Tuesday, January 26, 2010

On Reviewing: Steven W. Beattie

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?

SB: There are those who believe that book reviews should confine themselves to a description of what a book is and avoid any attempt at evaluation. This is perhaps an offshoot of the marketing impulse to use reviews as a mechanism to help sell the book. My own feeling is that, although book reviews can have an effect on sales, they are not marketing tools. Rather, they represent an evaluative assessment of a particular work. Such an assessment should be based on evidence from the book under consideration and should rely on certain literary standards. (A reviewer who cannot see the literary merit in, for example, Moby-Dick or Madame Bovary – whether or not that person actually likes the books – will probably not do well in the business.)

But a good review should give more than a cursory “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” to a particular work. It should engage actively with the text and should be cognizant of where the text fits in a literary tradition (or how it breaks from that tradition). It should be honest and discriminating, though not petty or vituperative. And it should be aware of any text on two simultaneous levels: the level of form and the level of content.

Clearly, this requires much of a reviewer: she must be, in Philip Marchand’s words, “very intelligent”; she must be knowledgeable about literary history; she must be courageous enough to offer clear opinions about matters of literary merit, as well as flexible enough to recognize merit in writing that might not be specific to the reviewer’s own taste or approach, if the reviewer is also an author. (Book reviewers, of course, are unique among critics in that they work in the same medium as the artists under review, and therefore have the potential to outperform their subjects.)

Although I regularly write print reviews (for Quill & Quire, where I am review editor, and for Canadian Notes and Queries, among other places), I continue to maintain a literary website, That Shakespearean Rag. The blog allows me certain freedoms that I don’t otherwise enjoy: I’m allowed to set my own agenda and to choose the books I want to cover, and I’m not restricted to a specific word count or a limited spectrum of books available for review. For instance, I can review international books, which I can’t do at Quill, and I can write about books that are not current releases. On the blog I am free to indulge my enthusiasms, rather than being beholden to any particular editorial mandate.

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?

SB: My approach as a critic is evaluative, based on close readings of individual texts. I agree with Rónán McDonald, who points out in The Death of the Critic that the word “criticism” arose from the Greek word kritos, which means “judgment.” One reason critics and reviewers need to be “very intelligent” is that they must have sufficient background knowledge about their subject to engage in reasoned, informed acts of critical evaluation.

Having said that, it would also seem apparent that any act of reviewing has a reader response aspect to it – as does any act of reading: how could it not? – and it’s similarly difficult to separate an exegetical approach from an evaluation based on close reading. In other words, when I review a book, I try to remain aware of my own emotional response to a work and separate that from my critical assessments of a book’s literary merits or defects. It is possible to appreciate technique in a book while not much liking the book itself.

With shrinking review space and a culture that prizes immediate gratification and the quick hit, it is more difficult than ever to get all of that into a single review. Three hundred and fifty words (the average length of a Quill review) is hardly sufficient to say anything substantial about the book under discussion, let alone provide a nuanced reaction to the intricacies of the text. This is one reason I’ve always prized long-form reviews such as those that can be found in Bookforum, The New York Review of Books, or the Times Literary Supplement over shorter, “capsule” reviews. However, in our hyperlinked, attention-deficit culture, long-form reviews are becoming ever more difficult to find and are rapidly ceding ground to uninformed, carelessly written reader reviews of the kind that appear on Amazon.com.

Once again, this is where the online environment has the potential to pick up some slack. Bloggers are not beholden to word counts or vested interests; they can write longer, more nuanced pieces without worrying about the need to satisfy any kind of agenda based on advertising revenue or corporate dictates. However, there is a paucity of good writing online, particularly among blogs with little or no editorial oversight, and neuroscientists inform us that the Internet promotes horizontal reading as opposed to vertical reading, encouraging briefer engagement with texts and rapid leaps from one hyperlink to the next. In such an environment, lengthy, nuanced criticism doesn’t stand much of a chance of retaining a reader’s interest or attention.

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?

SB: A review that is merely a summary of a book’s contents is a failed review. Of course the review needs to provide the reader with an idea of what the book under consideration is, but it needs to proceed from that to a fairly rigorous analysis of how the book achieves its effects, or how (and why) it fails to do so.

A review that engages in ad hominem attacks on an author at the expense of a critical engagement with a text is a failed review.

A review that is simply a vehicle for the reviewer to show off is a failed review.

