canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Extracting the Ego: The Review as Symbiotic to the Text

by Aaron Tucker

Organization of the body can be divided into two methods: there is gross anatomy, a study dedicated strictly to what the unaided eye can see, and there is histology, the body beneath the lens of microscopes and detail. Effective doctors are under the constant strain of switching modes of sight between the tiny incision of the specific and the limbs of the overt.

This is the book critic’s task as well, to alternate within the body of a text, to scrutinize the limbs of plot and characters alongside the incisions of phrase and metaphor. If the book is an organism then the reviewer’s role is to asses and diagnose. Robert Maxwell in his introduction to Sweet Disorder and the Carefully Careless takes this further, defining the critic’s job as "helping to explain [a specific work], to give it meaning and hence to aid the assimilation of that work into society, and into culture". Yet there remains two general modes of thinking surrounding the book critique: the review is the only way to spread the word of the work, is the exhaling breath of public discussion necessary before the inhale of reading; or the review is nothing, is the opinion of a self-involved failed writer rushing through the last twenty pages before deadline which is ultimately crafted into a too quick summary. George Murray of the successful Bookninja literary website went so far as to call reviews "the cage-liner of the literary world."

But both the positive and negative takes on the book critique exist mainly because the value of a "good review" is misplaced onto the end opinion of the critic. The "I" evaluating becomes larger than the actual work discussed. The critic’s preferred genres or styles of writing guide whether the book is appreciated and the review runs the very real risk of turning into a publicized diary entry. The idea of whether a critic liked or disliked a book is relatively unimportant; the book critique does not exist to reaffirm aesthetics (that’s what blogs are for). What is essential however, is a discussion of what the work is attempting to do and how well it succeeds. This means subverting the ego, turning away from the "I" on the reviewer’s behalf, and a refocusing on critical engagement with the text on its own terms.

While this is easy to discuss in theory, the practice of "good reviewing" is hard to implement. The Globe and Mail, as the last bastion of national book reviewing, is as wonderful as it is problematic. On the one hand they hire a myriad of talented writers from literary communities coast-to-coast, giving publicity to a great number of works. However, because it is a national paper, it is often forced to choose books that lean towards a more general readership to appeal to the largest portion of their audience. By gearing the reviews towards the "general" public the reviewers are in fact defining what the general public wants. It is a tricky cycle as reviewers attempt to guess what the general public likes while the general public supports the books that get positive reviews.

This is especially depressing for the smaller presses and poetry in particular, where every sliver of exposure counts. When Judith Fitzgerald ran a markedly negative review of Nathalie Stephen’s Touch to Affliction the poetic community reacted strongly (Globe and Mail, 09/12/06). Fitzgerald openly dismissed the work as "po-mo pop, snap-and-crack" poetry. The resistance to the text came about more because the poetry of Stephens is concerned heavily with language and less with a traditionally-Canadian narrative arc, rooted in a completely different philosophy of writing than Fitzgerald was willing to engage with. Despite valuing art that struggles with "internetworking at the axis where interior meets exterior," she ignored the fact that Stephen’s work is in fact doing just that (quite deftly in fact). Fitzgerald, instead of critiquing the text within the framework it was constructed in (asking what the goals of the text were, how did it try to go about achieving it, how did she succeed/fail etc), trashes the book through the lens of traditional narrative Canadian poetry. But by reinforcing her own ideals of poetry, the poetry she personally grew up with and values, the "general reader" receives none of the challenging and interesting writing that lies outside the old paradigms.

This practice ensures that younger writers and small presses on the fringes trying original and risky endeavors are further marginalized. Both broad summary and dismissal of a work force the periphery groups of writers to support each other at all costs, which often means reviewing each others’ books. Besides the obvious issue of knowing the author (often as good friends), it becomes impossible then to critique books honestly within that community because every critic has the added agenda of supporting that marginalized writing; the ego of the critic again comes in to drive the review towards a method of appreciation and writing that may have nothing to do with the specific work being discussed.

