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John (Wesley) Metcalf Biography

Nationality: Canadian. Born: Carlisle, Cumberland, England, 1938. Education: Bristol University, 1957-61, B.A. (honors) in English 1960, Cert. Ed. 1961. Career: Taught at a secondary school and a boys' borstal, Bristol, 1961; Rosemount High School, Montreal, 1962-63; Royal Canadian Air Force Base, Cold Lake, Alberta, 1964-65; at a Catholic comprehensive school in England, 1965; and at schools and universities in Montreal, part-time, 1966-71. Writer-in-residence, University of New Brunswick, Fredericton, 1972-73, Loyola College, Montreal, 1976, University of Ottawa, 1977, Concordia University, Montreal, 1980-81, and University of Bologna, Italy, 1985. Awards: Canada Council award, 1968, 1969, 1971, 1974, 1976, 1978, 1980, 1983, 1986; University of Western Ontario President's medal, for short story, 1969. Agent: Denise Bukowski, The Bukowski Agency, 125B Dupont St., Toronto, Ontario M5R 1V4.



Going Down Slow. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1972.

Girl in Gingham. Ottawa, Oberon Press, 1978; as Private Parts: A Memoir, Scarborough, Ontario, Macmillan-New American Library of Canada, 1980.

General Ludd. Downsview, Ontario, ECW Press, 1980.

Kayhut: A Warrior's Odyssey. Minneapolis, Minnesota, Four Directions, 1998.

Short Stories

New Canadian Writing 1969, with C.J. Newman and D.O. Spettigue. Toronto, Clarke Irwin, 1969.

The Lady Who Sold Furniture. Toronto, Clarke Irwin, 1970.

The Teeth of My Father. Ottawa, Oberon Press, 1975.

Dreams Surround Us: Fiction and Poetry, with John Newlove. Delta, Ontario, Bastard Press, 1977.

Selected Stories. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1982.

Adult Entertainment. Toronto, Macmillan, 1986; New York, St. Martin's Press, 1989.

Shooting the Stars (novellas). Erin, Ontario, Porcupine's Quill, 1993.


Kicking Against the Pricks (essays). Downsview, Ontario, ECW Press, 1982.

Freedom from Culture. Vancouver, Tanks, 1987; revised edition published as Freedom from Culture: Selected Essays 1982-1992. Toronto, ECW Press, 1994.

What Is Canadian Literature? Guelph, Ontario, Red Kite Press, 1988.

Acts of Kindness and of Love. Oakville, Ontario, Presswerk Editions, 1995.

An Aesthetic Underground. Guelph, Ontario, Red Kite Press, 1999.

Editor, with others, Wordcraft 1-5 (textbooks). Toronto, Dent, 5 vols., 1967-77.

Editor, Razor's Edge, by Somerset Maugham. Richmond Hill, Ontario, Irwin, 1967.

Editor, The Flight of the Phoenix, by Elleston Trevor. Scarborough, Ontario, Bellhaven House, 1968.

Editor, Daughter of Time, by Josephine Tey. Richmond Hill, Ontario, Irwin, 1968.

Editor, with Gordon Callaghan, Rhyme and Reason. Toronto, Ryerson Press, 1969.

Editor, with Gordon Callaghan, Salutation. Toronto, Ryerson Press, 1970.

Editor, Sixteen by Twelve: Short Stories by Canadian Writers. Tor-onto, Ryerson Press, and New York, McGraw Hill, 1970.

Editor, The Narrative Voice: Short Stories and Reflections by Canadian Authors. Toronto, McGraw Hill Ryerson, 1972.

Editor, Kaleidoscope: Canadian Stories. Toronto, Van Nostrand, 1972.

Editor, The Speaking Earth: Canadian Poetry. Toronto, Van Nostrand, 1973.

Editor, with Joan Harcourt, 76 [77]: Best Canadian Stories. Ottawa, Oberon Press, 2 vols., 1976-77.

