Wednesday, January 20, 2010

On Reviewing: Elizabeth Bachinsky

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?

EB: To my mind successful reviews identify works and discuss them within their own framework or tradition; the reviewer—and his or her opinion of the work—is nearly invisible; and the review acts as a signpost to readers to go this way, or not, and don’t presume to know what readers want, or don’t want, from a text. I do occasionally write about other people’s books on my blog, but, since I use my blog as a report on my literary activities rather than a critical forum, the books that get mentioned there are most often the ones by writers I come into contact with on the road.

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?

EB: I seldom write reviews, but sometimes I read them. I especially enjoy reviews by David Orr, who writes for the New York Times and who I met in Toronto a few years ago. I enjoy his learned colloquialisms and the questions he raises about poetry seem to place those books he reviews into an historical context, which I appreciate. His knowledge seems equally grounded in tradition and innovation, and, in fact, he doesn’t seem to distinguish between the two. He’s a careful reader whose insights welcome his audience into the conversation. One never feels on the outside when reading Orr’s work. He’s a fine, generous, writer and a compassionate reader with an interest in seeing poetry, and poets, be relevant in the future. It should also be said that—so far as I know—he is not a poet. He’s a reader of poetry who writes for other readers of poetry. This seems significant to me. Marjorie Perloff is interesting to me for the same reasons. She is also a fine, engaging, reviewer.

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?

EB: See question two.

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?

EB: Since I don’t really write reviews, I’ll choose to speak as an author here. It is my preference that reviewers consider a poet’s body of work when discussing new collections. I don’t know if it is necessary for a reviewer to reference past works in the discussion of the new, but I think he or she should be conversant on the subject or be prepared to embark on the significant task of familiarizing one’s self with a poet’s oeuvre before sitting down to write. I think this raises the question: how committed can a reviewer be to such a task when they are basically working for free? In this country, and this time, one cannot even begin to eke out a living as a reviewer of literary works, let alone as a reviewer of poetry. To review poetry carefully and conscientiously in Canada is to offer volunteer labour to a community of readers and writers. Not everyone can, or should, offer such a gift.

LH: If you also write non-critical work, how different is the way you approach reviewing or critical writing to the way you approach your own “creative” writing?

EB: My creative work must always take precedent over other kinds of writing, this includes promotional efforts on my own behalf or on the behalf of others: blogs, facebook, email interviews, email correspondence, blurbs, reviews—all can take their toll on me. I am a busy writer and instructor of creative writing and participate in all the attendant administrative duties that befall busy creative people. I have founded or participated in the administration of several reading series. I’ve hosted, and continue to host, visiting writers on a regular basis. I have volunteered many years of service to literary magazines, small presses, festivals, residencies, writing groups, and the Writers Union of Canada. I have done my best to support poets of all stripes from all corners of the country. Reviewing, I’m afraid, is the straw on this camel’s back. Any spare moment I have must be spent on reading and writing, otherwise I get empty, and that’s a terrible way to be.

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?

EB: See Question 1.

LH: What is the last piece of writing that convinced you to a/ reconsider an author or book you thought you had figured out, or had a final opinion on or b/ made you want to buy the book under review immediately?

EB: I am seldom moved by a review to purchase a book, although I am certain that reviews increase my awareness of those titles that receive reviews. I am the sort of book buyer who purchases books when they are directly in front of her at a reading or on a shelf in a bookstore. I seek out books recommended to me by friends and colleagues. I don’t buy books online; but I read reviews almost exclusively there. I am attentive to publishers’ efforts at promoting books. I peruse online and print catalogues (print catalogues are especially nice) and look forward to new books by authors of which I am aware and enjoy reading. Because I am an editor for Event magazine, I try to be particularly aware of any new voices that emerge in the catalogues. Reviews seem to be on my periphery. Which is not to say I don’t recognize their impact—particularly as an author whose books have been reviewed. I have no doubt whatsoever that reviews have increased the visibility of my work and the work of friends. I am especially pleased when poetry, any poetry, is reviewed in the Globe & Mail, or The National Post. I find it depressing when months pass without a poetry review in the national papers. And yet, I am still not moved to write them.