In both cases the critic’s ego appears as a reaction. Often it is a defense mechanism against a text that is outside the comfort zone or aesthetic of the reviewer. By including the "I" the critic creates a solipsistic pocket of self identity that allows them to pronounce on a text without considering other viewpoints (including other potential readers of the work).

There exists a trend where the book critique frames the dialogue with personal narratives that deal more with the critic’s life than the book. Recent reviews of Howard Jacobson’s Kalooki Nights, a fiction about a Jewish cartoonist, inevitably discuss being Jewish (or the critic’s understandings of Judaism) and how those experiences shape the interaction with the book. This type of review creates an atmosphere where the critic is at the forefront and either identifies with or is distanced from the text. The evaluation is then based heavily on biographical instances; the book review becomes a mirror to explain the context for enjoying a book instead of critically engaging with the work.

Dismantling the "I" creates a space where writing a "good review" means shifting the importance and focus back to the text and away from the pronouncing ego. The questions that emerge then are: What is the book trying to accomplish thematically, politically, aesthetically etc? How well is the book doing what it intends to do? Where does this book fit within the broader view of writing, not just in comparison to other authors’ books, but within other works by the author? This approach takes the decision of whether a potential reader would like or dislike a book out of the critic’s hands.

Getting away from this prescription of a good or bad book allows the value of a "good review" to appreciate the ability to label the skeleton of the work for the reader and coherently identify the veins of metaphor. Most importantly a "good review" then asks what the text is trying to accomplish and how well it is succeeding. This is not to say that every text will succeed but that in order to evaluate in the most fruitful way the critic should be looking to understand the book for what it is attempting to undertake and not impress the expectations of tradition or other genres upon it.

If the review sheds the ego it takes up a symbiotic relationship with the discussed text. Ron Silliman, for instance, is excellent at discussing books on their own terms, adopting the vocabulary and sentence structure of the work itself, creating the criticism as an extension of the art. He shows that the most engaging and useful reviews subvert the ego of the reviewer and attach to the language, the pacing, the same poetic sensibilities of the text being critiqued. More important than this, the symbiotic review acknowledges the poetic scaffolding of the discussed text and views said text with that perspective at the vanguard.

The target as a reviewer is to stay out of the way, to briefly summarize, to analyze, to prod and poke, to question relentlessly, to provide the same alternating vision a doctor gives to the body. This is not to say this is a wholly objective process. When the review stresses an objective view it degrades into summary. A hunt for critique of Joshua Key’s ghostwritten book The Deserter’s Tale, for example, will turn up a variety of summaries housed in local papers, review websites, national magazines. There is very little discussion concerning the work as the product of collaboration or the filtered, misguided, censored voice the process of ghostwriting can create. Instead, the majority of reviews jumped on the topic of the Iraq war and shook loose nothing but a recounting of Key’s plot points and absolutely no assessment of the text.

Ultimately some evaluation on whether the work effectively executes as it meant to or not needs to be expressed. But the subjective pronouncement of the critique is a kernel within the larger discussion, nestled in consideration of the work’s concerns, an opinion to either agree or disagree with.

Which brings us finally to the potential readers who ingest these reviews. The agency of the critique lies in them: it is the through close textual interaction that they should be able to decide whether they would want to read the book. This is where the review will wither or thrive, in the potential readers’ expectations and wanting for explanation and engagement with the book as a functioning body.


Aaron publishes regular reviews for inknoire, a literary blog and has also contributed to The Windsor ReView, The Antigonish Review, The Woman's Post and Misunderstandings magazine. He currently teaches and writes in Toronto.

Works Cited

  • Fitzgerald, Judith. "Where Precept meets Concept." The Globe and Mail. 09/12/06.

  • Murray, George. "Responding to Reviews". 02/27/07.

  • Jacobson, Howard. Kalooki Nights. Toronto ON: Penguin Canada, 2007.

  • Keys, Joshua ghostwritten by Lawrence Hill. The Deserter’s Tale. Toronto ON: House of Anansi, 2007.

  • Maxwell, Robert. Sweet Disorder and the Carefully Careless. Princeton NJ: Princeton Papers on Architecture, 1993.

  • Stephens, Nathalie. Touch to Affliction. Toronto ON: Coach House Books, 2006.







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