canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Mea Culpa: I review books

"If you are a book reviewer, you have a duty to have an opinion, and you have a duty to present that opinion as honestly, as completely, and backed up with as much evidence and argument as you can muster." What's so hard about that?

by Michael Bryson

See also Shane Neilson's essay: Public Hanging: The Death of the Book Review

It is reported that Eleanor Roosevelt said whenever everyone is thinking alike, no one is thinking very well. This simple but profound truth is applicable in every field except book reviewing. Book reviewers are encouraged to think well, but must limit themselves so as to “never write a review in such a way that you’d be afraid to face the author at a party the next day.” This is the appalling conclusion, in any event, reached by Annabel Lyon in a recent issue of The Malahat Review dedicated entirely to the subject of reviewing. The decorum of book reviewing, according to Lyon, demands the reviewer become the guardian of the author’s feelings; book reviewing is somewhere between flirting and nursing. On the other hand, perhaps it isn’t the author’s feelings that need protection. Lyon says reviews must be written so that THE REVIEWER is not “afraid to face the author.” Book reviews should be written to ensure literary parties maintain their joie de vivre.


Professional athletes face a phalanx of television cameras and newspaper reporters mere seconds after every single devastating loss (or celebratory victory). Politicians face the scrutiny of policy wonks, the media, and the heat of their colleagues in Question Period. Medical research progresses due to the rigour of peer review. Research and development in all fields depends on transparent, accountable, honest scrutiny of tentative conclusions. The world is a marketplace of ideas, John Milton said four centuries ago. The clash, conflict, and negotiation of ideas is the essence and root strength of democracy, which was exactly Ms. Roosevelt’s point. If we are to be afraid of anything, we must be afraid of silence. Silence is death. Silence does more than stagnate dialogue, it is the end of dialogue. Monologue (“everyone thinking alike”) is not just everyone thinking poorly; it is not thinking at all, as Orwell reminded us: 2+2=5 and WAR IS PEACE.

And yet silence is exactly the quality championed by many book reviewers. For example, in the same issue of The Malahat Review mentioned above, Zsuzi Gartner wrote: “Often the best response to a lame book is murderous silence.” And Jan Zwicky, an editor of The Fiddlehead, says she’s “made a point of requesting that a review be written only if the reviewer was genuinely enthusiastic about the book.” Zwicky has concluded: “If we have a duty to be negative, we have a duty to be right.”


If you are a book reviewer, you have a duty to have an opinion, and you have a duty to present that opinion as honestly, as completely, and backed up with as much evidence and argument as you can muster. The world is a marketplace of ideas. No book review is ever “right.” It is just one node on a larger wave, one opinion, one more quack into the void of silence. The author presents his or her work to the world. Reviewers and readers respond to it. To treat a work with “murderous silence” is disrespectful; to commission only “enthusiastic” reviews is deceitful; to believe negative reviews “have a duty to be right” assumes one is able to stand in a position of omniscient authority.


On my bookshelf I have a slim volume called Rotten Reviews: A Literary Companion. It contains quotes from negative reviews of works like Ana Karenina: “Sentimental rubbish . . . Show me one page that contains an idea” (Odessa Courier, 1877). Oh, Tolstoy. How much better off we would have been if the world had treated you with “murderous silence,” but then that’s exactly how the Communists treated many authors, taking the adjective literally. (It doesn’t need to be said; let’s cast another glance at Orwell; this model offers nothing but discouragement.) And so, please allow me to build on my earlier point and assert: No one knows if a book is "good" or "bad". In the first place, those categories borrow far too heavily from the field of ethics; assume "errors" that may be nothing such; and carry moralistic overtones that borrow from fields other than literature. (One can turn to Aeropagitica, the essay of Milton's that includes the phrase "marketplace of ideas," to witness even the free speech crusader arguing all books should be allowed to enter the marketplace of ideas -- be printed, basically -- but only if the bad ones can be sorted out and burned; the immoral ones; "Papish" ones . . . Milton was a fervent anti-Catholic.) (For an expanded look on the aesthetics of "error," see TDR's interview with Tim Conley, author of Joyces Mistakes.)

Scott Anderson’s editorial in the December 2003 issue of Quill & Quire (from which I’ve taken the above quotes from The Malahat Review) argues:

The idea that silence is the best response to a bad book ignores the possibility that well-written negative reviews add as much to the public discussion of literature as [positive reviews of] good ones. We’d all tire quickly of a dialogue about literature that stuck continually to the same positive note.


