canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999


Public Hanging: the Death of the Book Review

It is never easy to say that one is qualified to review books for a living. - Philip Marchand

by Shane Neilson

The state of book reviewing in Canada today is atrocious. You know it well, dear reader: the like/dislike binary that curses our critical climate. What aspires to criticism is too often buried in offhand opinion and slapdash mini-think based on a 20-minute read of a novelís first few chapters. What we get too often are destined-for-dust-jacket goody-goody gushings - or yucky-yuck invective complaining that:

(a) this book isnít like the last book the author wrote,
(b) the reviewer is actually a much better writer than the author, or
(c) the book just doesnít measure up, for some nebulous, unargued reason.

This is when the reader is lucky! When the reader is unlucky, reviewers give us out-and-out misrepresentations, internecine grudge matches, praise-fests, and plot rehash. Sometimes the review isnít a review at all: itís a parareview, in which the reviewer discusses his own mother and father, for example, in a book about child-parent relationships. Inevitably parareviewing is taken to ridiculously irrelevant lengths. The reviewer writes about the personality of the author and any one-on-one experience the reviewer has with that author. This is territory far away from the matter at hand -what lies between the covers. A perfect recent example of this phenomenon is George Jonas' take - published in The National Post - on Mordecai Richlerís On Snooker. It begins:

Offering an enthusiastic notice about the last book of a colleague, published a few weeks after he had passed away, might be viewed as an exercise in necrology rather than in book reviewing. 

Exactly. Let the necrology begin! Mordecai is dead, and this is the angle Jonas takes from the beginning. It doesnít occur to Jonas (and reviewers like him, they are legion) that the authorís death is irrelevant. What follows are anecdotes Jonas canít resist sharing with us. We learn that Jonas and Mordecai clashed over the production of a CBC play thirty years ago. The dispute was "...big news, for a few days." We learn that, proir to Richlerís passing, Jonas and Mordecai would "...meet once every two years or so, in London or Toronto, usually at large social gatherings. Contrary to his media image, Mordecai was quite capable of exhanging pleasantries..." When he finally gets around to describing the book, Jonas can only spout clichť:

Mordecai is masterful without a doubt. He shone as a young writer (future champions, in literature just as in sports, usually reveal their talents as rookies) ... 

The only comfort Canadians can take in tripe like this is that the decline of book reviewing appears to be part of a global trend, if the occasional polemic from other lands are to be believed. Long after the much-ballyhooed death of the novel, the book review appears ready to give up the ghost.

In The War Against Clichť (2001), Martin Amis writes:

One of the historical vulnerabilities of literature, as a subject for study, is that it has never seemed difficult enough... Interacting with literature is easy. Anyone can join in, because words (unlike palettes and pianos) lead a double life; we all have a competence. It is not surprising, therefore, that individual sensitivities come so strongly into play; not surprising, either, that the discipline [of book reviewing] has rolled over for democratization more readily than, for example, chemistry and Ancient Greek. 

Amisís argument is difficult to dispute. The work necessary for competence in chemistry - knowledge of Lewis structures, double integrals, and quantum reactions - is gratifyingly absent from the qualifying exam for contemporary book-reviewer status. All you require, it appears, is an opinion. Give any monkey a subject, a typewriter, and the monkey will bang away. Book reviewing is part of this larger phenomenon. Nowhere is the democratization of reviewing more apparent than on Internet bookseller sites like www.chapters.indigo.ca and www.amazon.com. Such websites are engines of lowest common denominator democracy. They ask one to electronically submit a quickie review, and provided there is no outright malice or profanity, it will be posted as legitimate commentary on a piece of writing that took its author years of work to produce. To test this thesis, I wrote the most opposite, manifestly wrong, purposefully impish piece of pseudo-criticism I could about Anne of Green Gables and submitted it to the Amazon site. Read it here and either laugh or cry.

