victim - a woman and an exile - to be happy breaking down all the walls. And she is too much of a grumbler, a literary Eeyore, to want it any other way.

Review first published online January 19, 2004. Solway's "Jubilate Circle" is an invention, though the group of Montreal poets he describes is real. For more another review touching on some of the same points, see my take on James Wood's How Fiction Works.