A review that castigates an author for not writing another book instead of wrestling with the book the author did write is a failed review.

A review that pulls its punches is a failed review.

A review that panders to received wisdom is a failed review.

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?

SB: Ideally, a reviewer should be in a position to put the text under consideration into some kind of context. If a reviewer is assigned a book about the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, it would be helpful for the reviewer to have at least a passing knowledge of the time period, so as to be able to properly evaluate the author’s general argument, specific assertions, etc. A general familiarity with the available literature would also allow the reviewer to assess how thorough the text under consideration is, and how it stacks up against the books that have preceded it.

Similarly, if a reviewer is writing about an author with a significant backlist, it would be useful to be able to position a particular text in the context of an author’s entire output. It is perfectly acceptable, for example, to engage in a critical analysis of Philip Roth’s novel The Humbling on its own, but such an analysis is deepened if a reviewer is able to contextualize the novel’s concerns (its approach to character, masculinity, sex, literary history, etc.) along the spectrum of Roth’s complete body of work.

Of course, if a reviewer is getting paid, say, $50 for a review, it is not possible to ask that person to do extensive background reading in addition to reading the assigned book. Diligent reviewers will likely do some background research on areas or authors with whom they are unfamiliar, but unless they are being paid significantly more than most newspapers or magazines offer, editors cannot require them to do this.

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?


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?

SB: Sooner or later, every reviewer will have to write about a book that he doesn’t like. Less experienced reviewers will likely have to do this more frequently, because veterans are better able to choose the books they want to review for themselves, and they are liable to choose books that they know will be more to their own tastes. Novice reviewers, by contrast, have to take whatever an editor assigns them, more or less.

Some editors tell their reviewers to abandon a book if they find that they have little or no affinity for it, and some newspapers and magazines will not print negative reviews. To me, this approach is intellectually dishonest. A good reviewer will be open minded enough to recognize the literary merits in a text that may not be the kind of thing she would choose to read for pleasure or that comes out of a tradition that is foreign to her own experience. A good reviewer recognizes that every act of criticism involves both a subjective and an objective aspect, and is able to conduct an appraisal of a work that (at least implicitly) acknowledges these different levels of reaction to a text.

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?

SB: I’m not sure that it’s possible for a reviewer to claim a “final opinion” on any author or work, since a reviewer’s temperament and approach will change and evolve over the course of a career in the same way that any writer’s will. I know that my feelings about literature have changed in the last twenty years – youthful enthusiasms have been tempered (or jettisoned altogether) and I have come to a greater appreciation of complex works that I once had little time for. I fully expect this process to continue the older I get. This is only natural: the more one reads, the more extensive one’s background becomes, the more one is able to put various works into deeper and broader contexts. Reading The Wide Sargasso Sea without having read Jane Eyre will yield a different experience and a different reaction than will a reading that is informed by the way Rhys plays on Brontë’s earlier work. Similarly, the experience of reading Catcher in the Rye as an adolescent male is sure to be different from the experience of reading the book in middle age.

Other books hit you at precisely the right – or wrong – time. A reviewer may be going through a painful breakup or may have just experienced a death in the family: these things will undoubtedly colour the reading of any text. A reviewer may be preoccupied by the stock market or the World Cup or her daughter’s upcoming violin recital. Each of these things may subconsciously affect a reading experience. Approaching the same text at another point in the reviewer’s life, the reaction is likely to be very different.

Finally, it is not the reviewer’s job to offer the last word on a given text. Critical standards and an evaluative approach do not presuppose a kind of divine wisdom. The reviewer offers an assessment of a text made at a specific point in time and arising out of the entire fabric of that reviewer’s background and experience. There is nothing to say that such an evaluation won’t change with time. Indeed, it would be surprising if it did not.

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

SB: Intelligence, thoughtfulness, and consideration are the qualities I look for most often in reviews. And, of course, good writing. And yes, quite often these qualities go wanting.

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?

