Bookninja Interviews… a literary critic

In the third of the Bookninja Interviews… series, we talk to a notoriously strident literary critic about the art of talking books for the betterment of literature.

Whether Jason Guriel is considered famous or infamous in Canadian–and increasingly global–literary circles is a matter of opinion (and politics, for some). But whether or not you like it, his critical prose is by turns clever, thoughtful, and deeply cutting. (I’ve been on the sharp end of his stick, and I can tell you, it’s pretty fucking sharp.) Regardless of how you might feel about his literary bedside manner, he is an obviously a smart man, with many large opinions that get people talking–a critic in the vein of Carmine Starnino, Harold Bloom, and John Metcalf.

His work appears widely and his latest book is the remarkable Forgotten Work, a speculative fiction novel in verse.

1) You are known generally as both a talented poet and tough critic, but tell us a bit more about yourself and your accomplishments in these fields.

That’s already a nice, generous description. Why don’t we leave it at that?

2) What are the core aspects of a “good” book (*vs “bad”), critically-speaking?

It’s hard to talk about good or bad outside of specifics. Some books are bad because their authors are novices who don’t yet have a handle on their craft. See, for instance, my first book of poems!—though the novice is an all-ages phenomenon; I remember reviewing Jonathan Galassi’s debut novel, and wondering how the head of FSG, who’s supposed to know books, could’ve greenlit so many clichés.

On the flipside, some books are bad because they betray too much craft. The books are too clever or overdetermined. Then there are the authors who have a shtick they should think about shucking.

I’ve been toying with a global theory lately: a good book gives the sense of an author in control of their effects; a bad book suggests an author who’s lost their grip on their materials and is coming across in ways they never intended, as cliché or shticky or whatever. In good books, like Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts, there’s a confident intelligence behind the arras, making good calls, sentence by sentence, word by word.

3) What is your opinion on the general mediocrity in literature? Whose fault is it: the authors, the editors, the publishers, or the readers?

I’m less struck by a “general mediocrity” and more by a kind of virulent competence. There are so many competent poems and essays, a constant crush of them. I stopped writing essays for a time—there was such a deluge of online writing that I felt I needed to do something else, something harder, more baroque, something that couldn’t be pitched to an editor. I wound up writing a science-fiction novel in rhyming couplets.

But I’m not sure there’s anyone to blame. It’s probably the case that there will always be a general state of mediocrity or competence, whatever you want to call it. Really great books are rare, aren’t they?

4) What are the core aspects of a “good” piece of criticism, critically-speaking?

Criticism should be at least as engaging and entertaining as any kind of writing that aspires to be read. The criticism I like has a clear opinion, lively sentences, a sense of wit, even original metaphors. I don’t see the point of criticism that assumes a studious and somber attitude toward its source text, as if in monkish deference to the real writing. If criticism is going to illuminate anything, it needs a live current of its own.

Lately, I’ve been finding myself especially drawn to critics who have a deft way with irony. There’s a lot of strident culture writing out there, so it’s a relief to read, say, James Wolcott, who keeps the balloon wedged under an arm and lets the air out carefully: a controlled deflation. I suppose there’s a lot of irony on Twitter, but it’s the wilted kind. It’s sarcasm. 

5) Should authors be keeping their critics (future and/or past) in mind when writing?

I can’t imagine it would hurt for an author to picture, say, a very demanding reader. Kay Ryan has a great bit about how when she’s writing she feels that she’s at the “long, long desk of the gods of literature…I am at the table of the gods and I want them to like me. There, I’ve said it. I want the great masters to enjoy what I write.” I like that a lot. It’s quite a lovely quote in full, actually; I wax on about it in an essay I just did for Lit Hub.

For my part, I’ve always found that I’ve really needed to write for a demanding editor. Christian Wiman at Poetry was always tough. You just knew he had a finely-tuned taste, and so you had to raise your game any time you were writing a review for him. Same goes for my friend Carmine Starnino at The Walrus. I liked writing for Chloe Schama when she was an editor at The New Republic. She had rigorous standards and airtight instincts. Writing for her made my writing better. Writing for any good editor makes an author better—the loftier the editor and their publication, the better. You just bring a different intensity to the keyboard. You have something to prove.

I don’t know how those concocting their own newsletters—who are self-publishing, basically—are ensuring quality control. A little bit of the old gatekeeping keeps you honest. I need someone to throw up a hand sometimes.

6) When pitching, how do you choose which books to review?

I haven’t written a lot of reviews in recent years. When I did write reviews, the books were often assigned. But sometimes I pitched. I’d usually pick a recent book by an author I knew I could get behind—like Daryl Hine, say—or an author I wanted to quarrel with—like Anne Carson.

Since my first book of criticism came out, I’ve pitched a lot of essays, and these are usually pegged to some recent event, like the reissue of Whit Stillman’s films, or a milestone, like the 50th anniversary of Pet Sounds. Editors seem to want essays that are timely, so I’m always trying to find a way to write about the stuff I want to write about, while satisfying the editorial need to be relevant. There’s a particular movie I really love that finally turns fifty this summer, so I wrote a piece about the picture and managed to place it.

Lately, I’ve been writing a lot of essays with no obvious home or peg. This has been fun—writing something for myself, and then seeing if I can find a home for it.

7) What do you wish authors, who may or may not have been the subject of a negative review, knew about critics and the act of writing criticism?

I don’t know. The question sort of presumes a subset of “pure” authors for whom criticism needs to be justified or even just explained. But I can hardly imagine the mindset of a novelist or poet who doesn’t also write the occasional essay or review—even if I know these novelists and poets exist.

I would hope that writers who don’t write criticism know that criticism is itself a vital art. I would hope they don’t need someone to tell them that criticism isn’t personal.

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