Here it is:

Anne seems like a cool grrl. Sheís interested in boys and stuff, but school is NUMBER ONE for her. Thatís why she became a schoolteacher- I know, I watched those CBC shows that showed her all grown up. Anyways, Anne is an inspiration for all women nowadays because her parents just didnít understand her, but she triumphed in the end. Lucy Maude must herself have had mean parents, because she really knows what itís like. And PEI rocks! They have all this Anne stuff that really makes her seem real, you know? I was there this summer on vacation. Anyways, my Mom gave me this book because we were going through some tough times and it made me think about her side of the story. Now I have to buy the sequel.

Sadly, this review appeared on the site in September 2001. Short on any historical significance and scholarship, long on the irrelevant personal, the modern book review here adopts its lowest form.

Cult of celebrity

Another cancer on the art of book reviewing is the power and industry of celebrity. Prurient lives frolicking amongst tabloid print, holding nations in thrall - these have provided second careers for celebrities able to type. Immediately recognizable, they inexplicably become star candidates to pen book reviews on the basis of a connection, however tenuous, that can be made between the reviewer and the book at hand. Take Rex Murphy, for example, a native Newfoundlander writing about a recent history of Newfoundland in the Globe and Mail (Aug. 18, 2001). Heís really no more qualified than any other Newfoundlander (letís forget about birthright being a reasonable credential. Itís certainly undemocratic), but he is Rex Murphy. The name is known; the name comes with its familiar plugged-in biases; the name comes to subsume the Newfoundland history book in importance, or at least distort greatly what was supposed to be a review, and not a sighting. Murphy canít help himself- he has to invoke his own preoccupations when expounding on any subject. Look at any Murphy column or review: fifty percent of them perseverate on either Shakespeare or Dr. Samuel Johnson. Murphy obsesses yet again in his review of Kevin Majorís history book, wishing that Major had written less a work of "history" and more a "biography" like- you guessed it- Boswell did in his life of Johnson.

Yet celebrity culture itself has had a curious offspring: self-celebrification. Our personal lives (the humdrum, non-Hollywood kind) are newly ascendant in literature: the gross flourishing of the memoir form is one symptom. The advent of ĎNew-Ageí writing, a genre concerned with the self in totalis has also helped along the process. In devoting much attention to our universal desire to be heard, new-age authors act like personal publicists, explaining that experience is validated by its possessor. Self-celebrification permits the injection of personal musings and reviewer autobiography into the book review, allowing him to drop the pretence of parareviewing altogether. By now, heís doing what boors do best: narcissism. Letís return to the Mordecai Richler example. Eventually, Jonas gives us unadulterated Jonas, and On Snooker is left in the chalkdust:

For me, this is no puzzle. Having spent almost two years researching and writing A Passion Observed, a book about motorcycle racing, I more than sympathize... 

Here we have a narcissitic, self-aggranziding reviewer hawking his own wares! No matter how innocuous the intent, Jonasí last book (like his personal relationship with Mordecai Richler, and Richlerís death) does not belong in this review at all. Things really get off the rails when Jonas introduces us to Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek: "Gene Roddenberry... was an avid poker player..." By now a reader should realize that this review orbits George Jonas only. What should have been a review of Mordecai Richlerís book becomes first a parareview, and then an essay about Jonas himself. As they do in the Star Trek series, would that there have been an away team sent to the book.

The truth will set you free (Itís a small world, after all)

