On Reviewing: Michael Turner

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?

MT: I’m not sure I want to address the question of “purpose,” though I will echo what many have said about a review being an attempt at a conversation.

If I mention a book in my blog, it is usually in passing, often an older book, the kind that doesn’t get reviewed because it was published in 1939. Same with an exhibition. Blogging might be the opposite of what I said earlier about the conversation. In hard copy journalism, the conversation includes an editor, while in my blog, it’s just me. A sharp editor might recognize what it is that I do well and occasionally save me from myself.

What I like best about blogging is that things can happen quickly, topically. If I miss something, get my facts wrong, I am told just as quick. I like that. Sometimes the response can lead to new conversations.

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?

MT: I believe a work should be judged on the terms it sets out for itself. If the bar is low, the critic should say so. If a work is taking risks, and those risks are recognizable, then the risks should be pointed out too. I look for these things when reading reviews.

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?

MT: I like to be entertained, inspired. Two weeks ago the New York Times Sunday Book Review carried reviews of biographies of John Lennon and Paul McCartney. The McCartney review was straightforward exposition, while the Lennon review was written in the voice Lennon used when writing books like A Spaniard in the Works (1965). Though I appreciate the editor’s decision to allow the reviewer to write in Lennon’s voice (puns, spoonerisms), I found the review (homage) tiresome and couldn’t get past the first four inches (same with A Spaniard in the Works). Last week the Review published three letters, two of which demanded that the Lennon bio be re-reviewed. I am curious to see what the editor does. That the reviewer chose to review the book in Lennon’s style tells us she is a fan, but in her mind, the book is nothing new.

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?

MT: That depends. If I feel someone is not well known, and I know something of their work, then maybe I’ll discuss their new work in relation to their past work, how it is similar, different, or where it is in relation to the writing of others. I could never write a review based on a single poem or artwork. Anyone can write a great poem, just as anyone can take a great photograph. For me, it is as much about the sequence – line-to-line, but also poem-to-poem.

My preference is for books designed with the book in mind, be that a ten page book or a larger work, like Atwood’s Power Politics (1971) or Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid (1970) — the overall choral effect. That said, my favorite poetry book of the past few years is Jenny Penberthy’s Lorine Niedecker: Collected Works (2002) – not a poet’s book but a poet’s life’s work. Here, the editor approximates the critic, and we, the reader, are better for it.

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?

MT: I’ll take a stand here and insist that, for this writer, there is no such thing as the “non-critical”.

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?

MT: I’ve written reviews of books and exhibitions in order to discuss things I’ve been thinking about — that which I am philosophically disposed to, or that which I am not. But again, the reviewer needs to assess the work on its terms. I have a measure I use for all my reviews: a) what is it? b) how is it made? and c) what does it mean?

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?

MT: Penberthy’s Niedecker book is a good example of a). Although I was never ambivalent about Niedecker’s work, I was unaware of the conditions in which she was writing. Knowing something of her place and time, her relationship to other writers, gave me insight into the world she wrote in. Once adjusted, I reread her work with new eyes. From there, I reread Deanna Ferguson, and found something new there too – a deepening of the injuries of class and what we used to call “ the hinterland”. That in turn caused me to reread pastoralists like Peter Culley and Lisa Robertson, whose postmodernism seemed conservative by comparison. And onwards, sideways, etc. It hadn’t occurred to me until now how important the Niedecker book is to the way I have been reading the locals of late.

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

MT: They could do with a little more suspense.

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?

MT: Well, given that there are fewer and fewer outlets paying for reviews, you must be referring to blogging. If that’s the case, I see bloggers eventually getting paid for their work, most likely through public and private forms of sponsorship. I see Google participating in this, given the backlash against them. Embedded bloggers in the War Against Copyright?

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

MT: Writing about writing is taking part in a conversation about reading and writing. Yes to the second question.
Michael Turner’s books include Hard Core Logo, The Pornographer’s Poem and 8×10. In addition to fiction and poetry, he writes on visual art, and has collaborated on film scripts with artists such as Stan Douglas and Bruce LaBruce. Most recently, he curated “to show, to give, to make it be there”: Expanded Literary Practices in Vancouver: 1954-1969 at the Simon Fraser University Gallery. He is the 2009-2010 Ellen and Warren Tallman SFU Writer-in-Residence.