On Reviewing: Zoe Whittall

LH: What do you think the purpose of a review is? If you also write about books on a blog (as opposed to an official publication), why? What does blogging let you do differently?

ZW: To start a conversation about a new book that a) lets readers know it exists b) talks about how it fits (or doesn’t fit) into the world of similar books that came before it, what it does differently, what it fails to do differently c) how it differs from authors previous works d) did it do what it set out to do? E) if I think it’s worth your time and why

ZW: I don’t blog. If I really like a book I’ll tweet about it.

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?

ZW: My approach varies according to the type of book. I try to review the book in front of me and not the book I wish the author wrote. My approach is not academic at all, it’s more conversational and critical.

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?

ZW: A successful review should leave the reader with a succinct impression of what the book is about without giving them a play by play; it should be written with a narrative voice of its own and not in Divorced Reporter Voice. It should try to be funny sometimes. It should resist using the words Seminal, and empty adjectives Riveting, Heartbreaking. If I’ve used too many empty adjectives it’s because I don’t have enough meaningful stuff to say about the book and I’m trying to make my word count.

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?

ZW: The particular text, unless I’ve already read the backlist. Reviews pay so little I won’t read any other books unless I’m interested anyway. There’s rarely enough time.

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?

ZW: Completely different. I don’t know how to explain it.

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?

ZW:  Absolutely. There isn’t really a tradition I’m opposed to as much as incredibly bored by. I used to take some glee in ripping these books apart. Now I try to give them a fair assessment keeping in mind the context of the book they were trying to write, and then I point how I think they failed to meet their goals.

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?

ZW: I’ve read a ton of critical reviews of Heroines, and every smart female writer friend I know who has read it has hated it with such an intensity I had to buy a copy and see for myself.

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

ZW: Yes, most reviews do not have an interesting authorial voice. In order to really like a review, or read it to its end, I have to know who is writing them to really believe them or not, and if the author is too distant or not present, then I get bored. I wouldn’t ask a stranger’s opinion on the street about a movie, I’d ask someone I know. I have to know who is talking to me.

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?

ZW: I won’t write for free, ever, unless it’s poetry.

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

ZW: I definitely think reviews can bring new readers to text. I guess I hope to be a part of the literary community by contributing to public conversations


MallorytownPhotoZoeZoe Whittall has published three books of poetry, Precordial Thump (08), The Emily Valentine Poems (06), and The Best 10 Minutes of Your Life (2001). Her latest novels are Holding Still for as Long as Possible and Bottle Rocket Hearts. She has recently become a contributing editor to Lemon Hound.


Comments are closed.