LH: Is there a quality you are looking for in a review that you haven’t found?

EB: Of the three qualities I most admire in a successful review—consideration of audience, curiosity, context—curiosity is potentially the biggest draw for me. The least successful reviews are those in which a reviewer’s presence is so permeating that it overtakes the subject of critique. I can’t really get curious about a book that’s buried in a reviewer’s persona. I am likely to stop reading that sort of review altogether.

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?

EB: It is extremely seldom that I write anything for free. And, as far as I can recall, I have never asked anyone else to do so either. I have written two things for Lemon Hound for free. This interview is one of them. The other was a casual response to K. Silem Mohammad’s anagrams; Mohammad responded to my own anagrams soon after. It was a lot of fun and I was pleased to be introduced to a colleague in that way. I am not concerned about that kind of free community-building exchange. I do, however get concerned (furious, actually) when I catch wind of corporate blogs trolling for free writing and reviews. Yes, I have been approached by big trendy corporate blogs. And, yes, they have asked me to write for free. Yes, I haughtily declined. Blogs are a danger zone for professional writers for sure. I think this kind of request will continue and increase. And those authors who are either new and keen to make a name for themselves, or established and under pressure from publishers and agents to maintain a web presence, will be particularly vulnerable. It’s problematic. How can authors be expected to maintain a “web presence,” hold down full-time day jobs, have families, and create a body of work all at the same time? The answer is, they can’t. Not really. Some try, but it’s unsustainable. How callous to blithely ask a writer to give away their work for free. How disrespectful.

LH: What do you hope to achieve by writing about writing? Do you believe that reviews can actually bring new readers to texts?

EB: I seem to be writing about writing on writing right now. And it seems to be a sort of manifesto, starring such searing statements as:

“My creative work must always take precedent over other kinds of writing…”

“I find it depressing when months pass without a poetry review in the national papers. And yet, I am still not moved to write them.”


“How can authors be expected to maintain a “web presence,” hold down full-time day jobs, have families, and create a body of work all at the same time? The answer is, they can’t. Not really. Some try, but it’s unsustainable. How callous to blithely ask a writer to give away their work for free. How disrespectful.”

It seems to me that I am writing these things to say that there are many ways that writers can, and do, to contribute to the literary community. Reviewing is not the only way. It may not even be the most helpful or effective way for a writer to engage. It seems that I also feel as much attention should be paid to the craft of writing critical works and reviews as one might spend in a lifetime of writing creative texts. Those reviewers I most admire have done so.

Read widely, read deeply, and pull down thy vanity, as Pound would say. Volunteerism can, and probably should be, as much a part of the critical community as it is in the creative one. But, if you’re like me, at some point you might need to make a choice. And I’ve made mine. I pick poetry.

Elizabeth Bachinsky is the author of three collections of poetry, CURIO (BookThug, 2005), HOME OF SUDDEN SERVICE (Nightwood Editions, 2006), and GOD OF MISSED CONNECTIONS (Nightwood Editions, 2009). Her work has been nominated for the Kobzar Literary Award (2009), the Governor General's Award for Poetry (2006), the Bronwen Wallace Award (2004) and a Pushcart Prize (2009) and has appeared in literary journals, anthologies, and on film in Canada, the United States, France, Ireland, England, and China. She lives in East Vancouver where she is an instructor of creative writing and Poetry Editor for Event magazine. Find her website here.


voxpopulism said...

I really appreciated the intensity of Elizabeth's response to the freebies question, but it felt a bit like shaking one's fist at a cloud. I mean, people (most people, hopefully) engage in writing about writing because they like it. Another metaphor may be someone demanding to be paid to play piano. It may be nice to get paid, sure, but anyone who has developed enough skills in that profession to be asked must have a deep and long-held love for the act.

I don't know if I understand outrage at this situation. I mean, I don't want to write for amazon either but, if something strikes me as worthy of comment (like this post, for example), I'm going to want to write about it. Whether I do that in a newspaper, journal, blog, or whatever, seems secondary.