Editor, with Clark Blaise, Here and Now. Ottawa, Oberon Press, 1977.

Editor, with Clark Blaise, 78 [79, 80]: Best Canadian Stories. Ottawa, Oberon Press, 3 vols., 1978-80.

Editor, Stories Plus: Canadian Stories with Authors' Commentaries. Toronto, McGraw Hill Ryerson, 1979.

Editor, New Worlds: A Canadian Collection of Stories. Toronto, McGraw Hill Ryerson, 1980.

Editor, First [Second, Third] Impressions. Ottawa, Oberon Press, 3 vols., 1980-82.

Editor, with Leon Rooke, 81 [82]: Best Canadian Stories. Ottawa, Oberon Press, 2 vols., 1981-82.

Editor, Making It New: Contemporary Canadian Stories. Toronto, Methuen, 1982.

Editor, with Leon Rooke, The New Press Anthology 1-2: Best Canadian Short Fiction. Toronto, General, 2 vols., 1984-85.

Editor, The Bumper Book. Toronto, ECW Press, 1986.

Editor, with Leon Rooke, The Macmillan Anthology 1-2. Toronto, Macmillan, 2 vols., 1988-89.

Editor, Carry On Bumping. Toronto, ECW Press, 1988.

Editor, Writers in Aspic. Montreal, Véhicule Press, 1988.

Editor, with Kent Thompson, The Macmillan Anthology 3. Toronto, Macmillan, 1990.

Editor, with Sam Solecki and W.J. Keith, Volleys (critical essays). Erin, Ontario, Porcupine's Quill, 1990.

Editor, The New Story Writers. Kingston, Ontario, Quarry Press, 1992.

Editor, with J.R. Struthers, Canadian Classics. Toronto, Ryerson, 1993.

Editor, with J.R. Struthers, How Stories Mean. Erin, Ontario, Porcupine's Quill, 1993.


Manuscript Collections:

Special Collections, University of Calgary, Alberta; University of Maine, Orono.

Critical Studies:

On the Line by Robert Lecker, Downsview, Ontario, ECW Press, 1982; article by Douglas Rollins, in Canadian Writers and Their Works 7 edited by Lecker, Jack David, and Ellen Quigley, ECW Press, 1985; "John Metcalf Issue" of Malahat Review 70 (Victoria, British Columbia); John Metcalf by Barry Cameron, Boston, Twayne, 1986; two essays in Feat of the Open Heart by Constance Rooke, Toronto, Coach House, 1989.

* * *

When one realizes why so little commentary has been devoted to John Metcalf's fiction, one also understands the unique quality of his work: his prose is so chaste, so uncompromisingly direct, that exegesis often seems to be redundant. But to be seduced by this directness is to ignore the extraordinary narrative compression which multiplies the weight of Metcalf's words, and thus to miss the ideas he develops through his concentration on things. As a mature writer, Metcalf advises the novice to "avoid literary criticism which moves away from the word on the printed page" and to "stick to the study of the placement of commas." Only through this study, and by knowing "the weight, color, and texture of things" will the writer create "the distillation of experience" that makes fiction valid.

The terminology here suggests that Metcalf is a traditionalist, and he is. He believes that a plot should be interesting, mysterious, and constructed in such a way that it will endure. He is concerned with the morality of his characters and their culture. His stories are generally realistic in their emphasis on the details of time and place. Above all, he is preoccupied with a traditional theme: the relationship between art and human experience. Consequently his stories explore the nature of the aesthetic process and the ingredients from which his own art is composed.

The Lady Who Sold Furniture contains several stories in which the nature of art and the nature of learning about art are explored through a central character who is sensitive, intelligent, and in the process of learning about himself as he learns about his world. In the title novella, Peter's encounter with Jeanne forces him to examine his own values and his responsibility as a teacher. "The Tide Line" presents a younger protagonist, but one who must also define his future—here explicitly connected with art—against the influence of his parents and the various forms of tradition their presence implies. "Keys and Watercress," one of Metcalf's most anthologized stories (along with "Early Morning Rabbits" from the same collection), again focuses on the initiation of a young boy into a world of symbols, and, by extension, into a new world that can be transformed through imagination. If the stories seem self-conscious it is because they are actually self-critical. Here, as in his later fiction, Metcalf uses the story to explore the value of storytelling itself.

