RECENT REVIEWS & ENDORSEMENTS
- Rules Without Rulers
Matthew Wilson, Rules Without Rulers: The Possibilities and Limits of Anarchism (Winchester/Washington: Zero Books, 2014)
Matthew Wilson’s Rules Without Rulers is a curious book. Just when I thought that I had read the most convincing pummeling of anarchism ever, Wilson, nonchalantly, states in the beginning of his final chapter: “Yet none of what I have had to say has been written with the intention of encouraging the reader to abandon anarchism (or to continue dismissing it). In fact, my rather grandiose hope is that, in challenging anarchism so thoroughly, I will not have killed it, but made it stronger.” (p. 172) Grandiose indeed.
But let’s back up for a moment. Wilson opens his book with bravado. In the “Preface”, he states:
“...the following work is ultimately an attempt to address just one reason why anarchism remains a distant dream. That reason? Anarchism. We can blame the corporate media, blame the police, the state, the schools and history books, none of which do anarchism any real favours; but if anarchism is ever to grow, to inspire, to challenge, it is anarchism itself which needs to be rethought and rearticulated. Although there is much to be said for plenty of anarchist theory and practice, on the whole it is a political movement, a political idea, which is struggling to present itself as a viable alternative. Of perhaps more concern still is how few anarchists appear bothered by this.” (p. xii-xiii).
“It is time we took the blinkers off, stopped, or at least paused, from our critique of the world out there, and looked inwards. People will be convinced by our arguments only when our arguments are convincing.” (p. xiv)
This is brilliant. So brilliant that it is easy to lose steam as you’re diving into detailed philosophical descriptions of anarchist dilemmas, grouped around the notions of freedom, ethics, and power, which, according to Wilson, “form the basis of the … enquiry” (p. 4).
Now, steam doesn’t equal quality, and just because the philosophical reflections don’t always double down on the rhetorical punches delivered early on, they are no less important. In fact, the rare combination of philosophical sharpness and anarchist sympathy is one of the great virtues of the book.
Wilson rightfully points out that there are surprisingly few earnest discussions about some of the key challenges that anarchism has to accept if it really wants to be a serious contender for ushering in a better world. Among the many questions addressed by Wilson are how to deal with anti-social behavior, the pitfalls of consensus decision-making, and informal power structures. The book is full of precious statements such as the following about the common rejection of offering concrete anarchist visions: “...how can ‘resistance open the way to alternative’ if we cannot discuss, or debate, or share our thoughts on what these alternatives might be? … [Anarchists are often] denying not only the validity of a vanguard to prescribe how we ought to live, but, in the process, limiting the potential for anyone to engage in such thinking. What we are left with is a plurality of silences.” (p. 39)
Sometimes, Wilson’s critique of the intellectual level of anarchist discussion (or lack thereof) verges on the sarcastic, but it never runs short of entertainment value, for example when he responds to an anonymous anarchist author’s proclamation that “some communities will be dedicated to crime and drug use” with the sober comment: “It is of course hard to imagine an entire community dedicated to crime; in fact, it is not clear how we would conceptualise crime within a community if all its members were committed to it.” (p. 164-165)
Wilson is certainly right in taking anarchists to task for evading uncomfortable discussion with a “live and let live” attitude, often expressed through comments we’re all too familiar with, such as the rather meaningless “You may think what you want, but I think what I think”.
Let us return to Wilson’s concluding chapter, which I referenced above. Wilson emphasizes that his main hope for anarchism relates to its “prefigurative” dimensions. He makes a distinction between “social prefiguration” as “the creation of spaces and processes which fulfil the needs and desires of members of any community, and which do so along anarchist principles of horizontal control and mutual aid” (p. 179), and “personal prefiguration”, which presents “the case for an increased support of lifestyle politics” (p. 189). This is useful, not least because it helps overcome the tiring juxtaposition of “organization” and “lifestyle”. However, I believe that Wilson, in his sudden optimism, shies away from some of the logical consequences of his own critique: Anarchism is in many ways important, but also severely limited. The important part is to act as a permanent critic, an engine for social change, a field of experimentation for different kinds of life. We will always defend this on Alpine Anarchist. But anarchism does not offer a viable path for revolutionary change in the complex societies we live in. (For those interested: we have written more about this in “Revolution Is More Than a Word: 23 Theses on Anarchism”.)
