John Metcalf (writer)

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John Metcalf
John Metcalf at the Eden Mills Writers Festival in 2016
Metcalf at the Eden Mills Writers' Festival in 2016
Born (1938-11-12) 12 November 1938 (age 80)
Carlisle, England
OccupationWriter, critic, editor
Literary movementContemporary Canadian Literature
SpouseMyrna Teitlebaum Metcalf

John Wesley Metcalf, CM (born 12 November 1938) is an English-born Canadian writer, editor and critic.


Metcalf was born in Carlisle, England on 12 November 1938.[1] His father, Thomas Metcalf, was a clergyman and his mother, Gladys Moore Metcalf, was a teacher. Metcalf immigrated to Canada in 1962. It was in Canada that he began to write. In 1975 he married Myrna Teitlebaum and now lives with her in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.[1]

He has made extensive contributions to Canadian literature through editing, teaching various educational levels across Canada, critiquing other writers, compiling anthologies and publishing and promoting Canadian writers.[1] He is a "storyteller, editor, novelist, essayist, critic", and is known for his satires of Canadian life and academia.[2] His writing is rich in intense emotion invoking imagery, which he draws from his experiences as an educator in Canada. Many in his field view Metcalf as an authority in writing and criticism; others dismiss what they see as his pretentious attitude.[2][3]


Metcalf gained an Honours Bachelor of Arts and a Certificate in Education from the University of Bristol, prior to his immigration to Canada.[4]

Writing career[edit]

His first attempt at writing fiction came when he entered the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's Short Story Essay Contest which was followed by eight of his short stories being accepted by the Vancouver-based magazine Prism International. He supplemented his writing career with teaching jobs.[1]

New Canadian Writing 1969 included Metcalf's first published stories.[1] They followed a common theme of young people coming of age. Metcalf used the coming-of-age theme, and the events that shape it, extensively throughout his works.[1] His first novella, The Lady Who Stole Furniture, was published in 1970, shortly after New Canadian Writing 1969. The narrator deals with the morality and integrity of his intimate relationship with an older woman. This novella first showcased Metcalf's "skill with dialogue, the idiom and rhythms of speech", which is seen in most of his work.[1] Many of his works follow characters modeled after himself, many are young English teachers who have immigrated to Canada and are displeased with the state of the educational system.[5] His first novel Going Down Slow follows a young teacher as described above as he deals with morality in the workplace, and his second novel, General Ludd, describes a similar character, fighting the implementation of communications technology in his workplace.[1] The Teeth of My Father is a collection of short stories with the common theme of artists' relationships with society and their artwork and personal life. This theme was followed by, and extended in Metcalf's Adult Entertainment.[1] Girl in Gingham is a collection of two novellas. The first, Private Parts, chronicles one narrator's "sexual and spiritual childhood and adolescence".[1] The second, Girl in Gingham, follows another narrator's search for the perfect mate via an online dating service, with the undertone being his realization of people trying to invent themselves to fit what others want, or the ideals of their culture.[1] Short story and Novella forms are Metcalf's preferred form of writing. Metcalf describes that when writing these forms "you got to get it dead right. A beat or two off and it's ruined." [5] Metcalf is a long-time critic of Canadian "cultural and educational inadequacies",[1] and published Kicking Against the Pricks in 1982 to showcase this frustration. It was a collection of 8 essays and included an interview with himself.[1] To encourage debate on this theme within the literary community, he published The Bumper Book in 1986 and followed it with Carry On Bumping in 1988. Both collections consisted of contentious essays focussing on problems with Canadian literature.[4] In an interview with Geoff Hancock, Metcalf asserted that "the quality of the education has declined everywhere over the last 50 years as the number to be educated has risen". He is in "conflict with the dominant nature of North American society" and the influence it has on education.[5]


Forde Abroad won the 1996 Gold Medal for Fiction at the National Magazine Awards. The Estuary won University of Western Ontario's President's Medal for the Best Story of 1969. Metcalf was appointed as a Member of the Order of Canada in 2004.

Book Review[edit]

Alex Good of the Toronto Star newspaper, reviewed Metcalf's Shut Up He Explained A Literary Memoir Vol. 2, which briefly describes Metcalf's activities in the past couple years, but actually focuses more on his opinions of Canadian literature.[6] It covers his hatred of "bad writing, thematic and political criticism" and the incompetence off the educational system and the "malignantly stupid pride" of Canadian culture. Good believes that much of the book could have been edited out without changing the intended tone.[6]

Selected works[edit]

  • The Lady Who Sold Furniture, 1970
  • Going Down Slow, 1972
  • The Teeth of My Father, 1975
  • Girl in Gingham, 1978
  • General Ludd, 1981
  • Kicking Against the Pricks, 1982
  • Selected Stories, 1982
  • Adult Entertainment, 1986
  • What is a Canadian Literature?, 1988
  • Shooting the Stars, 1992
  • Freedom from Culture, 1993
  • An Aesthetic Underground: A Literary Memoir, 2003
  • Forde Abroad, 2003
  • Standing Stones, 2004
  • Shut Up He Explained: A Literary Memoir Volume II, 2007
  • The Museum at the End of the World, 2016


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m Cameron, Barry. "John Metcalf." Canadian Writers Since 1960 Second Series. Detroit:Gale Research Inc, 1987.
  2. ^ a b Davey, Frank. "Metcalf in Darkest Canada." Canadian Literature 185 (2005): 167–169. Literary Reference Center. EBSCO. Web. 25 October 2010.
  3. ^ John Metcalf Is A Prick, David Adler, 21 March 2008 (in The Canadianist)
  4. ^ a b David O'Rourke and Kim Jernigan. "Metcalf, John." The Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature. Eugene Benson and William Toye. Oxford University Press 2001. Oxford Reference Online. Douglas College. Accessed 25 October 2010.
  5. ^ a b c "John Metcalf." Contemporary Literary Criticism. Vol 37. Detroit: Gale Research Inc, 1986.
  6. ^ a b Good, Alex. "Still the grouch, and still essential, John Metcalf's wondering, untidy scrapbook is, like the man, too vital to ignore." Review of Shut Up He Explained A Literary Memoir Vol. 2, by John Metcalf. Toronto Star, 14 October 2007: ID5.

Further reading[edit]

  • Reingard M. Nischik: The English Short Story in Canada: From the Dawn of Modernism to the 2013 Nobel Prize. McFarland, 2017 (ch. 12, pp 176 sequ.; and passim)

External links[edit]