Savanna Scott Leslie: For 2014, the reviews of yours that we counted across three publications—the Winnipeg Free Press, Lemon Hound, and THIS Magazine—put you at number 13 in our list of the most prolific reviewers in Canada. You also write, edit, and teach, so you’re quite deeply involved in the literary arts. What drew you to reviewing books, and why do you make time for reviews alongside your other commitments?
Jonathan Ball: I just feel like it’s important for a writer to read deeply and widely, and it’s a form of community service on my part. I have a teenage daughter and a baby daughter (15 years apart) in addition to the usual responsibilities of being a husband and trying to make a career in a lousy job market and so on. I just don’t have as much time as I used to have to go to events or volunteer at things.
To me, reviewing is a replacement for that community involvement, something I can do on the bus instead of having to ditch my wife, or drag my daughter to events she doesn’t want to go to. And then since it does pay a little bit, I can go have some sushi with one of them instead of going to some event and still feel like I have contributed something to the literary community.
You can’t just sit in your room and write things and think you’re a human being, but it can help you be a human being if you write the right things.
SSL: Have your experiences as a reviewer shaped your own creative writing or your career as a teacher?
JB: It forces you to constantly evaluate and also operate on a meta-level where you have to evaluate how you are evaluating. In that way, I think it has made me extremely analytical and that has served me well as a writer, editor, and teacher.
SSL: Have reviews of your own books made a difference in your career?
JB: It’s hard to say. It’s not like you can pinpoint a review that changed your life, or turned your book into a bestseller. My daughter once told me she didn’t understand why anyone would write or read a review, and I agreed with most of what she was saying at the time but pointed out that she needs to also look at it from the perspective of a writer.
The reviews confirm that people take me seriously, and my work is making the rounds. That’s important to me. And in theory, it’s important to grants juries. There’s a way that it makes an abstract difference but it’s hard to point to concrete examples. But it’s still a real difference.
SSL: Why do you read book reviews? What do you look for in a review?
JB: I actually rarely read book reviews because they are so poorly written. I try but I stop after about a paragraph or two. What I am looking for first is basic competence, which I rarely see. Somebody who can write a clear sentence, who appears to know something. Anything! Who isn’t making absurd assumptions, who appears to have some basic knowledge of what books are and how they are written.
I read a review of Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge a while back where the reviewer noted that, late in the book, the 9/11 terrorist attack takes place and of course it interrupts the plotlines that Pynchon has developed. The reviewer phrased it along the lines of, “Well, Pynchon set his story in 2001 in New York but it seems like he wasn’t really thinking about how 9/11 would happen and so when he’s forced to incorporate that event the book sort of goes off the rails.”
Really? You think Thomas Pynchon was just, I don’t know, plugging along with his 2001 novel and then was, like, “Oh crap! I forgot about 9/11!” I get that not everyone has read Pynchon and knows his deal, that’s forgivable. You don’t need to be a Pynchon scholar to write a review and maybe it even helps if you aren’t. I haven’t read the book and even I can tell, from looking at this stupid review, that the reviewer missed the entire point. You shouldn’t be that stupid and be allowed to review books.
My most depressing review, of The Politics of Knives, assumed that in a poem about Kafka’s novel The Castle, when I mention Count Westwest, I was talking about a writer of Harry Potter fan fiction. Now, I don’t expect even Kafka devotees to remember that Count Westwest is the name of the dude whose castle it is. But seriously? Maybe Google “Count Westwest + Kafka” next time instead of just “Count Westwest.” That’s the pathetic level of discourse of most reviews.
What I want to see in a review is a surprising comprehension. Where not only do I get a sense of what’s important in this book, or even how it fails, but I get a sense of what’s important in literature, or how it fails. It’s an abstract thing. But ideally, the review has an intelligence in it that illuminates the book under review and also allows the review to stand on its own as a thing of interest. I want to read a review and feel like I gained something even if I never read the book it’s discussing.
To me, the ideal review shows me how to read books, and displays how the mind can and maybe should approach literature. The subject of a review is almost unimportant compared to its method.
SSL: You wrote in your personal reaction to our 2012 CWILA Count that “generally speaking, books appear to be chosen for review more often than they are assigned for review.” You clarify that at least in your own experience, this has been true, and that you tend to review books that interest you. Can you tell us more about why certain books interest you? What kinds of factors affect your decision to write a review?
JB: I’m interested in books I haven’t seen before. So many books are the same. It’s worse with poetry than with other things. Probably 70% of the poetry books I am sent, I read five pages and I start to predict the gist of the next stanza or where the metaphor winds up and I ditch the book, even if it’s otherwise a strong book.
Christian Bök told me once that his great complaint with new poetry books was that he would open them and think, “I’ve seen all these words before.” I feel a variation of that, where I’ve seen all the moves before. I want a book to teach me something about writing a book. I don’t really care what books are about. It’s nice if the book is about something interesting, but I will give anything a chance.
Ideally, I want to see something that I don’t think should work, working. Down from there, I want to see something different that fails, then something common that succeeds uncommonly, with a real vitality. If it’s just a good book then I don’t even finish it. I would rather read a great book, or even an ambitious disaster.
SSL: Of your 2014 reviews, 91% discussed books authored by Canadians. Does nationality factor into your decision to review a book?
JB: Not really, but I am naturally sent books by Canadians that I didn’t request. I usually have to go out of my way to request a book by a non-Canadian. But Canadians just mail me all their goddamn books. And with a big stack of 300 books you kind of feel like a jerk requesting another book from someone else. I still do it sometimes, though.