Perhaps the most widely-discussed recent attack on poor book reviewing in Canada came from the pen of novelist Kevin Chong. In spring 2001, Chong claimed in the National Post that Canadian book reviewers were just too nice. The cause? Canadaís small writing community equals trepidatious glad-handling between members of the academy. Chong argued that Canadian book reviewers (poets, so-inclined journalists, and novelists, dabblers all) were understandably afraid of approbation by their peers if they wrote how they felt - which, on the whole, should be along the lines of dreadful, dreadful, dreadful. Chong also argued that the Canada Council granting process operates according to a corrupted Golden Rule: do unto others as they have done unto you. In other words, what goes around, comes around. A disaffected judge, angry at a prior candidateís review of the judgeís (or, for that matter, his or her friendsí) book would be predisposed to turn down an application for money. I feel that Chongís verdict is correct. Ask yourself this - is a negative or mixed review consequence-free in this country? Can you pick up a book by your bestest all-time acquaintance and write exactly what you think, the uncensored output coming from your gut, without your budís suspected reaction looking over your shoulder? From making enemies at a distance to glares at a reading to losing a few friends to an all-out war of back-and-forth correspondence conducted within the pages of books sections, you are aware of the cost of a review, and of its small reward. You know that no one is famous for reviews alone - a celebrity writer must produce something completely original in order to be afforded greatness, not based on an already published work. Letís consider the economics of reviewing for a moment. A page-long treatment nets a reviewer about $250 dollars in the Globe. Estimate four to five hours spent in reading an advance copy, affixing post-it notes, etc. Expect an equal amount of time spent writing the first draft of a review. A few days pass until the review can be revisited and revised; the revision process often alters the review so remarkably that it reads like a different document (which it should, since the reviewer has been granted time to subconsciously sift the source material, as well as hold it up against his reading of those few days and draw a few relevant connections.) The second draft is then submitted to the editor, who asks for clarifications and expansions, which the reviewer is obliged to provide. All told, a conscientious Globe reviewer could spend a week or more writing a credible review; what kind of incentive is (by my calculations) $1.49 per hour for them, let alone the unpaid smaller fry of this land writing book-as-compensation reviews for regional literary magazines? A more telling question might be: who reads reviews anyway? Iíll tell you: not agents ready to scoop up a promising young reviewer, a publisher with a cash advance for the fantastic reviewer he noticed in last week's Globe Books insert, or an awards committee, make that an awards category, available to this year's greatest reviewer.

Next steps

What to do, then, about the two reviewing extremes in Canada: ignoramus mylifeism and namby-pambyness? Chong prescribes more guts and gore in the guise of truth-telling, which is an honourable - if potentially career-killing - option if adopted by the usual suspects. It is also a solution that neglects the other cancer. I doubt that the soft touch trend is exclusively Canadian, though it is magnified by our grant-giving process, whose power amongst our artists is mythical. A 1978 letter from Jack Mclelland to Al Purdy from sums things up nicely:

One thing I donít understand, however, is why, in the very small literary community that we have in Canada, important writers like yourself risk their own personal relationships... when it would be so much easier to read the book and tell the paper ĎI donít want to review it.í In other words in this very small community, I think it would be far better... to say no - considering a pittance they get for doing a review anyway - unless they can be positive about the book by one of their peers. 

However, other societies have granting bodies and agencies - look no further than our immediate neighbor, which has the National Endowment for the Arts. Why are Americans fearless in literary organs like the New Yorker, the New York Review of Books, and Harperís? Some postulate the "Canadians are polite" clichť, but I disagree. Show me a nice writer and Iíll show you a bad one. The arts subsidization argument holds less sway there because of the inverse relationships of population. Due to greater numbers, America insulates its writers with a diminished probability that the poor sod slagged in a review will later sit in a position of judgment. There are many, many more books produced in America than Canada; with such a big pond, a little fish that is caught, skinned, and cooked is unlikely to induce food poisoning later. One can pan a book and walk the streets of Manhattan without fear of getting the literary equivalent of a mugging, which isnít true in Toronto. For example, Chongís article prompted Globe and Mail Books editor Martin Levin to hurtfully respond that Chong was wrong. Levin researched the previous yearís Globe book reviews and added up the pluses and the minuses and came up with a sum on the plus side of the ledger. But what does this really mean? And is Levin a trustworthy standard-bearer for the state of Canadian book reviewing?

Over 50 years ago, George Orwell wrote in Confessions of a Book Reviewer,

It is almost impossible to mention books in bulk without greatly overpraising the great majority of them... Until one has some kind of professional relationship with books, one does not discover how bad the majority of them are. 

