Saturday, February 20, 2010

On Reviewing - Elvis Stojko

Elvis Stojko is arguably Canada's best figure skater ever. He is also evidently of the school of evaluative reviewers (as opposed to descriptive reviewers).

Exhibit A: Stojko's post about men's figure skating at the Vancouver Olympics.

The title is, "The night they killed figure skating."

Stokjo concludes with:

Figure skating gets no respect because of outcomes like this. More feathers, head-flinging and so-called step sequences done at walking speed – that’s what the system wants.

I am going to watch hockey, where athletes are allowed to push the envelope. A real sport.

He seems to be channelling his inner David Solway.

As I noted earlier:

Professional athletes face a phalanx of television cameras and newspaper reporters mere seconds after every single devastating loss (or celebratory victory). Politicians face the scrutiny of policy wonks, the media, and the heat of their colleagues in Question Period. Medical research progresses due to the rigour of peer review. Research and development in all fields depends on transparent, accountable, honest scrutiny of tentative conclusions. The world is a marketplace of ideas, John Milton said four centuries ago. The clash, conflict, and negotiation of ideas is the essence and root strength of democracy, which was exactly Ms. Roosevelt’s point. If we are to be afraid of anything, we must be afraid of silence. Silence is death. Silence does more than stagnate dialogue, it is the end of dialogue. Monologue (“everyone thinking alike”) is not just everyone thinking poorly; it is not thinking at all, as Orwell reminded us: 2+2=5 and WAR IS PEACE.

And yet silence is exactly the quality championed by many book reviewers.

Here's more of Stojko:

How can you be Olympic champion when you don’t even try the quad? If you’re going to take the quad out, why not take out another triple axel and just have more of the other stuff so the International Skating Union can make it more into an “art” recital.

Plushenko had a great performance. His footwork was great and maybe his spins weren’t quite as good as Lysacek’s, but it wasn’t that big of a difference. He also had a quad toe triple toe that wasn’t even attempted by anyone else. He did both triple axels, so all the jumps were there.

But the judges’ scoring was ridiculous.

Here's a quote from Solway's Director's Cut:

Our poets dress themselves up as renovators of the language without whom, presumably, people would be reduced to carrying out their ordinary discourse in grunts and pantomimes, like the speculators of Lagado. The contradiction here is that many of these same poets have already valorized common speech as the register in which they blithely continue to work.

A page later, he is blasting both the "simplifiers" and "complicators" (i.e., those poets who celebrate common speech and the academics who champion theory and obscurity). Neither group, says Solway, produce real poetry, as Stojko says these Winter Olympics are producing real figure skating competition.

Solway refers to sociologist Erving Goffman's study of "'selective disattention' to facts which would otherwise challenge the frame of discourse and perception we take for granted." Unfortunately, the example he provides to illustrate this point is infected with an error. He mentions "Bobby Hull" scoring a goal which won the Stanley Cup, even though his foot was in the crease, a violation of what was then an NHL rule. Of course, it was Bobby's son, Brett, who scored that goal. The point being, however, that mass delusion decends to allow us to forget the rule and accept the "reality."

Challenging the frame of discourse would be a good description of what Stojko is up to in his article. The reality he sees is different from the reality of the judges. Solway is equally attempting to articulate a classification system across a broad field of poets, a system meant to alert poetry readers to their slumbering predicament.

My point here isn't to suggest that I agree with these critics -- only to draw a parallel between them. This is criticism that is interesting to read and challenging to think about it.

I'll have more to say about Solway later, after I finish his book.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Oh Canada - 2010 Winter Olympics Opening Ceremony

I thought - I wonder what the rest of the world thinks.

Not because Canada needs "validation," but the opening ceremony of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver last Friday was awash in local iconography. Most of it quite lovely. The risk of descent in to kitsch, of course, was high -- and it wasn't completely avoided. But there were a number of moments that reached for the profound.

I'd link to some of them here, but the International Olympic Committee -- that model of fair play and equal competition (ha, ha) -- has sent an army of monkeys to strip all content from YouTube and other sources (though the death of a Georgian luger can be seen over and over again on the official CTV site). Shame refuses to bow before profit. "Moloch! Moloch! Nightmare of Moloch!" as Allen Ginsberg wrote in "Howl." (Notice I was able to link to that....)

Anyway, the rest of the world (results taken from a very small sample) seemed to enjoy the ceremony, but they were a bit perplexed by it.

In the U.K., the Indepenent's correspondent complained of getting the assignment to stay up all night:

The Winter Olympics? Me neither. It's hard enough getting worked up about a summer Olympics in this day and age.

An Olympic games opening ceremony? Me neither. But someone has to do it. So there we were at 2.0 yesterday morning, sitting up and tuned into the BBC, the bottle of Blue Nun in the fridge in case desperate measures were needed to make it through the night.

Still, s/he found the ceremony "was suitably classy. Or at least it managed to keep the ludicrousness to a minimum." Pretty good for someone from a nation that struggles to see beyond the seal hunt when it thinks of Canada.

While there is no indication that the correpondent understood or was at all engaged by the metaphoric apparatus of the diverse range of the ceremony's segments, the event's emphasis on geography wasn't lost on the correspondent, who wrote:

Canada is a country teeming with writers and musicians and some of their greatest were represented during what was at times a beautiful spectacle. Opening ceremonies are essentially tourist pageants for the host nation and Canada told its story through its fabulous landscape, from the Northern Lights of the Arctic Circle through to its vast golden prairies. A tableau featuring CGI images of the latter was particularly stunning: just a boy on the vast stage, the stadium bathed in yellow light and a lone voice singing Joni Mitchell's gorgeous ballad Both Sides Now.

