Sunday, February 21, 2010

On Reviewing: Carol Matthews

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?

CM: When I write a review, I want to give readers a glimpse of the texture and perspective of a book, let them know why the book might be worth reading, and how it might connect with other writings or events. Often my purpose in accepting an assignment to write a review is to have occasion to read a book two or three times and give it much closer attention than I otherwise would do.

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?

CM: I tried to avoid exegesis, not always successfully. Mostly I attempt to do close readings, evaluating or assessing why the book is important, and what it achieves that seems remarkable. I'm attracted to reviews that give me a sense of excitement about how a particular work connects with other writing within that genre or with other writings by that author.

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?

CM: I like a review that places a book in a larger context in terms of the genre, the setting, or other books by the author. A successful review should show us something about how the reviewer approaches her subject as well as how she assesses it and how the work affects her. It's important to sense that the writer has a good grasp of the genre and intention of the book she's reviewing. I like fiction reviews written by fiction writers, and poetry reviews written by poets.

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?

CM: When Derk Wynand was editor of the Malahat Review, he sometimes asked people to write about a number of works by the same author. I wrote a long review about Natalia Ginzburg's books and found it very satisfying to spend a substantial amount of time immersed in her writing, seeing recurrent themes as well as changes and contradictions in her works, and considering the elements of her writing that I most admired.

I have written a number of reviews for Event, a journal which usually asks reviewers to tackle three or four different books at a time, making connections if it fits, or leaving them as discrete sections if it seems more appropriate. While writing such reviews, I've enjoyed finding connections or differences between different books of fiction and the process of seeing them in conjunction with each other has prompted some observations I might otherwise not have made. I like reading reviews that make surprising connections.

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?

CM: Completely different. Writing essays, and especially trying to write short fiction, is much harder work for me and involves many  stops and starts. Often I give up on a piece I am writing and don't get back to it for months, if at all. When I'm writing a review I'm quite disciplined and and always meet deadlines and word counts. Reviewing feels like a job to me, whereas my own writing feels like something else entirely.

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?

I now don't write about books that I really don't like. Once, years ago, I wrote a review about a book that I considered to be silly and underserving of any positive assessment, and I wrote a review that mocked the book. It still shames me. Soometimes I find reviewers quite clever in their dismissal of books they don't care for and, while this can be entertaining and often amusing, it leaves me feeling uncomfortable.

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?

CM: The last review that made me want to run out an buy the book immediately was Cynthia Macdonald's review of Annabelle Lyon's The Golden Mean. The review didn't say a lot about the writing, did not really assess it nor place it in relation to other works. However it gave such a strong sense of the subject of the book itself and the feat of taking on such a subject that I immediately wanted to read it.

I've also read reviews that made me reconsider my assessment of an author. I recall a review by Martin Amis of Nabokov's unfinished novel, The Original of Laura,  that made me think differently about both Amis and Nabokov.

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

CM: Can't think of any. I read lots of good reviews, but I particularly like the intelligent reviews I read in the Guardian.

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?

CM: Not likely, at least not in this country. British journals have a long tradition of paying writers reasonably well for reviews. Indeed it seems to have been possible for some to have a career as a reviewer in Britain. Not here. As the newspapers and little magazines go under, there will likely be less opportunity. Maybe blogs will eventually offer some new options.

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

CM: I like writing about writing because it makes me think more clearly about what I'm writing and what I'm reading -- that's what I achieve for myself.  I like to think that it might also bring new readers for writers whose work I admire, but that might be naive. However, I'm surprised sometimes by a reader telling me that they've read a review of mine and that they went out and got the book. It can happen.

Carol Matthews, a retired academic, lives on Protection Island, B.C. She has written reviews for Malahat and Event and has published essays and short fiction  in several literary journals. A collection of her articles for Relational Child and Youth Care Practice, was published as The First Three Years of a Grandmother’s Life in 2006, and a collection of her short stories, Incidental Music, was published by Oolichan Books in 2007. A cancer memoir, Reflections on the C-Word: At the Centre of the Cancer Labyrinth was published by Hedgerow Press in 2007. A new book, Dog Days: Between the Lines, co-authored with Liza Potvin, will be launched in a few weeks.

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