If The Globe and Mailís record is near 50-50, this means that half of the books reviewed got positive notice, by the editorís own admission. Such mathematics are skewed; there arenít 50 Canadian books published in a year that deserve praise. And those that are happily groomed get praised to high heaven. Hereís Toronto Star book critic Philip Marchand, the closest thing Canada has to a reliable reviewer:

If I have erred as a critic, I have erred by being too appreciative. I donít think thereís a single negative word about any authorís book that I would take back, but I seriously wonder about some of the praise I have dispensed. -Ripostes. Reflections on Canadian Literature. Porcupineís Quill. 1998. 

To explain the surplus of softness in Canadian book reviews, one returns to already-argued points: we are either too polite (Marchand thinks so), or we are afraid to write our minds.

Globalism: Book reviewing a hackís art

Last summer, Salon (http://www.salon.com/books/feature/2001/07/19/book_reviews/index.html) magazine carried a post-literary apocalyptic column by Kevin Berger. In the column, Berger describes, in true-crime investigative style, the banishment of book reviews to the bowels of the San Franscisco Chronicle, where eccentric wish-I-was-moving upward cub reporters perform Herculean tasks: create a credible books section with bare-bones staff, and, worse yet, have your sectionís space reduced by a quarter. Bergerís piece has relevance in Canada: the National Post, Canadaís other daily newsapaper, has had its books section cut by a page in order to "better serve its customers". The article provides evidence of the decline and fall of the Chronicleís books section (inevitable, in light of the decline of itís raison díetre, the book review). It is convincing, and Berger cites six other major-market American newspapers who have in the past year cut back on their coverage of books. He says newspaper editors see book reviewers as entry level hacks, sharing the lowest rung of the newspaper ladder with obituaries. In their eyes, reviewing is a doomed, anachronistic pursuit that leads upward to freelance work, junior news reporter, and all-around gopher. Levin commented on this column in the Globe. His opinion is thus:

What disturbs me is not so much the diminution of books sections as their predictability, the consequence of a more widespread cultural problem. They should feel as if they have a particular identity. Readers of the Globe and Mail, for instance, should count not only on reviews that are thoughtful and timely, but views that may be quirky, surprising, and even challenging. 

Heís partly right. A books section should do as he prescribes, but note what he feels is already implicit in these sections: timeliness, and thoughtfulness. Reviews nowadays might be timely, but they are rarely thoughtful; our cultural ferment just isnít supplying venerable editors like Levin with criticism that engages the subject at hand. Nor is it encouraging editors to expect excellence. Levin goes on to write: "Still, whatever its size, a books section worth reading needs ambition. Its reach should exceed its grasp, or whatís a newspaper for?" I ask a more basic question: what is a review for? Iíve already described what the book review shouldnít be- an exercise in reviewer vanity, ignorance, and fear. What it should be is an excellent piece of writing in itself, free from stock clichť. The reviewer and the author are both practicing the same craft; the standards applied to the author should apply also to the reviewer. Leonard Cohen once said, "I always feel that the critics are on trial. I always look carefully at the criticism that comes my way...I read it as a piece of writing, and I generally find it wanting." The review should be intelligent, written with an authority that supports its argument, more than just the oversimplified "good" and "bad" categories used by the contemporary reviewer. It should be unafraid of its reception, and insulated by truth. Finally, perhaps most importantly, the review should put the book and author in context. What influences can be ferreted out, what cultural moment (not pop culture, but literary culture) does the book come from? Is there author biography -not reviewer biography- that is relevant for inclusion in the review? Again, the review should answer the central question: from where does this book come? For if there is one law in all of literature, it is that books come from other books.