[The "boy" was a girl.]

Australia's athletes reportedly enjoyed the experience. One Aussie website quoted athlete Bree Munro:

I thought it was actually quite spectacular. It was a great mix of all the different cultures from around Canada and it was just amazing the light show and technology that they’ve used. It’s moved opening ceremonies up to the next level. It’s a three dimensional show that offers everything, spectacular light to dancing, action and it was such a colourful collection of all Canadian culture. I was feeling proud to be part of such a spectacular event, and with every Canadian sitting there I don’t think there was a dry eye in the house.

The New York Times provided a typically wry report, which concluded with a comment about how tidy and civic minded Canadians are: "In Vancouver on Friday, young people thronged the streets for a couple of hours after the ceremony, singing, dancing, banging on drums. Then, almost at midnight on the dot, most of them went home."

Two evaluative paragraphs from the Times' report follow:

This ceremony was not without its marvels: there was a giant bear, whales spouting their way across the stadium floor, the now obligatory fliers and levitators. But a bigger part of the appeal was that the proceedings actually had some content.

The ceremony was long, a little dull at times, but it was also thoughtful and stirring. It was authentically and unabashedly Canadian. The poet Shane Koyczan pointed out that his was a country not afraid to use the words “please and thank you.” You could add that it’s a country unafraid to put a poet up there on the stage.

"Authentically and unabashedly Canadian" is an interesting phrase. It could mean that the ceremony had the emotional tenor of a Tim Horton's commercial. Or it could mean -- what?

This is what I'm interested in exploring, this thing the Times calls "content."

Personally, I didn't find the "poem" moving, but I did find it interesting. More on that below. In the meantime, The Toronto Quaterly has posted video and a copy of the complete poem, for those who haven't seen/heard/read it.

Ian Brown also provided an analysis of the ceremony's "content" in today's Globe and Mail:

The thing is this: it's a complicated country.

A lot of people noticed that Friday night, watching the opening ceremonies of the Games in Vancouver. They saw an abstract Canada, a place that has more collective interests than it does people to explain and reinforce them. It's a country that is an idea as much as it is a country, a strange and surreal and often lonely and sometimes surprisingly serious idea. And that, impressively, was what the ceremony was about.

Here's two of Brown's evaluative paragraphs:

The Canada the opening ceremonies showed to the world displayed a country that isn't afraid to use symbolism at an elevated level, despite an audience of millions. They could have pandered, but they didn't. The opening night of the Vancouver Olympics displayed a country that wasn't afraid to perform a spoken poem or recite passages from books - books! - in the middle of a stadium filled with about 50,000 people wearing white condom-like capes; that mixed in a minute's silence and a flag at half mast and a small funeral oration, thereby confronting the looming spectre of the death of an athlete that morning. All this happened in the middle of a breathtakingly beautiful and wet city on the edge of the sea. The sea was part of the show too, the importance of that sea and what is in it.

The Landscape of a Dream, the extended, multi-chaptered dance that formed the core of the show, was daring all on its own. It's always a risk to be sincere; the trick is not to be earnest. It wasn't. Up in the dignitaries' box, even Stephen Harper, a man who has the physical charm of a bathtub plug - even Hairhat looked like he was getting carried away. The whales and their blowholes spouting from the floor alone, to say nothing of the astonishing effects produced by the magic Kleenex box that hung from the centre of the ceiling - clouds, storms, water, blizzards cracking and melting ice - were funny and beautiful too. It was a show that took the elemental events of Canadian life, things that are often clichés, and dropped deeper into every one of them. The aerialist show over a patchwork of prairies could easily have appeared on any stage in any large sophisticated city in the world, and brought the house down.

I agree with Brown's sense that (parts of) the ceremony "dropped deeper" into Canada's clichés. And yet -- what was it saying? Perhaps it was only saying Canada is dominated by its geography, something uninteresting, something we've long known.

“If some countries have too much history, we have too much geography,” said former Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King in a speech to the House of Commons in 1936. This quotation comes from the Statistics Canada website, though David Solway attributes the same quote to John A. Macdonald in Director's Cut. It's also attributed to John A. here. (Quel fuck, man. Who knows?)

But there were those other elements, too. The "poem," k.d. lang singing Leonard Cohen, the First Nations dancers, the quotation from Who Has Seen the Wind?, the Martime fiddlers, including Ashley MacIsaac. Plus that segment about modern, urbanized Canada .... wait, um, I must have slept through that part. Did anyone else see a segment that represented Ontario? Is that what Wayne Gretzky and Bobby Orr were doing there?

Ah, but there's what Brown was talking about when he said Canada was "a place that has more collective interests that it does people to explain and reinforce them." I see, for example, that the federal Heritage Minister has joined the post-game commentary, asking why the ceremony didn't feature more French. (Celine Dion was too busy trying to have a baby, apparently. No joke.)

After the CGI-enhanced profundity, Canada returns to its absurdities.

Which brings us back to that "poem." If I wasn't moved by it, what did I find interesting?

