Behind the Scenes with Book Reviewers
Shazia Hafiz Ramji
on the resonance of Infinite Jest, being wowed by reviews, and some favourite reads from this year
Welcome to Behind the Scenes with Books Reviewers, a 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, publishing consultant, editor, and reviewer, Shazia Hafiz Ramji.
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?
Shazia Hafiz Ramji: Please don’t judge me too harshly for this, but I would’ve loved to review Infinite Jest when it was first published. Generally, conversations around Infinite Jest now are informed by David Foster Wallace’s life and the book’s reputation as an unreadable tome that is read by “bros.” I couldn’t disagree more. I read Infinite Jest around 2011 and I’ll never stop being grateful for what that book has done for me. I had often wondered whether it was appreciated most deeply by people like me who have experienced clinical depression and addiction (those are themes), but after guiding many Infinite Jest reading groups online and in person, I finally saw that its resonance was far-reaching and that it touches people in ways I hadn’t seen before.
I know the novel was received differently then compared to now and I would’ve loved to contribute to the initial critical conversations about the book when it was first published. I can’t imagine how exciting it must have been at the time to see this weird novel with footnotes, non-linear structure, and a cast of depressed high-achievers and recovering addicts. What did people in 1996 think of the use of Ebonics? Was a 1000-page novel seen positively at all? Why was DFW’s uncompromising writing possible during the time that he was alive? Is it still possible? I can only imagine.
HRB: When you tell others that you write book reviews, is there anything you hope or dread they will say in response?
SHR: I dread the intimidation that people have sometimes expressed or sometimes feel when they find out I write about books.
I always hope that articulating the very intimate ways books have moved us (in the deceptively “objective” language of reviews) will bring us together.
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.
SHR: I hope that the people I consider to be my friends are those who can take criticism — and enjoy it.
HRB: What reviewer working today do you most enjoy reading?
SHR: I really love reading Steven W. Beattie’s reviews. He can contextualize work and offer insight with such few words. I remember being wowed by the way he began his review of Original Prin by Randy Boyagoda with a discussion of Nabokov. I was also wowed by his casual reference to David Foster Wallace in a review of Bertrand Laverdure’s Readopolis. Both of these were in Quill & Quire.
I also love reading Parul Sehgal’s reviews. The experience of reading her reviews is like reading exceptional fiction, because the sentences move and shift ever so slightly, gathering nuance and complexity, until the big (usually persuasive) revelation hits.
Pankaj Mishra, too. I am especially grateful for his review of Jordan Peterson’s … material.
HRB: What mis-used or over-used words and phrases make you peevish when they show up in book reviews?
SHR: When reviewers end on a note that is along the lines of the book being “human,” I feel like it’s a cop-out because it tugs at the heartstrings with a sweeping generalization. I must have done it at least once, because I have the memory of telling myself not to do it again. I also get peevish when I see the word “luminous,” but sometimes there simply is no other way to describe the light-filled feeling when reading a book.
HRB: What unsung book from the past year would you like to give a shout-out to?
SHR: Obits by Tess Liem
Wait by Ned Baeck
Listen Before Transmit by Dani Couture
We All Need to Eat by Alex Leslie
Smells Like Stars by Nandi Odhiambo, which I reviewed for World Literature Today!
The Rule of Stephens by Timothy Taylor
Original Prin by Randy Boyagoda
Short Histories of Light by Aidan Chafe
Holy Wild by Gwen Benaway
Shazia Hafiz Ramji’s first book, Port of Being, received the Robert Kroetsch Award for Innovative Poetry (Invisible Publishing, 2018). She recently appeared on CBC North by Northwest and will be a writer in residence with Open Book in March 2019. She lives on unceded Coast Salish land (Vancouver) where she works as a publishing consultant and editor for various presses across Canada. She is at work on a novel.