Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Mandating book reviews and discussions?

Thanks to Bookninja for pointing out This plea for more book reviewing in Canada, and in particular at the CBC. And I agree, Canada Reads is not enough. In my humble opinion the problem has to do with a lack of guts. Yes, guts. It takes guts to be a good reviewer, a good publisher, a good producer and/or editor. One can't wait for someone else to say what's worth reading, one needs to go out on a limb and make more daring choices. And then open up those choices to the common reader.

As the industry gets pummeled this is the very aspect that becomes more scarce. Everyone becomes less daring at the very time when daring is what is needed. The Ceeb, and the Writers Festivals, make more and more predictable choices, taking less and less risks. Piggybacking on the choices of other, bigger literary fish. Not the way to build an interesting literature. The reason Can Lit was so exciting "back in the day" is that people were making bold choices, big bold choices that they believed in, that they promoted and in doing so, created a dynamic literary world

Now they just look at the New York Times, or the London Review of Books, or the prize lists. We're becoming reduced to a people who only discuss books in terms of prizes... Those bloggers who do the work for nothing? Perhaps they are the ones doing that work now, making bolder choices, and actually unpacking texts for readers, not just celebrating the safe and the banal.


Sheryda said...

Short essay by Jason Guriel in the May issue of POETRY about, among other things, the fear of the "negative" poetry review, which I think speaks to your argument about "guts"-- The essay is followed by two good "negative" book reviews as examples of just that. When Guriel says "And for the love of poetry, be skeptical," I agree.

Lemon Hound said...

Alas I don't agree with Guriel at all, though I can see why you equate being negative with having guts.

Not at all what I mean though. As for the notion of being skeptical--I am very skeptical of poetry critics and broad statements such as "Going Negative" which, like "best lists" is designed to bump up the number of hits a given site has.

Lemon Hound said...

ps I also disagree that the negative review is unique. We see a lot of negative reviews here in Canada.

I'm not advocating for cheerleading, which I know is what usually gets placed as the opposite of a negative review, rather for more of a sense of inquiry. Hence my How Poems Work focus.

Opening poetry to people seems quite a useful undertaking.

Defining things in terms of what they aren't is tempting, and likely I do it here as well, but I do try and avoid it.

Sheryda said...

I don't think Guriel's argument is well-rounded at all, but it's one part of the ongoing discussion about reviewing. I think Zwicky's essay about positive reviews is another part of the conversation (The Ethics of the Negative Review, Malahat Review, No. 144, Fall 2003). And yours another. And on and on.

I like reviews that offer close reading, curiosity, fair questioning, and, yes, an opening into poetry. I think both daring and intelligence are necessary.

As an aside, I like the way Hass talks about poems in Now and Then, though they aren't reviews.

Chris said...

I wonder, and truly don't know, if it has something to do with there being a stake now, and maybe there wasn't much of one then. If there's no stake, you just do what you want, to please yourself and/or your friends, and this can lead to strange works (or not strange works) that excite (at least you or your friends). Whereas if there is a stake, if there is a public or a grant board or some amorphous unknowable master to try to please, then you might be more conservative, try to follow the tide and fit in with the already accepted crowd. What is the system of rewards here? It seems like there are too many rewards in place for average work. (Would more reviews actually change that system of rewards?)

Lemon Hound said...

By having something at stake now do you mean in terms of prizes? Publication? Jobs?

I am not really advocating so much for reviews as I am for opening up and complicating the general discourse around books and seems to me that it is our cultural duty to engage, not only with international lists, but with the work being created in our own backyard.

And further that it behooves us to look outside of the very small literary infrastructures we have in place, which shrink without risk, without brave people at the helm willing to wade in and say, what is this little strand of thinking doing? Where did it come from? What's going on there?

Lemon Hound said...

Just posted this on the original post over at This Magazine:

I'm just wondering if the statement that Canada has only two salaried book reviewers is hyperbole, or statistic. It is shocking indeed that we don't have more forums for discussing books and for introducing literature and the discussion of it to a larger audience. In truth we might as well pull all literary funding if we aren't also going to support and develop ways of promoting and engaging with it.

Chris said...

Well actually let me take this back a few steps: What was exciting in Can Lit back in the day, and what systems allowed it to happen? What, specifically, are the paths that you're tracing and longing for? My sense of this is... surely quite badly informed, at best.

Lemon Hound said...

Ah, Chris, I can count on you to slow the pace and ground things in details. Always a good plan.

I'm not sure I'm longing for the past, I'm reacting to the original post's notion that there was some other time, a golden moment. No doubt there was. I wasn't there but I benefited from the arrival of Canadian poetry into the classroom, for instance.

Many of the institutions we take for granted now--publications such as Brick, presses such as Coach House and Anansi, were started because people were excited about the work around them, and their own...sort of like BookThug and Snare, now. We do see that excitement, grass roots, in places like The Scream, in Toronto with its creative curating, etc.

I get a sense of energy from the National Post book blog...but where else?

And I'm being rambly here and off the cuff I know.

Perhaps part of the problem is that a lot of folks are waiting for those paid gigs...they aren't interested in creating their own and doing that work that went on in the golden era of Can Lit. Rather they want to sidle up to the trough...

Which makes me love folks like Jay Millar even more because he didn't wait for the Canada Council to say yes.

He said yes.