The Practitioner

Let us consider the poor book reviewer more closely: heís sandwiched himself between his own literary ambition (that bottom-drawer unfinished novel or rejected manuscript of poems) and his day job at the laundromat, conveyor-belt factory, or Skydome confectionary. Whatís a time-challenged striver, hack, and subscriber to popular opinion to do but what comes naturally- adopt duplicitous convention? Though I vehemently disagree with him most of the time, David Solway perhaps expresses this best when referring to Anne Carsonís rocketship prominence in his most recent polemic (Books in Canada, July 2001):

I have long suspected that the genus of drab writing... is the reflex... of the desire to acquire status in an official community of impresarios, critical strategists and bravura players. Of course they cannot do it alone but require the complicity of...a cartel of influential critics eager to encourage it. ..if the work is so obstreporously bad, how account for the reputation? This is mainly spread and consolidated by editors, critics, and reviewers whose literary expertise- regardless of whatever previous accomplishments they may licitly boast- can be described in far too many instances as a kind of higher Seasame Street word-and-number recognition facility. They tend to sound like scolistic Counts and half-educated Big Birds reacting with manic delight to the lexical fragments and allusions that Carson-type poetry provides for their enlightenment... 

Other institutions have sounded a similar alarm. In the July/August issue of the Atlantic Monthly, B.R. Myers writes:

For years now editors, critics, and prize jurors, not to mention novelists themselves, have been telling the rest of us how lucky we are to be alive and reading in these exciting times...itís as if a team of hotel chefs were getting excited about their assortment of cabbages. 

Editors, prize jurors, and novelists are in a conflict of interest here. They all have other day jobs and possess a compromising bias. In the editorís case, the duty is to trumpet, trumpet, trumpet; the novelist promotes others with a writing style and tenor similar to his very own; the prize juror is as likely to be an astronaut as a writer. No, the chief culprits responsible for a general decline in literary criticism are the reviewers and critics themselves - they are the ones who are supposed to compress hyperbole and recast neglected reputations; at the very least, they should try to get things right, expressing themselves with a hybrid of felicity and annoyance. It seems that all of the mounting pressures upon the reviewer (lack of respect, the danger of telling the truth, poor pay, canonical ignorance, jealousy, no professional ethic) contribute to his propensity in getting things wrong. The culmination of this wrongness lies in the absence of talent. Talent is the core of the book review: a receptive talent, an interpretative talent, and a communicative talent. If this core is lacking, so is the significance of the review - doomed to parrot last yearís consensus, skip its appointment with thought, reflect outwardly the inward emptiness of the reviewer, and miss the opportunity to add to what should be a serious debate about literature.

Credo

Who killed book reviewing? We did. All of us. Fed a steady diet of egalitarianism, we have grown into adult members of an undiscriminating cult of individual equality, and as such this entitles us to our opinion - and perhaps even the public means to express opinion. Opinions are necessarily formulated atop the scaffolds of our own experience, but opinions are strong or weak depending upon the breadth, specialization, and caliber of that experience. Reviews as penned by persons whom would once be considered lay public inhabit less the thing itself (literature) but more the persons themselves. The book is no longer separate, a thing unto itself; is a part of the body public, absorbed, and ready for regurgitation in the form of summer vacation essay. I recommend that our culture rehabilitate the review; let us elevate it to a status approaching that of the book under consideration. If we do, our expectations of reviewers will be much higher; mere opinion will meld with artistry, culling the opinionites that log on to web sites, leaving only those with a sense of craft, of calling. If reviewers take themselves seriously, they may build what is to come: reviews that are influential, that matter, as opposed to Jack Mclellandís belief that "reviews are of little significance except for any effect they may have on the psyche of the author." Reviews will come to entertain an able mind while educating it. Books themselves will benefit: instead of languishing in a have-opinion-will-comment atmosphere, they will be pilloried; they will be celebrated; they will get roughhoused; they will get their cheeks tweaked; they will lull a book-buying public away from powerhouse marketing and toward significant works. In time, the talented reviewer may yet become a celebrity - current cultureís barometer of worth.

Shane Neilson is a book reviewer.


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