Killing Them With Kindness?

Illustration by Neil Doshi

Illustration by Neil Doshi

As Write Reads nears its one year anniversary, I have become retrospective. I recently sat down and listened to all of our podcasts to date just to get a feel for how I think we’ve done so far. I’m biased, but I think we’ve done a pretty good job. If there is one criticism I can imagine being levelled against us, it is that we have been maybe a little hard on some of the books we’ve featured. This sent me to the author websites and Twitter pages to see if they had heard the podcasts and if they had any reaction to them. It doesn’t seem like any of the authors are listening, or, if they are, they aren’t saying anything about it. However, in viewing those websites it really brought home to me that these names attached to the books we read are people. They are people with feelings, and they are people who spend a lot of time and energy on creating stories for us (for very little reward). I have been feeling particularly bad about Born Weird and Monoceros. I did not dislike either of these books as much as you would think I did by listening to the podcast. I will now attempt an apology and a defence for my podcasted words.

I should point out that our little podcast is not, strictly speaking, a review show. It is a book club. The idea is to start a discussion, not deliver a monologue. It seems to follow that negative criticisms spark discussion more than positive points:

“I really liked this bit.”                                                                                                                      “Me too.”                                                                                                                                             Done.

I also think that something else is going on here. Tania and I are reacting, perhaps even unconsciously, to a critical climate in Canadian literature that is far too forgiving (or one sided). Although neither of us read any reviews until after we’ve finished the books, we are aware that these books are being promoted as something extraordinary (and for the most part they are) and that they have received critical attention and prize nominations. I believe that our, sometimes, strong, negative reactions stem from a sense of betrayal: “Where is this totally mind-blowingly, amazing book we’ve been hearing about? Did nobody else see these flaws?”

I went on a research quest to find some people smarter than me talking about the state of literary criticism in Canada. I found André Alexis’ Walrus article, “The Long Decline” . I was most excited by the image that illustrates the article (it is the image at the top of this post). I’m not sure that Alexis’ article matches the image in the way that I imagined it did, but it is certainly an interesting read, and I agree with much of what he says. Oddly, though, it was one of the anonymous responses to “The Long Decline” that very nicely says what I’ve been feeling and reacting to in my readings of these novels:

Book reviewers in this country are deficient but that goes back many years: too many friends reviewing friends, a reluctance to harshly criticize a work by a major Canadian writer for fear of having a cold glass of wine tossed in your face, should the two of you happen to meet at Harbourfront or some other cultural watering hole. Just a glass, mind you: no Canuck writer I can think of has the guts or balls to actually provoke a fistfight (we’re not THAT passionate about our work).

So, in a roundabout way, I submit that our opinions on these novels, though sometimes harsh, are actually helpful, and necessary, to a fully functioning discussion of the works available to us out there. To achieve excellence, we need to know where we’ve gone amiss, or our work will seriously decline.

That being said, I will be making more of an effort to give equal time to the aspects of these books that truly shine so that I don’t have to feel bad about myself.

If you agree or disagree with me (see entire argument above), please let me know (that means you too, Tania).

– Kirt

About writereads

A Canadian book club podcast that will change the world of literature forever.
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