News and Interviews

"Maximum Curiosity and Maximum Respect" Susan Glickman's Collected Essays are a Hymn to Thoughtful Literary Criticism

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For those who worry that thoughtful, long-form literary criticism is becoming a thing of the past, Susan Glickman's Artful Flight (forthcoming from the Porcupine's Quill; available for pre-order now) is a balm for the soul. Arguably a book length anti-hot-take, Artful Flight is a nuanced, intelligent, and witty deep dive into the literary arts. 

Glickman's essays and reviews (collected from the 1980s through to her current writings) tackle genre, etymology, and the nature of criticism of itself, drawing on and engaging with writers and critics like Northrop Frye, Erín Moure, and Bronwen Wallace.

Proving that criticism can be keen without being cruel, sensitive without being sycophantic, and above all, can pursue truth and objectivity, Artful Flight is as entertaining as it is refreshing, from one of Canada's most interesting writers. 

We're excited to speak with Susan today about Artful Flight. In our conversation, she tells us about a Facebook post that led to something wonderful and entirely unexpected, how she whittled down over 500 pages of original essays for Artful Flight, and what it means to critically approach other writers' work with "maximum curiosity and maximum respect". 

Open Book:

Tell us about the new collection, Artful Flight, and how you became involved with it.

Susan Glickman:

Serendipitously! Several years ago, I gave my home office to my son to turn into his music studio and, in the process, recycled 25 bags of paper. (Sorry, trees!) When I realized that I had accidentally discarded a lot of old essays, I bemoaned the fact on Facebook, assuming other folks could relate to my predicament. I never expected this confession to lead to an invitation to submit a selection of my nonfiction to the Porcupine’s Quill, a small press in Erin, Ontario, that makes very beautiful books.

The opportunity to review a lifetime of writing inspired a dogged pursuit of all those missing pieces online and in the library. It was actually kind of fun.


How did you select the pieces for this book? What were you looking for when assembling it?


I started out with over 500 pages of prose, so it was quite a challenge choosing what to include. My editor, Carmine Starnino, helped me decide what would be of interest to others, and PQL had clear guidelines: nothing that had already been anthologized.

It took a while, but we wrangled the beast down to manageable size by leaving out stuff that was too academic or too ephemeral, too ponderous or too slight. I wanted the collection to convey the whole range of my experience as a reader and a teacher and a mother, as a traveller and an artist and a person. Everyone’s life involves so many different things, all interacting in ways that are not always obvious or predictable. I wanted to create something surprising and varied. As miscellaneous as life.


How do you view the pieces in the book as speaking to each other?


An early title I had for this collection was Acts of Attention, and that’s what these pieces are. I find the world much too discordant unless I concentrate on one thing at a time: music, flowers, the sky. Dancing, swimming, hiking. A poem. A painting. I realize that may seem to contradict what I said above about wanting to create a collection with a lot of variety, but it doesn’t. Each piece is, in itself, quite focused, even though the whole may appear eclectic!


What do you need when you're writing and editing – in terms of space, food, rituals, writing instruments?


Quiet, if possible. Copious amounts of tea and coffee. Lots of walks with my dog, Toby.


What do you hope readers will take away from these pieces, after having read them all? Is there a question you set out to address or delve into through these works?


Whenever I write an essay about someone else’s work, I try to do so with maximum curiosity and maximum respect. I wonder why they were compelled to write what they did, how it relates to their previous work, and what it reveals about the form they chose. At the same time, however objective I try to be, I am inescapably limited by my own taste and experience and knowledge. I am only one reader, with one reader’s capability. But I hope to convey some of the pleasure I find in the work to others, so as to encourage them to look a little closer at what they read.

Of course, there are many pieces in this collection that are not literary criticism but personal essays; essays that I needed to write mainly to find out why their subjects preoccupied me. I leave it to others to tell me if they succeed, and maybe even what they are really about.


What are you working on next?


A book of poetry entitled Cathedral/Grove about the historical tension between nature and culture and the alienation of a diasporic Jew living in the West. And another collection of essays with the working title The Sweet Particulars, which plays images and texts off each other. In recent years I have returned to my first love – visual art – and felt the need to bring both forms of artistic practice together.


Susan Glickman has worked as an English professor and a creative writing instructor and is now a freelance editor and an art student. She is the author of seven books of poetry, most recently What We Carry (Signal Editions, 2019), four novels for adults, including The Tale Teller (Cormorant, 2012), and the “Lunch Bunch trilogy” for middle grade readers. Her previous work of non-fiction was The Picturesque & the Sublime: A Poetics of the Canadian Landscape, back in 1998, which won both the Raymond Klibansky Prize and the Gabrielle Roy prize.

Buy the Book

Artful Flight

Susan Glickman muses that thoughtful literary criticism is not merely about ‘duelling with words, however full of flourishes and feints’. Rather it ‘means—or ought to mean—to evaluate something dispassionately, seeing not only its faults but its virtues.’ In Artful Flight, she does just that, writing respectfully but uncompromisingly about artistic topics both ostensibly familiar (such as considerations of writers like Northrop Frye, Don Coles, Erín Moure and Bronwen Wallace) and delightfully arcane (such as the etymological evolution of contranyms in Shakespeare and beyond).

With keen intelligence and droll wit, Glickman explores a variety of artistic concerns, from the expectations of literary genre, the formalist hurdles of poetry and the tyranny of modern opinion to the magical history of the violin and the pleasure of creating visual art later in life. Her approach is unabashedly her own: feminist, supportive and drawing on a wide range of cultural and literary references.

These well-reasoned essays prove that balanced criticism can be compelling, nuanced and sensitive to the motives and influences of artists.