Monday, January 04, 2010

On Reviewing: Jacob McArthur Mooney

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?

JMM: The purpose of book reviewing is to boost good literature. That’s not to say that the purpose of each and every individual review is to act as a marketing tool for the book in question, because part of the reviewer’s task is to take an educated guess at whether, in broad terms, the book stands a reasonable chance at becoming “good literature”. In the blandest, strictest sense, the point of a reviewer is to separate the incoming voices into “helping” and “not helping”, and then report back their findings to the greater good.

I say all this as a regular reader of book reviews, but also as someone who has published maybe ten “traditional” reviews, and who remembers perhaps one or two of them as successes. I’m a blogger (though somewhat green at that, too) so for the time being my primary critical question is this: in exactly what way(s) does the medium switch from print to web change the structure and role of book reviewing, taking into account the technological, economic, editorial, and social differences between the two mediums?

The difference you hear the most about is length, for reasons that have to do with all four of the attributes listed above. Blog posts look good at anywhere between twenty words on up to a few thousand. But I’d argue that the great new critical tool isn’t our acres of unedited space, it’s the hyperlink. Hyperlinks are to the architecture of the web as metaphors are to the architecture of language, with the added bonus that while metaphors are grown on the surface of the sentence, hyperlinks exist behind closed doors. They don’t necessarily interrupt the surface meaning. You need to pro-actively click on them to engage with whatever additional element they present to the argument being made: be that context, counterpoint, or humour. The hyperlink as a tool for humour is maybe my very favourite among its possible roles. As an example, Sina, did you know that Lemon Hound is almost my favourite poetry blog?

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?

(See half-dozen other responses.)

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?

JMM: If the subtext of this question is that a review’s success if chiefly predicated upon the appropriateness of the choices made by its author, then I reject the assumption. The great obstacles to that success are things like column inches, word limits, and editorial interference. I read a short-form review last month (in the Quill & Quire) for a first collection that I enjoyed, but the reviewer did not. It was well-written and everything, but also 300 words long. Now, the title of the book being reviewed was like eight words long, and the author’s name was two more. I imagine it’s hard to put together a review of any length that doesn’t refer to the work by name at least three times. If so, that’s 30 words, or one tenth of the entire review’s length, just given up to naming the product. What possible room is there for a “stylistic choice” of any variety after that?

Of course, that’s the short-form review. If you’re blessed with a little more space to walk around in, then my expectations as a reader are different. I’d like to see someone be willing to at least locate the path down which an opposite conclusion to their own might be found. Pluralism is a pretty good signifier of a quality critic. You don’t have to make opposing arguments, exactly, but some gesture to another point of view lets me know, as a reader, that you haven’t just latched onto the first available reaction and ran with it through to the fulfillment of your minimum word count.

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?

JMM: As a critic, it’s instinctual for me to want to move as quickly as possible from individual poems to the entirety of the author’s body of work, as well as the bodies of work of similar or somehow related authors. Close readings are fine, but they become something too mechanistic, too self-possessed, when they are done for their own sake, or for the sake of a reviewer who is unwilling or unable to see the work for its cultural implications.

I understand the importance of quoting an author when putting together a review. I make an effort to do this, but to be honest my heart is never really in it. There’s an assumption out there that the direct quote is a sign that the reviewer is willing to back up their proclamations regarding the text, the literary equivalent of “showing your work”. However, considering how variegated the average book of contemporary poetry is (even books that have an announced thematic arrangement or aesthetic concern) it’s often impossible to select a real “representative” couple of poems. Therefore, the reviewer is free to quietly act as their own editor when making these selections, and refer to individual texts that prove whatever point they feel like making. The direct quote is so often a shortcut to false legitimacy, that I find myself conflicted when using it, like I’m jumping through hoops erected by people too dumb or dishonest to work without them.

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?

JMM: I imagine, at this early point in the evolution of both pursuits, that the two are quite different, perhaps even opposite. I have no means of translating a critical paradigm into the creation, or even the alteration, of a creative product. I can’t reverse-engineer a poem using critical consideration. Likewise, I can’t build a critical argument in the same way I’d build a metaphor or image.

I don’t want to give up on the possibility, though. I wonder—what would be a creative response to the problems of criticism (and no, “Fuck you” does not count as a creative response). I wouldn’t even know where to start, but for a future-me or a current-someone else, it could be a fun thing to think about.

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?

JMM: Being a blogger and not having an editor to contend with, I really don’t have to write about anything but the books I find most interesting. That being said, I sort of do have an editor (in myself) in that I’m quite worried about Vox Pop becoming nothing more than a parade of appreciations and shout-outs to favourite authors.

