On Reviewing

This interview first appeared on the Lemon Hound blog, Dec. 23, 2009.


LH: What do you think the purpose of a review is? If you also write about books on a blog, why? What does blogging let you do differently?

MB: I think the purpose of a review is to provide an honest response to a book. One must admit up front that one brings a host of expectations to a book, so the review can only be one’s own personal response to the book. Each of us has a particular education, particular tastes, and particular preferences. That said, some responses are guttural and impulsive and others are abstract and hard to articulate. Ultimately, a review needs to communicate to an audience beyond the one “responding.” Here is where things get more complex. The review is one person’s response to a book, but to have value to a broader community of readers it needs to explain itself to that community … and that community is diverse in the extreme. One can assert an isolationist stance (i.e., I think what I think and I don’t need to justify it to anyone), and sometimes those reviews are excellent (i.e., interesting to read). More often, the interesting reviews take a more self-consciously humble approach. Whatever wisdom each of us possesses, it is only a fragment of the whole. Each voice, each opinion is legitimate, but those that enhance the “conversation” (and don’t divert it tangentially) more often have long-term value. (I hedge and include the qualifiers because sometimes the one-offs, the lone wolfs, say things that are invaluable.)

Second part. Yes, I write a blog about books. Why? It helps me keep my sanity. I need a place to write, clarify my thoughts, throw words out into the void. Besides, it’s fun. Why not?

LH: If you write reviews, how would you describe your approach, or method? Do you offer or engage in exegesis, theoretical, academic, reader response, close, contextual or evaluative readings? If you don’t write but read reviews, what aspects of reviewing do you notice?

MB: I’ve written and published book reviews for 20 years. I don’t think I belong to any “school” or “approach,” but I’m open to being proven wrong. I write about what I like about the books, what I dislike about the books, and I try to provide examples to back up each of those opinions. Writing reviews has helped me to understand what it is that I like about books. It has helped me clarify my own opinions and tastes. In that sense, it has been a selfish enterprise. It has been about my own self-discovery. I used to think that I needed to be as clear as possible in my opinions, but I confess that often resulted in something close to cruelty. (In my defense, I would say that I never thought my opinion to be “the last word,” only the truth that existed in my own feeble brain.) At the same time, I was always aware of (at least trying to) be(ing) evidence-based. I always knew there was a writer out there who would (possibly) read my review and wonder what the heck I was going on about. I always wanted to say: Look! This sentence here! This plot point here! It’s problematic because X or Y. I’ve never thought reviews should rescue the ego of the writer, but I am now much more self-conscious about foregrounding the subjectivity of my opinion. I don’t think that undermines my opinion. I just hope it makes it easier for the writer to hear it.
LH: What do you think makes for a successful review? Is there an aspect, a stylistic choice, or perspective that necessarily produces a more significant document?

MB: Evidence. That’s my one-word answer. Reviews should provide quotations and evaluation. Here’s what I think, and here’s the evidence to back up my opinion. The reader of the review should be provided enough substance to make up their own mind about whether they trust the opinion presented, or whether they conclude their own tastes and assumptions invalidate the conclusions of the reviewer.

LH: When you review, do you focus on a particular text (poem, story), the book at hand, the author’s body of work? Do you think this choice of focus influences criticism, or your own criticism, and if so, how?

MB: Usually when I review, I focus on the book. I would often love to be able to explore the broader themes and implications of a book (and the body of work of the author), but it’s beyond what I have time for. There is a difference between what the “review” can do and what the “essay” can do. Reviews can be weaker and still okay. Essays have a higher standard. These categories can obviously overlap, but I’m comfortable with the generalization. Reviews can be a simple response to a book, and a variety of responses and approaches can be valuable. If one wants to provide a deeper, larger, more valuable evaluation, then expectations rise. Deeper proof is required.

LH: If you also write non-critical work, how different is the way you approach reviewing or critical writing to the way you approach your own “creative” writing?

MB: Wow, what a question. First, it comes from a different place in the brain. At least it seems to. Both can be intuitive, but the review is a response to a real thing, a book. When I write narrative, it is emerging out of nothingness. The review needs to remember that it is based in reality; it needs to be evidence-based. But any narrative I write is not evidence-based. It is following an often unexplainable logic. Or so it seems at the moment of creation.

