‘Centring The Margins: Essays and Reviews’ by Jeff Bursey
Book reviews in Canada are, like most literary events in this country, the cause of much conflict and anxiety amongst Canadian writers. Of course, they enjoy the status of “non-events” for just about everyone else.
To the wider public—readers and non-readers alike—the review is almost never the site of what one might call political or aesthetic urgency. To most folk, books are consumer objects, showcased on Amazon or Indigo, Goodreads or Walmart; they receive colourful reviews from buyers—savage dismissals, glowing endorsements, and everything in between—that help guide happy purchases.
This sort of ‘review’ has utility: it helps clarify genre, characterize tone and setting, set up expectations. And if you consume only a handful of books per year, your reading time is precious; you want to maximize your chance at satisfaction. One might therefore argue that a bad book (or a misleading book, a challenging or disappointing book, or however else one might define ‘bad’) is even more egregious to the non-engaged than to the active critic, who might learn from its errors, or at least be entertained by its failure. Truly bad books are painful and hilarious—but not if you’re reading only five titles per year.
For the rest of us, here in our drippy dungeon of critics and writers and publishers, the review as criticism is perennially considered to be in a delicate, if not parlous, state—if books mean everything to us, then so too do reviews, even as none of us can make a career from reviewing, and even as reviews have a doubtful correlation with book sales or publishing contracts or “reality.”
Ultimately, we review for each other. We write for, or against, our friends and adversaries, imagined and otherwise. We write to be heard; we write for ourselves. Even if arguments about cultural service and public integrity grow ever more meaningless, we want our own homes in order. So we draw up battle lines and take to the field with our own flag—and sometimes several at once.
For groups like CWILA (Canadian Women in the Literary Arts) and VIDA: Women in Literary Arts, quite legitimately, reviews are emblematic of wider problems of stark gender and racial imbalance in North American publishing (i.e., straight white cisgender males dominate the scant column spaces of our magazines, more predominantly review the works of other straight white cisgender males, and thereby exclude, intentionally or not, a huge swath of books produced in this country). Everything is political, after all. There is no pure space for reviews—and whom we choose to write about can have enormous consequences for the equity and agency of our writers.
For others, book reviews are too often instances of glad-handing or back-scratching (or whatever grody word best sums up the act). The gist being: the Canadian literary community is so enclosed that impartiality is pretty much impossible. We put one another over—to use a term lifted from pro-wrestling—in order to receive the same benefit down the road. A negative review means a torched bridge, a lost opportunity, even a severed friendship—and these acts can have real social and financial fallouts (though let’s be honest: nobody’s banking any real money unless your name is Atwood or Boyden).
This very common critique bemoans the over-the-top positivity of book reviews and the bland puff-pastry that tries to pass as a negative take. In response, advocates argue, we should cultivate more rigorous analytic vocabularies, and expect the highest from our writers; we should have pure critics who are not, in fact, also small press poets and fiction-writers with stakes in the game; and we should treat dishonesty as betrayal.
Still others insist that the negative review harms more than it heals. A glowing review is so much more empowered by passion, wit, and gusto than a negative or half-hearted summation. As there are no pure spaces, and as there is no objectivity in criticism, the negative review reveals so much more about the critic than it does the work: it brings forward what they feel, not what the writer did or didn’t do.
An endorsement—passionate engagement—is like the light and melodious sound of genuine dialogue, these advocates insist. Besides, the stakes are so pitifully low in publishing that savaging a book of poetry that, say, sells a few hundred copies at most is akin to picking on the runt of the litter. It’s unsocial, unbecoming. Books that may appear popular are still at the bottom of the food chain in terms of cultural power. Why fill our dwindling and marginal spaces with even more vitriol and disgust? Why not bring to bear the higher powers of our intellect and celebrate the shinier exemplars of our craft? Ultimately, negativity is boring. As LMFAO once quipped, “Hate is bad.”
