Behind the Scenes with Book Reviewers
Steven W. Beattie
on idiosyncratic reading tastes, books as aesthetic performances, and verboten terms
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 editor and reviewer, Steven W. Beattie.
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?
Steven W. Beattie: Anything by Hubert Selby, Jr. He’s best known for Last Exit to Brooklyn – which has also been repeatedly banned – and Darren Aronofsky’s film adaptation of Requiem for a Dream. But for my money, his lesser-known novel The Room is as at least as good, and even more savage than either of those books. Selby, Jr. was absolutely fearless about pushing boundaries and buttons, which is rare these days. He was also a consummate prose stylist, which is almost equally rare.
HRB: When you tell others that you write book reviews, is there anything you hope or dread they will say in response?
SWB: I dread people asking me what I thought of the latest buzz book, mostly because there’s every chance I won’t have read it. My reading tastes and habits tend to be somewhat idiosyncratic; I shy away from bestsellers, award winners, and books that have huge followings online. My experience has been that in order for a book to appeal to a mass audience the author almost by necessity has to make compromises with a truly unique artistic vision. And the more compromises the author makes, the less interesting I find the final product.
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.
SWB: One of the most vicious reviews I’ve ever read was written by Rebecca West about H.G. Wells (she called him an “old maid among novelists”). As a result of that review, Wells invited West to dine with him and the two later embarked on a romantic relationship, which endured for a decade and produced a son. So, I suppose you never can tell.
HRB: What reviewer working today do you most enjoy reading?
SWB: I tend to enjoy reading people who blur the line between reviewer and critic – that is, writers who don’t just offer a consumer report on whether or not someone should buy a book, but probe a bit deeper into the literary effects of a work and display at least some cursory knowledge of literary history and traditions. William Giraldi is good for this, as is Cynthia Ozick. The thing they have in common – in addition to being very, very intelligent (which was Philip Marchand’s primary criterion for any critic) – is a willingness to engage with a work on the level of style. Many reviewers today either can’t or won’t talk about books as aesthetic performances, preferring instead to write about their social importance or moral message. But literature is composed of words and that’s the level that a critic should operate on first. It’s amazing to me how many reviewers – even well-respected ones – don’t seem to understand this.
HRB: What mis-used or over-used words and phrases make you peevish when they show up in book reviews?
SWB: How much time/space do you have? Honestly, this list gets longer by the hour. At Quill, I’ve got a working roster of terms that are verboten, mostly because they are weasel words, meaningless shorthand, or a default to writerly laziness. Top of the list is “compelling,” perhaps my most hated reviewer cop-out. “Riveting” is another one that gets hideously overused. I’m becoming increasingly impatient with books that are “well wrought” or characters that are (or are not) “fully developed.” And I never again want to read a review that closes with some variation of the line, “This is a book that will linger in your mind long after the last page has been turned.”
HRB: What unsung book from the past year would you like to give a shout-out to?
SWB: Lisa Moore’s story collection Something for Everyone wasn’t precisely overlooked – it was longlisted for the Giller, after all – but I’m still surprised it didn’t get more traction among readers. Moore’s stories are so technically accomplished it’s astounding, though perhaps the stylistic challenge she provides somewhat explains why fewer people gravitate to her short stories and those who do don’t seem to appreciate them. (I recently read a review of Something for Everyone that referred to Moore’s writing as “unfortunately muted” and I almost choked on my coffee.) Same with Paige Cooper’s Zolitude, easily the best debut I read last year. And Jamie Quatro’s Fire Sermon came and went without much fanfare, though it is one of the most exciting novels I read in 2018. The author has been compared to Flannery O’Connor, which, as usual, misses the mark: O’Connor is sui generis (though I have made this category error myself in the past). But Quatro’s short novel is incredibly potent in its own right.
Steven W. Beattie is the review editor at Quill & Quire magazine. He lives in Toronto.