For the Record

By John Harris | January 15, 2004


Unlike my hero, Sam Johnson, I write for attention. Have done so since I was a kid. No good at sports. The art and piano lessons that my loving and dutiful parents provided went nowhere. Too timid for hell-raising, too mouthy for sainthood. While I was competent in school, I did not shine. However, teachers and others complimented me on my writing. My course was clear.

Until recently, it has remained clear. But now I’ve discovered that I’m not getting all the attention I should from my writing. Someone else is getting some of it. And some of the attention I am getting is the wrong kind of attention.

It seems that some readers of have decided that “John Harris” is one of Brian Fawcett’s pseudonyms. There’s no doubt that “John Harris” is a suspiciously common and blase name. It is one that a person in Fawcett’s situation – engaged, as the fiery editor of dooneys, with the windmills of globalism — might want to use. However, while I’m flattered that my writing is good enough to be taken as his, my whole idea has always been to get attention for myself.

It also seems that other readers think that I, in my book reviews, whether I’m Fawcett or not, go beyond textual analysis into stalking. Evidently my reviews are so perceptive that they give people the impression that I must going through garbage cans, hiding behind shower curtains, taping phone calls and conversations.

This too is flattering, but what if some writers, frightened by my intimacy with their innermost desires, decide to phone the police.

Before I end up on a low stool under a hot light facing some obtuse RCMP interrogator, I want to get my story out, set the record straight about who I am and why, about how I got into book reviewing, and about what I think book reviewing is. I may of course incriminate myself, especially in connection with book reviewing, but at least the details I give will make me traceable and show that I arrived at dooneys by a paper trail entirely separate from Fawcett’s.

As a kid, in Vancouver (where I am only slightly better known than I am in Toronto), I tried to get attention by writing what I and everyone around me paid attention to: newspapers and poetry of the sort perfected by Robert Service. I read and wanted to write comic books too, but couldn’t do cartoons. For my newspapers I wrote (in columns) the news, analysis, armchair commentary, advertising, poetry – everything. My parents were, I believe, my only readers; I delivered the paper to their bedroom door on Sunday morning and waited over my cereal for their response.

I found ways to make my publishing more authentic. A friend, George West, had a gigantic stamp set, varnished oak stamps with the letters embossed on the tops. They were beautiful, and ideal for setting headlines. George’s father had a typewriter acquired (along with a pistol) during the Italian campaign in WW II. My mother, who’d worked through the Depression as a secretary at BC Sugar and Dominion Bridge, did not have a typewriter – had seen, perhaps, enough of them. But she taught me touch-typing on the Italian typewriter.

Magazine/newspaper writing and publishing led me, by a circuitous route, to book reviewing. For years I never thought of writing anything, except poetry, other than as fill for magazines. But I never noticed, until much later, that many magazines and newspapers have book reviews, possibly because the concept of writing about writing was too obscure for me, or because I didn’t read any of the contemporary books that would be featured in reviews.

What I slid into first was parody. I learned that it was easy to exaggerate the material I was imitating, including the poetry, and so get a laugh. Thus I acquired other heroes to place beside Service. These were Spike Jones and Stan Freeberg in music and, in my own discipline of writing, Eric Nicol and Stephen Leacock. Nicol was second only to Service for most of my childhood and youth, because he wrote for the Vancouver Province, to which my parents subscribed and which I delivered. For years I never missed a column, often reading them first thing in the morning in the paper shack before I started my route. One time, my parents pointed him out to me in Oakridge Shopping Mall. He was looking at hats. He wore a trench coat. I stood (as they say) transfixed.

In grade 6, with George and a new friend Peter Miller, I put out a neighborhood newsletter, the run limited by the number of readable carbon copies we could produce on the Italian typewriter. I typed while George and Pete thought up text or played with the pistol, “shooting” the perpetrator of any particularly bad joke.

