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?
NZW: The purpose of a review, be it a book review or an album review, is to communicate with that text’s potential audience, to place the text in its cultural context, and to engage with both the writer and the potential readers about the text’s success.
I see two potential purposes that a review may have, and an individual review can embody one or both of these traits. First, to work as a piece of cultural criticism. This involves situating the text within it’s cultural context, examining how is upholds or disrupts the status quo within that context, and analysing the cultural work that the text is doing. This can involve categorizing the text within a genre or genres, looking at the text’s form and content, identifying moments of innovation and change, and otherwise providing a detailed look at how and where the text operates in the cultural landscape.
Another potential purpose of a review is to match a text with a potential audience.
This involves identifying the audience that the text is attempting to reach and analyzing whether or not the text is successful is doing so. In this regard, the purpose of a review is also to let that audience know whether the text in question is any good or not, and whether a member if its target audience might enjoy it. A review is also an endorsement, a vote of confidence or a warning.
Sometimes I turn to blogging when I don’t want to do either of these things, when I instead wish to write about my own, personal, not-necessarily critical relationship with a book. Texts often act as triggers, or can become am important marker in our lives — a record we listen to obsessively during a break-up, a book that we passionately identify with while navigating a difficult life change. Blogging allows the space and freedom to do this free from the “work” of criticism. That said, even on my own blog I usually write reviews.
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?
NZ: I employ exegetical, contextual, close, reader response and evaluative techniques most often in my own writing. I tend to avoid excessively academic and theoretical language because I find that it often alienates my potential audience. Poetry and heavy metal are both difficult mediums that require a lot of readers and listeners, and further complicating things by writing reviews full of impenetrable prose seems counter-intuitive and unwelcoming. In terms of my method or approach: the most important aspect the review writing process for me is time spent with the work, and research. If it is a book, I read it more than once and allow myself some time to digest what I have written. If it is an album, I listen to that album several times and in different contexts. On each pass I take notes. I also read up on the author or band, in the form of interviews, bios, and other materials, so I know as much as possible about the work when I begin 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?
NZW: Good reviews are defined by good writing featuring a deep engagement with the text by an informed reader who has taken the time to get to know the substance and context of the work extremely well. If there is one thing that defines a good review, it is knowledge and confidence, opinions that are stated clearly and bravely, and backed up with proof.
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?
NZW: I always focus on the book/album at hand, as that is always the primary thing that is being reviewed, but the creator’s body of work is definitely something I consider as part of my review of the single text. The context of the author’s other work, and indeed their life is extremely important. For example, I refuse to review albums or books by people who have made openly racist, sexist, homophobic or other hateful statements (I have slipped and mistakenly reviewed things that sadly fall into these categories, but I strive to avoid them as much as I can). A knowledge of the author/musician’s life and other work is necessary to be able to make these calls.
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?
NZW: Completely different. Criticism is an utterly different mode of writing for me — though, both are certainly creative acts, and I don’t value one over the other. The headspace that I occupy when I am writing is extremely different. I can produce criticism to deadline, under tight time constraint, whereas with poetry, I need to be much gentler with myself.
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?
NZW: Absolutely, I write about albums I don’t care for all the time. I don’t feel that this is problematic at all. As a cultural critic, one of our roles is to point to material that we think is unsuccessful and explain why. Some pieces fail. The ideas don’t work, the structure is not sound, the themes are not properly executed, poor choices are made. I don’t think there is anything problematic with pointing those things out. In doing so, you are flagging these problems for potential readers, and backing up your opinions with examples from the text. Criticism that is unable to make value judgements is toothless. This illuminates something that I think is a key difference between music journalism and poetry criticism: as a music critic, you are absolutely expected to say whether a piece is good or not. This is a given. The supposition that this is somehow improper or off limits is poetry-land boggles my mind. That said, I think there is a precedent for work being dismissed out of hand by critics who don’t understand it, or who look down upon work of a certain genre or by someone who conforms to a certain demographic. Hence, the hesitation to make calls ourselves.
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?
NZW: I never rely on single reviews of an album or book to make my purchasing decisions. Instead, I read as many as I can, and take them together to get a better idea of how that book is being received by may writers and different publications.
LH: Is there a quality you are looking for in a review that you haven’t found?
NZW: The best reviews are the brave ones, where the writer genuinely states their opinions and does their best to back them up. Not enough reviews exhibit real vulnerability combined with intelligence, or take enough risks.
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?
NZW: All the book reviews I have done, I have been paid for. In music journalism, reviews are very seldom paid work but are often connected to features, interviews, etc. that do pay. They are a gateway to paying work. As such, I will continue to do both.
LH: What do you hope to achieve by writing about writing? Do you believe that reviews can actually bring new readers to texts? I absolutely believe, and see demonstrated all the time, that reviews both attract and inform new readers and listeners.
Natalie Zina Walschots is a music writer, poet and editor based in Toronto, Ontario. She writes for a variety music publications, both in print and online, including Toronto Standard, Toronto Is Awesome, Hellbound, About Heavy Metal, Angry Metal Guy and Exclaim!. Natalie currently serves as the Managing Editor of Canada Arts Connect, and her weekly column about feminism and aggressive music, “Girl Don’t Like Metal,” is hosted on Canada Arts Connect Magazine. She is the Metal and Comics Editor for Toronto Is Awesome, where she contributes the columns “Heavy Metal Ambassador” and “Image Seeks Words.” She is also the Reviews Editor of This Magazine, and her biweekly column on individual songs from recent Canadian metal albums, “One Track Mind,” appears on the This Magazine website. Her first book, Thumbscrews, won the Robert Kroetsch Award for Innovative Poetry and was published by Snare Books in the Fall of 2007. Natalie’s second book of poetry, DOOM: Love Poems For Supervillains, was published by Insomniac Press in the Spring of 2012. You can follow her on Twitter.