Another routine complaint, easily backed up, is that book reviews are given far too little space in magazines and newspapers to offer meaningful commentary. A 400-word review does next to nothing—especially when it’s obligated to digest and report 400 pages of plot (it does something, of course; it might serve as a blurb, an ego-stroke, a publishing credit, or a middle finger—but it’s just not criticism). Digital publishing should have solved this dilemma, as online magazines don’t have the page and column restrictions of print publications. But even on the web, it’s rare to encounter involved, long-form reviews—lack of remuneration for the reviewer, a lack of interest on the part of editors, a fear of dwindling attention spans, and other sundry forces conspire to make online reviews often as short and futile as their print-only counterparts.
There are more complaints, surely—the cliché “praise-criticism-praise” formula (a kind of digestible sandwich that can accommodate any book); the frequent barb against Canadian critics that we’re just too damn navel-gazing to reflect upon global trends and patterns. But let’s set these aside for now. Let’s turn to the issue that’s most vital and personal to Jeff Bursey, author at hand, whose collection Centring the Margins sets its scope on another persistent problem—with not so much how or who, but what we choose to review.
And that is: the books that receive the lion’s share of critical attention in Canada—negative, positive, or otherwise—are all part of a generic and aesthetic majority that few of us accept as total and fewer know how to combat. These works of fiction (we can’t talk about poetry the same way, though some have tried) are what you might call works of conventional narrative, wherein storytelling, linearity, recognizable structures, and other conservative devices are used to denote “realism” (‘realistic’ characters, with convincing dialogue, relatable motivations, and familiar backgrounds). And they fit into the average reader’s expectations of plot and revelation without too many hiccups along the way.
Conventional realism, applied in a literary context, or to science fiction or romance or horror or whatever, is the sole genre that makes money—that should be obvious. But literary realism also dominates the longlists of all our major awards. Every Scotiabank Giller Prize-winning book, and almost every book on each year’s shortlist, has been a “tale well told.” Some have been genuinely fantastic novels, of course. But regardless of their narrative power, theme, tonal register or emotional terrain, they have been works of conventional realism. The same goes for the Governor General’s Awards, the Man Booker, the Rogers Writers’ Trust Awards, smaller prizes like Ontario’s Trillium, and our annual media blitz, CBC Canada Reads. And prizes generate publicity and income—limited as it all is—so periodicals aren’t foolish enough to pass up running reviews and features of these books in their pages.
But the implicit suggestion, from all that money and prestige, and all those awards, and all that column space, is that conventional, late twentieth-century and early twenty-first century storytelling is the only underlying denominator for quality in literature, according to the agents who bestow power. Prizes and reviews go to realism, because works of realism “supposedly matter more,” to quote Jeff Bursey; it’s the only worthwhile, the only serious genre. Period.
For Bursey, this mostly unspoken preference for one kind of writing is devastating: to students, to readers, and to writers of all stripes. His reflections on the topic are peppered throughout the 30 reviews found in Centring the Margins—all published between 2001 and 2014, in places like American Book Review, Books in Canada, Literary Review, and here, The Winnipeg Review—but are most eloquently stated in an introduction that both foregrounds the pieces and articulates his critical philosophy.
This ten page preface is the most inspiring and memorable part of the collection—not to suggest that I didn’t enjoy the reviews themselves, or Bursey’s candour and sophistication. It is, I suppose, simply invigorating to read about a topic that so few of us can meaningfully grapple with. How can we discover, let alone champion or emulate, books that are ignored—even by the meager spheres of power that deign to engage with literature? These are works ignored within a cultural sphere that’s already ignored by the wider world. So what of books that receive little to zero attention in print or online; books that never appear on radio or television, and hardly ever appear in Chapters or Indigo? Books that, as Bursey writes, “have a hard time getting published” to begin with? How to promote on behalf of the overlooked and crooked, the unread and underrated—weirder and more challenging, more aesthetically daunting stories and novels? Books that defy classification within one genre—books that attempt to further the dialogue about where art is and where it’s come from?