LH: Have you been in a position where you have had to write about a book that you don’t care for, or a book that is coming out of a tradition that you are perhaps opposed to, or resistant to on some level? How do you handle such events? Or how have you noticed others handle these events?

MB: Yes. I would identify two kinds of problems. The most difficult books to review are the ones you expect to like, but once you read them you find that you don’t. There is both the problem to articulating your response to the book, and the problem of trying not to amplify your response by also communicating your disappointment. This is the most difficult problem I’ve had reviewing books, and I haven’t always handled it well.

The second problem is as you’ve indicated. The work is coming out of a tradition that you find difficult to access. I’ve reviewed some books like this. These are less problematic for me than the previous category, because I feel a kind of “out.” I just say, this work is coming out of a tradition that I can’t for the life of me comprehend. I remember writing a review about a spoken word CD and using the example of a Bob Dylan concert I went to. Phil Lesh of the Grateful Dead had opened for Dylan, and it was such contrast of styles that night. Lesh was unstructured, and Dylan was highly structured. I prefered the structured, and said so. The spoken word CD was more like Lesh. Obviously, there was an audience out there for this material, but it wasn’t me. The spoken word artist actually emailed me later and thanked me for the review and expressed regret that her work hadn’t connected with me. I regretted it, too. I felt maybe I was missing something. On the other hand, we shouldn’t apologize for our tastes.

LH: What is the last piece of writing that convinced you to a/ reconsider an author or book you thought you had figured out, or had a final opinion on or b/ made you want to buy the book under review immediately?

MB: I don’t think I’ve ever bought a book based on a reviewer’s opinion. Sometimes I’ve been made aware of books that I didn’t know existed and then sought them out. I read a number of reviews of Margaret Christakos’s poetry and then saw one of her books in a store and was inspired to pick it up. After flipping through it, I bought it. I trusted the voice of the poetry, but not the voice of the reviewer. I’m a skeptical reader. I want a direct relationship with the book. I like reviews that challenge my thinking, that make me reconsider my assumptions, but ultimately I only trust the book itself.

LH: Is there a quality you are looking for in a review that you haven’t found?

MB: Am I still waiting for the perfect review? No. I don’t expect reviews to be perfect. There are too many possible variations of opinion. I want reviews to be clear. To express an opinion and back it up with evidence. I think a variety of opinions are possible about a book, and that they could all be “true.” At the same time, it’s important to acknowledge that reviewers can often be wrong. Only constant re-evaluation and sorting will ensure the enduring literary works will rise to prominence.

LH: Critical work is increasingly unpaid work; will you continue to do this work despite the trend? Do you see this trend reversing, or changing course?

MB: I will continue to do this work for the reasons noted above. I don’t know how to stop.

Second question. No, I don’t see this trend reversing. I see it connected to a larger trend. Creative work is valued for how well it can sell, not how well it is written or how interesting it is or how well it extends or responds to a particular tradition. What does criticism mean in the context of capitalism? If sales are the performance measure, what does “reviewing” contribute?

LH: What do you hope to achieve by writing about writing? Do you believe that reviews can actually bring new readers to texts?

MB: I need to believe that life is meaningful. I write about writing to help establish meaning. As noted above, it helps me maintain sanity. It helps me orient myself against something that isn’t superficial. (I confess that I might be delusional about the stability of this thing called literature, but I cling to it nonetheless.)

Second question. Can reviews bring new readers to texts? Absolutely! They can open texts to a broader community of readers. Reviews don’t provide a final rendering, a final interpretation, a closing of meaning, though; they open to mystery. On this I must insist. They open one text into another, into another, and into … infinite possibilities.

They remind us to keep reading, I hope. One new book after another.
Michael Bryson began reviewing books at the University of Waterloo in 1990 or thereabouts. He has written more reviews than he can count. His new book of short stories is The Lizard (Chaudiere Books, 2009). He keeps a blog. From 1999-2009, he was the publisher and editor of the online literary journal, The Danforth Review (indexed here) He has an MA in English Literature from the University of Toronto, but doesn’t use it much.

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