For this newspaper we invented gossip about neighborhood kids, announcements of the meetings of phony school clubs (the Procrastinator’s Club may or may not meet either at . . . the Insinuator’s Club will meet on Wednesday if we can find a decent room, etc), parodies of “top ten” music listings (
#4 “Let It be Me” by Adlai Stevenson)
, and doggerel, my own specialty and something in which I still indulge myself.

We had no cartoonist.

The newsletter, the name of which I can’t remember, ended when George’s dad decided that we were wrecking his typewriter. That at least was what he told us. It may really be that we were getting too close to finding the shells for the pistol. Or we ate too much of George’s mother’s chocolate cake, an item over which even a grown man’s jealousy might well be aroused.

In grade 12, Pete and I, along with a half dozen friends, produced The Underdog. It was a literary supplement to the school newspaper, so we didn’t have to do real news, commentary or advertisements. The doggerel, parodies, phony announcements of meetings etc. continued, and we added to the arsenal lists of new library holdings (Love Litters in the Sand: The Sex Life of the Micronesian Turtle, A Farewell to Arms: The History of Thalidomide, and – a real winner with our faculty advisor (and English Teacher) Mr. Vogler — Yeast of Eden: Minor Vaginal Infections, their Identification and Treatment).

We acquired fans. Some of these were girls, whose attention, in particular, we had come to desire.

We learned too that we could generate copy by parodying ourselves, one page of the magazine feeding off the other. Pete produced a serialized mystery starring a certain John Harris, alias “The Crow.” I countered with “Le Mort de Miller,” about jousting bikers (Pete rode a BSA Bantam). Regularly we killed one another off, produced the obituaries, then reappeared with new pseudonyms. We printed phony advertisements, charts and graphs (easy to draw) comparing the sales of Underdog to the growth of the national debt and the fall of the dollar, and advice on how to read Underdog:
1. Purchase copy of Underdog.
2. Sit on sofa with cute girlfriend.
3. Turn Hi Fi to dreamy music.
4. Dim lights.
5. Throw away Underdog, you fool!

We also discovered in our midst a cartoonist, Don Bennett. He made the Underdog. I’d recommend him to any magazine publisher, if I knew where he was. Presumably, with a wad of Underdogs in his portfolio, he headed stateside after graduation, broke into the underground comics industry, and is working under a pseudonym.

After grade 12, an ugly problem arose. Attention was supposed to lead to fame, fame to money. This had not happened in time for us to avoid getting jobs.

So Pete, fancying himself a journalist, went down to the Vancouver Sun and got a job fetching coffee (and stronger stuff) for the likes of Evelyn Caldwell (“Penny Wise”), who liked to close-dance with copy boys during Christmas parties at the Commodore ballroom. I, fancying myself a poet, who might be able to subsist and write for a time as a teacher, went into Education at UBC, with English as my major. There, I idolized poet-professors Earle Birney and Roy Daniells (especially Daniells because he was more formal).

Pete and I ended up in the same town, Pete at the Prince George Citizen (with a few years at the Quesnel Observer as editor, reporter, photographer, and “Goldie Poke”) and me at the local college. Forty long years later, we each think the other made the better choice. But there’s no real envy whenever we meet at the Elks to total things up and run through our best parodies until everyone else has been driven from the table. Neither of us has produced a marketable classic. Both of us have spent thirty years (and still counting) working at mindless and contemptible jobs. Our pensions are comparable.

While at UBC, I acquired a taste for literary criticism, including reviews. I had to, as the course reading lists at UBC were lengthy and sometimes (it seemed to me) ill-chosen, and criticism served as a valuable shortcut. This led me to graduate studies in Samuel Taylor Coleridge, a famous critic as well as poet, though no book reviewer and unsuccessful as a publisher and writer of magazines (as he was unsuccessful at everything in life but poetry). Dissatisfaction with Coleridge’s approach to criticism, which revolved around the attempt to define Imagination, a term used to indicate the creative faculties of the mind, led me to Coleridge’s great predecessor and antagonist, Johnson, yet another publisher and writer of periodicals, but a successful one.