Centring the Margins is Bursey’s attempt to do so, at any rate. As a reviewer, he sets to his task “with the explorers and the unruly in mind.” While wary of critical apparati, political projects, and other organizational tools, he does “take on the role of the advocate” for texts he feels “require defending”—the works that “deserve to be brought to the attention of others” because “they would not be featured in the national newspapers or even in specialized publications when they had every right to be there.”
In other words, Bursey focuses on innovative texts, which he calls “exploratory”—a word with a wonderful freshness to it, and stripped of the negative connotations of the term “experimental.” And he does so for two principle reasons: to share works that might otherwise go unnoticed, and to counter a prevailing, condescending attitude amongst the writers and agents who directly benefit from the fact that only conservative approaches will ever receive admiration and power.
For the first cause, Bursey is a commendable campaigner, driven by “an erratic compulsion to educate the public, as well as to counter the forests of press devoted to the Dan Browns and Alice Munros who are always with us.” He embodies the role of the devoted, the evangelical, often with reference to personal discoveries and life-altering encounters with literature: chance meetings with figures like Henry Miller, who seemed to have swept in and rescued his ho-hum existence as a student at a conservative institution. “We need more pamphleteers for writers we believe in who are not seen much by the general audience to bring them into visibility,” he writes, “not because these authors need us (though they might) but because we need these authors who explore new terrain with equipment of their own devising.”
Let’s be clear: it’s not that we should force readers into appreciating divergent literature—all purveyors and writers of such work know, quite intimately, that no money or prestige can come from it. Bursey is worldly enough to understand that foisting challenging material upon a casual reader, or one with clearly defined tastes, is never going to work. “For those who want good manners there’s no shortage of books to choose from,” he writes. “I don’t deny the mainstream authors their audience.” And no—it’s also not to have weirder books start eating up prizes, or climbing bestseller lists, as if that were ever possible. These constructions were made to perpetuate power, as bluntly as ever.
What it is all about is offering alternatives, opening doors, and changing lives—or at least creating opportunities to do so. And so, who does Bursey feature? He goes far afield, aesthetically, in his assessment of works from beyond our borders—books like Davis Schneiderman’s [SIC], William T. Vollmann’s Expelled from Eden, Gilbert Sorrentino’s The Abyss of Human Illusion, Alexandra Chasin’s Kissed By, César Aire’s Shantytown, or William Gaddis’s Agapē Agape. Indeed, it’s his self-described “panorama” of texts from global writers that really seems to have something urgent to say: a refreshing counterpoint to our renowned insularity, a crusading effort to bring more Canadian eyes to international, and truly innovative, texts. Most Canadian writers, I would imagine, are not familiar with Blaise Cendrars, Mati Unt, Ornela Vorpsi, and other names—and bringing these to our attention in 2016 can only mean unique pathways and opened avenues for new, potentially life-long readers and artists.
From Canada, Bursey turns to Chris Eaton’s Chris Eaton: A Biography, S.D. Chrostowska’s Permission, Michelle Butler Hallet’s Double-Blind, Chris Benjamin’s Drive-By Saviours, Jessica Westhead’s And Also Sharks, Steven Galloway’s Ascension, and Rebecca Rosenblum’s The Big Dream. Here, the engaged reader will note a considerable pivot from Bursey’s international cohort. Not all of these books line up with his stated mission to illuminate the exploratory—Permission and Chris Eaton: A Biography, surely, but the rest?
