Reviewing the reviewer

Posted by on Mar 17, 2009 in Brian's Blog | 1 comment

The reviewer’s name is H. V. Nelles. That’s how his name is spelt. I mention this because my name is misspelt in his review of The Good Steward, published in the Literary Review of Canada. Yes, I have a thing about this. In the second of only two specific references to me in a piece running to more than one page, my surname is given as “Bennan.” A minor gaffe, granted, but it speaks to the credibility of this LRC review.

Prof. Nelles is a leading academic historian. He holds the L. R. Wilson professorship in Canadian history at McMaster University. In that capacity, he accuses me of falling short in my research. “Regiments of documents in various archives are left undisturbed,” he writes. Regiments? In which archives, pray tell? Prof. Nelles knows from my endnotes that I probed the fonds at the University of Calgary, Glenbow Museum, University of Alberta, and the Provincial Archives of Alberta. Given that my stated mission was to shed light on the life of an Alberta public figure who zealously guarded his privacy, where else would he have me look?

Nelles says “larger questions about Social Credit, public policy, and comparative provincial development remain unbroached.” Guilty as charged, say I. I never set out to write yet another tome about one of the most scrutinized political movements in Canadian history. I undertook to write the first popular biography of the radio evangelist who served as premier of Alberta for twenty-five years.

And that speaks to the larger problem here. One of the serious shortcomings of Prof. Nelles’s review is that it singularly fails to acknowledge the difference between what storytellers do and what scholars do. Storytellers write for a general readership; scholars write for each other. Pierre Berton was fond of pointing this out. He was a storyteller, one of the best we’ve ever had. I would not presume to put myself in his league. Yet the academic reviewers used to say to Berton: “We know all this stuff. Why are you repeating it?” It never seemed to occur to them that the vast majority of Berton’s readers were unaware of the details he uncovered in his research. The details may have been old hat to the scholars, but they certainly were not familiar to those readers who vaulted The National Dream to the top of the Canadian bestseller lists.

Before they read the book, did my readers know that Ernest Manning once put forward a plan to explode a nuclear bomb in the Athabasca oilsands to extract the bitumen from the sands? Did they know that the American oilman who won the first contract to commercially develop the oilsands secretly financed Manning’s radio program, Back to the Bible, for more than a decade? Likely not. Yet Prof. Nelles accuses me of simply replaying the old tunes, “pounded out in a rhythm as familiar as rugged hymns.”

Don’t get me wrong here. I truly appreciate the importance of scholarly investigation. I could not have written my book without all the good digging done by the academics. But, to reprise this particular old tune, I submit that Prof. Nelles should have conceded the obvious: That I write for people who do their reading in places other than archives and specialized libraries.

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Copyright 2009 Brian Brennan - Writer

One Comment

  1. I can tell you that for sure I have not heard of any of those things and I’m now interested in your book!

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