with Nathan Whitlock
The HLR presents a topical exchange between two individuals connected to the Canadian writing, reading, and publishing scene.
The Critical Situation
Have formal book reviews become obsolete in the era of shrinking book coverage, Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter and the like? If so, does that matter? Do we need critics? National Post Books editor Emily Keeler and novelist Steven Galloway hash it out.
Emily Keeler: I gave a talk at an undergraduate English class the other week; I was meant to be there to give students some insight into what it means to write about books and book culture professionally, to talk to them about my career, that kind of thing. I said what I always say: you almost certainly won’t make enough money to have writing about books be your only job, and if it’s the thing you want to be doing, don’t wait. Do it now.
Then I asked them how they find out about new books they might like to read, and almost all of them said Goodreads. So I got a little scared! Honestly, I’m not a Goodreads user (I avoid using Amazon and its other products for reasons mostly unrelated to the direct topic of discussion here), and it’s just not a thing I’m all that interested in using as a reader. But I like my job! And I like talking about books and ideas, and I like the free circulation of ideas, and I like good, thoughtful criticism. When I asked the students what kinds of books they were reading, based on their Goodreads discoveries, they had long lists of interesting things in the perfect mix of brand new books and classics – lots of books from a couple years or decades back that still deserve to be read and discussed. It was great. I asked them if they read newspapers, and a few people said they read the Post and the Globe in print on the weekends, and many of them said they read newspapers online. As a group, they were really thoughtful and generous in the ways they think about literary culture, and so my fear subsided.
We are so lucky to live now, where there are so many ways for people to determine the course of their reading lives. Social media is one arena where readers and writers can connect and celebrate literature, along with bookstore events, reading series, festivals, and other IRL sites where we can all get together. And magazines and newspapers fit into the ecosystem, too, certainly.
One thing I find myself mulling over more and more these days is the distinction between a consumer review and a book review. It’s my hope that people read book sections with an eye to get more than a simple answer to the question of whether or not they should buy a particular book. I feel like that’s a question more easily answered by something like Twitter, where each reader has carefully selected the people they take book recommendations from. I follow writers I like reading, they tweet about writers they like reading, and presto, I’ve got a constantly unspooling ball of yarn leading me to things I personally find interesting.
But book reviews in (ugh, pardon the term but it’s the one I have at hand) legacy media are meant to do something else. As an editor, I’m looking to shape a section that isn’t tailored to any one individual per se, but rather that uses books and authors as a jumping off point for circulating ideas. I read to feel what it’s like to think new thoughts, and professional book reviews should be part of that ticklish process.
Oh my god I could literally write you 10,000 words about this. Steve: save me from myself at any point here.
Steven Galloway: I absolutely agree that the whole way people find out about books is fractured, and that may well be a good thing. There are things I don’t like about it — Goodreads gives me hives sometimes — but all in all if what we want is for people to keep reading, it makes sense to me that the more places there are for them to discover and discuss books the better.
To the original question of do we need formal book reviews, I’m of two minds. On one hand, I think no. I have never, as a writer, learned anything about writing from reading a book review, or felt differently about my work after being reviewed, or had any sort of relationship with a review beyond feeling good or bad about how it might affect sales or whether there was a pull-quote in it for a paperback jacket. Most reviews I read have a lot more to do with the reviewer than they do the book that’s being reviewed, and a lot of the time I feel like I know the gist of the review simply by looking at who the reviewer is and what the book is. There are very few good reviewers in Canada, sadly.
On the other hand, there is a machine in place wherein these reviews carry weight in a rarefied discourse of writers (“Hey, great review in the Post last week!”), and I’m told being able to put a Globe 100 sticker on a paperback is a good thing, so I would absolutely be disappointed if the newspaper book sections disappeared.
What’s needed, and I think what’s happening with both the Globe and the Post, is a rethink of what these sections can do. Not all of it works (the thing in the Globe with Pasha Malla reviewing his friend’s book on the merits of the guy being his friend, for example, was an ill-conceived disaster), but some risks need to be taken, and the notion of the consumer review may well be something we can live without.