A major missed opportunity, I think, to engage with genuinely experimental texts, as difficult to find here in the north as they are. This might not be totally Bursey’s fault, though—as Russell Smith and many others have argued, there’s little debate about experimental fiction in Canada. (Like, is ‘experimental’ even a word anymore?) All major conversations about fiction are constrained to the boundaries of conservative realism—they’re just divided along the lines of tone, content and theme, or to biographical reference to the author (i.e., is your realist novel about the prairies, the immigrant experience? Is your realist novel kind of, like, poverty porn, or is it about big city dwellers on their smartphones? How much money did your family make, growing up? Did you go to school? Are you writing a realist novel as a person of colour, trying to translate your individual experience, or are you just another white guy from an MFA?). It’s difficult, if not impossible, to imagine a Canadian Padgett Powell, Lydia Davis, David Foster Wallace, Eimear McBride, Ben Marcus, Giannina Braschi, or even George Saunders. As Christian Bök has argued, post-modernism barely happened here—the 60s, 70s and 80s novelists we tend to associate with the term are actually modernists, and our real post-modern writers have been systematically buried by academics and the mainstream press.
So, we’re impoverished, sure. But where was Lynn Crosbie or Tony Burgess in Bursey’s survey? How about Lance Blomgren or Ken Sparling? Barry Webster, rob mclennan, Sheila Heti, Derek McCormack, Tim Conley, Joey Comeau, or Nathaniel G. Moore? Nelly Arcan, Michael Blouin, Ian Williams, Tamara Faith Berger, or Jacob Wren? Even Zsuzsi Gartner and Douglas Glover seem to offer more variety, more elasticity of form and voice, than most of the CanLit Bursey actually reviews.
Throughout Centring the Margins, the word “overlooked” thus also applies to out-of-the-way, mostly ignored titles, with relatively limited print runs—not merely the books that attempt ambitious feats with prose. But this distinction is kind of confusing, too. Westhead’s And Also Sharks was shortlisted for the Danuta Gleed Award, listed as a Globe and Mail best book, one of Kobo’s best e-books, and, from what I can tell, received praise in all of our major newspapers and outlets. It’s a good book—but overlooked? Steven Galloway is, I believe, a semi-household name (now more than ever for his disturbing tenure at the UBC)—so why include a review of Ascension? Though Bursey eviscerates it—a precise and well-deserved take-down for a bad book—adding to the word-hoard heaped at Galloway’s feet doesn’t seem to solve the problems the author ostensibly set out to solve.
On another note of discord, I’m not sure I agree with Bursey on the notion that weirder materials “have every right to be” featured in newspapers and magazines (or ceremonies, for that matter); this assertion seems simplistic, and unaware of the reasons why the books were rejected in the first place. And no—I don’t believe the sterling, representative author of exploratory texts “deserves a wider audience,” as he states. We as authors deserve the audiences we find ourselves coupled with: if they are tiny and devoted, ignored by capital, then a sudden visit from money and mass appeal isn’t what we deserve out of some ethical reparation. We deserve, in the end, the people who like us, and that’s all. I think a mass audience for an experimental writer might be their doom. And I think Bursey knows this, too, and falls into the “deserves a wider audience” line as we all invariably fall into cliché now and then. In fact, he quotes Gilbert Sorrentino as saying, quite rightly, that “Essentially, the novelist, the serious novelist, should do what he can do and simply forgo the idea of a substantial audience”—which is a much healthier perspective for anyone in the process of banging their head on the altar of praise.
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Let’s move on to Bursey’s second campaign, tied intimately to the first—a more polemical rebuttal to dismissals of exploratory writing, stemming not from your average “Heather’s Picks” reader, but from those in positions of authorial and critical responsibility. And this, far from setting me up for disappointment by failing to engage with what’s truly rotten in Canada, manages to bracket my full attention.
Bursey begins his argument by quoting Writers’ Trust judge and award-winning writer Rabindranath Maharaj, whose description of the 2011 shortlist is included below:
… what these writers have done and what they’re doing is they’re very quietly innovative without drawing attention to their innovation. And they’re innovative in the sense that their books are more accessible—it’s more reader-friendly in many ways … The elements of good storytelling are still there.
