LH: What do you think the purpose of a review is? If you also write about books on a blog, why? What does blogging let you do differently?
MP: In my opinion, the purpose of a review is to present to the reader the act of engagement. Evaluation, proselytizing, are secondary to my experience of reviewing. Rather, I believe that the review should engage with the text, on the page, so that the reader can witness that. S/he might decide to read the book or might not, based on the review, but s/he really does deserve to know that the reviewer made the effort to come to terms with the text.
I don’t write a blog & don’t want to. When I was a teenager, one of my favourite music reviews was in an issue of NME or Melody Maker. The critic (it might have been Nick Kent) had been asked to review the new single by Foreigner, & his review was a single line: “Utter bloody bullshit.” I loved the indignation behind that, the cockiness. And the song was dreadful. But looking back at it now, I realize that the review reflected a kind of juvenile laziness. Maybe that was why it appealed at the time?
LH: If you write reviews, how would you describe your approach, or method? Do you offer or engage in exegesis, theoretical, academic, reader response, close, contextual or evaluative readings? If you don’t write but read reviews, what aspects of reviewing do you notice?
MP: I guess the best way to describe my own approach would be to suggest that it’s a kind of bricolage. I tend to approach each review as a sort of cautious but curious reader, trying to get a sense of what it is that the book is attempting to do & then poking at the text to see how well it holds up against that ambition. There’s some degree of evaluation involved, clearly—if I don’t think that the poems are living up to what they’re attempting, I’m bound to say so—but I actually prefer to let the reader decide for herself, based on the comments I have to offer.
LH: What do you think makes for a successful review? Is there an aspect, a stylistic choice, or perspective that necessarily produces a more significant document?
MP: It’s crucial that we remember that a review is, in many ways, an invitation. So for me the single most important aspect of a successful review is that it retains an awareness that it’s engaged in a conversation. Or, rather, in several conversations. I expect the ideal reviewer to be open to a kind of dialogue with the text, & expect the review to reflect the results of that dialogue—uncertainty & all—in a voice that isn’t hectoring or badgering. I don’t like reviews that lecture to me.
LH: When you review, do you focus on a particular text (poem, story), the book at hand, the author’s body of work? Do you think this choice of focus influences criticism, or your own criticism, and if so, how?
MP: I try to balance the review so that I’m conscious of (& acknowledge) the author’s body of work while also keeping my focus on the book at hand. I can’t imagine going into a review without some awareness of what the author has done before, & if I’m reviewing a first book that’s also something to be aware of.
LH: Have you been in a position where you have had to write about a book that you don’t care for, or a book that is coming out of a tradition that you are perhaps opposed to, or resistant to on some level? How do you handle such events? Or how have you noticed others handle these events?
MP: I’ve run into this situation quite often, really, but I’m not entirely sure I’m the best person to address the issue. My own approach has always been to look at the book on its own terms. The review isn’t only going to be read by people who might share my biases, & so it really needs to be able to (at least) attempt some kind of stance apart from the purely subjective. By which I mean, the reviewer should try to be able to respond to the poetry under consideration as poetry—not as an opponent to be knocked down, nor as a flag to prop up. Again, the notion of invitation appeals here: you’re asking the reader to come in & listen to your considered opinion about something. Readers are pretty smart people, I believe; they know if you’ve simply got an axe to grind. And not many people want to be the grindstone.
The real benefit to this stance is that I actually get to expand my own library of poetry I like. So something experimental can occupy a shelf next to something more conventionally formal, & there’s no inconsistency there.
LH: Critical work is increasingly unpaid work; will you continue to do this work despite the trend? Do you see this trend reversing, or changing course?
MP: I don’t think that the trend is reversing. In fact, I suspect that the predominance of on-line reviews means that payment for reviews will be a rare thing. I’m of two minds about this: on the one hand, I worry that this will encourage shoddy reviewing, or reviews that are throwaways. Why bother getting tangled in a close reading of a collection of poems if you’re not going to receive any compensation for the work you’ve put in? On the other hand, it’s not as though poetry reviewing has ever been a rich vein to tap. We’re not talking about millions of dollars here. So I suspect that the lack of payment won’t prevent me from writing reviews.
And maybe this change will encourage more amateur reviews, in the best sense of the word.
LH: What do you hope to achieve by writing about writing? Do you believe that reviews can actually bring new readers to texts?
MP: I really do. I really believe that readers are eager to find books worth reading, & that means that the reviewer’s job is pretty important. Or can be. Not as a marketing device, although I know that that’s one way that reviews have been seen. Think about film reviews: how many times have we gone to see a film simply because a reviewer suggested we take a chance on it? A small gem like Joe Gould’s Secret or Rushmore comes to the theatres & disappears quickly, & we might never know about it unless a reviewer tells us it’s worth checking out. I think a similar thing happens when we write about writing: some of my favourite books of the past couple of years have been books I wouldn’t have heard of had some reviewer not invited me to read them.
And that’s exactly what I want to achieve with my own reviews. I’m not going to like everything I write about, & I’m not going to praise everything I review, but I do want to be able to introduce readers to new texts. That seems an honourable occupation, really.
Mitchell Parry is the author of a novella (Vacant Rooms, from Anvil Press) & two books of poetry (Tacoma Narrows & Imperfect Penance, both published by Goose Lane Editions). He is a frequent contributor to the reviews section of The Malahat Review. He teaches Film Studies at the University of Victoria.