Some of us are tired of it already, though I wish Anderson had made his case stronger. Not only do negative reviews have something to add to the discussion of literature; without them, there is no discussion of literature. Without them, dialogue devolves to monologue . . . and (please forgive my hyperbolic tendencies) we are on the road to a fascist state. LITERATURE IS NOT ABOUT CONSENSUS. Maybe I'm too sensitive, but I hear "if you're not with us, you're against us" in "a review [can] be written only if the reviewer [is] genuinely enthusiastic." There is a call there to help create the utopian state, the state that is the root of all despotisms. Despotisms are built on lies re-cast as truths. A world full of only positive book reviews is a false world. Everyone knows this. Authors don't expect to be reviewed positively all of the time. To suggest otherwise is to enter into the fantastical; it is to ask for a world outside of common sense. This is not the world we live in, and it is not a world we should attempt to build. In fact, this is a tendency we should be forcefully discouraging; this is a tendency that is a threat to us all (THE SKY IS FALLING, THE SKY IS FALLING, AHHHHHH).

Now that I've earned the title "Chicken Little," please allow me to complete my revolutionary act. Book reviewers of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but invitations to the best book parties. I'm going to overthrow the categories of good book/bad book forever and suggest that books are interesting/dull. And that the burden of proof on whether a book is “interesting” falls on the reviewer. And that the reviewer can only release himself or herself from that burden by SPEAKING.

(An aside: Did you notice how Anderson tucked the modifier "well-written" in from of "negative reviews"? Let me stand up for poorly written negative reviews. Even poorly written reviews -- positive or negative -- can add to the discussion of literature.)

Speaking is not for everyone -- and that's okay. More than one writer has told me casually that s/he does not publish book reviews because the Canadian publishing industry is so small that one cannot afford to piss anyone off. It has even been suggested to me that the recent dramatic rise in the career of David Adams Richards is Exhibit A. As long as he lived in New Brunswick, the publishing industry could ignore him and devalue his work. However, as soon as he moved to Toronto, The Globe and Mail could not review him poorly because the reviewer could count to running into the author at Margaret Atwood’s house, or some such similar place. Hmm. 

More distressing to me, however, is when I see a review in The Globe and Mail written by one of those same people who told me he could never write a negative review. Instinctively, I distrust that review. I do not want to engage it. Scott Anderson begins his Quill and Quire editorial by quoting Dale Peck's now infamous review of Rick Moody's The Black Veil: A Memoir with Digressions: "Rick Moody is the worst writer of his generation." What is the point of Peck's negativism? Anderson concludes: "It gets people talking about Dale Peck." Ah, reviewing as self-promotion. But doesn't it go both ways? . . . that is, isn't the reviewer who only says nice things equally suspect; perhaps more so, since engendering good feelings is a way of building one's literary capital, whereas negative reviewing is seen by many as career suicide.

(Write a negative review and you are either guilty of (a) self aggrandizement, or (b) career suicide. Hey, maybe you just didn't like the book. It happens.)

And speaking of career suicide . . . mea culpa: I review books. I have also published two short story collections, and I'd like to think there'll be more in my future. What do you think: Should I give up book reviewing before my reputation as a ship-sinker/self-promoter spreads to the four corners?


The fact is, I've been reviewing books -- positively and negatively -- since I was an undergraduate over a decade ago, and so far no one has punched me in the nose. Some of those negative reviews were in Quill and Quire, some were in The Kitchener-Waterloo Record, Paragraph Magazine, Id Magazine, and Imprint, the University of Waterloo's student newspaper. Many other reviews have appeared on The Danforth Review. For this article, I've tried to make a list of all of the book reviews I've written. Only a rough estimate is possible, because I haven't kept all of them. 

What I have at my fingertips is 61 books reviewed on The Danforth Review since 1999 and 35 books reviewed in other publications since 1990. A quick self-assessment reveals: 47 positive reviews, 17 negative reviews, and 32 mixed reviews. 

Total + - mixed
96 47 17 32

Admittedly, a "mixed" review might be considered negative, especially if one is the author of the book under review. On the other hand, even this brief accounting has forced me to make decisions: How positive does a "mixed" review need to be before it stops being "mixed"? How negative does it need to be before it's truly negative? And who cares anyway? Well, those 17 people whose books I reviewed negatively probably care -- as do some of the 32 who wrote books I didn't exactly praise. On the other hand, I've only ever received two letters in response to negative reviews I've written. One from Michael Twist ("I am somewhat disappointed by your review of my book") and one by the student of Clarence Bolt: "Perhaps it will take another reading for you to understand what Clarence was really getting at." I appreciated these letters and wish I had received more. If book reviewing is about "the public discussion of literature," as Scott Anderson says, then opinions need to go back and forth -- and that happens far too rarely.

