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Literary Smackdown

Robert J. Wiersema vs. Timothy Taylor: Review or eschew?

We've teamed up with The Next Chapter to present The Canada Writes Literary Smackdowns, an essay series in which authors sound off on various writing topics. No writers were injured in the making of this series.

Battle Three: Should authors write book reviews? Robert J. Wiersema is a veritable reviewing machine, while Timothy Taylor gets queasy just thinking about judging the work of his peers. Are you on Team Robert or Team Timothy?


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You can also hear Robert and Timothy go head to head on The Next Chapter with Shelagh Rogers.


Robert Wiersema: Review!

Why do I review? I do it because I believe. 

I know - that sounds utterly twee, doesn't it? I can't help it: I believe in books. 

That might make me the last romantic, and you would think that after more than two decades as a bookseller and a decade as a reviewer I would have been broken on the wheel long ago, but every book I open is a promise. It is untapped potential for wonder.

But what does that have to do with reviewing?

Everything. As it has everything to do with bookselling. As it has everything to do with being a reader, plain and simple.

What we love, we want to celebrate: it really is as simple as that. When I read something like The Birth House or Mercy Among the Children or The Night Circus, I want to tell the world about it. At the bookstore, my hands shake as I press copies of these books - and dozens of others - onto people looking for what to read next. I talk about them on tv and on the radio. And I write about them. That's what reviews are: one reader talking to another about books.

Yes, there is a craft to reviewing. Yes, there is a lot of work to it, and background, and training, but at base, it's one reader talking to another.

It is, of course, never that simple.

Let's face it: no reader is going to love every book they read. Nor should they.

As a reader, that's fine. If you don't like a book, you probably don't talk about it.

As a reviewer, I don't have that as an option.

It comes down to integrity. Having a position that allows me to celebrate what I love, I have a responsibility to that position to be honest, and to criticize that which I don't love.

As a writer myself, I know what goes into the writing of a book, the hours - years - of solitude and struggle. And I recognize that it doesn't always succeed (and that's as true of my work as it is of anything I'm reviewing). I bring that empathy, that understanding, to the conversation. 

Given that understanding, it's not pleasant to give a critical review, but sometimes it's necessary in order for the conversation to go on.

I have spent my entire adult life participating in that ongoing conversation that incorporates every reader. I've talked books in bars, recommended them in bookstores, blurbed them on their jackets, and discussed them in the media. As a reader, I think that's my responsibility.  I think that's every reader's responsibility: to talk books, to keep the conversation alive.


Robert J. Wiersema is an independent bookseller, a reviewer who contributes regularly to several national newspapers and numerous other publications, and the bestselling author of two novels,
Before I Wake and Bedtime Story. His latest book is Walk Like a Man: Coming of Age with the Music of Bruce Springsteen. He lives in Victoria, British Columbia.


Timothy Taylor: Eschew!

Robert Wiersema and I are supposed to be arguing opposite sides of the question: should writers of fiction review fiction written by colleagues? To be clear, I've written such reviews on rare occasions. I reviewed Charlotte Gill's short story collection Ladykiller because I considered the book exceptional. I once negatively reviewed a first novel that I thought had widely missed a worthwhile mark.

But then, I felt bad after writing that latter review. Why not keep my critical thoughts to myself? After all, I have a lot of them. I tend towards rigid, dogmatic, quite possibly unreasonable and out-of-date ideas about what fiction should be doing in our culture. I admire psychological realism and authors willing to take a shot at depicting the chaos of the contemporary moment. I like plot, suspense, strong opinions and characters who see the traps of their own design. I dislike nihilism, flippancy, ironic detachment, false wonder, also books that scapegoat the past and stroke the reader's ego. These biases all derive in some complicated way from the literary heroes I've chosen. But the fact is they are by now lodged firmly in my psyche. So I'm difficult to please. And given it's battle enough just to carry on working as a writer these days, reviewing fiction in any steady volume seems like it might open up a potentially fatal second front.

Then there's the more systemic reason. As our culture and economy have migrated online, we've come to live increasingly in an atmosphere oxygenated with self-promotion, a kind of all-against-all contest for attention, for traffic, for precious eyeballs. We're all susceptible to this, although writers are uniquely so. The print attention paid to books is shrinking and most writers I know now devote a year or more pre- and post-publication to tweeting, blogging, Facebooking, checking Amazon rankings and Google Alerts and tracking their reviews on book blogs and GoodReads and BookCrossings. 

All of which - in encouraging us to accept a view of our own worth as provisional, conditional, tossed on the seas of public reception - is also profoundly corrosive to our sanity. In order to get anything really meaningful out of life - for example by raking the leaves, preparing choux farcie, or having tea with a friend - it's crucial to periodically withdraw from this toxic maelstrom of competitive egos and impulsive mutual scoring. And since review culture has grown to be so fully integrated into this online era I'm describing - call it the era of the Google-Self - it seems both personally healthy and a professional courtesy to other writers that I don't contribute to it.

Timothy Taylor is an award-winning and best-selling novelist and journalist. He's the author of four works of fiction, including Stanley Park, which was a Giller and Rogers Writers Trust Prize finalist, as well as a One Book One City selection in Vancouver. His most recent book is the critically acclaimed and best-selling novel The Blue Light Project.

Timothy Taylor photo credit: Dave Middleton



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set count down final date: 11/01/2014
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