Coleridge, I noticed, worked away at his definition of Imagination when Imagination failed him, which was most of the time, as with most poets. Maybe he thought he could find a cure, less harmful than laudanum, for writer’s block. But that’s like fixating on sex when you can’t get an erection, a sure way into separation or a psych ward. So he didn’t find a cure, unless it was plagiarism, and a lot of his great contemporaries (like Lord Byron) thought he was, in effect, masturbating when he could have been putting it to the muse. It is true that you can’t go from “The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner” and “Kubla Khan” to Biographia Literaria and Shakespearian Lectures without knowing that something awful has happened to Coleridge. Even while he was still alive, much of the best stuff in his critical books was found to have been plagiarized from German sources, and Coleridge was called to account. Like any good idealist, he argued of course that all intellectual property is owned by the Oversoul. It was noted, though, that he still had his name printed on his books and expected the royalties for them to be mailed to him and not, say, to the Archbishop of Canterbury.

I decided that a credible definition of Imagination, a description of the psychology of creativity, must await the outcome of PET-scan research into brain functions, and this research could take time, centuries even.

Johnson too was no book reviewer, but he used literary criticism to do what I wanted to do: attract readers to magazines. His articles on the use of “low” words in poetry, on the dramatic unities, and on biography are essential reading for any magazine critic. He intertwined biography and evaluation, a mix that served him well later in his books Lives of the Poets and Preface to Shakespeare. People like to read about what others are doing, and what others think about what others are doing. They like gossip and opinion.

Academic critics, who derive — as T.S. Eliot explains in “The Frontiers of Criticism” — from Coleridge, believe that a work is good or (this is the more customary slant) that a work can be assumed to be good, if a number of psychological, sociological, political, etc speculations can be spun from or even loosely associated with its contents. Any book can be good in this sense. Though academics like to believe that good books produce better speculations, they seldom set out to prove this, and so it is never clear why bad books or, indeed, watermelons, couldn’t serve as well. To avoid this question, an academic will usually focus on a book that has already acquired a reputation of being good, and spin from that, thus attaching his/her maunderings to works of genius. Probably, postmodernism was invented to justify this scholarly hobby-horsing around — you’ll note that postmodernism doesn’t exist in the Biology or Business Departments of universities. At any rate, with most academic criticism, as with the lectures that most people remember from their school/university days, you’re never too sure whether there’s any real connection between the particular book being discussed, and the commentary, or whether the book is weighty enough to take the edifice of commentary built upon it.

Coleridge, liberated from evaluation, degenerated into plagiarism; recent university critics have degenerated into postmodernism.

Along the way to postmodernism, they pass through and imbibe vacuity, pomposity and formality. The much-discussed “politeness” of Canadian book reviewing and literary criticism derives from the fact that so many Canadian writers subsist at the universities. If Canadians are more deferential than other peoples – line up quietly at the bank machine or Tim Hortons, or take Vimy Ridge (or get wiped out at Dieppe) – it’s because they don’t like to question authority, which is because Canada is and has always been a thoroughly bureaucratized country. This is why its history, the essence of which can be derived from Hansard, is so boring.

If you want the prairies settled, you send out the police to put the Indigeans on reservations. Then you send out surveyors to mark the townships, sections lines, and roads. Then you build a railway. Then you advertise in Europe for farmers. You do not let people just wander out there in covered wagons to claim turf. If you want multiculturalism, you legislate it. If you want literature, you set up a funding agency, you require (through quotas) your national broadcaster to produce drama and do readings and interviews, and you establish creative writing departments to supplement the work of English departments at the universities.

