Sunday, September 20, 2015

Bury the Hatchet

Photo by Leo Brent Robillard
A writer must have thick skin.  This is among the first things I tell my students.  Rejection is part of the game.  Send out ten submissions, expect nine to come back with a form letter.  Oh, but how sweet the one that comes back positive. 

Writing and publishing is tough a tough racket.  The story of J.K. Rowling’s repeated rejections are now the stuff of literary legend.  Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was turned down by twelve British publishing houses, before it went on to break sales records around the world.  Louis L’Amour claims to have been turned down 200 times before Bantam picked him up.  William Golding, Margaret Mitchell, William Faulkner, and Stephen King are just a few of the other literary giants to have been put off.  This only speaks to the vagaries of the modern aesthetic. 

But these rejections slips are private affairs – shared in retrospect. These writers can now look back with a smug shrug, history having proven them right.  What about the far more public rejection of the dreaded negative review?  Or worse, the ‘hatchet job’? 

Better to buy armour.

As a writer and teacher of writing, aesthetic vagaries and negativity are often on my mind – and never more so than in the wake of a newly published book.  I count myself lucky to have been on the receiving end of a hatchet job only twice in twenty years of writing and publishing – both times made bearable by the timely appearance of better tidings.   But over these same years, I have also found myself on the flip side of this story.  I have written more than fifty reviews, myself – many of which appear on this site.  Others were published in small press journals and newspapers. For a time, I even edited two such journals – assigning books sent from literary presses across Canada to other reviewers.  In neither of these roles did I ever pen or publish a hatchet job. 

Perhaps I have a weak stomach. 

No.  It’s not that.  I have been critical.  I have been negative.  But I have been fair.  I suppose that I espouse Jan Zwicky’s philosophy of reviewing.  Like Zwicky, I believe that reviews should be “appreciative.”  This is not to be confused with blithely ‘positive.’  To review a book is to weigh and to evaluate.  As Julienne Isaacs writes in The Puritan, “The reviewer must be allowed to retain the option of proclaiming some books superior to others in the canon.”   In her thoughtful essay, “In Defense of the Negative Book Review: Can Hatchet Jobs Build Strong Literary Culture?”, Isaacs sifts both sides of the argument, but eventually concludes: “Should the literary critics throw out the hatchet? Very probably, if it means discarding the vitriol that occasionally clogs the valves of otherwise reasonable negative reviews.” 

I consider the review as the beginning of a discourse.  It is a public conversation concerning a book’s aesthetic.  However, the hatchet job is not a discourse.  It is a diatribe.  The author of a hatchet job sets himself up as ‘the’ authority.  This authoritative voice is thuggish and brokers no disagreement. In a Bookends column for the New York Times Book Review, James Parker writes, “The reviewer desires not-quite-consciously to ‘master’ the text, to prove his superiority to the book under review…and this desire, unless acknowledged, warps his lexicon and inflates his language.”

It can be argued that the author of a hatchet job is doing the public a service by warning off unsuspecting consumers; however, in a strictly Canadian context, it seems unlikely that there are hordes of duplicitous small press authors hoping to wrest hard-earned dollars from a blinkered public.  Isaacs says:

In the limited confines of Canadian literary culture, damning reviews matter.  To small-press writers who must already work much harder than writers with mainstream presses to promote their books, negative reviews add insult to injury…Why should reviewers take the time to lambaste a book that likely isn’t going anywhere?

Essentially, then, reviewers should follow the advice their parents gave them as children, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”

              Review outlets are disappearing in Canada in some respect.  Column inches and newspaper space have been greatly reduced.  It is true that these traditional outlets have been unofficially subsidized through public domains such as Goodreads and Amazon, to name a few.  And I believe that public taste is a valid litmus test.  However, if the traditional review outlets, such as the Globe & Mail, National Post and Quill & Quire, are to differentiate – and therefore continue to legitimize -- themselves from the public domain, they should do so by eliminating the hatchet and the rant in favour of the informed and the reasonable.  Why fill the small space devoted to review with contempt?  Better to focus on those books worthy of attention, which might otherwise be ignored.  This ‘appreciative’ method will get us closer to the aesthetic we desire.

              Perhaps as a teacher of nineteen years, I understand more viscerally the impact of delivering a less than exemplary evaluation.  Criticism must be delivered with respect to the author.  Reviews, like books, are an integral part of a healthy literary landscape. We must push each other to do better.  Not batter the other into submission.


Read thoughtful reviews of my most recent novel, The Road to Atlantis, from Quill &Quire and Wednesday Book Review – or watch the 49th Shelf on September 28th for my “Short-Changed List” – Canadian books that deserve a second glance.

You can weigh in on the topic in the comment section below with your thoughts and stories.