The Critical Culture workshop appeared in my life just when I needed it. When I write (and when I write about writing), I’m not sure which community I am a part of anymore: Zines? Self-Publishing? YA? CanLit? Literary? Queer? All of the above? None of the above? Each of these communities have different readers/writers, ideas, gatekeepers, etc. In the zine community my identity seems to have changed now that I have books, and in the literary community, I feel like an impostor for continuing to make zines, for not having an MFA, for choosing to self-publish. And I feel like I’m falling behind when I can’t read all the books I want to read or all the zines I want to read, can’t write all the things I want to write.
Anyway, I’d been considering writing book reviews lately, but procrastinating because I didn’t know where to start. Also, I’ve read a lot of boring book reviews and I was worried that mine would be just as bad. The thing is, I like critique and I like personal stories. I don’t wanna read/write a review that sounds like cheerleading, nor do I wanna read/write a review that’s just plain mean. After making zines for over a decade, I have very little review experience – a lot of folks involved in zine communities are of the If-You-Don’t-Have-Anything-Nice-to-Say variety, while others will offer a kind critique if asked. Feelings play a major role in this unspoken rule, and that’s okay – not every zine is written with a reviewer in mind, and not every zine is written by someone who wants to be a Good Writer; just someone with a story to tell. That’s kinda the point. But now that I’m getting involved with novel-writing and self-publishing semi-professionally (“professionally” because it’s my career / “semi” because it’s the disability cheque that pays my rent), I’ve entered another community, and that one seems to be a little more comfortable with critique.
Among the many things to be learned by the folks hosting the workshop, I wanted to know if they were writing/drawing/musicianing/etc. before they were reviewing such things, or if they simply began writing reviews. I also wanted to know if they felt like they had their own distinct voice/style/whatever in their reviews, whether or not that same voice appeared in all their writing/art-making, and how they decided criticism was for them. Because I worry about my own feelings getting hurt when I read critical reviews of my writing, I wanted to know if they worried about that, too, from the other side. Chances are, if you’re reviewing a piece of art, it may have been created by a sensitive weirdo, and yeah, they might feel bad. I know that I might, but I also know that I want to learn and to improve my writing.
As I look over the notes I took that day, I see this: “How many times does the word I appear in your review?”
In the reviews I’ve been writing in my head (and nowhere else, yet), just like in all my other writing, the word I does indeed make many appearances. I don’t think it’s a bad thing, nor do I think it’s indicative of self-absorption or self-importance (nor do I think those things are necessarily bad). When I write a review, I don’t just wanna discuss the writing, I wanna discuss my personal experience of reading the piece. You know how sometimes you listen to a record and it reminds you of being thirteen or eighteen or whatever? Well, books bring back those weird memories for me, too. I keep a list of all the books I’ve read, and when I look at that list, memories come back. I think an experience of a piece of art is just as valid as the art itself, and I’d want the person reading the review to have an understanding of the context within which I wrote it.
I learned that criticism can be responsive, creative, and encouraging. And I learned that we are capable of creating a healthy discourse and healthy critical culture; I feel committed to using the visibility that I’ve been lucky and privileged to have to share art that I feel deserves more attention. As I like to say, “Solidarity With Critique.”
P.S.: You can review my books on GoodReads, and soon enough, I’ll be writing a few reviews as well!
P.P.S.: If you’ve benefited from my writing in any way – if my words have inspired you, helped you feel less alone, or sparked some weird feeling within you; if you’ve felt encouraged, or curious, or comforted – please consider compensating me by offering a donation of any amount. Whether you’ve been reading my writing for years, or just stumbled into me this afternoon, I invite you to help me sustain the process!