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A reviewer walks into writers’ block (as in cellblock): Guest Post by Bob Armstrong

"I’ve been reviewing books and plays off and on for nearly 30 years and I haven’t always been gentle or even fair. What could I expect when I was finally escorted into the general population?"

Book Cover Dadolescence

We’ve all seen crime shows in which a detective accused of misconduct is facing prison time and somebody, maybe a prosecutor looking to make a deal or a felon awaiting some payback, points out that life is rough behind bars for a cop.

As I was awaiting the publication of my first novel, Dadolescence (Turnstone Press), those scenes played in my mind.

I’ve been reviewing books and plays off and on for nearly 30 years and I haven’t always been gentle or even fair. What could I expect when I was finally escorted into the general population?

My conscience still speaks to me about nasty reviews I wrote in the 1980s, when I mistakenly assumed that the reviewer’s job was come up with clever ways of pointing out faults. As a university student writing for a campus newspaper, I once described a play, written by a playwright in his 20s and performed by amateurs, as “the Platonic form of bad playwriting.”

Surely dropping the phrase “Platonic form” in a review days after learning about Plato would stand as the Platonic form of sophomoric pretension.

I also began, around that same time, writing short book reviews for the Calgary Herald, when that newspaper still had a books section under the editorship of Ken McGoogan. I wrote a few favourable reviews of novels by the likes of Ivan Doig and William Goede but then took home a book of poetry by a Western Canadian poet who has since had a distinguished career. In about four paragraphs I dismissed the book, without any knowledge of poetic forms and indeed of any Canadian poet other than Robert Service. Wisely, Ken never ran the review.

Around 2004 I began reviewing books for The Winnipeg Free Press, a project I began with the hope that it would make me a better writer. Many of the novelists I most admire, such as George Orwell and Martin Amis, learned their trade and found their voice by reviewing books. As an apparently rare would-be novelist without a degree in creative writing, I hoped that the close reading and analysis that went into reviewing would teach me something about how to write.

With a little more space to work with than I had writing mini-reviews for the Herald (the Free Press gives me 600-700 words for a book), I began focusing mostly on literary fiction. This time, I wanted to be fair and thoughtful about it. I made an attempt always to ask what the writer was trying to do and for whom the writer was writing. Sometimes I’d review books by authors whose works I already knew well. Other times I’d read some earlier works before writing my review in order to get a better sense of the author’s trajectory.

I reminded myself that it wasn’t my job to tell the writer what book he or she should have written, but to tell readers what sort of book this was, to give them the chance to decide if a new book was right for them.

I still sometimes was harsh, but I like to think I was only harsh to writers who lectured their readers, insulted their intelligence, or fell far below their own standards. I wrote scathing reviews of a thin, local stream-of-consciousness novel and a much-discussed doorstopper by one of Canada’s most acclaimed historical novelists and I was pretty hard on new books by heroes of mine such as Martin Amis and Salman Rushdie. But I was also among the first reviewers anywhere to praise Patrick deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers and Joseph Boyden’s Three Day Road and I championed little-known gems such as A Week of This by Nathan Whitlock and Going Fast by Elaine McCluskey.

Still, fair as I thought I’d been for the last several years, I had to wonder if those writers I reviewed harshly would be waiting when I joined their ranks as a fellow novelist.

So far, it turns out that there are worse things for the new novelist to worry about than festering resentment and the thirst for revenge. In an environment in which newspapers and magazines across the country have been cutting back book coverage, the new novelist is much more likely to be ignored than beaten with a rhetorical bar of soap in a rhetorical sock.

My novel was published September 8 by Turnstone Press and subsequently reviewed favourably in my home-town newspaper, The Winnipeg Free Press.

The Free Press is one of the few newspapers in North America that still put out a regular, substantial book section (an eight-page tabloid pullout every Saturday, bumped up to 12 pages sometimes in new-book season). But the Free Press is bucking the trend. The Globe and Mail famously eliminated its stand-alone book section and now runs four to six reviews on Saturdays and perhaps three reviews per week in the Monday-Friday editions. The Toronto Star is considerably less committed to books, having killed a long-running book column and on its reworked website featuring an arts and entertainment section that contains no mention of books whatsoever. The Postmedia group newspapers, consisting of virtually all the other major papers in the country, basically just share whatever book coverage the National Post comes up with.

I’m no longer worried that somebody out there might hate my novel. Now I’m worried that nobody outside of Manitoba will know it exists.

And so that is why Canadian readers – and writers – need alternative venues such as Canadian Bookshelf. We need a place where readers and writers – who are often the same people – can come together to share books that have inspired them, entertained them, made them laugh and cry, and yes, even made them sneer, grumble, and allude to the Platonic form of bad writing.

Bob Armstrong

Bob Armstrong is a novelist, playwright, and freelance writer based in Winnipeg, where he lives with his wife and son. A former reporter, editor, and university public affairs director, he has a journalism diploma, a history degree, and an expired Wilderness First Aid and Outdoor Leadership certificate. Dadolescence, inspired by his decade as a home-based freelancer, began life as a play he wrote and performed in at the Winnipeg Fringe Festival.

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