At the centre of a debate on cronyism in national newspaper reviews
After Mike Steeves unwittingly launched a cascade of commentary when his first novel, Giving Up (BookThug), was reviewed by his friend Pasha Malla for The Globe and Mail, Puritan staffer André Forget interviewed him to learn the author’s own thoughts on the book and the conversation it sparked.
André Forget: The action of the novel takes place within a very brief period of time—a single evening, in fact, and there are really only four characters, one of whom is a cat. Did you set out to work within such strict parameters?
Mike Steeves: Yes. I had been working on a novel for eight years—off and on—that had a bunch of characters, took place over several months, and was set in a couple of cities. I never got it to a place that I was happy with, so after I put it in the drawer I wanted to write something where I wasn’t constantly trying to remember what day it was supposed to be. I also wanted to write something that was more intense, that had a strong, maybe even overbearing voice. I wanted a form that allowed me to indulge my inclination for digression and had an anxious, claustrophobic feel to it. I wanted to write a book that would make the reader squirm. But what it really comes down to, what ends up determining every aspect of a book, is the style you choose to tell it in. That sets everything else up. Within the first few lines I knew that, with the voice I was using, nothing was ever really going to stray too far from home. Of course, this is a bit of a bogus conceit because whenever I felt like it I could simply have a character recall something from their past. This is the paradox of choosing limits: it frees you up.
André Forget: One of the characters, James, spends much of the novel obsessing over his “life’s work,” to which he dedicates a large amount of time but seems to get nowhere with. We as readers, however, get only a very general sense for what this work is. Why did you decide to obscure that?
Mike Steeves: It started out as a joke. I just thought it was funny. So the decision was instinctual. If I say that it was to produce this or that effect, that’s kind of a lie because it simply made sense to me while I was writing it. Thinking about it now, I guess I could say that the book has a granular style. Everything is gone over in painstaking detail, so I knew that if I was specific about James’s ‘life’s work’ then I would be obliged to get into it, and I felt like that would drag everything down. Or to put it another way, I wanted to deal with the essentials of the story, so if I ended up giving over a portion of the book to a digression on a specific discipline then the reader might get bored. I also thought it would be best to leave it open, so the reader could freely imagine for themselves what the hell James is doing down in his basement.
André Forget: Much of the novel is made up of confessions: James and Mary are constantly analysing their own and each other’s behaviours and admitting to the often embarrassing, unsavoury, cowardly, or simply inconsistent ways of thinking and being in the world. This seems to place it in a broader trend toward confessional writing in North America: writing that explores the gaps between our internal lives and the façades we keep up in order to function in society. What do you think it is about this particular moment that is driving this kind of cultural fascination?
Mike Steeves: I’m wary of making a sweeping statement about the particular moment we are living in and how it is reflected through certain trends in contemporary literature. I’m equally wary of making the it’s-always-been-that-way argument by pointing out the centrality of St. Augustine, Rousseau, Michel de Montaigne, etc. to our current perspectives on literature. Also, I’m literally terrified of saying anything about social media or other technologies that make it easy for people to share intimate stories and details from their own lives.
So, with those caveats in mind, it’s probably safe to point out the enormous value we place on authenticity. I wonder why at the moment it seems to be in such short supply we are so insistent upon it.
You mention the gap between our internal lives and the façade, which I think is on point. This is a pronounced anxiety in our culture, and what’s truly distressing for many people is the sneaking suspicion that there may not be difference between the two.
It’s probably not a coincidence that the confession is the primary form of celebrity journalism and, since we all behave like micro-celebrities, I suppose we may just want in on the action. Or it’s become the main way we understand ourselves and each other.
Having said all that, I’m now going to go back on what I said earlier because I think the confessional form is a cornerstone of literature. It might be a bit of a false correlation to say that it’s having a moment now.
The face of controversy
André Forget: How do you feel about the noise that his been generated by reviews like Pasha Malla’s for The Globe and Mail or Emily Keeler’s for The National Post? Do you think the book is getting lost in the conversation about who should review whom?
