Once & Future

Charlotte Ashley – Book seller, collector, writer, editor, historian

June 21, 2010

A Hazard of Reviewing

Lately I’ve done a lot of thinking about the art, or business, of reviewing books.  This isn’t a new preoccupation, of course – I posted about it once before here – but it’s an ongoing one, inflamed recently by a series of events.

I’m sure you have all seen Andre Alexis’s piece on the state of Canadian criticism recently published in The Walrus.  The article has caused some stir, agreements and disagreements with points or names.  For my part, I agree with him.  Canadian reviews do not move me to buy or even think about the books they cover.  This week, with Alexis’s essay fresh in mind, I felt bombarded by proofs.  I have been repeatedly confronted with glowing, meaningless reviews of books which I would only have described as mediocre.  This baffles me – am I really so far out of touch with other readers?  What am I missing here?

I once read the memoirs of a British diplomat who had spent some of his career in Canada who (and I’m badly paraphrasing here, being unable to remember exactly what book it was or who wrote it) described the Canadian attitude towards its artists and thinkers as seen by an outsider.  He said Canadians will make a genius and a hero out of anyone who shows the slightest indication of talent.  In some enthusiastic collective act of nationalism or cultural cheerleading we elevate the mediocre to the status of promising, and the passable to the status of genius.  This is an embarrassing and perhaps insulting assessment of the Canadian canon and I don’t want to agree with him.  But his biting sentiment drifts to mind in any case as I read my newest Quill & Quire, or the Afterword’s impotent “Buy It or Skip It” reviews (which can never bring themselves to tell you to Skip anything; only perhaps wait until the paperback).  I can’t believe Hope Larson’s bland young-adult offering Mercury warrants a starred review from the Q&Q; nor comparisons to Daniel Clowes.  The book was readable; which is to say, I read it.  I won’t ever read it again, and fifteen years from now, while combing the library for books I’d recommend to my daughter, I doubt it’ll come to mind.  There are simply a lot of better things available.

Insert this article here, The Tyranny of the New.  Ihara’s thesis – that we celebrate books which should rightfully be shadowed by their superior predecessors – feels absolutely spot on.  Ihara points fingers at an industry which needs to sell books, but I think there’s more to it than that.   Canadian literature is an inherently new field.   One which, by the way, likes to disown its forefathers, but anyway.  I feel as if, increasingly, the average reviewer simply doesn’t have the time or ability to contextualize what they’ve just read.

And perhaps this is not a question of willful ignorance, but a simple hazard of the occupation.  Who has time to read old books???  I’d be pushing it to claim I read 50 books a year.   That’s roughly one a week, a good rate to be publishing reviews whether I am a blogger or a journalist.  The industry wants me to review new books – that’s what they sell, and that’s what they mail me – and so, to an extent, does a reader wondering whether to make that next purchase.  A career reviewer probably starts reviewing in her twenties or thirties, giving her, perhaps, 5-10 years of prior, adult reading experience to draw on for her reviews.  This is barely a step into the library, I think we can agree.  To compound the slightness of this survey there’s the unfortunate fact that both students and reviewers often have to skim or sample their books in order to meet deadlines.  This leaves little time for deep, thoughtful readings, inquisitive side-readings, dabblings in related but informative works.

No, familiarization with the best literature of our civilization is a life-long pursuit, one which is extremely difficult to do justice to if one’s reading schedule is crammed with, most likely, the latest mediocre offerings from the frontlist trade catalogues.

I think this does much to explain the mass of  “There, you see?” (to quote Kerry Clare) reviews.  All you need to read to pull up snippets of “brilliant” prose is… the book under review.  Looking over the text as if it exists in a vacuum is certainly an approach to literature.  A. S. Byatt made a useful distinction between poets and novelists in her Possession, one which I think also describes the textual scholar from the biographical one – “For the difference between poets and novelists is this – that the former write for the life of the language – and the latter for the betterment of the world.”  The “life of the language” is a wonderful thing, but I, personally, do not believe in Barthes’ death of the author.  A text (Barthes knew this) does not exist in a vacuum and it is useful to know where the elements of the text came from.  It is useful especially to a reviewer, who has a responsibility to communicate to the reader – who may have a depth of reading on a subject which is very deep indeed – how that book compares to other, similar books, or how it stands in its treatment of its subjects.  This requires extensive reading, depth of knowledge and possibly even some expertise.  We need to read more old books.

To bring this polemic back to a point, better historical coverage might help us reviewers call a weak book weak, by comparing it to earlier, stronger attempts at the same thing.   There should be as much virtue in promoting an older book than a newer one. To reassure publishers, the old refrain of “publish fewer, better books” comes to mind. I thought it was an asinine sentiment at first, but I don’t think I was reading widely enough of new books to realize how badly this is, in fact, needed. Rather than publishing fifty-thousand new books, catching the flash-in-the-pan sales, and having the book out of print three years later, why don’t we publish fewer books and focus publicity and sales on achieving a longer tail? Instead of having ten-thousand “published authors” who can’t make ends meet, perhaps we should have one-thousand making a living off of it! But this is idealistic, and unlikely to go anywhere in a print culture where all the players – bloggers, publishers, booksellers, cultural bureaucrats – all want to be writers.

All of this culminates in an excuse for why I don’t do more reviews.  I don’t feel qualified to weigh in on many of the books I read, and then I need to rush on to the next book.  I am thirty pages into Pascale Quiviger’s The Breakwater House and already I’m finding I need to research gardens and gardening in order to make heads or tales of some of her more whimsical poetics.  It’s too easy to be a lazy critic.  I think criticism is a valid vocation and I think the Canadian critical scene has the talent to take it up a notch, especially given so many venues which lie outside the influence of major newsmedia conglomerates who are as happy as anybody to just toe the cultural industry line.  But we need to be critical of our own efforts, and unafraid to compare a new book to an older, better one. We should be prepared to state bold opinions that some books should be skipped.  If this means dismissing the books written by our co-workers, our social media buddies, and our friends, then so be it.

I think, also, I will be showing more discrimination when choosing review copies.  I have particular expertise and can review very well on some subjects.  I suspect such is the case with most of you.  I am less likely to have to publish a potentially embarassing review if the book was carefully chosen to begin with.  Another place to be less lazy, I suppose.  Fewer, better books, fewer, better reviews.  In the end, ideally, more credible reviews and more successful books.  I can try.

3 thoughts on “A Hazard of Reviewing”

  1. Axel says:

    Canadian literature is an inherently new field. One which, by the way, likes to disown its forefathers, but anyway.

    Just to riff on that – considering how Toronto treats its architectural history, I don’t find it surprising that it’s literary history gets the same treatment.

  2. rpriske says:

    Oddly enough, I have found the exact opposite motivations when I compare poets with novelists.

  3. I do find comparisons and contrasts with works published in the past tremendously helpful in reading reviews and I, too, am partial to the mags who incorporate reviews of older books alongside the fresh publications. But I stumble on the question of whether any single reader can pronounce that a book deserves to be skipped when a reading experience is so inherently subjective; you might have rather skipped Mercury, whereas it could be the book of the summer for another reader.

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