Writer in Residence

In Praise of … Book Reviewing

By Mark Sampson

I still remember where and when I got into the book-reviewing racket. It was the late 1990s in Halifax, about a year after I graduated with my journalism degree from the University of King’s College. The local daily, The Chronicle Herald, had just launched a new Sunday edition, which contained a Books section. I think I must have simply written an email to the editor, introducing myself and asking if she needed reviews. It turned out that she did – desperately – and she promptly assigned me a slew of work. The pay was not great: $35 per 500-word review. But considering that my day job at the time was as an editorial assistant at a business magazine, the starting annual salary for which was $19,500, which was only a few thousand dollars more than what I owed in student loans, I really needed that extra $35. And besides, the gig exposed me to books that I wouldn’t have otherwise encountered. Over the next two years, before I left the city for grad school, I reviewed numerous titles, including a memoir by a physician with Doctors without Borders, a 10-year anniversary book about the École Polytechnique massacre in Montreal, a huge tome about the history of airline safety, and the latest novel by CanLit workhorse David Helwig, who had just moved to Prince Edward Island from Ontario. 

Book reviewing is indeed a racket – my hero, novelist Anthony Burgess, once referred to reviewers (including himself, a prolific critic in his own right) as “despicable rats” nibbling around the edges of literature – but it was considered a serious enough craft to be taught in a full-semester course in the final year of my four-year journalism program. There, we learned how to frame opinion writing more generally, how to strike balances between positive and negative positions, and how one might go about selecting a new title to review in the first place. One of the critic’s big jobs, we learned, was to take an evaluative stance on a book by placing it in comparative context to something else. If the author of the book under review had an extensive backlist of titles, for example, you might assess this new work against those previous ones. If it was a debut author, you might frame your review in the context of other books in the same genre or with a similar subject matter. In more recent years, critics have begun shoehorning their way into reviews by talking about their own experiences, especially if the book in question is a deeply personal work of creative nonfiction or memoir.

But one thing that a j-school professor won’t teach you is why you should be reviewing books in the first place. It’s a question I get asked all the time, as I still do a lot of reviewing. Twenty years down the line – and I say this with as much modesty as possible – I’m no longer in the financial position where an extra $35 means the difference between whether I can do laundry this month or not; and besides, some of the places I review for pay less than $35 – sometimes nothing. So why do it? The smaller answers are that I love doing it, and I feel it makes me a better reader, and it helps keep my name in the public consciousness in between my own books. My bigger answer is that I want to make a small contribution to the larger ecosystem of our literary culture. I know a lot of writers who feel the same way, and most of us do three things: a day job, our own creative writing, and some form of volunteerism, or near-volunteerism, for the broader literary community. Some run a local reading series. Others edit a literary journal. Some judge contests or act as an editor-at-large for a small press. And some review books. I count a number of published authors among my friends and acquaintances, and nearly all of them wish their books had gotten more reviews than they did. Yet very few actually review books on a regular basis. I don’t blame them. I have been confronted more than once by furious authors who wanted to give me a piece of their mind about my unfair or ill-thought-out take on their work in a published review. So it goes. But I figure somebody needs to review books, and since I have the training, and actually love doing it, it might as well be me. 

So this leads to the whole negative-versus-positive reviewing debate, which seems to flare up like a brush fire every few months in my Twitter and Facebook feeds. On the one side, there are those who feel that book sections and literary journals should be dominated by mostly positive reviews, that if a book is truly bad, it shouldn’t be reviewed at all. We’ll call this the “If you don’t have anything nice to say …” camp. On the other side, there are those who believe that negative reviews are vital to maintaining the integrity of literary criticism, and without a mix of negative reviews, books sections and literary journals will become little more than an extension of the publishing industry’s marketing campaigns. 

I’m pretty clear on where I land. To me, booking reviewing is an act of journalism, full stop – I figure that’s why I was taught it in journalism school, and why newspapers and magazines publish reviews. Reviewers come to an assignment with the same general principles and journalistic obligations as a court reporter or somebody covering city hall: to report what they see, to be honest, to offer balance where appropriate (very occasionally there are books, just as there are news stories, that don’t warrant balance), and, most of all, to put readers first and earn and maintain their trust. That’s it. Book reviews are not written for the author of the book under assessment. Authorial intention or what the writer “felt” or “went through” while composing the book are ultimately immaterial – you’re judged on what you actually put on the page, because it’s what posterity will judge. That’s not to say that we reviewers don’t get it wrong sometimes, or make mistakes, or fall down on our obligations. Lord knows I have. But the principles we strive toward always remain.

At university, I was taught that journalists write, as Philip L. Graham put it the first draft of history, and I think this is especially true of book reviewers. And that first draft no doubt gets edited along the way. On more than one occasion, I’ve seen a book I’ve given a mixed-to-negative review to go on to get nominated for a big award or become a beloved modern classic. Again, so it goes. But the first draft must be written. The dialogue must take place. Book reviews – positive, negative, or, more ideally, a mix of the two – deserve a place at the literary table, and need to be written well and with integrity.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.

Mark Sampson is the author of the novels Off BookSad Peninsula, and The Slip, as well as a short-story collection, The Secrets men Keep, and a poetry collection, Weathervane. He has published fiction and poetry in literary journals across Canada. Mark lives in Toronto.