John Metcalf Critical Essays


(Short Story Criticism)

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.