First, I was intrigued that the ceremony would include such a direct statement that Canada is a nation that struggles to define itself, that it may well be a nation beyond definition, that perhaps the nation's central idea is we don't know who we are, but we are a work-in-progress. How different we are from our friends to the south, who speak of "American exceptionalism" and speak of "moving towards a perfect union." Canada, the Olympic ceremony said, is unfinished; it is a collection of parts that don't cohere.

Still, Shane Koyczan looked like a parody of Ginsberg, with his scraggly beard, glasses and black hat (not a beret, but very nearly). I enjoyed watching him, sure. He was entertaining, but his "poem," as a poem, wasn't good. It was full of what Solway calls "undistinguished diction and trivial infatuations." As a civic statement, however, Koyczan's performance played much better. His future in Canadian literature is clearly bright.

On the other hand, as Brown noted, "The trick is not to be earnest." Koyczan was, cloyingly so. Yes, we say please and thank you. We also invented the Blackberry; built up, then collapsed Nortel; have adulterous politicians and serial sex murderers (both archetypal degenerates have been making news here in Upper Canada of late).

The outlines of a conflict are emerging. It is the conflict for the nation's artistic soul. For while the Olympic opening ceremony was more than a typical "tourist pageant," and as a portrait of the nation's "collective interests" the CGI prairie, whales, northern lights, etc., "dropped deeper" into our clichés than we might have expected from such a public spectacle, in the end it was a "Song of Ourselves." A statement of powerful narcissism. A trip to a nuclear enhanced gift shop.

As popular entertainment, that is likely as good as it gets. What the ceremony also showed, however, is the end of the track of the narrative line Canada has been following post-Meech Lake. We can all be Canadians, this line says, as long as we all are different and allowed to follow our own ways. Our fractured minority federal parliament is another example. We are a country of powerful regional identities, bound by the practices of common courtesy. Down this road live increasing neuroses, which may be our fate. The Australian athlete was wrong, for example, too see in the ceremony "all Canadian culture." What was on display was simply most of our common tropes.

As noted earlier, I've been reading some of the crotchety critics published in the past decade by Porcupine's Quill. Three specific titles:
  • A Lover's Quarrel by Carmine Starnino
  • Director's Cut by David Solway
  • Ripostes by Philip Marchand
Each of these books, in its own way, reads against the "Canadian consensus." As the blurb on the back of Marchand's title says: "The tone is considered, and critical rather than celebratory, although the essays are respectful of the genuine achievements of Canadian literature in the past few decades. They try to clear the air, as it were, of boosterism, political correctness, and other attitudes which hinder the appreciation and reception of good writing."

Critical rather than celebratory. That's what I've been attempting here. Some folks, I know, think that these three critics are writing out of mean spirits. Others celebrate them because they have a keen ability to crush high flying reputations. Starnino takes down Susan Musgrave; Solway stab Al Purdy; Marchand argues that Margaret Laurence had an "uninteresting mind."

We will never be free of the narrative risks of our vast geography and our nation's regional nature. However, the war against cliché demands more than that we "drop deeper" into them. The opening ceremony of the 2010 Winter Olympics had numerous lovely and moving moments. As Brown said, it "used symbolism at an elevated level." It illuminated much of our present and our past. It demands a criticism equal to it, one that can open up the future.


Zach Wells revised take on the "poem" -- from his blog.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Stephen Henighan

Part of a series of reviews, old and new, about reviewing, Canlit, and crotchety criticism.
[First published in The Danforth Review]


A Report on the Afterlife of Culture
by Stephen Henighan
Biblioasis, 2008

So it turns out that Stephen Henighan's apocalyptic view of Canadian culture is based on a vision of the apocalypse:

By 2050, wars and famines induced by the scramble to seize dwindling sources of water, food, oil and electrical power will have reduced the world's population to about one-fifth its present size; the people who survive will be living at a level of comfort roughly equivalent to that of medieval Europe. ... [G]iven that we may only have a dozen years of rabid consumption left, it's difficult not to pose the question[: what will happen to literature?] ... In the world of 2075, the struggle for survival through basic agriculture may have reinstalled the gift of concentration to the point where, if people have any leisure time, or light to read by in the evenings, they may be more disposed to the pursuit of literature than we are today (321-322).

It's hard to know what to make of this. If we only have a dozen years left before the collapse of civilization, the prescient among us will surely soon turn away from literature and start hosting workshops on getting back to the land and setting ourselves free. Henighan quotes Virginia Woolf: "The merest pebble on the beach will outlast Shakespeare." Then adds: "Plangent and personal when they were written, these words encompass our collective condition today."

Steven W. Beattie in Quill and Quire (May 2008) lauded Henighan's "willingness to say the unsayable, and his enthusiastic piercing of the balloons of Canadian literary pretension." He also noted: "Henighan frequently lays himself open to charges of paranoia ... and is prone to sweeping generalizations." I concur with this summary, but as Henighan would surely agree, it's the details that matter most.

The primary point of A Report on the Afterlife of Culture, as I see it, is a lament for the loss of specific, local detail in Canadian literature in particular -- and artistic products world-wide in general. This is the other apocalypse Henighan wants us to see: The clear-cutting and Disneyfication of local cultures around the globe.