Mike Steeves: God I hope not. Of course, the book likely wouldn’t have been reviewed in the Globe if it weren’t for Pasha, so I am very fortunate to have received that kind of attention. Whether or not the sort of attention that came after that review is good for the book is an open question. For instance, I haven’t read anything by Dave Eggers in years—I just read all the reviews and the responses to the reviews and once I’ve done that I feel like I don’t have to read the novel.
As far as the criticism that Pasha was too close to me to be able to write a fair appreciation of the book, nobody will be surprised to find out that I disagree. He clearly presented a comprehensive account of the book’s themes, and he focused on one aspect—faith—that I haven’t seen in the other reviews (we didn’t discuss his piece, and the first time I saw it was when it was published). He mentioned that his affection for the book partly came out of his affection for me, and in that respect I can understand why a reader would feel like they’re being kept at arm’s-length, although I don’t see how he could’ve avoided bringing that up.
I think this concern over closeness is ultimately related to the uneasy position literature occupies as a commodity. On one hand it’s considered to be no different than a used car or a cellphone—a consumer product that can be objectively rated. At the end of the day it’s the reviewer’s job to advise the consumer on whether they should spend their money and time on the book. On the other hand literature is something other than a commodity, and this is where the just-a-bunch-of-so-and-sos-promoting-each-other’s-work phenomenon comes into effect, and why so called objectivity isn’t necessarily a good thing for literature.
My publisher has a small marketing budget and I am a first-time novelist who works as a fundraiser for a university, so my professional life isn’t really going to help boost my readership. It’s true, Pasha used his position as a long-standing writer for the Globe to promote a novel that he was worried might not get any attention. You could call this cronyism or you could call it doing his job. A reviewer’s job is not simply to sit back and pass judgment on the books that come their way; it’s also their job to go out, find what’s good, and to write about it. Few people actually work as writers for a living. I don’t. It’s an impossible profession. They spend their time working on their own stuff while trying to keep up on what is going on around them. Meanwhile they have to cobble together an income through a variety of revenue streams, some publicly funded, others private or commercial. They are constantly besieged with requests to help promote books and events and people. Some of them write reviews and criticism while many others don’t for the simple reason that it doesn’t pay well.
It is highly unlikely that Pasha, a decade into a career that pretty much hinges on his integrity, would put it on the line for a book unless he truly believed it was deserving, and it’s also hard to believe that—just because we are friends—his judgment would be so clouded that he wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between a mediocre novel and a good one. I thought that the affection he had for the book came through in his review and it is precisely this lack of objectivity that made it fun to read. As he pointed out, we’ve been friends for years and he has read other stuff I’ve done that he’s been way less enthusiastic about. The history of literature is full of writers promoting each other’s work. It only becomes cronyism when it is done in bad faith.
The other criticism I came across was that the attention my novel received was unfair because the review wouldn’t have run if I didn’t have a friend who wrote for the Globe. It’s hard to argue against that. It is unfair. But is it the editor’s responsibility to be fair to his readership, or to the dozens (hundreds?) of people who publish fiction every year? I realize that there’s some overlap here, but my point is that there is an assumption that everything that comes down the pipe should get the same treatment while in practice this is never what happens. I should also confess that I believe some books are better than others. So I don’t believe that all books, just because they are published, deserve to be reviewed. The publishing industry itself is a living and breathing monument to unfairness. Why should book coverage be any different?
It makes sense to have editorial policies on reviewing. But sometimes these policies can actually lead to a more impoverished literary conversation than the one that would result from allowing the ‘cronyism’ that was decried in Pasha’s piece. This, I think, was his point about the criteria for selecting a jury for the Governor General’s award (there’s also a great interview with Christian Bök available online on this very topic for those who really want to get their hands dirty). You can disqualify the writers who are involved in the literary scene in Canada so you won’t have a biased jury, but you end up privileging a certain type of writer when you do this. If the goal is to discover and promote the best in Canadian literature, I don’t think this focus on bias or objectivity is doing the job.
Mike Steeves attended University of King’s College in Halifax, where he received a BA in Political Science and English Literature. He completed an MA in English Literature at Concordia University. Steeves lives with his wife and child in Montreal, and works at Concordia University. Giving Up is his first full-length book of fiction. Connect with Steeves on Twitter @SteevesMike.