One thing bloggers need to get a handle on his how to approach negative criticism. When shielded by the sense of “just doin’ my job” offered by their professionalized status, print reviewers rarely have to worry about this. But a personal blog is just that, personal, and authors are right to wonder how much an attack on a book posted on a blog is an attack on its author. Because they’re not acting on assignment, bloggers are free to withhold and share opinions as they wish, and should be held accountable for published reviews that are vicious, mocking, and unengaged.

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?

JMM: Like a lot of people, I was quite blown away by Anita Lahey’s thing about the collected MacEwen in the recent issue of Canadian Notes and Queries. A good, long piece of criticism, about a writer you already have opinions about, can take you on a pretty incredible ride. It’s exhausting, really, to process a critical work that so dexterously jukes and dekes around your own suppositions regarding the writer. Good critical writing can tucker you out just as quickly and unexpectedly as good poetry.

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

JMM: I still think that the chief job requirement for a good critic is to have a talent for reading. But, more and more, I find myself coming back to writers that can express themselves in a prose style that is unique and engaging. Entertainment is a growing concern for critics, as their soapbox shrinks and power is re-routed from their megaphone. I think that a review can make room enough to be an entertainment medium even after it fulfills the prerequisites of an informative and discursive one. This can mean a lot of things: a playfulness of tone, an affinity for spectacular language, or just the insertion of a couple jokes between bouts of polysyllabic grimness. Don’t get me wrong, I think jokes made specifically at the expense of the work or the author are signs of a weak critic, of someone who uses criticism as a means of expressing how witty the can be. However, the boosting power of a book review goes up with its readability, and entertainment is therefore a necessary consideration.

It’s a problem, when frowny-faced objectivity becomes the de facto house style of the nation’s critical environment. As authors, we’re distrusting of reviews that present as entertainments as well as information, as it moves the focus away from us and might mean the reviewer aims to do us harm. But I submit the following: that it’s unfair for authors to dismiss a negative review as inherently unengaged with the greatness of their work just because it happens to also be funny. A critical environment that banishes anything but stoic obituary-speak from their major critical markets is a sign that the power relationship between creator and critic has swung too sharply in favour of the former. 

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?

JMM: I wonder if, on par, the slouch towards unpaid critical work is a negative thing. Surely, getting paid is better for individual critics than not getting paid, but that’s not what I mean. With payment goes a number of interdependencies and forced relationships that may or may not be good for criticism as a whole. In the unpaid world of book-blogging, bloggers are free to choose the works they want to talk about, they aren’t edited or rewritten, and most importantly, absolutely nobody is doing it for the paycheque, or because it’s better than their “straight job”. Obviously, working without the support systems of editorial assistance, fact-checkers, and the whole hive-structure of the paid print environment demands that reviewers are independently honest. It also demands a readership that can independently detect dishonesty or hackery, without the usual cues offered by paid critical markets, such as the reputation of the magazine. In brief, the wider playing field of the internet and its lack of external economic legitimization demands both a higher class of critic and a higher class of reader. If either part of that excites you, I suggest jumping in. All we’re really missing are the critics and the readers.

This is not to say that there won’t always be a place for the flagship reviewing markets, and I understand the object lesson offered by places like on the perils of the amateur review. But I’d also offer the object lesson of Kirkus on the perils of the professional one, as it shrunk its readership down to a scattering of librarians and publicists, and then ceased to exist. All things being equal, if forced to choose between the minimum-wage gigs of a few dozen freelance reviewers (who would much rather be doing something wholly different), and the survival of criticism itself, forgive me for not taking too long to think about it.

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

JMM: I honestly believe (hold your laughter) that reading and writing about books will make me a better writer of books. So, in that way, my intentions are selfish. But I care deeply about this time and place being a legitimate and lasting contributor to the global historical procession of literature. As a writer, it would be good to be part of something that, in the long term, mattered.

As far as new readers go, I think we’re kidding ourselves as poetry reviewers if we think that somewhere out there is a hoard of potential verse-enthusiasts just waiting for an appropriately brilliant critic to come along and betroth them to the book of their dreams. Most people who read poetry reviews are regular readers of poetry, and most people who write those reviews are poets. Therefore, the insular element of reviewing is more important to me than any external ambassadorship to the rest of the world. I’m more interested in reviewing for the conversation it elicits between poets, in the hopes that all of those poets (the writer of the review, its subject author, and those who are reading it) are somehow enriched by the experience. The ambassadorship role then falls where it should, on the poets and their poems. It’s not up to poetry reviewers to market poetry. Poems should be marketing poetry.

Jacob McArthur Mooney plays host at the poetry blog Vox Populism and is the author of The New Layman’s Almanac (McClelland & Stewart, 2008) and a second collection, tentatively titled Folk (M&S, 2011).


Brenda Schmidt said...

This and the other posts on reviewing are great. Thanks for this.

Lemon Hound said...

Thanks Brenda. Lots to think about here. And more to come.