On Reading & Reviewing: Anita Lahey

When I was editing poetry reviews for Arc Poetry Magazine, I had my radar tuned for pieces that were mean-spirited, careless or just plain blind. These sins, however, were rare, and when caught (usually) easily addressed. What troubled me more was reticence, reserve—any smokescreen cloaking the reviewer’s true feelings. I believe a review should offer some indication of what it was like to be at the author’s mercy for however many pages the experience lasted. But more often than I expected, I found myself trying to extract a reluctant confession. What did the reviewer really feel about the book? Would he or she recommend it if asked? If our contributor remained coy, we were left with a noncommittal description of poems that “evoke,” “provoke,” “reflect,” or “interlace” this with that—to what effect we were left to guess—the kind of report that gives credit neither to the book’s author nor its potential readers; prose as boring to read as it must have been to write.

In a reader’s life, turning the cover on a new book is a moment fat with anticipation. I sometimes pause with the book in my lap, cover pressed back for the first time, and look around the room. Something is about to happen and I have no idea what, so I hold off before delving into that first line. If the line is good, and if those that follow are rich, assured and compelling, I’ll disappear from the room for a time and sink down into the environment of the book. When I resurface, the room might feel or look different to me. I might feel or look different to me.

Where a book will take me, and what will happen along the way, in the text and in me, matters to me. I don’t want to know this ahead of time, at least not all of it. But if I read a review of a book before cracking its spine, my main concern is the whether the reviewer found it worthwhile being led along by this author, and why. Honesty doesn’t seem like an extraordinary thing to ask, but I’ve been surprised to learn that it’s often the very thing a critic avoids. A reviewer should absolutely do her best to anchor a book in its time and place, and peer inside its craft. But reviews can become crowded with context: how such-and-such a book fits into an author’s career, where it lies on the continuum of books attempting a similar thing. Is it new? Is it gutsy? Is it metaphysical, political? Is it genre-busting? As a reader, I accept such information appreciatively. Meanwhile, there are two questions in the back of my mind, rising more and more insistently the longer the review fails to address them: Okay, great, thanks, but did you like it? It is any good?

Answering those questions, even asking them, is more controversial than I ever would have imagined before I served as editor of Arc. In what has become a years-long CanLit debate—at times an almost vicious undercurrent—two sides have, it appears, become firmly entrenched. One side argues that there is no legitimate defence for wasting precious print real estate explaining why we don’t like a book. We have no luxury for negative reviews. It’s our job to steer the public toward books we’d encourage them to read. The opposite extreme calls for a concerted effort to root out dreck—to expose and dismiss the books (or, more pointedly, their authors) hogging attention better deserved by others. I sympathize with both of these impulses; indeed they might be diametrically opposed means toward the same end. We have no shortage of books, and few strategies for matching the books that most deserve them with hungry, discerning readers. Prizes catch some, but many fine, even great books slip through with barely a whisper.

I can’t help feeling that the parameters of this debate miss something essential: the connection between writer and reader, which gives literature its purpose and its pulse. The reviewer is an appointed messenger between the two, the one who makes the introduction. (It’s up to the reader to decide whether he or she wants to hang out with the writer.) In this one task lies our integrity. A colleague once told me that when he reads a poetry review, he doesn’t want the reviewer’s opinion so much as to learn about the work of the poet in question, some context that will broaden his skills as a reader and his reading landscape. I want this too. But is it too much to ask for both the lesson and the frank response?  I like what Heather Jessup says on her website about reviews being  complex pieces of literature in their own right, built on “listening” to a writer and  endeavouring to “find genuine delight in the texture and impulse of the words” and to “write about the experience of reading in a way that is as complex as reading it itself.” I agree that our overriding impulse should be generous, curious, open. We must be willing to be drawn into a writer’s project even, or especially, when it throws us. But I also think that the piece of literature we call a review should be plain-spoken and forthright about the ways a book did or didn’t work on the reviewer, trusting its reader to know that their own experience with a book may be quite different. If the reviewer skips over her own relationship with the book in question, she’s engaging in subterfuge. She’s abandoning her post. Doesn’t the crux of any literary adventure rest on who we are inside the world of that book and what follows us out? I am one reader, and you another. If I can’t tell you what I’m truly thinking while sitting at my desk, considering the lingering effects of the volume of poems I just closed, then what is the point of talking to you at all?