What is "the afterlife of culture"? Henighan illustrates the concept by telling a story of Japanese tourist killed by Mayan villagers. The tourist was taking photographs. The villagers thought he was stealing the souls of the children. More significantly, Henighan wants us to see what the tourist represented: the outside world, modernism, liberal capitalism. The camera was, in this way, the tool of soul-destruction (not capture). The "image," amplified through the centuries by technology (from illuminated manuscripts to stained glass windows to TV, etc.), continues to erode local (verbal) cultures. The local, Henighan asserts, is lost: We live in its afterlife.

Like the Whos down in Whoville, the Mayan villagers could not stop Christmas from coming. [ed. But it wasn't the Whos who wanted to stop Christmas, it was the Grinch. February 2010.] But the story of the Mayan villagers doesn't end with singing. The Mayan's lose the ability to conceive the world in their own language. As their culture struggles to come to terms with modernity, they suffer massive existential angst. Their young people commit suicide in droves. The story ends with the domination of the Grinch: The United States of America. More specifically, liberal capitalism. This is one of Henighan's sweeping generalizations. International capitalism and the USA are, in Henighan's view, the same thing.

International capitalism is destroying the planet and the USA seeks to extend the assumptions of its culture to the rest of the globe, erasing local distinction and cultural diversity in the name of economic efficiency. The killing extends even to spelling.

To state the spelling question in terms of British versus American is to misunderstand it. Canadian writers long ago forged distinctive spelling conventions. The question is why ... these conventions are fraying. ... [This is] evidence in microcosm of a culture that is being forgotten (238).

It is over four decades since George Grant's Lament for a Nation: The Defeat of Canadian Nationalism (1965). Hengihan, strangely, doesn't evoke Grant's legacy, even as he reprises his lament. Grant examined Canada's slip into the liberal capitalist influence of the USA in the context of the defeat of the Diefenbaker government. Specifically in the context of Diefenbaker's refusal to allow US nuclear weapons into Canada. Henighan's analysis, however, is built on a more recent foundation: NAFTA.

Some generalizations of my own:
  • Henighan's longer essays are better than his shorter pieces. The shorter pieces tend towards dogmatism. Perhaps the form encourages oversimplified argument, which the longer essays allow Henighan to avoid.
  • Henighan's sharp dismissal of T.F. Rigelhof as the exemplar of the "degeneration of the culture of literary criticism" is as distasteful as the poor criticism he is attempting to uproot. The piece argues Rigelhof writes consistently sunny (i.e., uncritical) book reviews, then ends by noting "his only full-bore negative literary review." The book was by Bryan Demchinsky, "not coincidentally the editor who dropped Rigelhoff as a reviewer at the Montreal Gazette." And the same Demchinsky thanked by Hengihan on the acknowledgements page of The Afterlife of Criticism.
  • Henighan's argument is underpinned by his explanation of the relationship between literature (the books) and the publishing industry (the means of production). I find Henighan generally convincing on this point. Roy MacSkimming's The Perilous Trade, however, illustrates that the Canadian publishing industry had been around many deep curves well before NAFTA, online bookselling, and the dominance of the Chapters/Indigo chain. The industry is in constant flux, and to read recent changes as signally the beginning of the end times is ... um, apocalyptic.
  • Also, Henighan devotes little space to examining the regional nature of most small presses in Canada. He desires more emphasis on the local, yet that is exactly what most small presses in Canada do (with government support...).
  • Similarly, Henighan's analysis of the history of the novel is socio-historical. His readings of the novels of Latin America (the works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez et al) are informed, for example, by his critique of global capitalism. This approach is illuminating -- and Henighan's scope is often remarkable. However, his approach underplays other aspects of the development of the novel, such as narrative and language technique, about which I wish he'd said more.
  • One of the strengths of this book is Henighan's global connections. He is well-travelled as well as well-read. The Afterlife of Criticism speaks to a global audience (while maintaining the local specificities of its Canadian roots, of course). I don't know of another recent book of Canadian literary criticism that accepts the challenge of globalisation (globalization?): Both the economic and cultural streams. Henighan treats CanLit within the context of WorldLit and attempts to discuss CanLit in real-time, historical context.
  • What does this last sentence mean? Well. On the one hand, Henighan's grapples well with the influence of global capitalism and culture, which is the leading force of change in our world, afterall.
  • On the other hand, Henighan engages the reviewers and critics of his previous book When Words Deny The World. Hengihan's battles with Michael Redhill, Lisa Moore and Russell Smith are reprised here, for example.
  • It's disappointing, however, that Henighan finds it "difficult to think of one [reviewer] that engaged in any depth with the [previous] book's central aesthetic contention." When Words Deny The World, Hengihan says, received 30 reviews: Not one "engaged in any depth with the book's central aesthetic contention"? This reads like egotism and serves to isolate Henighan from the community he is critiquing.
  • Isolation, however, appears to be Henighan's main operating mode. He recounts how agents attempted to groom him to be "the next Mark Kingwell," following the release of When Words Deny The World and how he resisted their overtures. He has, in other words, remained uncontaminated by the forces of global capitalism against which he is fighting the good fight.
  • I imagine a poster above Henighan's computer of Joe Strummer.
Some final words from Henighan:

Let the local resonate! Listen to the rural local and the urban local and all their points of interconnection. The vast changes that will overtake us once the oil and water run out may mire us in local life. Now is the time to forge our aesthetic of the cosmopolitanism on our doorstep (339).