The result is that most critics, poets and novelists are, like me, academics. Many Canadian literary periodicals are funded by universities and so edited by faculty. And in academe, the evaluation of a book is generally considered to be, as Northrop Frye implied in The Anatomy of Criticism, poor form. Value judgments obliterate objectivity, detachment. The book review is seen as a shirttail relative of the academic essay, rather than its brighter, livelier, and more popular sibling.

Johnson’s view of literature is emphatically un-academic. It is the popular view, that people read literature for pleasure, and that their pleasure in literature results from seeing reality well imitated. We engage in imitation from childhood; that’s how we learn. Literature is an extension of that. A couple of millennia before Johnson, from such commonsensical truths, Aristotle derived the rules of imitation in literary genres: don’t rely excessively on extraneous events (landslides, lightning bolts) to resolve events that derive from the actions of characters. Make sure that your characters act in character. Etc. These are the rules that good reviewers use to evaluate poems and stories.

Johnson also believed that the pleasure taken from literature can be augmented by literary criticism. First, criticism can explain obscurities like localized or specialized references. Second, it can foment discussion and gossip. Third, criticism itself is a minor literary form, a sub-category of the personal essay, and like all literature is supposed to be pleasurable in itself.

So, believing that good reviews must be pleasurable, and as well having practiced parody, acquired an eye for exploitable human weakness, and learned how to invent jokes at the expense of others (which includes the ability to invent slightly less cutting jokes at your own expense), I might’ve been more dangerous than I became. But applying Aristotle’s rules to books is a discipline, like scientific methodology. TS Eliot, Johnson’s greatest disciple, describes the proper approach. The critic’s primary duty, Eliot explains, or intones rather, is “discriminating praise of what is praiseworthy,” though “the critic may on occasion be called upon to condemn the second rate and expose the fraudulent.” In other words, in the search for literature that best gives pleasure, there’s no need to make much of literature that obviously doesn’t give it. Or, to put more in the terms of literary criticism, the reviewer loses credibility if he pans everything.

I may be too needy of attention to always keep this in mind. On the other hand, the critic also loses credibility if his/her praise is not, as Eliot says, “discriminating.” Very few books deserve raves.

In 1971 I left the university, armed with a knowledge of the English-language “canon” (the great books by which new books are measured), and inspired by Joyce Hemlow’s course in Sam Johnson. I got a teaching job at the college in Medicine Hat. There, Bob Atkinson (Head of the English Department) and I started Seven Persons Repository, later simply Repository. The name came from the Alberta town in which we lived, and Johnson’s dictum: “He that writes the history of his own time, if he adheres steadily to truth, will write that which his own times will not easily endure. He must be content to reposite his book until all private passions shall cease, and love and hatred give way to curiosity.” We acquired a platin press and linotype machine (the stamp set and typewriter), as well as photo-offset equipment.

We published, at our own expense, poetry and short stories, and so concocted a perfect place to reposite writing if you didn’t care about the immediate acquisition of an audience. I regularly produced fill in the form of poetry (I tried to make some of it serious), introductions (the lengths of which were determined by the number of pages needed to make up a credible issue within a credible space of time), and short stories – the production of which was, compared to the production of poems, an easier way to add bulk. I even produced one review.

After its second year Repository enjoyed Canada Council support, and was attracting writers like Hugh Hood, W.P. Kinsella, and Earle Birney. This led to book publishing and the reviewing of manuscripts.

But I wanted to broaden Repository’s appeal among subscribers. I was stuck at about 200 of these; 50 were academic and public libraries, 100 were contributors or would-be contributors, and 50 were (I hoped) real readers. So I advertised for literary criticism – polemics, reviews, articles. I advertised for a full year, at which time the advertising, combined with the obvious lack of results, became embarrassing. I considered writing the stuff myself, reverting to pseudonyms, but figured that this could only go the usual route with me, into parody. This would be inappropriate, I thought, printed in proximity to other people’s poems and stories.