SSL: Do you write reviews with a target reader in mind?
JB: I assume a hostile reader that hates me and doesn’t trust my judgement. I want that person to still know what the book is about, and to understand why I have judged it the way I did. So I rely on examples. A reader that disagrees with me should still get a good sense of what the book is and how it works. Otherwise it’s not a review, in my opinion, just a screed.
My technique as a reviewer is to isolate the moments in the book where it seems to be commenting on itself, and explaining itself. Basically, I try to let books review themselves. If I pick the right quotes, then the book will tell you what it’s doing and what’s wrong with it.
SSL: You’re a CWILA member, and you shared this statement about your decision to join: “What the CWILA count encourages more than anything, it seems to me, is attention. The act or art of paying attention. In this way, it facilitates real change by motivating readers and reviewers to make actual, incremental shifts in their attitudes, and offering a broader context for a greater sense of personal, social, and cultural responsibility.” Do reviewers have any responsibility to cover books by diverse authors in terms of gender or racialization? Do editors?
JB: I don’t think of it in terms of responsibility. I think of it in terms of competence and professionalism. If there is a whole world of books out there that are not getting reviewed, and instead of reviewing those books then you review (or assign for review) the kinds of books that have already been reviewed, basically the same sort of book over and over, then to me you are a boring hack. I don’t even have a problem with hacks so much as the boring ones.
SSL: One trend we found overall in last year’s book reviews was that male reviewers tend to review significantly more books written by men than books written by women, at 65% of reviews versus 27% of reviews, respectively. But your 2014 reviews aren’t part of this trend, at 54% books by men versus 43% books by women. And in 2013, you reviewed more books by women than by men, at 51% books by women versus 42% books by men. Why do you think you tend to review more books by women than most male reviewers, who tend to focus on books by male authors?
JB: When CWILA started doing these counts, I started thinking more consciously about what books I review. Ultimately, I decided that I wouldn’t institute any sort of “quota” policy on my own reviewing choices. I would just keep doing what I was already doing, which was reading a bunch of books and then picking a handful to review each month.
The only thing I started doing differently is that I decided I would try to notice if I was reading more male authors than female authors. If I was, I would try reading a female author’s book. That might mean, if I was reviewing four books in a column, I would maybe start reading 20 books, finish reading six, and review four. If those were the numbers, I would just try to start reading ten books by women.
Maybe I would still, that month, only like, or finish, or review male-authored books. I decided I wouldn’t put any pressure on myself to review books by women. I would just make an honest effort to try reading them, if I noticed I wasn’t for some reason, so they were at least in the running to get reviewed later. To me, this seemed like the absolute minimal effort anyone could make, and it seemed reasonable.
I thought it would be an interesting experiment: could I do almost nothing and actually buck the trend? Apparently so. Which suggests, to me, that the trend’s continuance is due to an unwillingness to address it. It’s not a scientific study, this thing I’ve been doing, but it’s disheartening that I was able to address the issue so easily without even altering why I pick some books to review over others, or even tracking how many books by women I have been reviewing. I don’t see why others appear so resistant.
SSL: You also wrote in your reaction to our 2012 Count that “a better measure of my influence [than reviews] would be what course texts I assign in my classes.” Gender bias in syllabuses does appear to be a problem—with David Gilmour reporting that he didn’t teach women writers (except, sometimes, Virginia Woolf) being a memorable recent example. How do you decide what texts to assign in your classes? What makes these decisions influential?
JB: A number of factors go into the decision, and I have a harder time with this because my tastes outside of poetry are a bit more male-centred, due in some part to what books I was assigned in school and grew to love.
So I want to teach Shakespeare and Rilke and Melville and Kafka and Rushdie and King and Lovecraft and watch films by Hitchcock and Maddin and so on. Some of the genres I love, like horror, are pretty male-dominated in some ways. Luckily, Shirley Jackson wrote the best haunted house story, et cetera—I feel like I am obliged to teach more men than women in some ways due to the historical circumstances that made certain male writers more influential. To me, literary study and history is a game of influence and I need to show students that, so you can’t just ditch the canon.
I feel like I always have to represent Shakespeare somehow or I’m not an English professor, if you know what I mean, whereas I can’t really say the same for Woolf. We don’t quote Woolf every time we open our mouths. I’m making more of an effort to have a more equitable reading list, but it’s tricky because of what I know and how I was taught. In many ways it is hard because it means more work and I am already overworked.
But it’s something of a cycle of teaching what I was taught, and so if I don’t start teaching more women then it all continues. I’m very aware of that.
SSL: If it were possible to collect data on the texts assigned in classes, would the results be meaningful in a parallel way to CWILA’s Count?
JB: I think so. It would probably be more depressing, though.
Jonathan Ball holds a Ph.D. in English and teaches literature, film, and writing at the University of Manitoba and the University of Winnipeg. He is the author of the poetry books Ex Machina, Clockfire, and The Politics of Knives, the co-editor of Why Poetry Sucks: An Anthology of Humorous Experimental Poetry, and the author of the academic monograph John Paizs’s Crime Wave. Visit him online at JonathanBall.com, where he writes about writing the wrong way.
Savanna Scott Leslie is an editor and publishing consultant based in Hamilton, Ontario. She has a BA in bioethics and Russian literature from the University of Toronto as well as a post-graduate certificate in publishing from Ryerson University.