Saturday, January 02, 2010

On Reviewing: Gregory Betts

An Inter-review, including on Mathew Timmons’ Credit

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?

GB: Pre-blogger Bertram Brooker argued that the role of the critic is “to clarify for the public the artist’s aims and show to what extent he has succeeded in realizing them.” It seems relatively straightforward, but such a formula requires an enormous effort in quieting the evaluative tendencies most critics fall prey to, and in confronting a work on its own terms. Evaluation has a role, but only in relation to the terms of the project. I do write about books on blogs, but it does not change my basic ambition for a review – which is to first situate a text within a larger context, and only then to talk about the specific achievements of a work in relation to that context. Blogs tend to brevity, which too often means a sacrifice of the former for an over-abundance of the latter.

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?

GB: Let me give an example: a pdf of Mathew Timmons’ Credit just landed on my figurative doorstep, and it seems at first glance to be a new kind of book. As a new book smashes its way into my neural network, I grasp at the life-preserver of what I already know by parsing the book’s coding to find how it negotiates the structural conventions it inherits. Credit is a self-published work, which has specific implications and a rather rich set of significations. It means that the established publishing world would not or was not allowed to touch the book for some reason: perhaps the book is too eccentric, or conversely too derivative; perhaps the author is too impatient with the literary industry practices, or conversely too unwilling to compromise to work with an editor. In all of these cases, and the many more that dance before my circuitry, the context for such a project shifts from normative literary practice to the margins – the space of vanity publishing ventures andor the avant-garde. Timmons is American, which fact immediately calls to minds the litany of American authors who also self-published – including Walt Whitman, Edgar Allen Poe, Allen Ginsberg, and d.a. levy.
                The second page of Timmons’ manuscript, like a Margaret Atwood paperback, features twelve authors offering paragraph-length praise for the book. The effect of this second page is remarkable: not only does it establish that the author has taken promotion of his project seriously, but it also establishes a specific context and audience for the project. All twelve names are given, alongside a host of other references in the blurbs themselves – to Jackson Mac low, Walter Benjamin, On Kawara, Alfred Jarry, and Dadaism to note a few. The context for the book, this page announces, is this collection of experimental artists, but as the comments by the writers all in their own way explain, it is also “the excessive consumer culture that is the USA.” The book, as one commenter notes, must be read as both “intertwined and semiotically separate” from the conditions that created the current/ongoing economic crisis that is capitalism.
                The book itself is excessive in a way that suggests a marvellous metonymy of the USA: at 800 pages, its scale is magnificent. It is, in fact, the longest book (the online self-publishing behemoth that is “empowering authors to publish their work themselves for free” for a fee) allows, and costs the maximum amount the company permits (the limits of even fee-based freedom). Before I even confront the content of the text, I can tell from its title, its means of publication, and this remarkable page of self-promoting blurbs in a self-published book about promotion, consumption, and the current culture of “inept budget management” that the book situates itself as a conceptual publishing project. Similarly, no one (or almost no one) will buy this book for its own inept budget management, which makes it an ideal (literally) site for interrogation of the problem it investigates and inhabits.
                The page of quotes also reminds me of Whitman’s use of Emerson’s private praise in Leaves of Grass; a bit of self-promotion that likely infuriated the older, shall we say less capitalistic, author.
                These are the kinds of things I think about upon picking up a book, before actually entering or animating its virtual pages. And it is against such self-definition that I begin my evaluation, allowing room for the possibility that a book has been mismarketed by the publishers and authors themselves. In Timmons’ case, the book perfectly fulfills the deconstructive gaze its material (which, until the book is actually bought and thus printed, remains a conceptual) shell concocts.

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?

GB: Good reviewers are actually sorters – they allow any reader to know whether a book is appropriate for them even if the book is not to the critic’s taste. This makes for an internal tension in all reviews between style – the reviewer’s need to speak and judge – and encounter – the reviewer’s confrontation with the alien voice and intention of another. Success comes from balancing upon a wire between writing well and reading well.

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?

GB: Some would argue that my approach ignores the text itself – which in the mini-pre-review above, might certainly seem to hold true. I see Timmons’ book, as a conceptual project, however, as fitting into Kenny Goldsmith’s propositional genre of “unreadable books” – which is to say, that the idea of the book far exceeds any specific moment of expression within it. My mini-pre-review above highlights an example where context and concept are necessary in approaching a book – otherwise a reviewer would never confront the author in the realm of their particular project. No doubt it has an enormous impact on my criticism, for without that step away from my own aesthetics I would remain only talking about myself – which is always the mark of an unsuccessful review. And to be clear, even books that do not trouble the medium of book publishing are noteworthy for this fact. I always ask myself, where does this book’s originality begin? With the book object? The ink? The use of margins? The poetic forms? The language? Almost no books are original in these regards, though some like Timmons’ book manage this unlikely feat. These kinds of questions establish a significant context through which to encounter the creative act behind a text as original and as conceptually creative as Credit.

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?

GB: Not surprisingly, not so different. My struggle as a writer is to quiet myself and let me be open to the terms of the work or the project. I am always compromising my writing despite myself.

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?

GB: Yes; in fact, I do not like most books I read. In reviewing, I try (and admittedly sometimes fall into temptation) to write in such a way that someone who shares my general aesthetic values would know to avoid a certain text, whereas someone who does not might yet get turned on enough to seek it out. My first negative review was classified a positive review by online databases because the classifier took my descriptions of the book – such as “traditional”, “lyric”, “confessional”, “calm”, and “flat, neutral, and unselfconscious use of language” – to be virtues.

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?

GB: This is an interesting question. I am constantly re-evaluating my opinions on authors, especially as they develop over time, so reconsideration is not a particularly traumatic experience for me as a critic. The last piece of writing to significantly alter my conception of an author, leading me to make a purchase, was a series of emails from bill bissett on Pat Lowther and Vancouver in the 1960s. I had read Pat too young, as a Beat-drunk teenager, and missed the raging excellence in her quietude.

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

GB: I always appreciate a humble reviewer who understands the limits of his or her abilities as a reader, and thus works hard to study a text. Most reviewers do not work hard enough for a work that falls outside of their preferred tastes.

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?

GB: I will continue to review, admittedly in part because I do get paid to do it. As writing and literature become increasingly marginal cultural events, and as opinions flow freely through cyberspace, however, I see no increased demand or paid opportunities on the horizon.

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

GB: This may sound strange, in light of my comments above, but in some respects I approach critical writing as a personal reader’s journal. As a result, instead of defending my aesthetic turf, I write about what I have learned (or conversely not learned) from a given work. This is me reaching out as a reader. When the book I have reached out to proves to be vanilla, I need to know why it sags if only to remind myself of what to avoid.
                Yes, I believe that reviews convince people to buy books. One review, though, has little impact, but cumulative reviews can create an implied consensus on a work. This is likely why Timmons’ work so carefully displays the abundance of extremely positive reviews and comments his project has already received: if you build up enough critical credit, at a certain point it pays off in readership and attention. Do reviews bring in new readers? I think literary promotion is too often a case of competing for diminishing returns: publishers only ever advertise in literary magazines, and literary reviews have less and less cachet in the media marketplace. In the end, the best way to create new readers is to create new and better kinds of books.

Gregory Betts is the author of If Language (BookThug) and The Others Raisd in Me (Pedlar Press). He lives in St. Catharines, Ontario, where he curates the Grey Borders Reading Series and co-edits PRECIPICe literary magazine.


Lemon Hound said...

Greg, did you pay $199 for Credit?

functional nomad said...

I wish; I couldn't afford it, so I put it on my tab.