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?
CB: Reviewers are like the crossing-guards of literature—providing traffic-signals (if not hazard-warnings) for readers who might like to step off the curb, but need to know where to look, where to stop, where to turn, etc. The reviewer in effect escorts the reader to a shelf in the study.
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?
CB: Academia has conditioned me to prefer descriptive explanation supported by some sort of argument about a book’s structure (i.e. “how it is written”) and the book’s functions (i.e. “why it is written). I dislike reviewers who indulge in a cursory summary of a book, then proceed to offer their
own set of judgemental impressions, based upon a presumed paradigm of shared values between the reviewer and the audience–and alas, most reviews seem to partake of this model of literary critique.”
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?
CB: Reviews are successful if they make me interested enough to want to read the book.
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?
CB: Academia has conditioned me to write arguments that fit the allowable allotment of words. I prefer to discuss a book in terms of its structural, if not functional
details, quoting samples that might illustrate my exposition. I might at times try to situate the work within the context of either the oeuvre of the author or the school of the poetry (whatever seems most appropriate…).
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?
CB: Good creative writers now have to be good critical writers–especially if they want to argue on their own behalf for the merits of their work. I think that, especially among the avant-garde, cultural critique obliges writers to adopt the skills of a reviewer, if only so that such radical writers can anticipate dismissive commentary and respond to it with ironclad defenses in its favour.
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?
CB: Whenever I have had to review lousy books, I have always indulged in a kind of literary critique that lets the lousiness of the book speak for itself (usually through citation of selected passages that, by virtue of their self-referential, self-destructive irony, seem to be commenting critically upon the incompetence of the book itself). I no longer accept commissions that require me to review books whose merits I cannot endorse, if only because such work does not pay well enough for me to direct energy away from more rewarding, aesthetic priorities. I have certainly had to judge the merit of work outside my area of literary interest–and I have often, for example, participated on juries full of lyric poets, finding myself in the bizarre, oddball role of being an advocate for the supreme calibre of their lyric peers (who, for whatever reasons of ineptitude, seem to be ignored by the very judges who are supposed to be the most competent reviewers of such work). I am often disheartened by this lack of intellectual rigorousness among evaluators.
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?
CB: Reviews about the work of David Markson have made me want to purchase his books–but alas, I cannot remember the authors of these expositions. I tend to rely upon the opinions of my most respected compadres for guidance when trying to find newer works to enjoy….
LH: Is there a quality you are looking for in a review that you haven’t found?
CB: Reviewers often lack wit. I keep looking for a tone of detached argument, infused with intellectual provocations, all of which suggest that the reviewer evinces a “coolness” worthy of emulation.
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?
CB: I probably expect to keep publishing my literary opinions (whether I am paid to do so or not)–but generally I no longer fulfill requests for such a service without having a financial incentive.
LH: What do you hope to achieve by writing about writing? Do you believe that reviews can actually bring new readers to texts?
CB: Writing is one of the many “levers” of culture–and I guess that, by throwing my weight into writing about writing, I hope to steer the machine of culture in a direction that suits my own poetic agenda. I certainly think that reviews can spark a controversy capable of stimulating discussions about work that might have otherwise gone unnoticed, if not unrevered.
Christian Bök is the author of Crystallography (Coach House Books, 1994) and Eunoia (Coach House Books, 2002). You can follow him on Twitter @christianbok.