EK: Just so I get a sense of where you’re coming from, who do you think are the “good reviewers” in Canada?
SG: Hmm. I’m wary of naming names, because omissions may speak volumes. I think there’s a reason you are in the position you’re in, and Mark Medley as well. If I see the names Emily Keeler or Mark Medley in a byline, I’ll read it. Lee Henderson writes good reviews. Stacey May Fowles, too. There are others.
Too often, though, the review focuses on what the reviewer wanted the book to be, based on an existent notion of what makes a good book, or the author’s previous work, or the genre, or jacket copy, and so on. The dynamic of judging the book is whether it did what the reviewer wanted it to do. Too few reviews ask what the book was trying to do and then whether it did that. Too few reviewers go to the book, and too many try to force the book to come to them.
The danger of this, I think, is that it begins to shape literature. If we only want stories with a likeable protagonist who undergoes a journey of moral discovery that makes him/her a better person at the end, then fine. If we want more diverse stories and voices, this sort of critical evaluation won’t work.
EK: I wonder if we’re in disagreement about who the intended audience is for the ideal book review? For me, it’s not writers of books, it’s readers (though obviously there is overlap there), readers of books and newspapers, websites, magazines, etc.
SG: I think readers are the audience for these reviews, definitely. If writers were, we could ditch them, because like I said, as a writer I think reviews are completely irrelevant, aside from a marketing standpoint.
EK: Let’s get back to what you said about voice-driven reviews, if that’s a fair way to describe what I think you’re talking about — the idea of shaping literature. What do you mean?
SG: I think it’s fine for the writer of the review to be a presence and voiced, but I get frustrated when the review is about them and not the book. A writer takes years on a book, and a review should at least respect that and engage primarily with the work and leave the reviewer’s personal foibles for Facebook or their blog.
EK: The thing is, book reviews don’t sell books, unless they’re in the New York Times. It’s just not the way it works. I heard somewhere that people need to hear about a thing five or six times before it’ll stick out to them. So one review in the Post or the Globe is worthless from a marketing standpoint. If a person reads a review in the Post, then sees the book prominently displayed in a store, then sees a review in the Star, then maybe overhears someone talking about it at a restaurant, then hears about the book on the radio, then maybe that’ll add up to their going from knowing nothing about the book and author to their buying and reading the book. Maybe.
Let me try to get at this another way, and describe my dream book review as an editor and reader:
The writer covering the book has a keener-than-average grasp of the material, and can pull from more than just the book under review to make some kind of original insight that positions the book for a reader. The writer files clean copy, on time, and likes being edited and, if necessary, pushed a little bit farther in a clearer direction. The review is a well-written artifact in its own right, and it’s interesting to read whether or not I’m interested in the book itself. Sometimes this means the ideal book review has a large element of the uniquely personal response of the reviewer tied up in it; sometimes the ideal book review is a nimble argument about the themes or formal elements of the book under review; sometimes the ideal book review is an incisive close reading of the book under review to illustrate a larger point about both the book and its greater context. I’m greedy and I want all these things, all the time. I want book reviews that are appealing in myriad ways, even if the particular books under review aren’t.
SG: That does indeed sound marvelous, Emily. Like unicorns and tuition-free universities! If what I read in the papers was as described, we’d have had a one word email thread. What you’ve described is not what I often see. I hope that changes, and I think that you’ll have some success if you hold reviewers to this standard.
EK: You should pick up the Post on Saturdays! I’ve been here for seven months, but thanks for wishing me some success!
Emily M. Keeler is the books editor of the National Post, and the founding editor of Little Brother, a twice-yearly magazine of long essays, short fiction, and visual art.
Steven Galloway is the author of Finnie Walsh, Ascension, The Cellist of Sarajevo, and The Confabulist. His work has been published in over thirty countries and optioned for film. He teaches creative writing at the University of British Columbia, and lives with his wife and two young daughters in Vancouver, British Columbia.