On Reviewing: rob mclennan

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?

rm: Well, coming late to the conversation (as Babstock said of himself, as well), I’m uncertain as to what I could add that hasn’t already been said. I’d say the purpose of a review is to open up or continue a conversation; to critically discuss the merits of a new work against the author’s previous works, the author’s own goals and influences (stated or not), and then against the surrounding culture of other writing, immediate and otherwise. I’ve always held to what Robert Kroetsch said about books being a conversation, and there are certainly those I’ve read (and written) that have attempted to further a number of ongoing threads. Since starting to review back in 1993, I have tried hard to approach a review starting from what the author is attempting to do, and how well they are doing it, well before any question of whether or not I “like” the material. Opinion pieces have little place in reviewing; who cares? It only matters if one cares about your opinion, and most of the time, people only do with thoughtful consideration.

Blogging allows me to spend more time crafting reviews, essays and interviews and less time trying to figure out where to send them. A blog post can, obviously, live further, wider and longer than print journal pieces, furthering over email, Facebook and Twitter, yet hold to a different standard: there’s so much online that your blog has to be worth coming to.

Recently, a journal informed me that a review they accepted in 2008 has finally seen print. Last week I received a rejection email from another journal that’s been sitting nine months on a poetry review. It becomes difficult to see the point, simply having to either publish the review myself, send out again to another journal and be seen as a historical piece, or abandon altogether.

Not that I am against historical pieces, having written many myself. There was a review I posted a while back of an early 1990s collection of short fiction by Jean McKay, an author I would very much like to know what happened to. But, to paraphrase that line Meredith Quartermain borrowed for their website, The News, writing to be the news that stays news. And that means staying as current as possible.

I’ve often considered, if we don’t understand the writing that has come before, how can we legitimately keep making more?

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?

rm: I work very hard to understand a book on its own terms first, before moving out into the world. What is happening? Why does this book exist? What is it adding to the madness of books that already exist? I remember seeing a chapbook of sonnets a few years back, horrified at the idea that if the author loves sonnets so much, how could he excuse a collection of such poor quality? And then my favourite, seeing a bad knock-off of poetry that already exists, had the writer only bothered to read further and more fully into the world. Each new work should be adding to what already exists, and not simply repeating.

For those reviews that hold attention and simply won’t let go, they often turn into longer essays, and can take months to finish. I think it too eight months each for pieces I wrote on Jon Paul Fiorentino, Barry McKinnon and Phil Hall. Each were book reviews that just got bigger.

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?

rm: Not specifically, apart from the reviewer’s own attempt to simply engage the work on its own terms, and in a respectful way, even if they think (and say) the work is terrible. I’d rather hear someone thoughtfully and respectfully take a book apart than have hollow praise. What does it all mean, otherwise? There are worthy things to say and see in any work, and if the reviewer needs to take it apart, then engage at a deeper level. Don’t like it? Explain why, and make it bulletproof. So many reviews are needlessly cruel and petty, and no author deserves that, especially from peers.

This is why I find so many of the angry young formalists so frustrating, having learned so poorly from John Metcalf. Saying a work is great because it’s like the work of someone other is a false premise. The beauty of Metcalf essays is that you could always disagree, but not necessarily argue. Why can’t the angry young formalists argue their cases better?

Great essays and reviews should change the reader’s thinking through argument, not bludgeoning.

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?

rm: For a review of a particular book, I focus on the specific book, first and foremost. Usually I like to highlight individual pieces as either particular favourites or as backing up my arguments (or both). I’m always disappointed when space doesn’t allow for such. Sometimes the work does speak best for itself.

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?

rm: I try to keep my writing moving, to be informed by different structures, sounds, rhythms and subject matter. I’m far harder on my own work by furthering critically than I would have been five or ten years ago, which I suppose is what all serious writers are supposed to be doing.

I’ve written essays that play around with form, and that’s something I’m far more aware of in my non-reviewing writing. I wrote an essay on the work of Andrew Suknaski in the form of letters, something he used in his own critical work, and there was something about talking to him with his own structures that I really enjoyed, and possibly took me deeper inside his writing than I otherwise might have been able to go. But an essay is not a review, and a review is not fiction. The goals of each are different, albeit, often, fluid.

A review is not a forum for the reviewer to show off how clever they are. It’s about the work at hand. It’s the same as great editing: the best editor should be invisible inside of a text.

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?

rm: Well, I steer clear of the idea that there are traditions I am “opposed” to. There are certainly those that don’t appeal to me as a reader, and even more than might not appeal to me as a writer (I would hope that my reading scope far outreaches that of my writing). Still, it means that I’m not always specifically versed enough in certain traditions to give qualified, in-depth commentary.

I’m tired of seeing opinion pieces, of seeing book reviews that slag a title simply because the reviewer is using the work as politic, writing a polemic. I’m tired of watching a reviewer hate a work because it’s not part of what they like; who cares? So much reviewing feels like “I love clowns, Schindler’s List didn’t have clowns in it, therefore I hated the film Schindler’s List.” It’s lazy, small-minded and downright offensive. If you hate what someone is working with and/or attempting, then it doesn’t matter how good the book may or may not be. You’re going to hate it, pure and simple. I’ve always considered it rather sleazy, even abusive, to trash someone else’s work to further your own polemic. Angry reviewer, do you consider your position so weak that you have to tear down the work of others? Weak, man. Seriously.