SB: The very fact that I blog about books – without remuneration and on my own time – should answer this question. Having said that, the fact that professional reviewers are not paid even close to what they are worth is a situation that needs to be redressed. It’s all well and good for enthusiasts who want to share their love of a particular book to fire up the Internet and bang out fifty words, but this is not remotely connected to the practice of criticism. Much of the discourse around books that we see online is the digital equivalent of a coffee klatch; it has as much to do with professional criticism as a game of pick-up basketball has to do with the NBA. There is some very good, thoughtful, careful writing to be found online. There is also a glut of careless, ill-considered, illogical, and badly written book chat that passes itself off as legitimate criticism. This situation is exacerbated by the fact that experienced critics – those connoisseurs who have devoted a lifetime to the reading and study of literature – are not able to make a living wage off of their writing. This simultaneously devalues their output and injures the literary culture at large, since a vibrant literary culture requires a vibrant critical culture in order to thrive. In the absence of incisive criticism – criticism, not cheerleading – a culture will become complacent, will stagnate, and eventually shrivel.

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

SB: I think the answer to this question is contained in the sum of the above. I hope to provide a way into a discussion of various texts; to foster healthy debate and engagement with written works; and to pursue a deeper understanding of the role of individual texts within a larger literature. At the same time, I hope to continue to engage in an inquiry about my own reactions to books, which are rarely simple, and never stagnant. I expect to constantly evolve as a critic, and to trace that evolution through my writing.

At the same time, I hope to be able to convey my joy of literature and perhaps to convince at least one or two people to read more, or to read better. I have been accused (as I’m sure most critics have) of being dismissive or antipathetic to the work that comes under my radar, but I think that precisely the opposite is true. I believe that by providing an honest critique of the books I review, by cleaving to critical standards, and by trying to avoid buying into the marketing hype and blockbuster mentality that seems to so dominate our culture, I am actually labouring to promote a literary environment that is vibrant and alive.

Steven W. Beattie is the Review Editor of Quill & Quire, the magazine of the Canadian publishing industry. His criticism has been published in Quill & Quire, The Vancouver Sun, the Edmonton Journal, and elsewhere.


Carter said...

Anyone who writes book reviews, or would like to, would benefit greatly from reading this excellent interview. Beattie is the kind of thoughtful, wise literary critic I wish all reviewers were. Unfortunately, such people are thin on the ground, especially since opportunities to be paid for reviews are drying up.

As editor of an online review struggling to develop into a replacement for lost mass media reviews like those of the Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe, LA Times, and dozens of other newspapers, I'm engaged in teaching writers how to write good book reviews 700-900 words long, and it's not easy. Some of our reviewers are published novelists or non-fiction writers, and others are aspiring writers who have yet to make their marks; few, however, realize at first that criticism is a genre in its own right. When I take on a new reviewer, I send out with the review copy a two-page instruction sheet that covers most of the things Beattie says so well here. Some of those reviewers learn fast, some not so fast. What I miss most is dealing with reviewers who truly know their subjects, but are not academics who have no idea how to write for a readership of intelligent non-specialists.

A few of our best reviewers I found by sorting through dozens of blogs to discover people who did the job well, but were getting little response. I could promise them a larger readership, which they have been glad to get. Too many of those blogs I skimmed failed miserably, however, to come anywhere near the kind of excellence I sought. Blogs won't do the job. We have several editors who carefully vet every review, and almost always make them better. Beattie doesn't mention it, probably out of modesty, but a good editor is essential to the production of a good review--almost nobody can write a polished piece without someone to point out flaws.

We're far from the quality we want to achieve, but we get better all the time; it's a long trip uphill. We still can't pay reviewers--or editors--but our income from ads is increasing along with our readership, so we'll get there one of these days.

Carter Jefferson, editor
The Internet Review of Books

Lemon Hound said...

Hi Steven,
Thanks for playing. I like that a few--yourself and Perloff--non-poets are in the mix. I'm not sure where this idea of reviews as description comes from...I don't see evidence of anyone asking for such a thing. Mostly what I've noticed, in Canada at least, is a general dissatisfaction with a level of criticism that is too often coupled with a well known disdain for a certain kind of writing. It's hard not to be irritated by such things.

People say William Logan is negative... That this is some how hard core? I don't see that. Logan, it seems to me, finds a way to be erudite in his critique, however biting, not vindictive. There are a few places I find him wiping away a poet with a bit too much ease (Natasha Trethewey for example), but there is nonetheless a sense of him having read the work in question, and treating it with the same respect he treats someone he is over the moon about (as it were).

You suggest the same:
"A good reviewer recognizes that every act of criticism involves both a subjective and an objective aspect, and is able to conduct an appraisal of a work that (at least implicitly) acknowledges these different levels of reaction to a text...."

and again where you note your distinctions of what makes for a failed review.

What I find worrisome about previous discussions is the too easy conflation of negative=good medicine and anything that isn't is simply weak, or suffers from being simple description.

