This summer I have been doing a lot of writing...but not the writing I thought I would be doing. I've been writing letters. First, a letter to the Heritage Minister about the de-funding for the Literary Press Group. A decision that was incredibly, magically reversed (which I attribute to all of our letters, especially this one by the amazing Sheree Fitch!). Then I wrote letters to my fellow members of CWILA congratulating them on their hard work and beautiful pie charts. And now I find myself needing to write this letter, an open letter, about the art of reviewing, in response to this recent article that Michael Lista has written in the National Post. To which, thankfully, Jan Zwicky has written a beautiful response.
The more voices that are brought to this discussion of reviewing the better, I think. So here is my voice, added into the mix. Here is what I would write in the National Post. Here is my part of this conversation I would bring to Michael Lista over a good cup of coffee.
Will I give this book a “good” or “bad” review? I can promise you that I will endeavour to do neither.
The call of CWILA for more women to write reviews – a call “seconded” by Michael Lista in “On Poetry: The good in bad reviews” June 29 2012—is invigorating. I, like Lista, imagine that “CWILA will inspire women who hadn’t reviewed before now to start” and am thrilled at the possibility of such a simple measure creating “a new era of criticism in Canada”. On this Canada Day long weekend, I delight in this prospect as I await the arrival by post of the poetry that, upon joining CWILA, I promptly signed up to review (as per Lista’s prediction). I have never read the poetry of the woman whom I will shortly be reviewing. Will I like this poetry? I am not sure. Will I give this book a “good” or “bad” review? I can promise you that I will endeavour to do neither.
Until being inspired by CWILA’s numbers, I had not asked to review a book in over two years. Reviewing books is difficult and time-consuming work. I—like all of us spurred on by those pie charts, now contemplating whether to review—have been busy. For writers, as Lista acknowledges in his interview on the CWILA website, the work of writing a review takes concentrated time that could be spent writing our own poetry, novels, books of essays, dissertations, and lists of things-to-do-before-imminent-death. Yet a review is also a work of art. It is a piece of literature. Like the literature one contemplates and reads and re-reads when one is given the task of reviewing, reviews themselves should surely be able to move beyond simply being sycophantic or invective, simply “good” or “bad” in a Hollywood Western sense. Nor do I think a reviewer who has truly spent time with a book will feel simply love and hate for their object of study. If we as critics “honeymoon” with books, as Lista suggests, then surely, like on a real honeymoon, our thinking and feeling will be complex, nuanced, not-what-we-expected.
The thing about literature is that its very existence complicates our understanding of the concepts of good and bad and love and hate. Truth’s many facets are revealed when we read. Our ability to see beauty changes when we look at, and think about, art. I, for one, think there is the potential for us to be transformed through nearly any piece of literature: through graffiti on a bus, through a student’s piece in a workshop, through the poetry of John Donne, through a thoughtful review. After reading a book we will not be who we were when we began. Or, as Lista writes, “a work of art reorients your whole perspective”. Isn’t an addiction to this reorienting experience why we also read the Books section of the National Post? We as readers are so addicted to the mind-altering experience of books that we will seek out articles and reviews even remotely related to reading books.
I agree with Lista that one of the purposes of a review is “to begin a conversation, not to end it”; but, in my experience, conversation requires hospitality. Doesn’t insult typically shut down the desire for conversation? And isn’t it possible that the timidity or introversion of those writers Lista relegates to law school will yield a literary conversation as compelling as the work from those of us who happen to be extroverts? If a review is also a piece of literature, ought a review not also aspire to be as complex, complicated, and aware-of-form as the work of our most astonishing writers? It is because I agree with Lista that I am surprised to find his own practices do not reflect his stated principles. When reviewing, Lista does not read carefully or accurately. He brings irrelevant observations to bear on a text, so that the particular focus his review remains unclear: is he talking about the book before him, or the free-associations occurring while he reads? He frequently employs insult and invective in his reviews. After reading a review by Lista I am left wondering, is it not possible to share aspects of a work that are difficult for us as a reviewer to appreciate without being, well, assholes to each other? After all, Lista reminds us that we are “adult” and “professional”. Can’t we aim toward the complex rather than the scathing?
If we can agree on doing better than writing reviews that fall into dichotomies of invective or flattery, then I am left wondering what is wrong with Jan Zwicky’s idea that when reviewing we listen. What is wrong with her suggestion that “we give over our attention fully to the other, that we stop worrying about who’s noticing us, that we let the ego go”? We make better lovers when we listen. Isn’t the most mind-blowing sex had when we aren’t worried about what we look like naked or what others will think hearing our pleasure from the open fire-escape window? What I have heard from listening to Zwicky’s essay is not to keep my mouth shut, but to endeavour to find genuine delight in the texture and impulse of the words before me. To think. To be critical. To write about the experience of reading in a way that is as complex as reading is itself. To see if my rules and habits can be changed. (And, if my habits are so stolid that they can’t be changed by the poetry I’m given, perhaps to return the books for another reviewer to read, and request something else.) My reading of CWILA’s pie charts, and my choice to join the organization, was an understanding that CWILA’s mandate is not just quantitative (this isn’t just about adding more women and stirring), but is also qualitative, it is about changing the culture of reviewing in this country. My reading of CWILA’s pie charts makes me think that changing rules and habits is what this continuing conversation is actually all about.