- Congratulations on the success of Malarky—this is impressive buzz for a first novel. How would you describe the experience of entering so swiftly into the public conversation about books?
Thank you. I am so delighted by the warm and engaged response to Malarky.
I’ve been writing criticism and articles about literature for many years so I already felt as if I was part of the public conversation or, at least, that I was contributing to it. It did frustrate me that I received so little response or engagement to what I wrote. It’s clear that I now have a voice that for the past ten years I never had and that is amazing. (For so many years I have tried to talk about books that I am passionate about and have been largely talking to the wall.) But my capabilities didn’t suddenly appear after publishing a novel, my curiosity was always there, so why does it require some kind of ascension to have a voice? Why are we only heard post-publishing endorsement?
2. You’re entering the national conversation now as published author, but you’ve been working in the Vancouver literary community for years, advocating for other books. Can you tell me about the kind of work you’ve been doing on behalf of other women writers?
Some years ago I was researching an idea for an essay on “reading for social class.” I had an article or piece of criticism I wanted to write that would interrogate why the 1980’s time of recession, closing factories and the shift from a resource-based economy had not breached the levees of BC fiction. I wanted to find novels of people losing their jobs—something that would tell me what the two recessions had been like in BC. I applied to the Banff Centre for the Arts to do a non-fiction program they have there out of which you can be funded to write an article. I thought my idea was compelling. They didn’t agree and I wasn’t accepted. I decided to up the ante on a personal level and began to organize events and advocate for particular titles that I felt spoke to something which I was trying to interrogate/understand.
I discovered Helen Potrebenko’s vital Vancouver novel Taxi! which is set in the 1970’s and concerns a woman taxi driver navigating the streets of Vancouver. The book changed the way I thought about where I lived and understood it. Through that novel I could see a past that hitherto had escaped me as an immigrant. We held a cross-disciplinary event at the Vancouver Public Library which revisited that novel.
Gradually I moved this exploration towards a performance-art-based idea where I, along with my encouraging collaborator, Lori Weidenhammer, and readers, would do interventions with a wooden Taxi! rank sign that I built. We would carry the sign, set up a rank and either I’d read the book to the public or the public would read the book to each other. We had some incredible engagement. I wanted to do 56 of these interventions because Helen still has 500 copies of Taxi! in her Burnaby basement. After about seven of them, I became very physically tired. So I still have 49 more of them to do.
I also organized an event to revisit Betty Lambert’s novel Crossings which was recently republished by Arsenal Pulp Press through Vancouver 125 Legacy Books initiative. Writers Renee Rodin, Claudia Casper, Juliane Okot Bitek, Annabel Lyon and Lori Weidenhammer read from the book and other Lambert work. Betty’s family showed up and shared wonderful stories about her.
Finally, I curated a project called Rereading the Riot Act with Unit/Pitt – an artist-run centre in Vancouver. It was an inter-disciplinary exploration involving six artists and some public actions in response to an event in BC’s Labour History and had publishing components to it.
3. You have said that you think that reviews are caught up in an anachronistic system that may have little future weight. Do you think reviews have any traction in getting people to buy books anymore? Do you think they matter?
I’m not sure I am qualified to assert anything on what propels people to buy books. I can only comment on criticism. To my mind the current system of such radically reduced review space in newspapers doesn’t invoke much confidence for serious readers. The situation is a state of emergency. I think it’s possible that readers have already departed from considering the traditional newspaper a space where they’ll find good criticism. There is virtually no coverage anymore. Editors are juggling horrible workloads from what I’ve seen and it’s actually quite unfair to them.
Just look at the Globe and Mail and the space they devote to Celebrity, Fashion, Life (style): how much is too much cleavage to show? They canned a great feature in the Books section called Lost Treasure. I knew that was the beginning of the end. The recent editorial direction is so short-sighted. There are also issues around the titles reviewed. I think there’s far too much coverage of British writers and not enough of home grown work, especially more experimental work, but be assured the Brits are not filling up their review pages with Canadian writers.
When I talked about an anachronistic system I am referring to the weight being put on the implications of newspaper publishing. That CWILA came out hollering about newspapers surprised me, since newspapers appear to be in the gutter generally. You have to pay attention to the current landscape if you are going to criticize the distribution of the crops.
I think there’s a fundamental shift happening that reviews need to evolve alongside. They could expand into considerations and responses to the work. Perhaps they could even become extensions of the work and be more multi-disciplinary in nature. There’s room to be much more inventive within the review form. Critical conversations have to situate themselves within new platforms and be adaptable across multiple platforms.
I certainly think critique has enormous value. It’s a distinct form of writing, it needs to be compelling in its own right and yet that is something that’s chronically overlooked in the discourse on criticism.
It could be argued that the public are ahead of it all with the Youtube review and the fact you can barely now take a step without walking through a public space that is, well, extensively reviewed.
