More Critical and Compassionate // Terese Mason Pierre

As part of our guest edited month, “Roles and Functions of Criticism: Comments on our Review Culture,” Terese Mason Pierre considers how reviewing plays a role in supporting her own work and the work of other Black writers.

I came to reviewing anxious, unsure, but willing to try. I had connected on Facebook with a person named Steven Beattie, adding him as a Friend solely because we had several mutual friends. He introduced himself to me in person at an event at the Harbourfront Centre, and asked me what I was working on. Later, online, he asked if I was interested in reviewing books. It turned out he was the reviews editor of Quill and Quire. I had never reviewed for such a magazine before. I didn’t think I could do it “properly.” Still, I thought, filled with nervous energy, if I could write about a book I love, or a book that was important, I’d have done some good for someone, somewhere, even just once. The consistent problem I had—and still have—is reminding myself that my voice is important. I said yes. I became a reviewer.

So far, I’ve been reviewing books that I deeply enjoyed, going on in the review about how much I enjoyed them, but recently, I was reminded about the importance of sharper critique. What is somethingI don’t like about this book? Is the source of the dislike the book itself, or my bias? Can I pick at it? Can I suggest something the author could have done better? I’m not entirely sure any of this is in my purview as a reviewer who’s been doing this less than a year.The belief about my voice’s insignificance is strongest when I ponder about when and how to critique books in this way. What value assessments I am making? Do I critique for me, or on behalf of audience I’m not sure I’m even a part of? Would my critiques be meaningful? Who am I to say anything less than stellar about this product of long labour? Sometimes, I wonder if the fact that I don’t critique as stringently as I probably should harms the work. I want to engage with a book as charitably as I can, and I want to meet the expectation that the work demands. I try not to take on work that I think is too conceptually advanced, where I know I am not at the level where I can engage comfortably. (This is one of the reasons whyI avoid reviewing most poetry—I don’t always trust myself to “get it right.”)

The main reason I review is to keep reading, especially current books, more so books on topics I might not have been interested in before, to hopefully discover more genres I like. I’ve recently started writing nonfiction, and by reading nonfiction to review, I’ve learned a lot about the necessity of narrative, the multipurpose potential of language—things I have to navigate and develop as a writer. Reviewing has also furthered my desire to remain impersonal when it comes to my writing. As I review from a distance, I like to write somewhat from a distance, and reviewing is practising this.Through reviewing, I treat my own writing as if it is not mine, even though it is inextricably connected to me. I further consider the audience and the critic as I work through the channels of my creative words.

The most important reason for me to review is to support and positively represent the work of Black writers. In a time where many may feel an increasing sense of helplessness and hopelessness, participating in one’s communities in small, individually-determined ways, I believe, can make a difference. As a writer, I can ask myself, “WhatI am doing for my writing community?” How am I contributing to this body we call Canadian Literature? What is the small thing I can do, however sporadically? As a Black writer, one thing I can do is read, recommend and review the work of other Black writers. I can engage in the topics and issues that affect me and other Black people with in their literature, and treat it with as much consideration and openness as I have, perhaps more than others not of this background.I find I learn so much about myself and my Blackness through reading the work of other Black people. I don’t worry much about being“pigeonholed,” or “tokenized,” in this way, as a reviewer. I ask to review books by Black writers whose stories I’m excited about. I am excited to support them in any way I can.

As I continue to review books, I want to develop my own style across my personal writing landscape, which includes writing, editing, reviewing, and performing my work. Most of all, I hope to become equally more critical and more compassionate with the writing of others.

Terese Mason Pierre is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in Canthius, Strange Horizons, and elsewhere online and print. She is the current poetry editor of Augur Magazine, and has previously volunteered with reading series and creative writing workshops. Terese lives in Toronto. 

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