London calling to the faraway towns
Now that war is declared-and battle come down
London calling to the underworld
Come out of the cupboard, all you boys and girls
London calling, now dont look at us
All that phoney beatlemania has bitten the dust
London calling, see we aint got no swing
cept for the ring of that truncheon thing

The ice age is coming, the sun is zooming in
Engines stop running and the wheat is growing thin
A nuclear error, but I have no fear
London is drowning-and I live by the river

T.F. Rigelhof

I'm currently working my way through the series of books of crotchety Canlit essays published by Porcupine's Quill in the past decade, edited by John Metcalf:
  • A Lover's Quarrel by Carmine Starnino
  • Director's Cut by David Solway
  • Ripostes by Philip Marchand
I hope to follow up with review of those books in the near future. Also in that series should be Stephen Henighan's When Words Deny the World. I read that earlier and won't review it now. However, I will post a review of Henighan's subsequent book, A Report on the Afterlife of Culture (Biblioasis, 2008).

Not sure if the below entirely fits that series, but I previously read and reviewed it. The review was first published in The Danforth Review, 2001.

This is Our Writing
by T.F. Rigelhof
Published by Porcupine's Quill, 2000

Who's in and who's out? This is the central question of T.F. Rigelhof's polemical collection of essays on Canadian literature, This is Our Writing. Who has made it to the big team and who should we relegate to the minor leagues? At the end of 1999, various publications produced "Best of the Century" lists. In Rigelhof's survey of Canlit, only nine books have earned the right to play with the immortals of world literature.

They are (in alphabetical order):
  • Margaret Atwood's Life Before Man
  • Leonard Cohen's The Favorite Game
  • Mavis Gallant's Selected Stories
  • Hugh Hood's Around the Mountain: Scenes from Montreal Life
  • Brian Moore's Black Robe
  • Alice Munro's Selected Stories
  • Mordecai Richler's St. Urbain's Horsemen
  • Mordecai Richler's Solomon Gursky Was Here
  • Rudy Wiebe's The Blue Mountains of China
Three non-fiction titles earn honorable mention:
  • Emily Carr's The House of All Sorts
  • Norman Levine's Canada Made Me
  • Brian Moore's The Revolution Script
These 12 titles (enough to ice two lines, a goalie, and one substitute) are obviously not the only Canadian books of the last century worth (re)reading. Indeed, from the point of view of the power of influence over younger writers (which is another way of measuring longevity), Alice Munro's shadow stretches longest, particularly her early 1970s title, Lives of Girls and Women. The gift of Rigelhof's book, however, is not to tell us which books ultimately matter. The gift of his book is its powerful argument on behalf of its point of view - its dare to take Canadian literature seriously, holding it up to high standards universally applied.

Thus, Rigelhof provides insightful comments on why The Friend of My Youth is Alice Munro's best book (despite the persistence of Lives of Girls and Women on university reading lists). Rigelhof blasts the pompous Robertson Davies, penning a searing essay that ought to leave Davies' hagiographic reputation in tatters. Rigelhof recovers Leonard Cohen's novels, and places them at the centre of his artistic achievement. Rigelhof also tells us a lot about himself, which is both rewarding and unnerving.

This Is Our Writing freely mixes the polemical with the personal. Rigelhof is confessional about his suicide attempt, his failed novels, and his love affair with Montreal. In fact, Rigelhof-as-narrator so pervades these essays that the ability of his arguments to remain objective is easily attacked. The Globe and Mail's review of this book noted that Montreal is such a dominant theme in This Is Our Writing that "Our Writing" very nearly means "Montreal's Writing." Or more specifically "Writing from Montreal Authors Born Before World War II."

The big claims of this book are easily attacked; the page-by-page insights, however, are not; and the cumulative impact of these insights are persuasive. Canadian authors have written books that matter. Canadian readers have been assisted by Rigelhof to identify the best of the best, and to argue deeply about what literature does and what it ought to do. This book is a valuable resource for the arguments it contains, but also for the sources it cites. Rigelhof has read widely in his subject, and he quotes many critics, often at length. This is not an academic tome, but a serious book for general readers. It is recommended reading for anyone with a love affair with its subject.

On Reviewing II

Following up on "On Reviewing," I've posted below an essay I wrote a while back, reflecting on the act of reviewing books.

[This essay first appeared in The Danforth Review, 2003]


"If you are a book reviewer, you have a duty to have an opinion, and you have a duty to present that opinion as honestly, as completely, and backed up with as much evidence and argument as you can muster." What's so hard about that?

It is reported that Eleanor Roosevelt said whenever everyone is thinking alike, no one is thinking very well. This simple but profound truth is applicable in every field except book reviewing. Book reviewers are encouraged to think well, but must limit themselves so as to “never write a review in such a way that you’d be afraid to face the author at a party the next day.” This is the appalling conclusion, in any event, reached by Annabel Lyon in a recent issue of The Malahat Review dedicated entirely to the subject of reviewing. The decorum of book reviewing, according to Lyon, demands the reviewer become the guardian of the author’s feelings; book reviewing is somewhere between flirting and nursing. On the other hand, perhaps it isn’t the author’s feelings that need protection. Lyon says reviews must be written so that THE REVIEWER is not “afraid to face the author.” Book reviews should be written to ensure literary parties maintain their joie de vivre.


