Summer Plans: The Risks and Rewards of Reviews

The jet lag has lifted and I’m settling back into my routines after my trip to Vancouver–my first real vacation away since July 2015. And even so, it was hard to keep work obligations entirely at bay: a very late paper arrived at 10 p.m. the night before I left and had to be dealt with a.s.a.p.; proofs for a forthcoming review appeared in my inbox a few days along and threw me into a panic until I got reassurance that the corrections could wait until I got back; and a book for another review was my reading material on my way home–although that was my decision, and the book in question (Adam Sternbergh’s The Blinds) isn’t particularly hard work. I don’t really mind: porous boundaries are a small price to pay for the autonomy and flexibility I enjoy at this stage of my career, and there was certainly plenty of work-related business I simply ignored until today, when the Victoria Day holiday too is past.

Now that it is today, though, it’s time to get sorted for the summer. As previously mentioned, my first task is sort of a meta-project, in which this post is a very preliminary step: I want to take some dedicated time to plot out a more deliberate trajectory than I have followed for the last couple of years. It’s not that I’m dissatisfied with what I’ve accomplished: despite the still-embittering lessons of my promotion denial, I have no regrets or second thoughts about where I have been putting my energy or how I have been using my expertise. I certainly have at no point since the bad news felt inclined to rededicate myself to conventional academic publishing. I don’t set myself against it as an enterprise in toto, and I might yet decide that a project I’m interested in is best suited to publication in that form for that audience, but I have long believed that we produce not only enough of such scholarship but too much of it–too much too fast, at any rate, for us to keep up with it ourselves, or to assert its value with any confidence–and so as a profession we can and should spare some of our “HQP” to go and do otherwise.

My version of “otherwise” has so far included a range of essays on Victorian fiction aimed at a non-specialist audience (though not, I have always hoped and often found, lacking in interest for specialists as well); a website and e-book of supporting materials for book clubs reading Middlemarch; this blog, which includes commentary on academia and especially on teaching along with its posts on books and literary culture; and a fair number of book reviews in a widening array of venues. One of the things I’m specifically thinking about right now is what, if any, parameters to set on that last category, especially because for the last year or so I have pretty much always had at least one review underway at all times, and when work is otherwise busy that’s about as much “extra” attentive reading and writing as I can manage. Given that even short reviews still take me several concentrated days, I could almost certainly fill up most of this summer with them if I accepted or sought out all the possible opportunities — but should I?

One reasonable answer is, “Why not?” One pragmatic reason to review as much as I can in as many publications as will have me is that doing so builds both my skills and my “brand” as a reviewer. I get valuable experience, and I gain the kind of credibility as a critic that my academic resume does not earn me outside the ivory tower. At least as important–maybe more–is that I really like the work. It is more intellectually stimulating than I would have thought before I tried it, and more creative: for every book you have to find the story to tell, the tilt to hold it at so you can see it clearly but by your own lights. The different genres of reviewing add a further challenge: the more expansive 2000 (or more) word review-essay we typically run at Open Letters Monthly makes different demands, and allows for different kinds of fun, than a more pointed review of 300, or 700, or even 1000 words. I have already learned a lot about both books and criticism from practicing in these different forms, and I enjoy feeling that I’m getting better at it. (I have also learned even greater respect for those who do it much more frequently and fluently than I!) 

I also like the scale and scope of the work. Each assignment (whether I choose it myself or it is set by another editor) comes with known parameters and a deadline, a finite structure that suits my temperament. There can certainly be stress involved, especially before I know what my angle will be and then as I try to shape my ideas into my allotted space in a way that satisfies me and doesn’t (to my eyes, at least) sacrifice nuance or particularity. As I get more experience, however, my confidence grows, so that now I recognize those messy earlier stages as a necessary phase before I chip away and refine, leaving something as clear and expressive as I can make it. There’s a lot of satisfaction in successfully completing a piece of writing with such a specific mission and then moving along to the next one.

I have also appreciated the way reviewing has expanded my reading, particularly when the books are suggested by other editors rather than hand-picked by me to suit my own known tastes and sensibilities. I would point, for example, to the increase in Canadian titles I have read since taking on some commissions for Quill & Quire and, more recently, Canadian Notes and Queries, though the best example of a writer I would probably never have discovered on my own but loved would be David Constantine. Here, however, is also where the advantages of reviewing shade into the disadvantages: for every David Constantine or Danielle Dutton or Sarah Moss, there’s another writer whose books I would not be bereft to have missed — though of course you can’t know that until you’ve tried them. “Most books aren’t very good,” one experienced reviewer once said to me, and now that I do more reading on demand (though not nearly as much as he does!) and somewhat less just for myself, I understand much better what he meant. There’s a certain resignation every full-time reviewer must feel on opening up the next cover without any expectation of greatness. Of course, that makes it all the more delightful when a book exceeds expectations — which in turn probably accounts for the effusive praise books that are pretty good but not that good sometimes seem to get. For a reviewer who reads, perforce, a lot of mediocre titles, the relief no doubt results in some disproportionate enthusiasm.

So one risk of doing more reviewing is having to read a fair number of books that may not be that good or may not really reward the effort it takes to say something interesting about them. This is not the case when working with George Eliot, whose worst books are still more worthwhile than many writers’ best. Another risk is that the temptation of doing these neatly finite pieces makes it harder to commit to longer-term or more open-ended ones: the immediacy of the next deadline becomes the perfect excuse for putting off what might be harder but ultimately richer writing projects. I said before that I would like to get back to writing more essays–I don’t mean just reviews that are more essayistic, but essays that range and explore literary ideas in a different way. I would like to push my limits and increase my fluency in that genre as well, but I feel as if I have lost my nerve when it comes to proceeding towards an idea that isn’t justified by a specific occasion, such as “here’s a new book,” or framed by a pre-set task and word limit. What could I or should I try to write about? A likely genre for me to pursue here is the literary profile, but I’ve had trouble focusing on a topic, so that’s one thing I’ll be thinking about during my planning period. Another common kind of literary essay is a pitch for the “underappreciated” novel or novelist. I griped a bit on Twitter about what I see as the “literary hipsterism” of this approach, but that needn’t be the tone, and in fact all of the ‘Second Glance’ pieces I’ve written for Open Letters are in this spirit but don’t (I hope) suggest I’m preening because I think I’m particularly cool to know about them! 

But essays too are, in the end, small scale projects. Should I be aspiring to something on a larger scale? In the academic humanities, books are by far the most valued form; I’ve questioned the assumption that they should be, especially under current circumstances, and though I have watched with a bit of envy as some of the online writers I’ve followed for some time have published books that look really great, I do still feel that you should write a book if you have a book to write–something that needs and deserves a more expansive treatment–not as an end in itself. How do you know if you have a book in you, though? Or, how do you know what kind of book you might have in you, or already have begun without realizing it? More than once here  I’ve brought up the possibility of a book that is actually a collection of smaller parts (revised versions of my essays on George Eliot, for instance). I have spent a lot of time on that idea before, including on my last sabbatical, and I even wrote a draft introduction. My work on that project stalled, for various reasons, but perhaps it’s time I took it further. Here, then, is something else I’ll be reflecting on.

In the meantime, I have the Sternbergh review to do, and Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent, which I committed to write up for OLM, has just arrived and looks mighty tempting. And I just said yes to another editor for a June deadline. I’m looking forward to doing all of these, but I need to make up my mind how many more I can do if I still want something else to show for my summer. If

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