Interview with Emily Donaldson

Em Headshot1Emily Donaldson is a freelance editor and longtime book reviewer who writes for major Canadian newspapers and a number of other publications. She is also the editor of the literary and cultural quarterly Canadian Notes & Queries. Born and raised in Montreal, she currently lives in Toronto with her husband and two sons.



Domenica Martinello: As a prolific book critic, you’ve made an enormous impact on Canadian review culture. According to CWILA’s 2014 Count, you’ve published close to 60 reviews across six different publications, making you the most widely published reviewer that we counted. I imagine being self-employed allows for more freedom in this regard, as opposed to being on staff at a magazine or newspaper. What has motivated your decision to work primarily as a freelancer?

Emily Donaldson: Well, this is news to me. And I’m actually rather astounded by it, given that I write at a pretty glacial pace. I’ve never been able to fathom how movie and music critics go to shows then submit copy the next day, or later that same night. But, nice as it may be to hold the banner of Canada’s Most Prolific Reviewer™, I’d rather be known for the quality of my writing rather than the quantity of it!

I went freelance after I had my first kid. I’m a bit of a closet hermit (an “introverted-extrovert,” as they say), so working at home suits me temperamentally, and yes, there’s certainly a freedom in it that I enjoy. But I also went freelance for practical reasons. My older son, Finn, who’s now sixteen, has autism, so in the early years of his diagnosis I needed to be flexible so I could get to the seemingly endless appointments we had during the day. Those times are pretty much behind us now, thankfully; nowadays his “therapy” mostly consists of watching music videos and surfing skyscraper websites.

DM: Could you talk a bit about your past professional experiences before becoming a freelance book critic? How have they shaped your current writing career?

ED: Until my early twenties, I was squarely focused on an academic path. While doing my master’s in English lit in the early ’90s, I was, like many people studying that field at that time, pretty seduced by literary criticism. That reading about how stories worked—or how to read them in the light of different paradigms—could be an end in itself felt like a revelation. So I was all set to do my PhD when I ended up getting cold feet at the last minute: I kept imagining myself running out of ideas but having to crank out endless, arcane papers of interest to no one, least of all myself; publish or perish and all that. I don’t regret the decision.

I moved to Toronto and got a full-time job producing publicity for the CBC’s now-defunct distribution department, which was responsible for flogging the Beachcombers in Slovakia, Adrienne Clarkson Presents in Japan, et cetera. It was a welcome break, and the regular income allowed me to pay off my student loans; I also met my future husband, which was worth any number of episodic synopses. But writing marketing copy obviously has its limitations. After my maternity leave turned into an eternity leave, I started writing book reviews for Quill & Quire and did an editing diploma at George Brown College. I quickly found freelance editing work and things kind of snowballed from there. The editing seemed to feed the reviewing, and vice versa.

DM: Recently, poet-critic Shane Neilson wrote an article for The Malahat Review arguing that creative writers should dedicate at least 10% of their energy to reviewing their peers, something I found myself agreeing with. However, not all reviewers are novelists and poets clocking in their time or flexing their critical muscles. Having built a whole career around reviewing books, do you think you have a different perspective on reviewing or review culture? Do you think you approach your work any differently?

ED: Well, that essay was mostly tongue-in-cheek, though I agree it’s a good idea for anyone who calls herself a writer to try and do different kinds of writing, to offset the analytic with the creative. I certainly find the bread-and-butter editing work I do—which includes fiction, non-fiction, academic stuff, poetry, et cetera—really helps my own writing. That said, I’ve worked with fiction writers who tell me they don’t have it in them to write criticism, that it’s not something they either enjoy or feel competent doing. Writing a novel, likewise, has never been one of my ambitions or impulses, yet I never seem to get sick of reading and thinking about them. Being a fiction reviewer who doesn’t write fiction also helps my impartiality for the obvious reason that it can be awkward, in an intimate—some might say claustrophobic—book culture like Canada’s, for authors to review their peers. That’s a lot of potential stink-eye to avoid at IFOA parties.

DM: What purpose do book reviews serve? What are your main tasks or priorities as a critic?

ED: Well, at the most basic, utilitarian level they obviously have a consumer function: reviews can help people decide what books to read, or to buy for their spouse or friend. But if that’s all that you want from a review then there’s not much point in going beyond a consensus-oriented website like Goodreads.

The kind of reviews I enjoy reading the most, and that I try with varying degrees of success to write, are ones that some kind of intrinsic pleasure regardless of what they say about the book; where the reviewer has a distinctive, recognizable voice that you want to return to. Good reviews tend to reach outside the book itself and to connect it to the work of other writers, ideas, genres, et cetera; put it in a wider perspective. And you don’t necessarily need a lot of space to do that. I obsess over The New Yorker’s “Briefly Noted” reviews, which somehow manage to convey something quintessential about the book and give you a summary in a hundred words or less. That’s zero-emissions reviewing efficiency. I get way more out of those nuggets than out of a lot of the rambling “book-report” style reviews you find all over the place.

At the risk of sounding a bit precious, I guess my aim as a critic is to be as frank and articulate about a book’s merits, aesthetic and otherwise, as possible; to add to a wider reading culture in some useful way. Whether I end up leaping or crawling under that bar is another question entirely.

DM: Our numbers indicate that 57% of the books you reviewed in 2014 were by women, 40% by men. These percentages reflect a change from the previous year, where you reviewed more male-authored titles. There’s also been a significant increase in the percentage of Canadian books you’ve reviewed (55% in 2014 as opposed to 38% the year prior). Were you mindful of these shifts in your work? What is your process for selecting books to review?