Professional athletes face a phalanx of television cameras and newspaper reporters mere seconds after every single devastating loss (or celebratory victory). Politicians face the scrutiny of policy wonks, the media, and the heat of their colleagues in Question Period. Medical research progresses due to the rigour of peer review. Research and development in all fields depends on transparent, accountable, honest scrutiny of tentative conclusions. The world is a marketplace of ideas, John Milton said four centuries ago. The clash, conflict, and negotiation of ideas is the essence and root strength of democracy, which was exactly Ms. Roosevelt’s point. If we are to be afraid of anything, we must be afraid of silence. Silence is death. Silence does more than stagnate dialogue, it is the end of dialogue. Monologue (“everyone thinking alike”) is not just everyone thinking poorly; it is not thinking at all, as Orwell reminded us: 2+2=5 and WAR IS PEACE.

And yet silence is exactly the quality championed by many book reviewers. For example, in the same issue of The Malahat Review mentioned above, Zsuzi Gartner wrote: “Often the best response to a lame book is murderous silence.” And Jan Zwicky, an editor of The Fiddlehead, says she’s “made a point of requesting that a review be written only if the reviewer was genuinely enthusiastic about the book.” Zwicky has concluded: “If we have a duty to be negative, we have a duty to be right.”


If you are a book reviewer, you have a duty to have an opinion, and you have a duty to present that opinion as honestly, as completely, and backed up with as much evidence and argument as you can muster. The world is a marketplace of ideas. No book review is ever “right.” It is just one node on a larger wave, one opinion, one more quack into the void of silence. The author presents his or her work to the world. Reviewers and readers respond to it. To treat a work with “murderous silence” is disrespectful; to commission only “enthusiastic” reviews is deceitful; to believe negative reviews “have a duty to be right” assumes one is able to stand in a position of omniscient authority.


On my bookshelf I have a slim volume called Rotten Reviews: A Literary Companion. It contains quotes from negative reviews of works like Ana Karenina: “Sentimental rubbish . . . Show me one page that contains an idea” (Odessa Courier, 1877). Oh, Tolstoy. How much better off we would have been if the world had treated you with “murderous silence,” but then that’s exactly how the Communists treated many authors, taking the adjective literally. (It doesn’t need to be said; let’s cast another glance at Orwell; this model offers nothing but discouragement.) And so, please allow me to build on my earlier point and assert: No one knows if a book is "good" or "bad". In the first place, those categories borrow far too heavily from the field of ethics; assume "errors" that may be nothing such; and carry moralistic overtones that borrow from fields other than literature. (One can turn to Aeropagitica, the essay of Milton's that includes the phrase "marketplace of ideas," to witness even the free speech crusader arguing all books should be allowed to enter the marketplace of ideas -- be printed, basically -- but only if the bad ones can be sorted out and burned; the immoral ones; "Papish" ones . . . Milton was a fervent anti-Catholic.) (For an expanded look on the aesthetics of "error," see TDR's interview with Tim Conley, author of Joyces Mistakes.)

Scott Anderson’s editorial in the December 2003 issue of Quill & Quire (from which I’ve taken the above quotes from The Malahat Review) argues:

The idea that silence is the best response to a bad book ignores the possibility that well-written negative reviews add as much to the public discussion of literature as [positive reviews of] good ones. We’d all tire quickly of a dialogue about literature that stuck continually to the same positive note.


Some of us are tired of it already, though I wish Anderson had made his case stronger. Not only do negative reviews have something to add to the discussion of literature; without them, there is no discussion of literature. Without them, dialogue devolves to monologue . . . and (please forgive my hyperbolic tendencies) we are on the road to a fascist state. LITERATURE IS NOT ABOUT CONSENSUS. Maybe I'm too sensitive, but I hear "if you're not with us, you're against us" in "a review [can] be written only if the reviewer [is] genuinely enthusiastic." There is a call there to help create the utopian state, the state that is the root of all despotisms. Despotisms are built on lies re-cast as truths. A world full of only positive book reviews is a false world. Everyone knows this. Authors don't expect to be reviewed positively all of the time. To suggest otherwise is to enter into the fantastical; it is to ask for a world outside of common sense. This is not the world we live in, and it is not a world we should attempt to build. In fact, this is a tendency we should be forcefully discouraging; this is a tendency that is a threat to us all (THE SKY IS FALLING, THE SKY IS FALLING, AHHHHHH).

Now that I've earned the title "Chicken Little," please allow me to complete my revolutionary act. Book reviewers of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but invitations to the best book parties. I'm going to overthrow the categories of good book/bad book forever and suggest that books are interesting/dull. And that the burden of proof on whether a book is “interesting” falls on the reviewer. And that the reviewer can only release himself or herself from that burden by SPEAKING.

(An aside: Did you notice how Anderson tucked the modifier "well-written" in from of "negative reviews"? Let me stand up for poorly written negative reviews. Even poorly written reviews -- positive or negative -- can add to the discussion of literature.)

Speaking is not for everyone -- and that's okay. More than one writer has told me casually that s/he does not publish book reviews because the Canadian publishing industry is so small that one cannot afford to piss anyone off. It has even been suggested to me that the recent dramatic rise in the career of David Adams Richards is Exhibit A. As long as he lived in New Brunswick, the publishing industry could ignore him and devalue his work. However, as soon as he moved to Toronto, The Globe and Mail could not review him poorly because the reviewer could count to running into the author at Margaret Atwood’s house, or some such similar place. Hmm.

