behind the scenes with book reviewers
on Barbara Pym, the benefits of book blogging, and some favourite fellow reviewers
Welcome to Behind the Scenes with Books Reviewers, a new feature, in which we hear from Canadian book reviewers about the ups and downs of reviewing, over-used words and phrases, favourite fellow reviewers, and unsung books.
This month we spoke to writer, reviewer, and Pickle Me This blogger Kerry Clare.
Hamilton Review of Books: Madame Bovary and Lady Chatterley’s Lover resulted in obscenity trials. Lolita was called pornography. And Fifty Shades of Grey led to some serious eye rolls. Which controversial book of the past would you have liked to review when it was published?
Kerry Clare: I really don’t know. I would have probably dismissed these books at the time anyway. I have the worst instincts when it comes to the books that are going to matter to readers—one notorious year I had ARCs of The Sisters Brothers and Half-Blood Blues and never managed to get to either of them. It’s not so much that I’m out of touch as that I read at my own speed—or so I tell myself.
If I could go back in time though, I would have liked to be one of the critics who helped call Barbara Pym out of the literary wilderness in the late 1970s. What a service that would have been.
HRB: When you tell others that you write book reviews, is there anything you hope or dread they will say in response?
KC: Well, I hope they say something like, “Yes! And you are my favourite critic and my literary guiding star.” The answer I dread is something along the lines of, “Oh, I haven’t read a book in years. How do you even find time for that?,” which is a surefire indication that I have nothing left to say in conversation with this person. If a person is more book-savvy, I’m afraid they are going to know that places to publish book reviews are getting fewer and paying less and less and just feel sorry for me. Or say, “Yes, I know, you reviewed my book,” and then we both want to die because the book was terrible.
Basically, I dread talking to everyone, which is why I’m usually reading.
HRB: Writer and book critic Geoff Dyer has said, “If you review books by your friends, you get to the point where you’re either not a very good critic, or you end up with few friends.” Agree/disagree/say it better.
KC: This is why I really like having a blog, which is a space where I can enthuse about my friends’ work, because no one shows up at my blog for criticism proper, but rather to find out what I’m excited about. It’s difficult though if someone I am fond of writes something I don’t like, because then I just have to be conspicuously quiet… Thankfully, it doesn’t happen very often.
HRB: What reviewer working today do you most enjoy reading?
KC: Last week I bought Flights, by Olga Tokarczuk, because of Robert Wiersema’s review in The Toronto Star. I love Emily Donaldson’s reviews, and Marissa Stapley's, and J.C. Sutcliffe’s, and those rare instances where my friend Anakana Schofield writes criticism. My friend Heather Birrell is also a wonderful reviewer. And Laura Miller, of course. Carleigh Baker’s “The Mythical Indigenous Protagonist”in the Literary Review of Canada was one of the most compelling and challenging reviews I’ve ever read. Carin Makuz on her blog Matilda Magtree writes a series called “This Is Not A Review” and, ironically, these are some of the reviews I love best. Donna Bailey Nurse too—I read the wonderful The Mother, by Yvette Edwards, because of her review. I also really love Rohan Maitzen’s reviews—she’s remarkable in that we don’t often share the same point of view, and yet even when I disagree with her, she’s never wrong. She challenges me as a reader in the best way. (Read her wonderful review of Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life….)
HRB: What mis-used or over-used words and phrases make you peevish when they show up in book reviews?
KC: “Jonathan Franzen” or “Karl Ove Knausgård.”
No, really, I’m not sure I am one to criticize, as I very consistently find everything either “wonderful” or “brilliant”. Not a huge range, really…
HRB: What unsung book from the past year would you like to give a shout-out to?
KC: I loved What is Going to Happen Next, by Karen Hofmann, which raised interesting questions about the nature of family and healing from trauma, and was so ambitious with first person narrators from such different points of view, but Hofmann made it work . It was also such a pleasure to read. I recommended that book to everybody, and you should read it too.
Kerry Clare is a National Magazine Award-nominated writer, author of Mitzi Bytes—which HELLO Canada called “an entertaining and insightful read”—and editor of The M Word: Conversations About Motherhood. Most recently, her writing has appeared in The Walrus, Today’s Parent, and The New Quarterly. She edits the Canadian books website, 49thShelf.com, and writes about books and reading on her own popular blog, Pickle Me This.