ED: No, I wasn’t aware of what the split was, though those strike me as fairly subtle changes. I don’t actively seek to review books by women, but that’s largely because I find that women writers in general—fiction and non—are so often equal or superior to male ones that in my head they don’t need the extra leg-up review-wise, though I say that knowing that your statistics have not always borne that view out.

When I go through publisher catalogues, I’m looking for books that stand out for their originality or intelligence, or are by an author whose work I admire. If all things are equal in that regard, I think I probably do skew to women, given that they’re my pack and all.

A decent portion of the books I review are assigned by editors, which means I don’t control what they are. I have, however, noticed a tendency among some editors—and I think it’s often an unconscious one—to assign so-called “women’s” books to women reviewers, and vice versa, which is a form of gender ghettoization that I really dislike. By the same token, I have what’s probably an unreasonable, knee-jerk aversion to books that I feel are targeting me on the basis of gender—parenting and mothering books, for example—though I’m aware this is sometimes to my detriment.

DM: How important is diversity (gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, age) to your reviewing practice?

ED: It’s important insofar as I’m conscious of the importance, in the instance that I’m reviewing someone who falls into a “marginalized” category, of not exacerbating the power imbalance that already exists in the reviewer-author relationship, or of making glib pronouncements on writing that reflects experiences alien to my own. Is that a diplomatic enough answer? In non-fiction this is usually pretty straightforward. Am I interested in reading the new Ta-Nehisi Coates book? Absolutely. Am I the best person, demographically and intellectually speaking, to review it? I’d say no.

Things can actually get a lot more muddy, and awkward, with fiction reviewing. Condemning a novel, even if you think you’re doing it on rigorously aesthetic or intellectual terms (which, when it comes down to it, are always fairly relative), written by someone from a marginalized segment of society feels pretty bad; and there’s always the risk you’re just not “getting” it. But even a positive review can be problematic: you don’t want it to come off like some white, cultural-establishment blessing (which I’m arguably part of by virtue of being a middle-class, middle-aged white female). Despite the potential minefield, it’s exciting to promote non-mainstream (culturally, gender- and age-wise, et cetera) writers who really are great. Thomas King and Ivan Coyote are two good examples here in Canada.

DM: In “The Ethics of the Negative Review” the poet Jan Zwicky writes “[t]he discipline of the appreciative review is, I believe, among the great unsung arts of our culture.” Alternatively, the necessity of the ‘negative review’ remains a favoured debate topic for many, I think for good reason. Your reviews tend to be appreciative and positive in tone, and more descriptive than they are evaluative. What’s your take on the harsher side of criticism? Do you see “the good in bad reviews”?

ED: Oh it is indeed a favourite topic of debate, but I’ll try to restrain myself and be brief. I agree that positive reviews can be an art form (why wouldn’t they?) but I disagree with Jan Zwicky about bad reviews, which I think are necessary on a practical and cultural/intellectual level; especially if the alternative is ostracizing authors and their books, which people who take this position tend to advocate. That seems to me to be its own kind of awfulness, though it’s an approach that George Orwell, whose critical writing I admire a lot, supported. Orwell argued that we should “simply ignore the great majority of books and to give very long reviews—1,000 words is a bare minimum—to the few that seem to matter.” Mind you, I think he wasn’t trying to protect authors’ feelings, like I think Zwicky is, but to spare himself the pain of reading bad books.

But I really don’t get how ignoring bad, or just lame books fosters a healthy literary culture. Is it really better to say nothing at all than something negative, as many of our mothers have told us? I know several writers who’ve received negative reviews and been okay with it, who even took something away from them. There are a hell of a lot more books published now than there were even thirty years ago: shouldn’t we be allowed to vet them according to some kind of principle?

You never hear anyone making this argument about movie or music reviews, so why do we single out books for special protection—because they take so long to write? I think if we only ever say nice things about our books we infantilize both our culture and the people writing and publishing them. Admittedly, this is a harder reality for first-time authors, who might get only one shot at being reviewed, if at all. Is one bad review really worse than radio silence?

I write negative reviews on an as-needed basis, and I always take more time with them; if you’re going to criticize something that’s likely taken someone years to write then you’d better have strong justification for it. I also try not to cross the line into outright nastiness (though admit I’ve trod it on occasion).

If my reviews are getting more positive that’s probably a reflection of the fact that as the years have gone on I’ve increasingly had more say in what I review; I make my pitches carefully. The hours you spend reading bad books are ones you won’t get back at the end of your life. (But if my work strikes you as more descriptive than evaluative then that’s something I need to work on changing.)

I actually think a lot of regular reviewers would agree that the hardest books to review are the ones that leave you with no feelings whatsoever—negative or positive. And yet you have to say something, which leads into the dangerous territory of spouting opinions you don’t really have. It’s like when you blurt out something while trying to fill a conversational gap with someone you don’t know very well: do it too often and you’ll eventually find yourself attending the weekly meetings of somebody-or-other’s model-railway club (which actually almost happened to me, so it’s fresh in my mind).

Domenica Martinello is a writer living in Toronto. She is the head of publicity for the literary journal The Puritan, and a regular contributor to The Town Crier. Her poetry chapbook Interzones was published in 2015 by words(on)pages. She also writes at what could be described as “a pretty glacial pace.”

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