On Reviewing: Jonathan Ball

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?

JB: The purpose of a review is to describe the book. There is a tradition of reviews being evaluative, but I don’t feel that this is their true purpose. My basic complaint about reviews in general is that they are too concerned with evaluating books rather than describing them.

Let’s say I am assigned to review a novel by Nicole Brossard, and you’ve decided to read my review. What do you care about more: Nicole Brossard’s new novel, or Jonathan Ball’s opinion? Anybody who cares more about my opinion, or the opinion of any reviewer, more than they care about Nicole Brossard’s new novel is a fool.

Blogging lets me publish as I feel like publishing, without worrying about anyone changing my sentences to alter their meaning, which has happened to me more than once. Mostly when writing for newspapers, who want sentences to be shorter, so that they hit that stupid index and their readers aren’t confused. As if somebody would read Saramago with his pages-long sentences but not be able to read a review of Saramago with slightly long sentences.

Reviews pay so little you might as well do them for free on a blog and not have to worry about deadlines or word counts or odd nonsense. I once reviewed Pynchon’s newest novel (newest at that time) and had to agree to all sorts of idiocy, like not discussing it with friends before a certain date (this was not the fault of my editor, I must stress, but the publisher or maybe Pynchon himself).

On a base level I write about books because I grew up in a small town with almost no access to anything cultural. If I wanted to just see a movie in the theatre, I had to drive for an hour (each way) and cross the border into the U.S. So when anything even remotely strange or cool fell into my line of sight I got excited and wanted to tell everyone about it—my enthusiasm for books I enjoy, wanting to lend them or tell people about them, is just a sophisticated, grown-up version of this childhood zeal.

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?

JB:  On a blog, I just write about what I’m thinking about, that moment. Maybe I shouldn’t, but I relax my standards. When I’m writing a so-called “professional” review for some publication or other, I focus on describing the book in as rigorous a fashion as the venue allows. In the course of describing the book, I may offer my opinion, but if I do so then I provide evidence to support my opinions. If I think the writing is great, then I state why, exactly, and provide an example of this great writing. If I dislike something, then I state why, etc. That way, a reader who disagrees with me will still get some description of a book that they might find helpful.

If I dislike a book, a reader predisposed to disagree with me should be able to read my review and see the following: (1) quotes they may enjoy that make them want to check out the book, (2) an overall description of the book that may appeal to them, (3) an informed opinion backed up by evidence that they might dispute on specific points. I don’t write reviews to promote my opinions. I write to inform readers about books. They can decide for themselves whether or not they want to read the book or if they think the book is great or crap.

I can’t stand reading reviews that offer only, or mostly, the reviewer’s opinion. Why should I care about a reviewer’s opinion? I’m reading to learn about a book. Tell me about the book. I don’t care about you. I care about the book. Just like you don’t care about me, you care about the book I’m reviewing. You Googled “Nicole Brossard” not “Jonathan Ball.” I may engage more or less in exegesis, contextual readings, etc., depending on the audience for which I’m writing.

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?

JB:  I feel like I’m repeating myself. A successful review neglects the reviewer’s opinions to focus on describing the book, although it may still contain evaluation and opinion. The true forum for evaluation and analysis is a critical essay, not a book review. I don’t read a lot of book reviews anymore because they are mostly lazy, light, lame mini-essays, and not reviews at all.

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?

JB:  If I have the space and feel it is relevant to understanding something about the particular text under review, then I will refer to the author’s larger body or work. However, I try to focus on the text at hand. I think that book reviewing is confused with criticism. It’s not criticism. The reader of criticism has already read the book under discussion and is looking for in-depth analysis from another party. The reader of a book review has not read the book under discussion and wants to know if they should buy, borrow, or steal it, or just watch YouTube instead.

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?

JB: I do more pre-planning for non-fictional work and have a clear outline before I begin. Consequently, I spend less time revising this work. My “creative” work requires much more “post-production” and may mutate in strange and terrible ways to diverge from my original vision. The creative work feels more “alive” in this way and so I consider this work to be my primary contribution to the world of letters, and things like book reviews to be somewhat ephemeral. If anything I write stands the test of time, I sure hope it’s not my book reviews!

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?