More distressing to me, however, is when I see a review in The Globe and Mail written by one of those same people who told me he could never write a negative review. Instinctively, I distrust that review. I do not want to engage it. Scott Anderson begins his Quill and Quire editorial by quoting Dale Peck's now infamous review of Rick Moody's The Black Veil: A Memoir with Digressions: "Rick Moody is the worst writer of his generation." What is the point of Peck's negativism? Anderson concludes: "It gets people talking about Dale Peck." Ah, reviewing as self-promotion. But doesn't it go both ways? . . . that is, isn't the reviewer who only says nice things equally suspect; perhaps more so, since engendering good feelings is a way of building one's literary capital, whereas negative reviewing is seen by many as career suicide.

(Write a negative review and you are either guilty of (a) self aggrandizement, or (b) career suicide. Hey, maybe you just didn't like the book. It happens.)

And speaking of career suicide . . . mea culpa: I review books. I have also published two short story collections, and I'd like to think there'll be more in my future. What do you think: Should I give up book reviewing before my reputation as a ship-sinker/self-promoter spreads to the four corners?


The fact is, I've been reviewing books -- positively and negatively -- since I was an undergraduate over a decade ago, and so far no one has punched me in the nose. Some of those negative reviews were in Quill and Quire, some were in The Kitchener-Waterloo Record, Paragraph Magazine, Id Magazine, and Imprint, the University of Waterloo's student newspaper. Many other reviews have appeared on The Danforth Review. For this article, I've tried to make a list of all of the book reviews I've written. Only a rough estimate is possible, because I haven't kept all of them.

What I have at my fingertips is 61 books reviewed on The Danforth Review since 1999 and 35 books reviewed in other publications since 1990. A quick self-assessment reveals: 47 positive reviews, 17 negative reviews, and 32 mixed reviews.

Admittedly, a "mixed" review might be considered negative, especially if one is the author of the book under review. On the other hand, even this brief accounting has forced me to make decisions: How positive does a "mixed" review need to be before it stops being "mixed"? How negative does it need to be before it's truly negative? And who cares anyway? Well, those 17 people whose books I reviewed negatively probably care -- as do some of the 32 who wrote books I didn't exactly praise. On the other hand, I've only ever received two letters in response to negative reviews I've written. One from Michael Twist ("I am somewhat disappointed by your review of my book") and one by the student of Clarence Bolt: "Perhaps it will take another reading for you to understand what Clarence was really getting at." I appreciated these letters and wish I had received more. If book reviewing is about "the public discussion of literature," as Scott Anderson says, then opinions need to go back and forth -- and that happens far too rarely.

Much more often (for me), I find myself going back over the negative reviews I've written and wondering why I was so down on novel A or short story collection B. Sometimes it has to do with expectations; a book is set up to be one thing, then it turns out to be something else. Consistently, I've given low marks to books that struck me as overwhelmed with nihilism. As I said earlier, I believe if you are a book reviewer, you have a duty to have an opinion, and you have a duty to present that opinion as honestly, as completely, and backed up with as much evidence and argument as you can muster. When I write a book review, I try to be clear about my opinion: Did I like the book or not? Also, I try to provide evidence. Recently, I didn't think much of Ray Robertson's Mental Hygiene. I wrote:

Whatever one makes of Robertson's arguments, they cannot be called mentally shiny. The lack of close reading, sustained argument, and engagement with adversaries of substance is astonishing -- particularly given the promise of the title.

The fact is, I agreed with a lot of Robertson's underlying argument, but my disappointment overwhelmed my agreement. Someone said to me once, you dislike in others what you most dislike about yourself. This comment applies to my review of Mental Hygiene because I kept feeling that Robertson was guilty of errors that I'm prone to myself. I kept catching "errors" I wanted to correct. For example:

The first book reviewed is Morley Callaghan's The New Yorker Stories. Consisting of nine paragraphs, this review begins to discuss the book under consideration in paragraph six. The review begins with Robertson reminiscing about seeing Callaghan at the University of Toronto. Robertson was a second-year undergraduate, and Callaghan was an 85-year-old writer who once knew Hemingway. Now about those New Yorker stories -- Are they any good? Robertson tells us: "Anyone acquainted with Callaghan's later work won't be surprised by or disappointed with these early stories." Which is good news -- but a long way from critical commentary.

Critical commentary vs. reminiscing. I accused Robertson of lacking the former and emphasizing the latter, but maybe Robertson and I have a different idea of what "critical commentary" means. Maybe he was aiming for something I never quite grasped. Maybe I started reading with a widely distorted set of expectations. I think about these things because I think the engagement between reviewer and book is different every time. Every reviewer is unique ... and I'm a long way from perfect ... and capable of reminiscing myself ...

(I ran into a friend and he asked, "Was it you who wrote that review of Robertson's book?" Yes, I said. He said he read Mental Hygiene and quite liked it. I said, "I don't know what was wrong. I couldn't make it work for me." He said, "I had different expectations." I said, "I saw Ray Robertson at a party last month -- and spent the evening avoiding him." He said, "Yes, Ray's a threatening character." He was joking about that last part; he winked and made that clear.)

So, don't write a review if you can't meet the author at a party the next day.


Write the review you want, then run like hell. Your readers deserve your honesty -- and so do the authors whether they appreciate it or not. And don't feel you need to be "right"; you can never be. You can only provide an argument that's strong or weak -- and strong arguments can only come from deep honesty, deep empathy, and references to evidence in the texts under review. (Getting a literary education and having a certain aptitude helps, too -- but that's a different essay.)

