The Reviewer Reviewed
|Nathan Whitlock |
For years Nathan Whitlock has been reviewing books, sometimes favourably, sometimes not. Now that he has his own shiny new novel, A Week of This, about to launch at This Is Not A Reading Series, he contemplates the perils of life on the other side of the fence—as a potential reviewee.
When I met with Simon and Sarah, the publicists at ECW Press, to talk about my first novel, A Week of This, they asked me where I wanted the book sent—to what editors, journalists, reviewers, unaffiliated tastemakers, etc…. That was a fairly easy question to answer—they had ideas, I had ideas. It was the obvious follow-up question that stumped me, however: was there anywhere I didn’t want the book sent? The room got a little quieter, as if what we were discussing were “a delicate matter.”
By all rights, I should have anticipated the question. Some version of it had been posed to me by friends ever since I signed the contract for the book, though it usually came in a less delicate form: “Aren’t you afraid you’re going to get slammed by a reviewer?” The assumption being that, because I’d been reviewing books since university—and not always positively—and been a review editor at Quill & Quire, the Canadian publishing industry's trade monthly, for the past few years, there were scores of authors out there just waiting for their chance at revenge. (As I write this, my novel has only received one pre-publication review, a positive one, but it was in the Library Journal, and I’m fairly sure I have yet to anger any librarians, so that doesn’t prove anything.)
The scenario always seemed unlikely to me, and still does. As hard as I listen, I can’t make out the sound of axes being gleefully sharpened in anticipation of my book’s pub date. For one thing, I have a hard time believing there is anyone who cares enough about what I do or write—aside from my immediate family, at least—to bother plotting anything. I always assume anyone stung by something I wrote spends a few minutes cursing my name, and then promptly forgets it. (This is partly confirmed by the fact that I have worked for and even befriended a writer who once claimed to have shed tears over a single harsh sentence I wrote in a review years earlier.) I just figured most people would assume, correctly, that I am a non-entity and not worth the bother.
That may sound naïve, and when I give it some thought, I have to concede that, yes,
|A Week of This launches April 16, 2008, at This Is Not A Reading Series. |
there probably are one or two people out there who might like to get their own back. But there was another side to this question: do I even care what they say?
In one sense, I absolutely do, because I want to know what even they think of my novel. Book reviewers are supposed to be witless opportunists, hangers-on and sycophants, bitter cynics, dilettantes, and failed artists. And in my experience, they are all of that, at least at times. But I and a lot of people I know who write reviews have always seen something paradoxically (and, yes, a little self-servingly) noble about the practice of reviewing. After all, we are writing—usually for very little reward, monetary or otherwise—about something a lot of people would rather not bother with, but which we think is important. That is, how a book works, and whether it’s any good or not. To that end, I’ve never really seen a division between positive and negative reviews, only between well-written ones and poorly written ones. It’s all book talk, and the direction should always be toward more of it, not less. If a first-time novelist such as myself gets his feelings hurt along the way, too bad.
True book talk gets short shrift in our culture, which would rather leave all discussion of the arts in the realm of promotion, or, more passively, of “appreciation.” Many people seem to prefer either reflex boosterism or silence, the pat on the back or the cold shoulder. I’ve heard many otherwise intelligent and book-loving people say that if a book is bad, it should just be ignored, not panned in a review. Which raises the question of who gets to say the book’s bad in the first place. And what exactly makes a book bad? Isn’t it better, if someone has judged a book to be bad, to have that judgment laid out in detail for other readers to assess? Besides, I always assume that it’s better to get a negative review than no review at all.
Which is all to say that, in the end, I am more curious about what people have to say about my novel than I am worried. I am certain that the book will get its share of harsh reviews, and I am sure that when it does, I will take it in a much less enlightened and reasonable frame of mind than I am projecting here. Hopefully though, after I’ve finished cursing the reviewer’s name, I will at least have the sense to be grateful that someone thought my novel was important enough not only to read, but to then tell others about, for better or worse.
And if you do happen to come across one of those harsh reviews, keep in mind that they were out to get me. — Nathan Whitlock, April 2008
Update: read the first Canadian review of Whitlock's novel. It's a doozy!
Nathan Whitlock was the winner of the inaugural Emerging Artist in Creative Writing Award and the Short Prose for Developing Writers Award, as well as runner-up for the Bronwen Wallace Memorial Award. He is the review editor of Quill & Quire magazine. His writing and reviews have appeared in The Toronto Star, Saturday Night, The Globe and Mail, Maisonneuve, Toro, Geist, and elsewhere. He grew up in the Ottawa Valley and currently lives in Toronto with his wife and two children.
(Photos above courtesy of Nathan Whitlock & ECW Press.)