Much more often (for me), I find myself going back over the negative reviews I've written and wondering why I was so down on novel A or short story collection B. Sometimes it has to do with expectations; a book is set up to be one thing, then it turns out to be something else. Consistently, I've given low marks to books that struck me as overwhelmed with nihilism. As I said earlier, I believe if you are a book reviewer, you have a duty to have an opinion, and you have a duty to present that opinion as honestly, as completely, and backed up with as much evidence and argument as you can muster. When I write a book review, I try to be clear about my opinion: Did I like the book or not? Also, I try to provide evidence. Recently, I didn't think much of Ray Robertson's Mental Hygiene. I wrote:

Whatever one makes of Robertson's arguments, they cannot be called mentally shiny. The lack of close reading, sustained argument, and engagement with adversaries of substance is astonishing -- particularly given the promise of the title.

The fact is, I agreed with a lot of Robertson's underlying argument, but my disappointment overwhelmed my agreement. Someone said to me once, you dislike in others what you most dislike about yourself. This comment applies to my review of Mental Hygiene because I kept feeling that Robertson was guilty of errors that I'm prone to myself. I kept catching "errors" I wanted to correct. For example:

The first book reviewed is Morley Callaghan's The New Yorker Stories. Consisting of nine paragraphs, this review begins to discuss the book under consideration in paragraph six. The review begins with Robertson reminiscing about seeing Callaghan at the University of Toronto. Robertson was a second-year undergraduate, and Callaghan was an 85-year-old writer who once knew Hemingway. Now about those New Yorker stories -- Are they any good? Robertson tells us: "Anyone acquainted with Callaghan's later work won't be surprised by or disappointed with these early stories." Which is good news -- but a long way from critical commentary. 

Critical commentary vs. reminiscing. I accused Robertson of lacking the former and emphasizing the latter, but maybe Robertson and I have a different idea of what "critical commentary" means. Maybe he was aiming for something I never quite grasped. Maybe I started reading with a widely distorted set of expectations. I think about these things because I think the engagement between reviewer and book is different every time. Every reviewer is unique ... and I'm a long way from perfect ... and capable of reminiscing myself ...

(I ran into a friend and he asked, "Was it you who wrote that review of Robertson's book?" Yes, I said. He said he read Mental Hygiene and quite liked it. I said, "I don't know what was wrong. I couldn't make it work for me." He said, "I had different expectations." I said, "I saw Ray Robertson at a party last month -- and spent the evening avoiding him." He said, "Yes, Ray's a threatening character." He was joking about that last part; he winked and made that clear.)

So, don't write a review if you can't meet the author at a party the next day.


Write the review you want, then run like hell. Your readers deserve your honesty -- and so do the authors whether they appreciate it or not. And don't feel you need to be "right"; you can never be. You can only provide an argument that's strong or weak -- and strong arguments can only come from deep honesty, deep empathy, and references to evidence in the texts under review. (Getting a literary education and having a certain aptitude helps, too -- but that's a different essay.) 

(A confession: In that Robertson review, I failed at "deep empathy"; I let my disappointment override that check; I made that error; and I regret that. 

You'll never learn anything unless you are open to the other; at the same time, you have a right to stake out your ground and defend it. Some might say it's more than a right; it's duty. Book reviewing confirms the paradox of relationship: How to be open to the other and secure in the self at the same time? It's no contradiction. It's the essence of the job. 

Yes, play fighting can be fun ... but it does make one anxious that things will become nasty; that the "play" will be lost. Don't take it to the dressing room; leave it out on the ice.)

Ah, this could go on and on. One final point: Books that go outside the norm are both more likely to be misunderstood (reviewed poorly) and also more likely to be innovative -- and thus interesting. Negative reviews might actually be a barometer of rising talent. (Mary McCarthy was famously one of the few who positively reviewed William S. Borroughs' Naked Lunch.) 

So, think for yourself, as the Beatles sang; have a rubber soul. 

Don't follow leaders, watch parkin' meters.

Michael Bryson is the editor of The Danforth Review. He anxiously anticipates reviews of this article.







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