(A confession: In that Robertson review, I failed at "deep empathy"; I let my disappointment override that check; I made that error; and I regret that.)

You'll never learn anything unless you are open to the other; at the same time, you have a right to stake out your ground and defend it. Some might say it's more than a right; it's duty. Book reviewing confirms the paradox of relationship: How to be open to the other and secure in the self at the same time? It's no contradiction. It's the essence of the job.

Yes, play fighting can be fun ... but it does make one anxious that things will become nasty; that the "play" will be lost. Don't take it to the dressing room; leave it out on the ice.)

Ah, this could go on and on. One final point: Books that go outside the norm are both more likely to be misunderstood (reviewed poorly) and also more likely to be innovative -- and thus interesting. Negative reviews might actually be a barometer of rising talent. (Mary McCarthy was famously one of the few who positively reviewed William S. Borroughs' Naked Lunch.)

So, think for yourself, as the Beatles sang; have a rubber soul.

Monday, February 8, 2010

The Who

Forty-one years separate the first video below, from the second.

I was going to conclude with: No comment. But what the heck.

As a teenager in the 1980s, I was primarly a Beatles freak. But it was hard not to take note of the Who's final concert in Toronto in 1982. Long Live Rock (Be it Dead or Alive)!

So when they reunited in 1985 for Live Aid, I had to watch. The video feed cut off halfway through "My Generation."

In 1989, the band reunited, played "Tommy" -- and came to Exhibition Stadium in Toronto, backed by a horn section.

It  was strangely disappointing. Still, there they were. I'd finally seen them in the flesh.

Then in 2006, they put out their first album since the early 1980s and played in Toronto again. I went.

I sat at the far end of the Air Canada Centre and thought: Pete is a guitar god.

I thought, They don't make 'em like that any more.

I thought I was 15 again.

I thought, I will remember this for the rest of my life.

All kidding aside, it was a remarkable concert. For one, the audience had 15-year-olds and 70-year-olds. And the band was LOUD. It was everything the 1989 concert hadn't been. I thought, This is The Who. This is the Who of the 1970s. And isn't Zach Starkey having the time of his life, acting out Keith Moon.

In a book of interviews, Bono recounts seeing The Who at the post-9/11 concert in NYC. He says they walked in, looking like longshoremen, and U2 felt like amateurs.

Okay, I don't really have anything to say. Except, Hope I die (before I get old).

Saturday, February 6, 2010


If you really want to hear about it.

We did, but then the storyteller stopped telling stories. Now he's dead.

Jerome David Salinger lasted to the ripe age of 91, passing away on January 27, 2010.

In the Globe and Mail, Andrew Pyper postulated that without The Catcher in the Rye there would have been no On the Road, no Less than Zero.

Given that On the Road was written in 1951, the same year Catcher was published (and Kerouac was heavily under the spell of Thomas Wolfe; and the book was largely autobiographical), that first claim seems unlikely.

However, Bret Easton Ellis all but confirmed the second with his now 'round-the-world tweet: "Yeah!! Thank God he's finally dead. I've been waiting for this day for-fucking-ever. Party tonight!!!"

I'd just add that literary influence is probably a little more open-ended than that, though it's hard, isn't it, to now read any teenage narrator without hearing Holden.

Once, as Hemingway noted, all anyone could hear was Huck Finn. (In Green Hills of Africa, Ernest Hemingway wrote: "All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn...")

In any case, the best retrospective piece on Salinger recently, in my opinion, was written by David Lodge in the New York Times (Jan 29, 2010), and it expands the critical context.

Lodge quotes a paragraph from Catcher, then says: "It looks easy, but it isn't."

Here's a bit of Lodge. He ultimately compares Catcher to Tristram Shandy:

Nearly everybody loves “The Catcher in the Rye,” and most readers enjoy Mr. Salinger’s first collection of short stories, “Nine Stories.” But the work that followed, the four long short stories paired together in two successive books as “Franny and Zooey” and “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction,” were less reader-friendly and provoked more critical comment, leading eventually to the retreat of the wounded author into solitude.

This was as much the consequence of critical failure as of authorial arrogance. These books challenged conventional notions of fiction and conventional ways of reading as radically as the kind of novels that would later be called post-modernist, and a lot of critics didn’t “get it.” The saga of the Glass family is stylistically the antithesis of “Catcher” — highly literary, full of rhetorical tropes, narrative devices and asides to the reader — but there is also continuity between them. The literariness of the Glass stories is always domesticated by a colloquial informality. Most are narrated by Buddy, the writer in the family, who says at the outset of “Zooey” that “what I’m about to offer isn’t really a short story at all but a sort of prose home movie.”

The nearest equivalent to this saga in earlier literature is perhaps the 18th-century antinovel “The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman,” by Laurence Sterne. There is the same minutely close observation of the social dynamics of family life, the same apparent disregard for conventional narrative structure, the same teasing hints that the fictional narrator is a persona for the real author, the same delicate balance of sentiment and irony, and the same humorous running commentary on the activities of writing and reading.

We all have our Salinger ancedotes, I'm sure. I distinctly remember reading all four books in a rush in the summer of 1989. The style, the voice, the insight. I couldn't say I'd ever seen anything like it.

A professor later tried to persuade me from being overly influenced. Salinger wasn't, he told me, a major writer.

Well, professor, it looks easy, but it isn't.