This self-critical stance is certainly revealed in his first novel, Going Down Slow, through the character of David Appelby, a teacher who is obviously involved with the conflict between his ideals—both aesthetic and political—and those held by a provincial social order that would stifle all forms of personal expression, be they social, sexual, or cerebral. The novel's episodic form suggests that it is the first long work of a writer who really feels most at home in the short story mode. Nevertheless, it provides a strong sense of Metcalf's finicky attention to detail, and to the linguistic precision that is the hallmark of all his writing.

The Teeth of My Father, a second short story collection, revealed a much more mature writer than the earlier works. Metcalf's language is tighter than before; his attention to structure is more sophisticated and complex; and the stories are increasingly autobiographical and overtly concerned with the implications of storytelling. Five of the stories focus explicitly on art and artists, often in allegorical terms. Metcalf is most successful in "Gentle As Flowers Make the Stones," a bitter, complex, and ultimately poignant record of one day in the life of the poet Jim Haine; in "The Years in Exile," a moving record of a senescent, displaced writer's thoughts; and in the title story, in which the antiphonal structure suggests an implicit exchange between writer and critic, significant because it allows Metcalf to assume the role of self-commentator, the role his fiction seems to seek from its inception.

In Girl in Gingham his commentary is expressed through Peter Thornton, whom we meet after the divorce that isolates him, shakes his sense of identity, and forces him to attempt some form of personal recovery by finding a new, ideal woman. The juxtaposition of Peter's educated sensibility with the tastelessness and frequently grotesque lifestyles of successive CompuMate dates invests the novella with a sustained level of comedy that tends to mask Peter's tragic desperation. Peter's encounters with the CompuMate women provide a fertile ground for Metcalf to satirize the debased values of contemporary society. But Peter's failure in those encounters, and Anna's fate, are connected with a death of taste that Metcalf increasingly mourns. As the story develops it becomes clear that for Peter the pursuit of true art is inseparable from the pursuit of true love. Because the search for an ideal girl in gingham is part of Peter's quest for aesthetic fulfillment, he becomes more and more preoccupied with art as his relationship with Anna takes form.

This preoccupation is even more obvious in Private Parts, Metcalf's third published novella. Here the narrator is all-too-conscious of the aesthetic implications arising from the autobiographical fragments he presents. "Life," as T.D. Moore sees it, is "mainly lies." In short, life in Private Parts is private art. It comes as no surprise to discover that Moore is himself a writer dedicated to mythologizing those autobiographical fragments which constitute the private parts of memory. In him we find the qualities and frustrations that define all of Metcalf's highly articulate first-person narrators: an ability to fashion life through meaning; a rejection of contemporary taste and the threat it poses to genuine creativity; an involvement in others' art; and a consciousness of being involved in the narrative structure of his tale.

Metcalf's second novel makes his criticism of contemporary society hard to ignore. General Ludd takes its name from the nineteenth-century Luddite movement's radical opposition to so-called "progress" through technology and mechanization. Metcalf's Jim Wells is a contemporary Luddite, and a poet, who takes exception to the debased forms of communication—be they audiovisual, sartorial, or verbal—that seem ever-present in his world. No summary of this kind can do justice to the range of Metcalf's ferocious satire, his exposition of a host of characters through powerful vignettes, or the continual purity of his language. Similarly, the title Adult Entertainment hardly describes the lives one meets in the book's two novellas and three short stories. These are images of failure, men who would love to experience the fulfillment of lust, but who are instead surrounded by frustration. The collection serves to further confirm not only Metcalf's dedication to his craft, but also his reputation as one of Canada's most accomplished fiction writers.

Robert Lecker

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