I was initially very nervous about taking on a review of Stephen Brockwell’s The Real Made Up (ECW Press, 2007) and David McGimpsey’s Sitcom (Coach House Books, 2007), simply because I didn’t feel qualified to discuss credibly their formal edges, their explorations within the structures of the sonnet, for example, and it took me quite a long time to work my way through finishing the piece. Somehow I managed my way through in a way they both seemed to appreciate. Still, if there’s a book I take apart, I try to do so constructively. If I know the author personally, I try to give them a heads up before the review appears, so they can be the first to know, and not one of the last. I never want to embarrass.

Because I’m so rarely asked to do anything by anyone, I have the luxury to not review anything I don’t find interesting.

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?

rm: When I was second-last in Calgary, Christian Bök talked about Dennis Lee’s poetry collections, Un (Anansi, 2003) and Yesno (Anansi, 2007), two books I was willing to reconsider, simply for the sake of his recommendation. I’ve been years going through his poetry and never understood the appeal, from Civil Elegies and Other Poems (Anansi, 1972), The Gods (M&S, 1979) to Riffs (Brick, 1993) (although I very liked parts of his collection of essays, Body Music). I went back and reconsidered, and found an appreciation I wasn’t open to before, through my own little biases.

Sure, there have been pieces over the years that have caught me re-thinking; that’s essential, isn’t it? But of course no example I can think of, off-hand. A healthy quality when it comes to such subjective forms as art. Too much certainty is always a dangerous thing. What might one see now that they didn’t catch earlier? I’m willing to reconsider, but don’t often change my mind, but for the rare example, like those two books of Lee’s (I still don’t care for his other poetry; but so what, right?). Stephen Brockwell and I regularly disagree on poetry, and no matter what he tells me to reconsider (and sometimes I do, and the rare time I end up agreeing with him), I always tell him he’s wrong, because it amuses me.

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

rm: See previous answers.

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? rm: I continue because I enjoy being part of the conversation. I enjoy seeing the new works by the dozens of authors I wish I had the attention to follow better, and new titles excite me. I consider reviewing an essential aspect of my writing practice, and the more engaged I am with writing, the better I can improve my own craft. Sadly, I’m used to not getting paid, it would seem. It’s been only the past few years I’ve seen too much money at all for reviewing. Literature isn’t about getting paid, although that sure would be nice. And I do so love that I get books, chapbooks and journals in the mail almost daily. Something I find exhilarating and frustrating, and much of why I continue, is repeatedly being told that I’m the first or even only reviewer for a particular title. I’ve always figured, if I can do this, how hard can it be? But I guess I might have to finally admit, after nearly twenty years down the road, that I might have picked up a skill or two. It’s pretty easy to continue when someone such as Sheila Heti, for example, tells that I’m the first/only reviewer who “gets” her new novel. Is that ego? Possibly. But it’s also highlighting an essential part of why I should continue doing these reviews; that there is so little in the way of broader attention, focusing instead on a small list of titles that become almost overexposed. There is also something about knowing that mine might be one of the few sites that comes up in google searches for Gerry Gilbert, Peter van Toorn, David Phillips, jwcurry, Judith Copithorne, William Hawkins or Maxine Gadd, so it puts a considerable weight of responsibility upon me to make my commentary worthwhile.

Finally, if I don’t review it, who will? And that’s the saddest commentary of all.

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

rm: I completely do. I’ve worked hard for years to talk about a range of writing on the blog, and take seriously the idea of introducing readers to various corners, whether highlighting Prince George, Calgary, Vancouver, Winnipeg, Edmonton, Ottawa, or what I’ve been learning the past few years about American poetics. For quite a while I’ve been deliberately reviewing non-Calgary works in filling Station and non-east coast works in The Antigonish Review, for example. Spread the word around, so to speak. If I’m going to dig deeper through all of this information, this reading, wouldn’t it be irresponsible of me to not work to try to express what I’ve seen, read, learned?

Conducted over email, November 16-8, 2010. Note: Rob is reading in the Pilot Reading Series this Sunday at 8pm in Montreal at the Sparrow, 5322 St. Laurent.  

Born in Ottawa in 1970, rob mclennan is an Ottawa-based writer, editor and publisher, and author of more than twenty titles of poetry, fiction and non-fiction in Canada, Ireland, England and the United States, with work appearing in over two hundred journals in fourteen countries. He has published a travel book on Ottawa (Ottawa: The Unknown City) and a collection of literary essays (subverting the lyric: essays). More recently, he is the author of a second novel, missing persons (Toronto ON: The Mercury Press, 2009), and two forthcoming poetry collections—kate street (Chicago Il: Moira, 2010) and Glengarry (Vancouver BC: Talonbooks, 2011)—as well as the recent wild horses (Edmonton AB: University of Alberta Press, 2010). An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books (with Jennifer Mulligan), The Garneau Review (ottwater.com/garneaureview), seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics (ottawater.com/seventeenseconds) and the Ottawa poetry pdf annual ottawater (ottawater.com). He spent the 2007-8 academic year as writer in residence at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, and blogs regularly at robmclennan.blogspot.com.