By Erin Wunker
Stacey May Fowles is an critic, essayist and novelist. She is the author of the novels Be Good (Tightrope, 2007), Fear of Fighting (Invisible, 2008), and Infidelity (ECW, 2013.) Her bylines include The Walrus, the National Post, Quill and Quire, Hazlitt, and Toronto Life, and she regularly writes about books and television for The Globe and Mail.
EW: Why do you write book reviews?
SMF: Book reviewing seemed like a natural fit for me because so often I write to figure out how I’m feeling about something—an idea, a current event, an issue—and I usually have a lot of feelings about books. Writing an essay on a text seemed like a fitting way to get to the bottom of the influence it’s had on me, and the influence it could potentially have on other people. In fact, I think some of my more successful reviews come from a place of not being mired in a particular position before I hit the page. For me, the process of writing is a way of working through disparate thoughts, and when I come out the other side I’ve formed an opinion, and hopefully provided an insight.
I try not to work from a place of whether or not a book is “good” or “bad,” but rather of whether or not it has succeeded in what it has intended to do. In fact, some of the worst reviews I’ve read are a product of a critic’s ego, or an intense emotional like or dislike of a book, instead of them thoughtfully engaging with what it has set out to accomplish. I like to think of my reviews more as an investigation than a decree in that sense.
I tend to take a more transparently personal approach to reviewing than some of my peers. I don’t actually believe that my opinion on a book’s quality is more valid than anyone else’s—instead that it’s my job to look deeply at and communicate where I think a book fits into our larger culture. Perhaps that’s why I often situate myself inside the review, or write in the first person, or include elements of memoir—to remind the reader of my inherent fallibility, that it’s always just an individual that experiences a book, and that there’s a flaw in anointing any critic a universal arbiter of our tastes.
I know there are certainly people who are critical of a reviewer mentioning themselves in a review, but to me that makes sense. It allows the reader to know who I am and where I’m coming from.
EW: I am so taken with the way you frame your own review practice—it reminds me of Jacqueline Weirnemot’s writing about ferocious generosity, which she sees as primarily a willingness to engage and think with rather than immediately against someone else’s writing. Have you, in your generous thinking, developed any thoughts or responses to those who suggest that book reviewing is an outdated mode of creating literary community and public discussions about books?
SMF: I think it may be true that straight, narrow reviews often fail in building a community conversation around books. I’m more interested in contextual essays that provoke discussion and encourage ideas, than something as simple as “this was good” or “this was bad.” It’s far more interesting and productive to look at what books say about our culture at large than it is to evaluate them on more simplistic aesthetic terms.
EW: Do you have an ideal reader in mind when you write?
SMF: Beyond writing for the given audience of the publication I’m contributing to (The Globe and Mail, Quill and Quire, etc,) my “ideal reader” is simply someone with an interest in engaging critically with a text. My writing of course tends to be feminist in nature, meaning I often get assigned books that deal with women’s issues, and that I bring that sensibility to all my work. I certainly have a preference towards accessibility, meaning I’m certainly not interested in opaque, elitist reviews for some sort of stereotypical, high-minded literary reader. If anything, I want to write things that encourage a broad range of people to engage with works of literature, especially those they may not have considered a work before.
EW: You write that your approach is “of course” feminist. How did you first come to feminism as a mode of reading and writing? Can you pinpoint moments or literary mentors who helped develop that now-innate lens for reading and writing?
SMF: I think it happened organically. I initially started learning about feminist ideas in high school, and then started thinking more critically about literature in University, where I did an English Literature/Women’s Studies degree, so obviously one influenced the other. We can certainly talk about coming to a book as objectively as possible, but every reader brings their life, their feelings and their worldview to the page, and I like to be as transparent as possible about that. In terms of mentorship, I think my lens has developed by engaging with feminist ideas and texts, and through my personal, daily experiences.
I like to listen to my own anger and frustrations and try to turn them into something productive through writing, and I think that’s been a huge part of my development as a critic.
EW: What, for you, makes a strong literary community?
SMF: I’ve been critical of the “literary community” over the years, particularly how it’s rife with sexism, racism, classicism, and homophobia. It’s not only at the gatekeeping publishing level, or at the reviewing level, but also (and perhaps most importantly) in our more personal, day-to-day interactions. I’ve also been publicly critical of how rape culture is rampant in many literary circles, and how our unwillingness to tackle it head on allows that toxicity to fester. A strong literary community is one that’s safe for and supportive of all its members, and given the world we live in that’s simply not something that’s going to happen by default.
