John Metcalf Essay - Critical Essays

Metcalf, John


John Metcalf 1938–-

English-born Canadian short story writer, editor, novelist, essayist, and critic.

Metcalf is known in Canada for his elegant short fiction and his caustic satires of Canadian academic life. Critics frequently compare his compressed, concise prose style to poetry, and Metcalf himself believes “that stories should be approached not as things to be understood but rather as things to be lived through and experienced.” Through his work as editor of the Best Canadian Stories series and as a compiler of several other short story anthologies, he has gained respect for his promotion of the contemporary Canadian short story.

Biographical Information

Metcalf was born on November 12, 1938,in Carlisle, England. In 1960 he graduated from the University of Bristol. Two years later he moved to Canada. After entering a CBC short story contest, eight of Metcalf's stories were published by the periodical Prism International. He has taught English and creative writing at several institutions—high schools, colleges, and universities—in Canada. With his colleagues Clark Blaise and Hugh Hood, Metcalf founded the Montreal Storytellers, a performance group of writers. He has also edited several anthologies focusing on Canadian writers. He now lives in Ottawa.

Major Works of Short Fiction

In the stories collected in his first book, The Lady Who Sold Furniture, Metcalf contrasts perceptions of childhood innocence with the resentments of adulthood. His second volume of short fiction, The Teeth of My Father, explores adolescent consciousness and introduces new concerns to his fiction, notably the conflict between the artist and society and between the artist's public and private lives. Girl in Gingham, in addition to the title novella, contains the novella Private Parts. Both of these works also focus on the relationship between art and life. Metcalf's most sardonic fiction is based on his personal experiences as an educator in Canada. These works usually have as protagonists British teachers or professors of literature transplanted from London to Canada. These characters, like Metcalf himself, are often dissatisfied with the poor quality of education and literary criticism in their adopted country. His comic novella Going Down Slow, an attack on Montreal's education system, depicts an idealistic teacher who is castigated for his rebellious but concerned attitude, while his colleague is rewarded for his conformity and opportunism.

Critical Reception

Metcalf's short fiction is often considered his most successful work. In fact, critics judge him to be one of the best comic writers to come out of Canada. Commentary often focuses on stylistic aspects of his fiction, particularly his narrative technique, lyrical prose style, and his deft use of biting satire and humor. Autobiographical aspects of his work are also rich areas for study, as reviewers note a parallel between Metcalf's protagonists and his own life. Moreover, his sharp attacks on the Canadian literary establishment have inspired much critical reaction. For this insight and craftsmanship, Metcalf has been considered a strong influence on a generation of Canadian writers and academics.

Principal Works

The Lady Who Sold Furniture 1970

Going Down Slow (novella) 1972

The Teeth of My Father 1975

Girl in Gingham 1978

Selected Stories 1982

Adult Entertainment 1986

General Ludd (novel) 1980

Kicking Against the Pricks (essays) 1982

Freedom from Culture: Selected Essays, 1982–92 (essays) 1994


Kenneth Gibson (review date 1970)

SOURCE: A review of The Lady Who Sold Furniture, in Canadian Forum, Vol. 50, November, 1970, p. 311.

[In the following essay, Gibson provides a favorable review of The Lady Who Sold Furniture.]

A perfectly insane and abject terror … raying … influences fatal to life.

Thus, like his father and brother, Henry James speaks of a horrible, toad-like daemon who represents the cold emptiness behind things, possessions, action and, as the two writers under discussion so brilliantly show, words. One might be careless enough to name the experience “existential,” did we know that such terrors are named (“symptom,” “syndrome,”) only that we may deal with them more comfortably: and with another set of empty words.

To deal with the matter requires a style usually called “clinical.” In Metcalf's and Bailey's books the epithet is exact: both deal with the strangeness, the otherness, of life. Even when the antagonist-hero of Trespasses mocks himself as an “Alienated Man,” he is unconvincing in his rejection. For it is Bailey's stratagem to present Ralph Hick's dilemma as a series, first of labelled incidents, like file-cards; then as monologues from correlative characters who know of, or have watched Hicks' disintegration following his wife's suicide; and finally as a capitulative narration connecting the labels and asserting his gradual claim to the title of a man and not a psychic jigsaw. Hicks' fear of life is aimed at his wife Ellie, she of the “cow's eyes.” It's as if he has heaped on her all his memories—she becomes them—of his past: his clever successes as “Mummy's Ralphie”; his Prize Boy mask; and always, always, his hideous view of sexuality as aligned with madness (like his cousin, Harry: “I have a dog inside me. He's quiet all day. He howls at night.”) and with death, of the heart, of the flesh. His influence is so fatal to life that Ellie can only “hack, hack, hack,” with a razorblade in the bathroom of a rented flat: “Ralph. I would rather be dead than live with your contempt.”