4. Tell me about your experience as a reviewer. You’ve certainly done your fair share of reviewing and you have particular ideas about the nature of critique. We published an essay on this site by Jan Zwicky in which she calls for more appreciative reviews in which the reviewer avoids taking an antagonistic position. It seems to me that you think that’s bullocks—did I hear you correctly?
My experience as a reviewer has been positive. I’ve enjoyed respectful relationships with my editors and I am grateful for the opportunities they’ve given me. I preferred editors who left the work alone rather than the ones who managed to make it worse. But I have one editor who takes a slash hook to my work and is wonderful. He’s my favourite editor. I’ve had the odd box up, lost the odd book to a male reviewer and experienced the myriad of frustrations that most freelancers do: low pay, killed articles, unanswered emails, months waiting on payment, rude comments posted beneath articles and on. Occasionally I have felt when my pitches are rejected that I am held to exceptionally high standards, where my (especially older) male colleagues seem to get away with publishing any old bunk. But upon examination I usually conclude that the editor had a legitimate point in refusing the work and I resolve to improve.
To answer the second part of your question I find the stated position “more appreciative reviews” too reductive as a starting point. I am ambitious for literature and criticism. I am not a fan of ignorance and dismissiveness as a garden tool, but can’t really engage with that aforementioned position that many have been quacking about, because, instead, I’d rather be reading and thinking about work. It seems rather backwards to be still talking about polarities. I find such discourse tedious. I want to think about how and where the review might evolve, widening the frames of reference, the continuum of literature, how work inter relates or inter-reading, reading out, reading for the local, and on and on.
5. Why do you write book reviews, above and beyond the need to make an income?
I write book reviews because I feel it’s vital to contribute to your critical culture. As in you won’t have one if you don’t. I suppose I think of it on the level of voting.
6. Quite a few writers I’ve heard from in this exchange have said that they think the critical discourse created by book reviews in Canada is really in the hole in terms of quality. Where do think the best critical writing about books is being done? Where are we headed in terms of the calibre of critical conversation in this country?
Critical writing does not begin and end with book reviews. The late and great Tom Cone encouraged us to engage with disciplines other than our own. I take direction from his advice.
I would like to see wider frames of reference. I also do not enjoy reading reviewers who sound like they have been told what to read for much of their lives. Reviews are not undergrad essays. They need to be unique and engaging pieces of writing in their own right. The lack or absence of ideas in our literary reviews is something I’ve noticed of late and is concerning or somnolent depending on how much tea I’ve drunk.
I visit the long form essay for nourishment. I read the NYRB especially lately. I find it intoxicating, almost hypnotizing. I have so little time these days that I am sometimes reading copies from four months ago. Honestly, sometimes a single fragment in those essays can needle me for days – in a solid, probing way. I talk with friends, collaborators—my partner is a visual artist—people, especially other artists and critics, are constantly directing me to essays and work and ideas that feed me. I am very lucky this way. Vancouver can also be great for public panels and talks.
7. What do you think of feminist interventions such as CWILA? You seemed to be ambivalent about the discussion that brought CWILA into being, and quite frankly, I appreciated your skepticism. What do you think now that the conversation has become more public? Do you think that there is a need for the data produced and the conversations it has ignited?
I did feel that the conversation which began in the poetry community was very much addressing an issue therein, with little contemplation of the realities of the wider landscape of reviewing. As in there is no space for books and the pay is terrible! It felt a tad precious and idealistic. Some of the women engaging in the debate freely admitted they didn’t write reviews or had stopped. I am a practical woman: I wondered why, if you don’t write reviews, should you be surprised that they’re not getting written? Who do you think is going to write them? I would have preferred to see all the women counting and tweeting to be actively reading and writing about someone’s work—or, for that matter, reading Taxi!
Then the data appeared. No surprises there. Except the volume of men reviewing men astonished me. It smacks of cronyism and I found it perturbing. I am tired of this kind of backroom bloke-ism. I want editors to be more attentive to the way they are assigning reviews. I also think there are particular journals where the editors should be more accountable for the guff they are publishing under the guise of reviews. People are now more conscious of the situation, so I would say my perspective has shifted as a result of the data.
In principle I think the CWILA is a galvanizing idea. Ideally I’d rather not still be talking about gender in relation to criticism because I prefer pondering where criticism might go. I want to be reading and thinking. I want to get on with it.
Another issue that’s outstanding is the question of what value the culture itself puts on reviews and criticism? Is there an ambivalent attitude that needs interrogating? What is the history of criticism in this country? Why is it so poorly paid? There seems to be a national past time of deciding its terrible and saying so aloud at parties, or on Twitter, but beyond that not contributing anything to improve matters. This, however, seems to be the case in every culture on any contentious matter.
I wonder what the correlation, if any, is between the explosion in creative writing courses and the downturn in space and appetites for writing or reading criticism. I’d be curious to know if the 1990’s period in publishing had any influence on this shift.
Published August 27, 2012