Lemon Hound said...

Well, I'll let Liz speak to the level of outrage.

Obviously none of this blog would have happened had I waited for someone to pay me, so yes, it's kind of insulting on one level.

But the question of payment is complicated, and very timely: I don't think Liz's anxiety is unfounded.

Harper knows you'll write whether he funds you or not, Jacob, that's the problem. Conservatives think art comes out of struggle, not adequate funding...

voxpopulism said...

I'm not sure if he thinks too much about either. But maybe when faced when choosing between an art-creation paradigm that costs money, and one wherein he could spend that money to fund the Sheep Trader Weekly, or whatever, he picks the most politically expediant one.

And I think the corporate blogs are WAYYYY over the idea of the "professional writer". The most visited book sit in the world is Amazon, and they have thousands and thousands of "reviewers" whose amateur statuses are used as a selling point, not a point of detraction. Because, What do critics know, anyway? is the most economically expedient criticism-creation paradigm.

Lemon Hound said...

And yet the blog still has game, as they say.

I am waiting for CanLit journals to innovate and respond to the times: they are steadfastly digging in their heels instead.

I understand why, I mean I sympathize, but it's time to rethink. Leap in fact.

voxpopulism said...

Yeah. The blogs have game whenever they are supplied with content and direction by people with a level of dedication and talent on par or better than their print-journal contemporaries. The blogs are as good or awful as the work that goes into them. And I think bloggers get that said work needs to be unpaid, predominantly, even if it opens up avenues to paid work.

Holding up the pittances supplied by most print markets in this country as sacred objects, and reacting as violently as Bachinsky did to the threats against them, is understandable whereas what we're really talking about here is class defense, not the defense of the written word. But, you know, let's begin by calling things what they really are, says me.

Elizabeth Bachinsky said...

The suggestion that an artist can’t have “a deep and long-held love” for their art while seeking to be paid for their work is totally baffling to me! To be clear: “I get concerned (furious, actually) when I catch wind of *corporate* blogs trolling for free writing and reviews.” I do NOT take issue with free community-building blogs, websites, what-have-you in which readers and writers express “long-held loves” for the act of writing or criticism (such as this excellent Lemon Hound, for example). *Corporate* blogs, newspapers, magazines, film companies, etc are potentially money-making ventures that stand to profit from the labour of professional writers who need to make a living just like professional musicians, visual artists, dancers, filmmakers et al.. Would it be appropriate for a corporation to ask a concert pianist to give a for-profit performance for free? I don’t think so. Why should writers’ skills be any less valued? Of course it’s up to individual writers to make the choice for themselves. I've simply identified where I stand. Love or no love, when you spend forty plus hours a week at the keyboard, writing becomes work. I can’t work for free very often and I don’t encourage others to work for free. And, yes, I feel passionately about it. Me? Shill books for For free? Never.

voxpopulism said...

Hi Elizabeth,

Yes, that would be a baffling suggestion. Which is why, to my eye, I was making the exact opposite one, right? I'm reading my comment again and that seems to be the message. People practiced enough at critical writing to be hired for it tend to have a love for it, a love that is often first expressed through unpaid publication. And I agree about the corporate blog thing. But neither I nor (I think) Lemon here write for such places, at least for free. Mostly, we both kinda shill for ourselves :)

Cheers and beers,

Lemon Hound said...

"Volunteerism can, and probably should be, as much a part of the critical community as it is in the creative one. But, if you’re like me, at some point you might need to make a choice. And I’ve made mine. I pick poetry..."

Liz, just to trouble this...we all pick poetry don't we? Your picking your own poetry. Fair enough, but it does set oneself, if not "outside" of the discourses of poetry and the creation of larger poetry narratives, then certainly not in direct conversation.

I think that you bring up some important issues here, how to manage all of one's time, etc., but the notion of being in critical dialog as being volunteerism seems a little off to me.

It's draining, quite frankly, but I think it's more draining because the bulk of the conversation is being left to a few...

Razovsky said...

I'm curious about Jake's definition of "violence."