Bailey's techniques may not be radical, but, quite simply, his novel is magnificent. The two unformed and unfocussed people in the centre are hemmed about...

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Anthony Brennan (review date 1975)

SOURCE: A review of Teeth of My Father, in Fiddlehead, Vol. 105, Spring, 1975, pp. 123–26.

[In the following review of Teeth of My Father, Brennan praises Metcalf's satirical and bitter tone.]

One is not surprised to learn that a couple of John Metcalf's avowedly autobiographical characters were eager collectors of butterflies in their past. The patience to wait, to stalk and then to pounce, the ability to skewer the victim and devote careful attention to his variegated hues are all key elements of Metcalf's story telling style. There are not many writers in Canada who have real venom. There is Richler, of course, but few others who can, like Metcalf,...

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John Metcalf with Barry Cameron (interview date 1975)

SOURCE: “The Practice of the Craft: A Conversation with John Metcalf,” in Queen's Quarterly, Vol. 82, No. 3, Autumn, 1975, pp. 402–24.

[In the following interview, Metcalf discusses the short story genre, his literary criticism, and the influences on his work.]

Born in 1938 in England, John Metcalf came to Canada a year after he graduated from Bristol University. He is the editor of several anthologies of short stories, and his own short stories have appeared in a wide range of anthologies and literary magazines. He is also the author of three books: a collection of short fiction, The Lady Who Sold Furniture (1970), the title piece of which is a highly...

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Barry Cameron (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: “An Approximation of Poetry: The Short Stories of John Metcalf,” in Studies in Canadian Literature, Vol. 2, No. 3, Winter, 1977, pp. 17–35.

[In the following essay, Cameron examines Metcalf's conception of the short story genre as evinced in his short fiction collection The Teeth of My Father.]

Many readers in Canada—but particularly critics and reviewers, it seems—tend to believe that as a literary form the novel is intrinsically superior to the short story. But, even in terms of aesthetic values—let alone in terms of moral and social values—such comparative judgments seem to me to be completely unwarranted. Can one really argue logically that a...

(The entire section is 9321 words.)

Barry Cameron (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: “Invention in Girl in Gingham,” in Fiddlehead, Vol. 114, Summer, 1977, pp. 120–29.

[In the following essay, Cameron analyzes stylistic aspects of Girl in Gingham, maintaining that “it demands that the reader become a co-creator through acts of inference and imagination.”]

My concern here is to offer some directions for the way in which I think Girl in Gingham should be read. For me, as both critic and ordinary reader, as for Metcalf, the least interesting aspect of a story is its meaning, which, if a story has been fully experienced as story, will take care of itself. Like Metcalf, I believe that stories should be approached...

(The entire section is 22426 words.)

Keith Garebian (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: “The Deflationary Structure in Metcalf's Novellas,” in Malahat Review, Vol. 70, March, 1985, pp. 118–30.

[In the following essay, Garebian addresses Metcalf's recurring tendency to end his stories and novellas with defeat or wry resignation.]

The dominant structure in John Metcalf's witty novellas is a deflationary winding-down which suggests the whole complex of Metcalf's bruised sensibility. This structure is not by any means restricted to the shorter fiction. Metcalf's satiric novels, which often become incantations of anxiety, move downwards to defeat or wry resignation. Going Down Slow (1972), an apprentice work about the illicit and...

(The entire section is 5219 words.)

Constance Rook (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: “Pastoral Restraint: An Essay on John Metcalf's The Lady Who Sold Furniture,” in Malahat Review, Vol. 70, March, 1985, pp. 131–45.

[In the following essay, Rook offers a close reading of The Lady Who Sold Furniture, focusing on pastoral elements of the novella.]