Besides, I soon (in 1974) had the Caledonian to play with, the house organ of the College of New Caledonia in Prince George. I was turfed out of Medicine Hat, possibly for some very good reasons, though the rumor was that management (predominantly Mormon) objected to the four-letter words that were sprinkled through Repository. Bob was philosophical about it all. “Better you than me,” he said. A couple of years later, he followed me to Prince George, where he finally gave up teaching and publishing for cattle ranching, which he quickly gave up for a career in Indian Affairs and a pension.

I acquired Caledonian from Ian Johnston, a colleague in the English Department at the College of New Caledonia and now editor of the internet magazine E-coli out of Malaspina College. Caledonian was, under Ian, and increasingly under me settled into being, a kind of maiden aunt to the BC college system. In it college instructors could affirm values and practice skills carried over from university but increasingly irrelevant to college teaching. Skills like skeptical enquiry, close analysis, and writing. Ian himself was the guiding spirit, aided and abetted by our boss, Gary Bauslaugh, then the college’s academic Vice-President, now editor of the Humanist. We also acquired a “mature” student, Gerry Sande, now a professor of Psychology at the University of Manitoba, who seemed to enjoy staring into a rotating offset press.

Ian and Gary were formidable polemicists. Ian had also perfected parody, especially of poetry. I got into satire, in the form of children’s stories, business letters, and job interviews. To Sam Johnson’s Dick Diver, Tom Tempest, and Sober, I added secretaries and bookkeepers with names like Saran Awrap, Pam Plain, Tenfold Pelford, and Joy Fallopian. Gerry specialized in jokes, in which he claimed to have a scholarly interest. He was particularly good at perverting the cliches of fiction:
Thinking of those long-ago days with Dr. Buksaw at the cancer clinic, Mavis felt a lump in her throat.
His mind racing, John felt that it had been a mistake allow Dr. Buksaw to enter him into the clinic’s annual neuron derby.
Gerry’s jokes often featured the versatile Buksaw, who worked in a number of different clinics. Gerry did phony letters to the editor, too (the only letters received by Caledonian, if I remember correctly), and (for Repository) killed me off so he could write an obituary.

Always looking for a wider audience, Ian and I were attracted to the monthly CanWit contest in Books in Canada. We competed. Ian won for the “Sonnet to Toronto”:
The Leafs decay, the Blue Jays slump unsought
Where once the Argonauts that fateful day
With proud Ulysses (Curtis) ran and caught
The elusive glories of my Lord of Grey . . . .
I won for most succinct entry in P.E. Trudeau’s diary: “October 1970: I tawt I taw a coup d’etat. I did, I did tee a coup d’etat.” Regularly we took second or third, or honorable mention. Johnston won so often that, embarrassed, he competed for awhile using his wife’s name.

It was for Caledonian that I finally added book reviews to my arsenal, though I now consider these early reviews to be mere juvenilia.

Repository and Caledonian both died in the early eighties, when the Canada Council and college failed to respond to my whiny requests for money. Caledonian sputtered on for a couple of years as Asterisk, funded by the faculty union (of which I at the time happened to be President). For Asterisk I wrote more parody and a number of reviews that, though unusual, were readable. But the union more and more wanted, in addition to notices of meetings and financial reports, essays on “teaching effectiveness,” “professional ethics,” and “equal opportunity,” in all of which topics I’m as interested as I am in the gobs of frozen spit that I side-step every morning on the way to work. I turned Asterisk over to others.

I was now, for the first time, at forty years of age, like a real novice writer, producing poems, stories, and reviews for their own sakes. With no place of my own to put them, I started mailing them to magazines. The poems and stories went slowly. The reviews were picked up instantly and appeared in Organ, CV II, Brick, The Journal of Canadian Fiction, and finally Essays in Canadian Writing. ECW was most receptive, editors Robert Lecker and Jack David eventually taking everything I had time to produce. This wasn’t much, as I was writing short stories at the time, for a real publisher, Rolf Maurer at New Star Books, and as Lecker and David quickly involved me in their other projects. I edited a special BC issue of ECW and wrote two monographs in the Canadian Writers and Their Works series – on George Bowering and Tom Wayman.