JB: I just want to be fair to the book. If I don’t like the book because it’s just not the kind of book I appreciate on any level, as a reader, then I will refuse to do the review. I’ve sent books back to publishers and magazines because I don’t feel that I can fairly review them. I read widely and there are not a lot of traditions I am “resistant to”—although I have little interest in lyricism or realism these days, I still read and enjoy books out of those traditions, and know enough that I can evaluate them if anybody forces me to do so. I think I am as fair when I dislike books as when I love them, partly because I try to limit the amount of evaluation or opinion I dole out.

I think some reviewers are in love with the sound of their own voices and bark away like idiot dogs—noise about nothing. Sinking teeth into books of which they “disapprove” like these books were juicy bones. Nothing they like better than to “disapprove” of a book. News flash: books don’t need the approval of reviewers. (As an aside, I’ve always wondered why some people seem to spend all of their free time reading books they hate.)

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?

JB: I don’t know if I’ve ever had this reaction. Carmine Starnino’s performance at the “Poetry Cage Match” was uninspiring but the poem he read to begin with was a surprise, and I will check out his new book now even though I have not been impressed by his past work. That would be the closest experience, though what has urged me to “reconsider” Starnino’s work is really his poem and not his critical claims.

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

JB: I would like a book review to do all those things you mentioned in the previous question.

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?

JB: My writing time is at a premium these days and I try not to work for free unless I am working on my own creative or academic projects. I will produce unpaid critical work as an outgrowth of these academic projects, for academic journals or whatnot, and will continue to blog at my site or at the new 95 Books site, but otherwise I won’t review anything unless I am paid. Every hour I spend reviewing some book for free is an hour I can’t work on my novel or a poem or a critical essay, or answer the questions of a lovely interviewer like yourself.

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

JB: Again, I think reviews and criticism are being confused here. Reviews clearly bring new readers to texts, since they are basically advertisements for books (even negative reviews operate this way). Criticism presumedly does the same to a lesser degree, although why anyone would read a long (or even short) essay about a book they haven’t read is beyond me.

I don’t think reviews are the kind of “writing about writing” you seem to want to discuss. I think that kind of engaged, sustained criticism is not fit for book reviews. I would argue that criticism in general has been devalued because book reviewing, which is essentially a highbrow form of advertising (necessary to inform readers and sustain the publishing industry), has not been satisfied with its role and pretended to greatness by co-opting the discourse of criticism. At the same time, academic criticism has devolved into what Bök calls “meat-grinder” theory-speak: you take your book and run it through the postcolonial meat-grinder, or the deconstructionist meat-grinder, or whatever, and out comes a tasteless mass of an essay. The kind of engaged, passionate, careful analysis you seem to want is rare now because evaluative book-reviewing, the “fake-reviewing” I object to, and meat-grinder essays are both trying to pass themselves off as literary criticism—but literary criticism is a separate, third thing that is rarely written.

This is a disaster, because we learn about the world by writing about it. Not only that, but in many ways we call the world into being by writing it. If we didn’t write about writing, we wouldn’t understand anything about writing, and our writers wouldn’t understand anything about each other, and we would know even less about ourselves than we do now.

The ideal of literary criticism that I hold in my secret heart is unreal and unachievable. I might just end by seconding something that Michel Foucault once stated, in an interview published as “The Masked Philosopher.” (I love this quote so much that the title of the short story book I’m trying to complete is The Lightning of Possible Storms—isn’t literature itself, to some degree, the highest form of literary criticism, at its best an engagement and dialogue with preceding works?) Foucault offers the best sentiments on criticism that I’ve ever found, thoughts I hug to my fluttering chest:

I can’t help but dream about a kind of criticism that would try not to judge but to bring an oeuvre, a book, a sentence, an idea to life; it would light fires, watch the grass grow, listen to the wind, and catch the sea foam in the breeze and scatter it. It would multiply not judgments but signs of existence; it would summon them, drag them from their sleep. Perhaps it would invent them sometimes—all the better. All the better. Criticism that hands down sentences sends me to sleep; I’d like a criticism of scintillating leaps of the imagination. It would not be sovereign or dressed in red. It would bear the lightning of possible storms.

Jonathan Ball is the author of Ex Machina (BookThug, 2009) and the forthcoming Clockfire (Coach House, 2010). His film Spoony B has appeared on The Comedy Network. He is the former short films programmer of the Gimli Film Festival and the former editor of the literary journal dandelion. He lives online at www.jonathanball.com. He will read at least 95 Books in 2010 and will chronicle this reading at the 95 Books blog, along with other people undertaking the same challenge.

Comments are closed.