Bert Archer will surely be disappointed to hear that his cameo appearance in an upcoming novel has been cancelled. Or so suggests writer Steven Heighton, who rang back, three times, with additional details about the character he first created, then dropped, from his new novel, The Shadow Boxer.
Bert Archer is, of course, Canada's Literary Bad Boy. The self-styled provocateur who called Timothy Findley "Belva Plain in drag"; the gossipy gadfly who has been rumoured to be a mole for Frank magazine; the first-time author who has inflamed the gay community with his theories about its impending demise and caused such consternation in the literary world that The Globe and Mail received a letter signed "Canadian authors everywhere" urging it to boycott Archer's book, The End of Gay (and the Death of Heterosexuality). Love him or hate him, everybody seems to have an opinion about him. It's a role Archer enjoys and encourages.
Which is why Heighton called back. After his last book was burned by Archer's acid pen, the Kingston-based writer took revenge by creating an unflattering portrait of the critic in Shadow Box (due out from Knopf this spring). At first, Heighton denied it. "If I based a character on Bert," said Heighton, "he would be decidedly less sympathetic." Then Heighton called back to confess. Yes, he explained, Archer was indeed the inspiration for Mort Bowman, who was bald, widely despised and appeared in a walk-in role at a museum gala, taking notes while gazing into a showcase of thumbscrews and other torture devices. Heighton, however, eventually cooled down and killed Bowman off "for aesthetic reasons."
Perhaps Heighton realized that there would be no sweeter revenge than declaring the character irrelevant. Because Archer takes Oscar Wilde's aphorism to heart: The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.
Archer is all talk at Spiral restaurant on Church Street, in the heart of Toronto's gay community. Wearing a baby-blue button-up shirt under a woolly fisherman's sweater, he has, in sharp contrast to his reputation, a surprisingly gentle demeanour, more Teletubby than (literary) Terminator. The 30-year-old writer, who first came out of the closet in 1992, is explaining that he isn't gay anymore; though still attracted to men, he's had several sexual encounters with women. But Archer rejects the notion that he's bisexual, arguing that human sexuality is too complicated for simplistic, outdated labels.
In The End of Gay,Archer proposes that sexuality is innately fluid. But those desires, whichever way they might flow, are being dammed up by the walls between the gay and straight communities. Why not drop identity politics, Archer says, and learn to experience polymorphous sexual harmony, like the pleasure-seeking bonobo chimpanzees?
"I think this is all about taking sex seriously," Archer explains, in a soft, pleasant voice. "People who take food really seriously will always try new things to expand their palates. I'm not saying everyone should love everything all the time. It's about taking advantage of the freedom and space that we have gained in the last several decades."
Archer is sincere about the need for sexual freedom, but there's no denying that the book seems deliberately provocative. Even Archer's friends suggest the book was part of a strategy to enhance his reputation as an audacious contrarian. "I've always had the sense that Bert has a career plan," says Gerald Hannon, a gay prostitute and freelance writer who is no stranger to controversy himself. "All the parts are being put together. That, of course, makes him sound more calculating than he is. . . . I think he honestly believes what he says."
Archer says his only plan is to continue writing and thinking what he pleases. Which is exactly what got him into trouble in the first place. Born into a middle-class family -- his father was a Mormon schoolteacher, his mother died when he was 15 -- Archer was raised in Montreal, Calgary and Vancouver before attending boarding school in Victoria. He moved east to attend the University of Toronto, went on to obtain a graduate degree in literature at Trinity College in Dublin, and returned to Toronto in 1992. Two years later, he landed a job writing for Quill & Quire, Canada's book-trade magazine and was soon promoted to review editor, "breathing new life and controversy," as The Globe and Mail once wrote, into the publication's pages. His stint reached new heights of controversy in 1996, when Archer wrote a guest column for the Financial Post that chastised cultural doomsayers for, among other things, mourning the loss of Coach House Press, which he called "moribund and muddled."
"It was the last straw," one insider recalls, noting that it wasn't the first sacred Canlit cow he had skewered.
Others say he was dead-on. "This was when Coach House had practically gone out of business," says Philip Marchand, senior literary critic at The Toronto Star. "The papers were full of this moaning and groaning . . . but basically, we weren't going to miss it. He was right and in that sense, it was admirable."
Archer brushes off his subsequent resignation in his book, breezily describing the incident as "some teapottedly tempestuous publishing controversy or other that was a direct result of my having spent way too much time reading and thinking." He went on to become the small-press columnist at The Toronto Star (a platform from which he championed the young and the obscure, while dismissing literary lions such as Michael Ondaatje as "someone who can't tell a story") and a regular panelist on various TV and radio talk shows. He later moved to Toronto's Now weekly for a year, where he wrote a regular column until his contract expired in September. He is now tossing around a few ideas for another non-fiction book and weighing his options.
Archer's departure may have been amicable (Now editor Susan G. Cole says she simply wanted more voices on the page), but there are many in the literary community who are happy to see the critic lose his platform. Greg Gatenby, artistic director of the Harbourfront Reading Series, says Archer is a dangerous loose cannon: "It's like having an eight-year-old at the helm of a 747."
Others applaud his bravado. After Archer dissed Timothy Findley's Giller-nominated Pilgrim for a recent guest column in this paper, critic Robert Fulford said, "Anybody who can pick that Timothy Findley book as overrated can't be all that bad."
"Bert is not just trying to be controversial," novelist Lynn Crosbie says. "He is controversial. We don't really have an avant-garde system in Canada, so I admire him for being so daring."
Archer complains that Canadians don't write negative reviews because the community is too small and they'd rather not make life difficult. Marchand agrees, to a point. "He's certainly more honest than me. . . . But on the negative side, I do think he's glib and awfully free with the way he dispenses his opinions."
Archer seems gleeful about his own bad reviews. " The End of Gay is so silly that I don't quite know where to begin," Sky Gilbert snorted in his review for The Toronto Star. Other papers have described it as "a rambling mess of a book" (Xtra); "rife with inconsistencies" (The Globe and Mail); and "appealing" though "appropriated" (The National Post).
Archer chortles. "I expected that people wouldn't like it. . . . But I do think that it allows people to think about things in slightly different terms than perhaps they've thought about them before."
How does Archer think of himself? He says he has no ambiguities about his own sexuality and he is not ashamed of his attraction to men -- as some have charged in their criticism of the book.
Back at the restaurant, however, he deliberately lowers his voice so that the lesbian couple at the next table won't overhear him whisper about his three "less than perfect" experiences with "women's mushy little bits."
It's "an acquired taste," he says. But anyone could learn to like it, if they tried.
Controversial? To be sure. Convincing? Hmm.