In Wisława Szymborska’s collection of short essays, Nonrequired Reading, she confesses that she attempted to review books, mainly overlooked titles on the newspaper’s books received list and found that she could not: “ Basically I am and wish to remain a reader, an amateur, and a fan, unburdened by the weight of ceaseless evaluation.” Despite her claim to eschew evaluation—she even threatens to cast displeasure against anyone insisting on calling her pieces “reviews”— Szymborska offers her honest response in these brief, marvelous pieces. It’s not evaluation in the grander sense, not by setting an author’s work against or beside that of his peers and forerunners, but in the sense of assessing her own encounter with a book. In her summations and reflections, in her ruminations and arguments that sometimes stray far from the work that spurred them, and in her complaints (when they require airing, she doesn’t hold back), you glean a book’s impact on her. What’s more, you are allowed a glimpse of who she is, what kind of reader,  what sort of mind she has, what sense of humour and wit, what nature of cares and concerns. When this happens, a review offers a triangular meeting of minds, which is so much more than an impassive description, a gratuitous dismissal or even a recommendation.

I grew up, career-wise, in the world of journalism, mainly as a magazine writer and editor. I was trained by those who kept and promoted the highest standards and ideals for the trade. In that milieu, when something you write is lacking in any way, you are told, sometimes in impressively emphatic ways by multiple editors, all on a single draft of your story. You are pushed constantly to improve: your reporting, your clarity, your brevity, your ability to synthesize facts and judge their relevance, your skill at drawing a reader in. Your entire effort, in fact, is toward the reader. To inform, enlighten, engage. And every such effort is, in part, an exercise in learning where you come up short and how to do better next time. I’m not suggesting our literature would be better off if there were hard-nosed editors breathing down the necks of our reviewers, but I confess I’ve imagined how such a scenario would play out. How would a reviewer respond if “Huh?” and “English, please!” were scrawled in red all over her piece and all her obfuscating literary jargon unceremoniously crossed out? How would she fill the gaps? What would she say? Obviously, expectations for news reporting are different than those for poetry, for good reason: poets take facts and observations and assemble them for different purposes than journalists do,  and those who review such works are rightly mindful of that. But our consideration for that creative intent can clam us up or lead us into an exclusive, poet-to-poet conversation that entirely disregards the reader. If you’ve read Journey with No Maps, Sandra Djwa’s biography of P.K. Page, you know that the violinist Isaac Stern’s declaration that communication with his audience was the artist’s “main task” once angered Page enough to cause her to throw a glass of red wine over her shoulder and out the window. Well, I stand in awe of Page the poet. But on the question of the importance of communicating with people when we write—no matter what we are writing—I’m with Stern.

Regardless of who has written it—first-time author, veteran, icon—when reading a collection for review, I note my thoughts and reactions in the margins so that I can track and revisit my evolving response. I immerse myself in the voice and world of the book and, as best I can, figure out what the author is up to. I try to look at previous collections if I’m unfamiliar with the writer, as well as read past reviews. I seek those idiosyncrasies that make every book and every newly encountered writer’s voice uncharted territory. Never far from my mind is the possibility that I am missing the boat. The late poet Diana Brebner, a mentor and friend, once wrote a biting response, in poetic form, to a reviewer who had done exactly that with her work. The poem, which appears in The Ishtar Gate (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2005) is called “For the Poet Who Told Me to Think Less and Feel More,” and it begins with the couplet: “I will not assume that you/ are an expert about feeling.” The implication: that the reviewer had based his or her reading of Diana’s work on assumptions about her, the poet. Assumptions (and presumptions) have a way of creeping in; I try to keep my radar tuned. I hold up as a standard the work of critics I deeply admire, such as Joan Acocella, whose every piece adheres to Bert Archer’s checklist for great reviewing, a list he reveals in a discussion with Zsuzsi Gartner in The Malahat Review’s special issue on the topic (issue 144, fall 2003). Archer tells Gartner to trust those reviewers who “on a not-so-irregular basis give you insight, not only into the book in question, but into the world, too.” (He also says to trust reviewers who “who dislike more than they like,” which disqualifies me!) Lastly, I pay attention to what is happening to me as I read.[1]