If anything, the near 30-something interviews included here show that achieving critical weight is a lot more complicated than the simple question of negative/positive and I wonder who benefits by keeping the conversation in that particular swill of circularity?

I'm not suggesting you, or any of the people who have contributed to this discussion do. I'm suggesting no one does.

Lemon Hound said...

The other thing I wanted to speak to is your point about the dearth of good critical writing--it seems ironic doesn't it, that at a time when creative writing has never been more popular, there is simultaneously a lack of good writing about it...

This speaks to my sense of urgency around the inclusion of writing about writing (critical writing? I don't think there's an adequate term for poet critic), in the basic structure of MFA programs. How can people be graduating with MFAs and not be able to describe a book of poetry? Or write with some ease at its defense? Incredible.

If you're not learning to be an active participant in the literary community what good is an MFA? If we don't write about writing who will?

Don Share said...

This was a great read. I was reminded of good ole T.S. Eliot, on "The Perfect Critic" - talking about Aristotle (emphasis mine):

"He was primarily a man of not only remarkable but universal intelligence; and universal intelligence means that he could apply his intelligence to anything. The ordinary intelligence is good only for certain classes of objects; a brilliant man of science, if he is interested in poetry at all, may conceive grotesque judgments: like one poet because he reminds him of himself, or another because he expresses emotions which he admires; he may use art, in fact, as the outlet for the egotism which is suppressed in his own speciality. But Aristotle had none of these impure desires to satisfy; in whatever sphere of interest, he looked solely and steadfastly at the object; in his short and broken treatise he provides an eternal example—not of laws, or even of method, for there is no method except to be very intelligent, but of intelligence itself swiftly operating the analysis of sensation to the point of principle and definition."

Lemon Hound said...

It's a great quote from old stodgy. But it's a problem isn't it? So many think they have universal intelligence...it's rare to find such a beast.

Steven W. Beattie said...

You know, I pulled that from memory. It's very possible Marchand was actually quoting Eliot.

August said...

"it seems ironic doesn't it, that at a time when creative writing has never been more popular, there is simultaneously a lack of good writing about it..."

Not at all. A critic once wrote (and I forget who), that critical writing really only flourishes when literature is weak, and is generally weaker when literature is in a position of strength. The argument was made in part to explain why Theory didn't rise up until the Modernists had largely finished all their heavy lifting.

I can't speak to the truth behind that, but it's an interesting idea.

Lemon Hound said...

Well, that may be true August. It seems that MFAs urge a split between the poet/critic model and the celebrity poet model. The latter doesn't want to be seen as getting her hands dirty with criticism. If the latter is seen as taking aim, or taking sides, it makes him less marketable...this sounds more like a conspiracy than I think it is, I'm pulling a strand up and magnifying...

susan.olding said...

When I was at UBC, Rhea Tregebov had the poets in her class write a "How the Poem Works" on a contemporary Canadian poem of their choice. A small step, perhaps, but a step towards creating poet-critics. (She assigned other exercises designed to introduce students to critical vocabulary and practice, as well. Some students strongly resisted, believing that they had done enough of that in their undergrad programs. Others enjoyed the challenge and the change.)

Nonfiction classes could also include critical writing as part of the mix. Some of them do, I believe.

These are interesting interviews - thanks!

Lemon Hound said...

Thanks Susan. Yes, my students do this as well--pretty much every week both at the graduate and undergraduate level.

Lemon Hound said...

PPS Steven, Eliot also says we can't "judge" our contemporaries' greatness" and it seems to me an important distinction. Judging a book before it has a life. That's more about trying to manage what has a life than trying to assess what is alive...

J Ferguson said...

An interesting post. I like Beattie's directness in terms of the expertise needed for good reviewing, and the lack of rigour we often find in online venues. It seems to me that since the book review (at least to some observers) is coded "non-academic," it often entails a fear of elitism. Perhaps only the well-informed (trained and/or experienced) reviewer can be truly open-minded about the text in question, since knowledge of field and tradition can allow appreciation of greater diversity of content and style (I have certainly struggled with this in my own reviewing). The best reviews I've read strike a fine balance between expert appraisal and humility before the text being appraised.

At any rate, many thanks to Lemon Hound for fostering this great conversation. I'm researching a paper on online poetry reviewing in Canada, and I can safely say there isn't an overabundance of such resources.