However, despite the blandishments of my charming and energetic editor/publishers, who approved of my mix of biography and evaluation so long as, in connection with the monographs, they determined the writers to whom it would be applied, I lusted after the wider audience of Books in Canada, the Vancouver Sun, or the Globe and Mail. I even sent stuff to Atlantic and the Boston Review of Books. I fancied myself panning Norman Mailer on the Johnny Carson Show, getting punched by Mailer, and appearing in a Tom Wolfe sketch.

No luck.

Finally, I stumbled upon Vancouver Review, then a tabloid making an erratic but impressive appearance in Vancouver. I sent VR a review of Dunino by Stephen Scobie. Bruce Serafin, the editor and publisher as well as (I’d already noticed) the tabloid’s best essayist, edited the review to its advantage, accepted it, and asked for more. I complied. I also started (whenever I was down from Prince George) to hang out on Commercial Drive with Bruce, Sharon Paterson (Bruce’s wife), Grant Buday (general editor for a time) and John Paul Henry (Bruce’s co-editor).

This period may turn out to be my golden age as a book reviewer. It couldn’t have been any better for a writer who writes in his spare time. My spare time is of course copious, but I was dedicating most of it now to writing novels. Though I’d achieved some applause, in the form of favorable Globe reviews, for my short stories, I found that applause, while high of course in quality, compromised. The book pages of the Globe make it clear that real attention can be gotten only through novels. Poetry is reviewed irregularly, and usually in batches. Short stories are more likely to be reviewed if they are by Alice Munro or someone who is really a novelist. The short story writer is thought to be engaging with the muse in a kind of coitus interruptus, or (as Gerry used to put it) f-stop. Maybe he has a day job. At any rate, he is not, somehow, totally committed. His mind is elsewhere.

In the meantime, however, while I was learning how to write novels, VR was an excellent source of attention. It was vibrant with gossip and opinion, and had a large audience. It appeared, when it appeared, in most Lower Mainland public libraries and bookstores, and it was free. I found out that Bruce and Sharon were funding it out of their own pockets (they were inside workers at the Canada Post), with a little help from advertisers. This worried me; how long could they keep it up? But soon BC Lotto came through with a grant and VR changed to a magazine format and appeared regularly.

Whenever it appeared, literary Vancouver buzzed. Sharon Thesen and Daphne Marlatt went head-to-head on feminist totalitarianism. Brian Fawcett, into his third and then fourth marriage, advised men on how to keep women happy. Stan Persky brooded over his lust for "young adult" porn. Bruce looked at the dark side of nice guy Tom Wayman. My wife, Vivien Lougheed, adventurer and travel writer, took up reviewing in order to convey important messages to adventurous guys like Sid Marty and Wade Davis. Hanging out with the VR gang on Commercial Drive, I began to think of myself as a modern-day Johnson. I was even acquiring (the cafes along the Drive are exceptional) some of his bulk.

I got so carried away that I neglected ECW, to the extent of panning one of Robert Lecker’s books in VR. Lecker, I opined, was a brilliant publisher, and so had better things to do than brood over sophomoric questions like “what is Canadian about Canadian literature?”

Not to worry. BC Lotto Corporation was flush, and seemed happy with VR, and I could scarcely provide enough copy to make every second issue.

Then Bruce and Sharon wore out and VR died. Lecker didn’t respond to one review. Two.

Not, again, to worry. Brian Fawcett started, and asked me to take a seat at his table. For now, at least until I succeed in writing a credible novel, this is enough. This is, in fact, heaven.

Or was. If Fawcett ends up with the credit for all my work, or if the RCMP turn up at my door, I might have to reconsider. Certain kinds of attention are not better than no attention at all.

4706 words January 15th 2004


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