It’s our responsibility to actively engage with these issues, to not prop up abusers, to not tolerate the status quo, and to protect and actively support those who are vulnerable. It’s hard, exhausting work, but until we are collectively willing to do it, we simply can’t call ourselves a community.
The reality is that the more welcoming the community becomes, the more prolific and diverse its content, and we will all benefit from that end result.
EW: Again, the theme of generosity emerges here. I find myself thinking of the push-back that CWILA and some writers affiliated with CWILA received in the early days of the organization. Without necessarily asking you to rehash or weigh in on the blow-back around discussions of the ethics of negative book reviewing, I’d like to invite you to name some nodes of literary communities in Canada that are working generously.
SMF: I have a great admiration for critics who make a point to engage with books and voices that may be ignored by the larger machinations of the industry. Mainstream book reviewing tends to focus on award winners and bestsellers, books that are deemed “important” by a flawed system that’s often driven by gatekeeping, budgets, and bottom lines. Certain books get a huge amount of real estate on the very few review pages we have in this country, so I’m always impressed by lesser-known releases getting their well-deserved due. I think we can all benefit from going further than “best books” lists in our reading habits, and I think strong communities endeavor to do that. Some of the most important and personally influential books I’ve read and reviewed recently—Lori Shenher’s That Lonely Section of Hell, Chelsea Rooney’s Pedal, Karyn L Freedman’s One Hour In Paris, Howard Ackler’s Men of Action, Vivek Shraya’s She of the Mountains—came from a place from looking just outside the status quo.
I guess to answer your initial question, it’s an inherent openness that makes a strong literary community.
EW: You’re a prolific and generative social media user; how/does twitter function as a site for literary criticism?
SMF: Social media is an excellent place to make connections and keep abreast of publishing developments, but as a site for criticism it tends to be more a messy place for raw ideas than anything else. I’ve certainly had some great conversations about books in that space, but I’ve also seen some vitriolic arguments and even odd forms of literary bullying and abuse. I suppose the online space is a literary community like any other, and while it does have its positive attributes, it also has its exclusionary flaws.
EW: So true. I find myself wondering, here again, how to call out the acts of vitriol and harassment in a generative way. Perhaps, though, energy is better spent building and bolstering people rather than constantly calling out? I’m not sure…
SMF: It’s interesting that you mention online vitriol, because I recently discussed this issue with fellow critic Stephen Beattie over at the Humber Literary Review.
EW: What are you reading these days?
SMF: These days, I tend to read a great deal of non-fiction, especially memoir, as I’m currently working on one about my own experience with rape trauma. I’ve also made an effort to make reading for pleasure (and not for employment) a real priority. Because it’s my job to read “important” books, I take literary escapism very seriously—I enjoy a lot of mass market “trash” in my off hours, with me and a few friends planning on re-reading some VC Andrews in our spare time.
EW: Amazing. Do you have a book club?
SMF: Not as of yet. I’ve never been big on group reading, but admittedly I haven’t really tried it yet. That of course could change.
Since I started writing about television for the Globe and Mail earlier this year, I’ve been developing an eye for the value and importance of low/pop culture, and reading things like Thomas Harris novels, Shonda Rhimes’ new book, and ECW’s Pop Classics series. I think that all too often we snobbishly dismiss the value of popular things to our detriment, and that expanding what I consume has entirely helped me with my critical eye.
EW: I so agree—I have been reading memoirs of women from 90s 2000s altrock (Kim Gordon, Carrie Brownstein) which are not highbrow, but so incredibly relevant. They have been revolutionizing my thinking around gender and agency.
SMF: It’s interesting that you raise those particular books, as I feel like women’s “confessional” writing, or memoir, has long been dismissed as not serious literature, yet it’s often so illuminating in terms of women’s genuine experiences in male dominated discourse. The rise of the personal essay has allowed it to become a genre beloved by readers, but when women write about their personal, intimate, private experiences it’s not considered “serious literature.”
EW: What do you wish I had asked you?
SMF: I always like questions about baseball, of course. I’ve been writing about it more and more these days, which is a nice change for me. Oddly, I find the tools you use to analyze sports are not all that different than those you use to analyze literature. It’s why I’ve always admired Roger Angell as a sportswriter. He writes about baseball more like a critic watching a performance than anything else, and I think that’s why his work resonates so much with people. It’s familiar, and personable, and it illuminates the game in a way that standard daily sportswriting doesn’t. Again, it’s not about why something is simply good or bad, but instead about why it matters.