Reviewers on Reviewing

As part of our 2014 CWILA Count, we are featuring the voices of some of Canada’s most prolific and active reviewers. Our Count tells a story about Canada’s review culture and we want to honour and celebrate the work that reviewers do to build a more active and critical book culture. Here are responses to the questions: Why do you write books reviews? Why do book reviews matter?

SinaSina Queyras: “If you aren’t engaged in critical public discourse about the field of writing you are engaged in, you aren’t part of the conversation. You aren’t directing and creating nodes of discourse. You aren’t guiding new readers toward the texts you believe need urgent consideration. Facebook posts don’t count. Sorry. Step into the critical pathways and stake a claim.”

Photo Credit: Mel Hattie

Photo Credit: Mel Hattie

Shannon Webb-Campbell: “As a journalist, I thought I’d made it when I started writing book reviews. After years of publishing music and art criticism, I worked my way up to writing about literature. I studied English Lit in university, I wrote prose and poetry, but I had never critiqued it. At first, I was intimidated.

The book industry is a beast of its own. I imagined furrow-browed journos, glasses dipped from the tips of noses, and desks piled high with fortresses of books, and wondered: what’s my role here?

Quickly, I became feral, and learned book reviews were my way to speak into the world, to engage readers who are hungry for new titles, others who want to compare their own thoughts, and to keep myself howling into the literary machine.

For intellectual labour that pays anywhere from$75-$150 (plus a free copy of the book), and not only requires reading an entire text, but considering it, contextualizing it, and engaging critically, reviewing is a deeply undervalued practice. But I couldn’t stop myself.

I was compulsive about reviewing queer authors, poets, Aboriginal storytellers, transgender and female-identified writers. I wanted to give voice to the authors who were often ignored, neglected, or deemed “merely poets.” It was as if I was taking names, collecting members of a tribe, a circle I wanted to be a part of. I reviewed authors who spoke to me, and in turn, I wanted to commune back. Book reviews became our sacred fire.

Over the years, I’ve held the position as CWILA’s Critic-in-Residence, written book reviews for Quill & Quire, The National Post, Room Magazine, and most recently was the assistant editor at Atlantic Books Today, and I’ve often questioned my role as a critic, and pondered its purpose. I’ve wondered whom I’m speaking to, and what I am actually saying. Much like Flannery O’Connor, who I taught for the first time last week, I’ve realized: “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.”

Currently, as a freelance journalist, poet and contract instructor of English Literature at Memorial University, I ask myself why I keep writing book reviews. It’s one more task on the to do list. Certainly, it’s not the money or fame. In a culture that cares very little about the written word, it’s questionable if criticism holds its own. Yet, somehow it still feels like a vital and curious act. A place to be heard.”

rob mclennanrob mclennan: “I’ve long agreed with Robert Kroetsch, who said that writing is a conversation. As a writer, the only way I can begin to learn about writing is by writing as much as possible and reading as much as possible.

Thinking, considering, reading, re-reading, revision: a slow and steady carve, shuffle, generate and strike-out. Some of the best ways to further understand a particular work is by composing out a series of notes that might shape into a review, an interview or a longer essay. Even the most informal of critical forms forces me to read deeper. It feeds my comprehension, work, and my enthusiasm.

Honestly, we aren’t willing or able to discuss the work that has already happened, why are we bothering to generate more?

I write reviews because I enjoy the conversation. I write reviews because I am troubled to repeatedly hear that I’m the only one who reviewed a particular title or author.

Reviews matter because there is so much being published that it is hard to keep track of the publishers, let alone the authors. Reviews matter because often a filter, as much as a disseminator, is required.”

Read rob mclennan’s blog here:

Photo credit: Mandy Heyens

Photo credit: Mandy Heyens

Jonathan Ball: “Book reviews matter more and more in a world where books seem to matter less and less. If your book isn’t reviewed, it’s invisible for many people and in many ways. It may find its readers, but it’s not an object of critical conversation. It’s not factored into a search algorithm the same way. It’s not there as fully as it could be. I review books as a form of community service. Many of the books that I review will never receive a second review from anyone else, ever. My review might mean everything — not because my opinion matters, but because that writer might need to feel like the book mattered, if only to me. That writer might need to show a granting body that their book was reviewed. That writer can excerpt my review as a blurb on the next book. Even if nobody reads my review except the book’s writer, it can matter in material ways. Even if I hated the book, that can help it find a reader — a reader that hates me! Like books, reviews travel in strange ways. That’s why I try to review first books, and why I try to review as many books as I can. It’s why I always read reviews of my own books, and appreciate them even when the reviewer trashes me. Michael Lista trashed me in the National Post? Hey, Canada Council! I’ve been reviewed in the National Post! It makes a difference even if you think it doesn’t.”

Find out more about Jonathan Ball’s work here:

dina and danielDina Del Bucchia and Daniel Zomparelli: “We do what we do because we are super-dorks who love books, and we love books from a wide-array of authors and point of views. The way we approach it is weird because we figure that’s the only way to carve out a safe space. People should be critical and challenge work and structures, but that can be hella-exhausting, so we like to add as many fart jokes as possible. Being a critic doesn’t have to mean boring as fuck.

It also doesn’t have to mean taking a shit on people’s work. But it can mean talking about inequality and systemic racism and sexism and long-standing power structures that are boring as fuck. And acknowledge that there are many ways writing and critics can be shitty. But criticism can also be fun and interviews can certainly be fun. Talking about the books we love shouldn’t feel like a painful chore. That’s why interviewing authors and having a long-form discussion with them is a great way to understand their work, but also to talk about ideas and literature as a whole and also Beyonce. Having a conversation can allow for deeper access than examining it from afar as a critic or reviewer and unearth some of the ways the industry is faulted.

In the independent publishing game we see writers of varied gender, non-binary, race, identity and class that are great, but not enough people are shouting from the rooftops about their greatness. Because everyone just talks about the same two or three books over and over again every season. What we are saying is: what if our culture of criticism had more emojis, enthusiasm and humour?”

Listen to Dina and Daniel’s podcast of all things Canadian and Literature, Can’t Lit here:

Stacey May Fowles: “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 inLuminato 2013_Stacey May Fowlessight.

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.”

-Read CWILA’s full interview with Stacey May Fowles here.


Philip Marchand: “It was never a first career choice on my part, but somehow I found that I’ve spent my working life as a critic. I was a television critic for Maclean’s magazine for one year (1974 – 1975), a movie critic for the Toronto Star in 2008, and I did theatre reviews for a long since defunct tabloid called the Toronto Citizen in the early 70s. Add books and you can see that I’ve pretty well covered the media ground. I sought for none of these positions, by the way, and I am mildly puzzled that people have offered me money to engage in criticism for which I was largely unqualified.

Books, however, have been the mainstay of my career. I did a few reviews for the Toronto Star before I received a telephone call, one fine day in Vancouver, from John Honderich, then editor of the Star, asking me if I was interested in becoming their books columnist. I said yes, and moved back to Toronto. I held that position for 19 years. I now write a weekly book review column for the National Post.

A short answer to why I write book reviews is that, oddly enough, I can make a living at it. (More or less.) But I certainly do find it an agreeable line of work. I enjoy reading, unless the book at hand is tedious, which sometimes happens, and I received a good education in English Literature at the University of Toronto. I am very anxious to review intelligently. I believe that good reviewing is essential to a literary culture. It is terrible to think of a writer producing a book and getting no response.”

Read Philip Marchand’s National Post book reviews here:


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