Thursday, May 10, 2007

My Program

Sometimes I wish I had a simple mind; things in this messy world would be so much clearer. Over at Bookninja, in the discussion thread of a post on Lionel Shriver and book reviewing, someone named "Kevin" has taken issue with my book reviewing. Here's his commentary in full:

One of the things I’ve noticed lately is that poetry reviewers will review two books at once. One will get sunshine blown up its spine and the other a thrashing. Is this to show range? To make one book taller by standing it on the corpse of the other? What gives?

And what about the editors? Don’t they share some of the blame? (or, if blame is too strong at least they should be included in the argument?) Since you brought up Wells, I ask how many times has he reviewed Jan Zwicky? 3, 4? Now, wouldn’t be more honest for the editor of his next review to point out that when Wells writes, “Zwicky in particular is prone to romantically unverifiable, yet remarkably authoritative-sounding statements…” it is part of an ongoing program of exposing Zwicky. Maybe the editor should say that “the following is the fourth of an ongoing series of hard hitting reviews …”, just to provide a little context for the readers. This leads to another question, what is being reviewed - books or writers?

It's telling, I think, that Kevin is advocating "a little context"--because too much context would provide a picture far too complicated for this person's simple-story-loving mind to process. Fortunately, dear CLM readers, I like to assume that you're smarter than this, and, also fortunately, there's plenty of evidence out there for you to check out. Kevin could have answered his own question by going to my website, but he prefers, I guess, the rhetorical technique of "How many? 3, 4?"

Here's a rundown on the history of my critical response to the prose and verse of Jan Zwicky:

  • February 2004: "Strawman Dialectics," a rebuttal of Zwicky's essay against negative reviewing in The Malahat Review (no. 144).
  • December 2004: I took part in Alex Good's first "Runaway Jury," a panel review of the GG poetry shortlist. Zwicky's book Robinson's Crossing was one of the shortlisted books.
  • June 2005: Review of Zwicky's 37 Small Songs and 13 Silences in Quill & Quire.
  • January 2007: Review of A Ragged Pen, a collection of essays to which Zwicky contributed, in Quill & Quire; also reviewed was K.I. Press's Types of Canadian Women, Vol. II. This is the review Kevin's referring to in his comments.

Now, I won't go over what I've said in these reviews and essays; they're all there for you to read if you so desire and I've said what I have to say in them.

I will, however, point out a few extra-textual things about this list, because these aren't necessarily at your fingertips. The most obvious one is that these are four very different types of review, so it can't be said that I'm simply "repeating myself" as one contributor to the Bookninja discussion maintains. The first is a 3000 word response, not a review at all, properly speaking; Zwicky made an argument and I made a counter-argument. The second is part of a conversation, a mock-jury involving four other books, not all of which I liked more than Zwicky's. The third is a 350 word review of a single poetry collection. And the fourth is one line in a review of an anthology of essays as part of a two-book review--a line Kevin apparently can't even be bothered to quote in full, perhaps because the statement I'm referring to really is that bogus.

The only piece I volunteered to write was the first one. To be honest, Zwicky's essay pissed me off some. I thought it forwarded an irresponsible, factually inaccurate, disingenuous and poorly constructed argument. That was my bias. It's not the sort of bias I take to a poetry review because poetry isn't in the business of making arguments, at least not in any straightforward kind of way--and poetry, even bad poetry, doesn't make me angry (sometimes very good poetry does, but in a different way altogether). All of the subsequent pieces were things I was asked to do. Sure, I could've said no, but I can count on one hand the number of review assignments I've turned down and still have enough fingers left to pick both my nostrils and scratch my chin. So to say that I have an "ongoing program to expose Jan Zwicky" is nonsense. I disagree with her philosophically and I'm not generally crazy about her poetry, some of which I do think is quite good, if not commensurate with her reputation. If I've dealt with Zwicky's writing more than once it's precisely because Zwicky is already "exposed": she's one of the most prominent figures in Canadian poetry. If I've reviewed her a lot, that's the reason. She's kind of hard not to review if you're a freelance poetry reviewer.

Another thing that Kevin, intrepid investigator, has failed to point out is that, in the same review he quotes from, I praise Anne Simpson's essay. Not remarkable in and of itself, but the other time I reviewed Simpson, in a roundup review of the 2004 Griffin Prize, I was a wee bit hard on her book Loop. If I was in the business of "exposing" award-belaurelled poets, surely I'd have some choice squib to shoot at Simpson in the Ragged Pen review, no? Kevin also doesn't mention that my harshest words in that review are for Patrick Friesen's essay. The only other time I've dealt with Friesen in my criticism, it was to praise and highlight his commendable work as a translator. Also, his daughter designed the wonderful cover for my book. So how does that fit with my "program"? Oh, it doesn't, I see. Sorry!

Kevin's stellar observation that sometimes two books are reviewed at once and one gets panned whilst the other's praised needs to be addressed. "What gives?" he asks. Well, I can't speak for everyone, Kev, but in this case, I thought one of the books was mediocre and the other one quite good. Which is a crazyass ulterior motive, I know ... And the good one, I have to say, surprised me some. I'd read chunks of Press's previous collection, Spine, and really didn't like what I read at all. Based on that, I had a hunch I wouldn't like this new one either, which, based on the description in its publicity material, sounded like it might just be another ill-conceived Canadian Poetry Project. But you know what, I try very hard not to write reviews based on prejudices and ill-informed skepticism. I like to think that if Jan Zwicky wrote a book that pleased me as much as Karen Press's that I--if I was asked to review it--would respond accordingly. And the Kevins of the world would probably ignore it because it doesn't fit with their Zach-Wells-schema. Either that or, in the interest of reducing cognitive dissonance, they'd try to integrate it into their schema by chalking it up to some kind of strategic scheming: There goes Wells, trying to surprise everyone; don't fall for it! If he's in church, he must have plastique strapped to his chest. O for such a simple mind!

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