Given the imprecise foolishness of the quotation, it’s fun to watch Bursey launch into a very entertaining and almost painfully true rebuttal—against a lazy, half-baked connection between quality in literature and the all-redeeming factor of “good storytelling.” Innovation, as Maharaj seems to be saying, should come second, and only second, to “more accessible” and more “reader-friendly” stories. Innovation, if it must be employed at all, should go quietly; it should bow its head meekly, and submit to what all discerning readers (and juries) actually want, don’t you know—a tale well told, with all the hallmarks of the old-fashioned yarn, or the “old, preserved cherry,” as Bursey puts it. “Drawing attention” to innovation is akin to an embarrassing display—a misguided flash of showy, impudent skin. It alienates the gentle and polite reader, and that equals immediate artistic (and commercial) failure—even exile. Given this prescription, it’s a wonder why you’d seek out ‘innovation’ at all. When it’s “sometimes considered not art but an affront,” why would anyone bother?
Bursey illuminates the unthinking elitism on display—the subtle appeal to populism that writers of prestige often employ to justify their success. The preference for reader-friendly, unchallenging narratives—for Maharaj, for awards jurists, and for others—“can be interpreted as a chiding dismissal of those who aim to write something unusual,” Bursey writes. “He [Maharaj] is saying that innovative (Canadian) writers who are too upfront and pushy about their work should dial it down, on the way to knocking it off entirely.” The insinuation is there, too, that exploratory writers are simply failed realists, “as if the style and structure got in the way of the only important thing: the story.”
The sentiment shouldn’t be too alien to us—we’ve heard it before in debates (the classic Marcus vs. Franzen fracas comes to mind), witnessed the eye-rolls, and watched the writers granted a measure of mainstream success gather round one another at the wine-breath ceremonies, at the dress-up galas, on the big box bookshelves, as well as in open letters. And Bursey finds enough support from other writers who’ve intuited the same. He invokes Josipovici’s jest that “reviewers view experimental writing as ‘a sub-branch of fiction, rather like teenage romances or science fiction,’” and Gilbert Sorrentino’s jibe that, to most mainstream reviewers, the word ‘experimental’ is a “euphemism for that work which cannot be called serious.” Much like comedy, experimentalism is the greasy, mutant, fish-head-eating brother in the attic of lit.
So what to do to counteract this bias? For critics, it’s again to spotlight neglected work—but here invigorated with the mission of creating a world for others to inhabit. To say, yes: other worlds do exist, reserved and waiting for those who might bristle against cookie-cutter, consumable, pleasing artifacts—the shit that makes all the money. And authors should own their own exile, rather than get angry and jelly; they should turn their sense of inferiority into a weapon they can wield without mercy, with jouissance and gaiety (or as much jouissance and gaiety as your average Canadian writer can muster—I mean, really). In an exhortation and encouragement to artists, Bursey quotes the critic Warren Mott, who states that we “can take the notion that we inhabit the margins of things and turn it to our advantage.” We can imagine exile as something that “frees us and expands our horizon of possibility.”
This impassioned opening gives the reviews throughout Centring the Margins a more electric imperative—a reason for being, and an importance beyond the joys of writing criticism in an imagined vacuum. It should make all of us pause, at least, and re-assess how we imagine our fields of power and hierarchies to be arranged. Bursey puts it best, though, so I’ll leave the last word on the subject to him:
“Stepping away from the regular formulas alarms those who think that this act means a writer is not being realistic (as if we could all agree on what’s real). If writers are encouraged to create versions of the world in whatever fashion they choose—and some versions may take work to decipher—then there can only be anarchy, in their minds. To write against the order—against corporatism, bland politeness, and muted approaches—is now to be reader-unfriendly.”