One of the most delicious features of The Lady Who Sold Furniture is its title. Nothing illicit or odd is conveyed by the title itself, and no practitioner of that trade is introduced, and so the reader conveniently forgets the title. Metcalf bides his time. He gets on with the creation of a world in which Jeanne, the fascinating housekeeper, is our focal point; and he makes...

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Simone Vauthier (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: “Rambling through John Metcalf's ‘The Estuary,’” in Malahat Review, Vol. 70, March, 1985, pp. 98–117.

[In the following essay, Vauthier underscores the role of storytelling in Metcalf's “The Estuary.”]

Written to appeal to the prospective buyer and make things easier for the reader, the blurb on a book jacket often provides us with a convenient handle for getting at the meaning of the text, thereby tending to encourage us in outdated or lazy ways of approaching it. Thus, when we read John Metcalf's story “The Estuary” in the New Canadian Library edition of the Selected Stories, we are given a neat capsule of the story, in the guise of a...

(The entire section is 8344 words.)

Barry Cameron (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: “Novellas,” in John Metcalf, Twayne Publishers, 1986, pp. 71–101.

[In the following essay, Cameron offers a thematic and stylistic overview of Metcalf's novellas.]

Genre may be thought of as a set of norms, a set of expectations that structure our reading of texts, allowing us to organize our experience and understanding of the text according to conventional patterns and to recognize variations in the use of conventions. But for Metcalf, the novella is not really a form of discourse or genre radically distinct from the short story, for the impulse of both is poetic. The imagistic, metonymic patterns, the texture, and the plot are not inherently more...

(The entire section is 10866 words.)

Janet Giltrow (review date 1987)

SOURCE: “Life Expectancies,” in West Coast Review, Vol. 22, No. 1, Summer, 1987, pp. 55–69.

[In the following review, Giltrow praises Metcalf's skilled use of detail in the stories comprising Adult Entertainment.]

To life's phases we all are conscripts, briskly recruited by time and change. Looking back, we scarcely recognize our earlier youthful selves, can barely account for our abandoned views. Looking ahead, we imagine that somehow we will be exempt from the next metamorphosis in outlook and identity, and then we make a fuss when it inevitably arrives.

Those arrivals can be the moment of great stories, mapping the move from one stage to the...

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Reingard M. Nischick (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: “Contrastive Structures in John Metcalf's Artist Stories,” in Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 29, No. 3, Spring, 1988, pp. 163–78.

[In the following essay, Nischick analyzes the relationship between the artist and society in several of Metcalf's short stories, and discusses the role of contrast in his work.]

With the possible exception of Robert Weaver, no one but John Metcalf has devoted as much time, encouragement and criticism to the Canadian short story in the last fifteen years or so. No one else has edited as many anthologies of short fiction in Canada (altogether some twenty text and trade books), making the Canadian short story...

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Merle Rubin (review date 1990)

SOURCE: “Tiles in the Canadian Mosaic,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, January 14, 1990, p. 2.

[In the following essay, Rubin offers a positive review of Adult Entertainment.]

“The fictions of John Metcalf and John Mills, though often set in the Canadian academic world [that] these authors know well and satirize with anarchic humor, are informed by memories of growing up in England, which remains a final frame of reference for their work,” notes Prof. David Stouck in his guide, Major Canadian Authors (2nd edition). “These writers, however,” he generously allows, “all make a significant contribution to the mosaic of Canadian literature.”...

(The entire section is 736 words.)

Peter Klovan (review date 1992)

SOURCE: “Caricatures & Characters,” in Canadian Literature, Spring, 1992, pp. 198–200.

[In the following excerpt, Klovan provides a negative assessment of Adult Entertainment.]

The cover blurb for Adult Entertainment explains that this collection of two novellas and three short stories “will introduce readers in the United States to the work of one of Canada's finest writers,” and the comments which follow declare that this work is “hilarious,” “ribald,” and “howlingly funny.” Metcalf's work is “funny,” but in a bleak and cruel kind of way, for the humour here seems to have been stimulated by an intense and bitter...

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Further Reading


Cameron, Barry. John Metcalf. Twayne Publishers, 1986, 141 p.

Critical study of Metcalf's work.

Additional coverage of Metcalf's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vol. 113; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vol. 37; Contemporary Novelists; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 60.

(The entire section is 46 words.)