As a reviewer, my word on a book is not and should not be the only or final word. Yet we are all familiar with the problem of dwindling book pages in the media. If there aren’t enough venues for criticism to allow other  perspectives on a particular book to balance or counter or go deeper than mine, then that is what we must strive to fix. Likewise, a reviewer should not be so self-important as to think he should be organizing our entire literature into what matters and what doesn’t. Nor should he believe an author’s career rides on his opinion. An author’s ego may be a fierce and flimsy thing, but it’s not the reviewer’s job to mollify or tame it. As a writer, I know that when I put my work in the world, I’m letting it go: to be taken up, interpreted, misinterpreted, enjoyed, disdained or ignored as the case may be. If a reviewer doesn’t “get it,” that may be my own fault. If a reviewer is not caught by my subject, or finds my treatment of it clumsy, shallow or been-there-done-that, I want to be told.  Sometimes a reviewer’s bluntness is a relief. This is not to condone nastiness or attacks disguised as reviews. We should never be blasé regarding someone’s heartfelt endeavour: humility and common sense demand basic awareness of the difficulty inherent in creating anything. But here’s the thing: I want to be challenged. By readers, by editors, by reviewers—by people who give a damn about what I’ve written and what I may be capable of writing and who make no bones about letting me know.

The type of tempered offerings that used to frustrate me while editing Arc—reviews recast as opinion-free zones—offer an insult deeper than any take-down. They presume a fragility so pervasive as to overwhelm the artistic calling itself. Does the impulse to coddle or be coddled belong in a mature, vibrant, ambitious literary culture?

I was first offered the chance to review a poetry collection by John Barton, then co-editor of Arc, in 2000. I took home a few slim volumes to consider and felt myself drawn to Shawna Lemay’s All the God-Sized Fruit, which  delves into art history. I’d had my first poem published the previous year, a piece on a photograph by André Kertèsz, and Lemay was poking about in a world that intrigued me. That didn’t mean I would like the book. In fact, it might have made me a more demanding reader than one with no inherent interest in the subject. I confessed to a colleague that I was worried about the task of reviewing: what right did I have to say what I thought? I was no scholar; there were so many famous, canonized poets whose work I’d barely dipped into; there were contexts or references I might miss. She said, yes, maybe. But you’re a reader. You care.

from The Mystery Shopping Cart: Essays on Poetry and Culture, by Anita Lahey (Palimpsest Press, fall 2013)

[1] A friend asks whether this very attention might alter the experiment: would the result be different were I just reading for the sake of reading, rather than for the purpose of reviewing? My answer: I don’t know. But it’s a question all reviewers would do well to keep in mind.


anitaembedAnita Lahey’s second poetry collection, Spinning Side Kick, was released by Véhicule Press in 2011, and her new book, The Mystery Shopping Cart: Essays on Poetry and Culture, will be published this fall by Palimpsest Press. Her book Out to Dry in Cape Breton was nominated for the Trillium Book Award for Poetry and the Ottawa Book Award. Anita is a former editor of Arc Poetry Magazine, and a journalist who has written about subjects ranging from climate change science to seahorses to the allure of roller coasters to luminescent mushrooms to the legacy of the Sydney Tar Ponds for publications such as Saturday NightThe WalrusCottage LifeMaisonneuveReader’s Digest and Canadian Geographic. An Ontario native and former resident of Ottawa, Montreal and Fredericton, Anita now lives in Toronto with her husband, son and two cats—and still spends as much time as she can in her father’s “homeland,” Main-à-dieu.