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As for the reviews themselves—they are quite good. Bursey can put on a clinic for aspiring writers looking to balance plot summary (a necessary evil when reviewing prose) with substantive evaluation. He translates his empathies and hesitations in clear language, imparts the historic context of authors and their texts, and often relates the conflicts inherent in fiction to our real-world political and cultural climate. His love for writers like Solzhenitsyn or Sorrentino is glowing, obvious—it is, like all good critical writing, affecting. He is an excellent teacher—he makes fiction sound like the most important thing.
Most gratifying is Bursey’s impulse to look at syntax: words and sentences themselves. It’s a surprise to me to read so many reviews of fiction that skip past sentence structure—after all, words and punctuation are the medium, the LEGO blocks of our prose castles. Beyond subject matter, it’s what separates a Madeleine Thien from a Cormac McCarthy, an Amy Hempel from a Ta-Nehisi Coates. Yet so many reviewers, working for high-profile publications, overlook the nuts and bolts of sentences—as if pausing to savour or critique a mellifluous or deadening line were a dilettante’s distractions, mere obstacles to getting to the only thing that matters.
And what’s that supposed to be again? The story? What happens, and in what order? It seems like ignoring how prose sounds and is structured, in the wake of Bursey’s introductory jousts, seems all the more an act of unconscious complicity with that elite preference (masquerading as simplicity) for story alone. Looking closely at the prose—whether “fluid” or in “magazine speak,” “lecturing” or with a “tin ear,” “measured in tone” or, as almost no prose reviewer today dares to write, demonstrating “fluid breath control,” thank you Mr. Bursey!—is crucial to knowing if, and how, a book works. All great fiction needs to “succeed at the level of the line,” he writes—and it’s with great admiration that I read his enthusiastic tackling of that indispensible element.
Not all reviews and reviewers can please everyone, though—and perhaps we should return to our earlier list, by no means exhaustive, of common complaints with reviews to see how Bursey may or may not live up to expectations.
His pieces do lean toward the almost unanimously positive—and when he does offer some criticism, it’s usually fairly gentle. I don’t begrudge him this; balance and caution are often signs of acumen. And he does include some extremely short—nearly ‘hot’—takes on books: reviews so truncated as to offer little more than a cursory plot recap and some elementary criticism. Why these couldn’t be expanded in a full-length collection goes unanswered. These snapshots seem even more inadequate when placed beside his longer essays on Solzhenitsyn, Vollmann, or Wyile, which manage to breathe and range, seem like self-contained works of art themselves, and even allow several opportunities for self-reflection and personal anecdote. A more engaged editor would have helped Bursey come to this conclusion— I’m looking at you, Zero Books!
Bursey would also fail a CWILA count, flat-out. Out of the 30 reviews included, only eight are dedicated to women. Furthermore, only César Aire, Argentinean, might be considered a person of colour—the rest are “white” Canadians, Americans, and Europeans. For a book to emerge in 2015 so blissfully unaware of what we need from collections of criticism is kind of mind boggling, to be honest. I’m not trying to throw stones from glass houses—my own record is poor, and here I am reviewing the work of another white dude. But I don’t call myself a critic, won’t be publishing a collection of reviews dedicated to “neglected, obscure, or … difficult” writers. And it’s up to all of us to try to do better, even if that means taking someone else to task.
“In a sense,” Bursey writes, “these reviews incorporate my failures, and hopefully a fruitful kind that encourages other critics to be more successful.” We can’t hold any critic up as a paragon for everyone. We should also feel fortunate enough to have as sensitive, erudite, and caring a critic as we do in Jeff Bursey. I was not aware of his work as a reviewer or novelist before reading Centring the Margins, but in doing so, I feel as though I’ve been gifted the discovery of another compelling voice—and another key. Reading this book has opened another doorway into my own practice. And for that I am grateful, emboldened, and buoyed: to write reviews no one will care about; to be ignored, if necessary; and to make art with no fucks given.
Zero Books | 200 pages | $29.95 | paper | ISBN# 978-1785354007