Dear Geist: Jonathan Ball takes up the Question of Reviewing

Dear Geist

I am writing to you in response to Michael Hayward’s review of Michael Winter’s novel The Architects Are Here. I have not read Winter’s book, and do not know Winter or his work. However, I feel that this review is typical of the poor quality of book reviewing in Canadian letters. What I proffer, then, is a review of this review.

The original review contains 10 sentences. I will comment briefly on
each of the sentences in order:

1. The opening sentence states that, in this most recent novel, “Michael Winter revisits his fictional alter ego Gabriel English” and notes the other books in which English has appeared. The effect of this paragraph is to shunt attention away from the novel and towards its author, an intellectually bankrupt move, yet one still common in
this, the 21st century.

2. The second sentence informs us of an obvious fact, that recurring
characters exist in fiction.

3. The third sentence gives us examples of this type of recurring character, information that has nothing to do with Winter’s novel and,again, is meant to prove an obvious and uncontested point.

4. The fourth sentence (four of ten, remember) finally reveals
something about the novel, basic plot information.

5. The fifth sentence makes general claims as to the novel’s genre. We are halfway through this review, and nothing of interest concerning Winter’s novel has been written.

6. The sixth sentence finally gets around to making a value judgement on the quality of the book’s writing. However, this is a rather unsubstantial judgement: the book contains some “fine writing” but no examples are given. It had Hayward “anxiously turning pages . . . a perfect illustration of how a story can compel its readers,” but is this was “fine writing” does? This judgement draws its strength from an unexamined assumption in Canada that readability and narrative speed or suspense are literary values.

7. The seventh sentence returns to focus on the author and reiterates a claim made elsewhere that English is based on Winter himself, another testament to the enduring yet incomprehensible fascination of North America for its “true stories” (even fiction must be “true” at its secret heart if it is to be of interest to the Canadian reader).

8. The eighth sentence claims, in essence, that a writer cannot simply reproduce his journals to deservedly gain the attention and admiration of the reading public, but must work the writing over. Again, this is beside the point and has nothing to do with the novel as it stands.

Although it may be true that this novel is based on Winter’s journals, the words of the book must be taken as written, and cannot be justified by their relation to some supposedly “true” reality. On one hand this is Hayward’s point, but on the other hand Hayward is reproducing the assumption that reality trumps fiction, and so fiction
must be worked over with a steady and sure hand if it is to approach the level of reality, an unthinking subscription to the defunct values of literary realism.

9. The ninth sentence is a blanket value judgement against the novel’s overabundance of “clutter,” in this instance seeming to indicate excessive description, although there is no actual quotation to support the complaint.

10. The tenth sentence extends the complaint in the ninth, claiming that “extraneous detail” and “minor characters” should “have been pared away to better reveal the story at the core.” This is typical of Canadian reviewing, a blind subservience to plot (under the guise of the more “literary” term “story”) and an undervaluation of actual
literary qualities, an unconscious lack of appreciation for what fiction is and what it can do.

Again, I have not read Winter’s book. I will give Hayward the benefit of the doubt and assume that he is correct in his value judgements. I point out, however, that only three of these ten sentences has anything of interest to say about the novel, and these claims are unsupported as written.

I don’t mean to pick on Hayward in this instance. And I am certainly not suggesting that the review is poorly written or otherwise incompetent. I am just making a sad observation that this is what is expected of reviewers, that Hayward has in fact written an excellent review according to the standards of this nation, that this is what reviewing in Canada has become: a debased form of criticism that exists simply to unconsciously reproduce ideological claims as life-support for dying literary values.


Jonathan Ball
*Reprinted with permission from the author

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