It seems that in order to avoid drawing these conclusions, Wilson resorts to some of the phraseology he lambastes throughout his book. For example, he states in the “Preface” that “it matters little what horrors the system throws at us, as long as we are left without an alternative”, and that “at present, anarchism is not giving people the confidence to believe it can offer that” (p. xiv). But how can you ever give anyone that confidence when, in the context of sketching alternatives, “we simply need to accept that they do not provide anything like a full picture” (p. 178)? I understand that there is a gradual difference. But a substantial one?
A more serious problem might be the following: Wilson says that anarchists need to have answers to the questions he is raising in his book. But how can anarchism, a political movement that eschews doctrines, ever provide anything more than diverse and ephemeral answers? In order to meet Wilson’s expectations, there’d need to be among anarchists a common agreement on the best possible answers and a common commitment to pursue relevant political action. I cannot see that happening. Wilson himself concedes that the questions he is raising have hardly received any attention since anarchism’s inception. With all respect for Wilson and his very fine book – this will not change now either. Agreeing on answers and pursuing a particular political line is what Marxist parties have done for the past hundred years, most of them without the tiniest bit of success, but some of them with tremendous success if measured by the scope of social transformation alone. Perhaps, instead of trying to reenact this, the anarchists’ historical task is to influence such politics in a way that keeps them from degenerating into tyranny.
In this context, it is interesting to look at another recent release by Zero Books. While Wilson tries to renew the anarchist tradition, J. Moufawad-Paul’s Continuity and Rupture: Philosophy in the Maoist Terrain is looking for the latest and most timely interpretation of Marxism. Those who have read Moufawad-Paul’s The Communist Necessity (reviewed on this site) know that his critique of “movementism” echoes Wilson’s take on the vague and intellectually often poor foundations of contemporary anarchist-inspired activist culture. Now, the consequences that the authors draw are very different: protracted people’s wars vs. “practising forms of prefigurative politics” (p. 178). But somewhere along that spectrum there’s gotta be something that can get us out of the mess we’re in.
(January 2017) ~ Gabriel Kuhn, Alpine Anarchist Productions
- Centring the Margins: Essays and Reviews
4 star review
Centring the Margins: Essays and Reviews
by Jeff Bursey (Goodreads Author)
Michelle Hallett's review Feb 03, 2017
These thoughtful and meaty essays introduced me to many writers and got me thinking, sometimes in new ways, about how fiction can work. Bursey is a careful and thorough reader, and his passion and intelligence shine in this collection. Like others, I wish he'd reviewed more obscure women writers, not because I feel we need to fill a quota, but because, as VIDA and CWILA numbers show, women writers still have trouble getting reviewed at all, and I would expect women who write exploratory fiction have an even harder time.
Bursey's review of my first novel, Double-blind, is reproduced in Centring the Margins. While I don't agree with everything he writes about my fiction, particularly how I employed realism in that novel, I do want to acknowledge how his writing gets me thinking. Reading a Bursey essay is never a passive experience, never one of simple consumption.
Whatever I think of a book discussed by Bursey, or of the discussion itself, Bursey's vigorous and intelligent prose is a delight to read. ~ Michelle Butler Hallett, https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1886680100
- Sweetening the Pill
Thank you! Grigg-Spall hit the the mark with this book. The pill always struck me as wrong for a multitude of reasons. I am so glad so many younger women are coming around to see it as the toxin it is. Yes, this is one great book and well worth reading- and giving as a gift to our daughters, nieces, other female friends. Kudos on a very well written and insightful book! ~ Catherine Hankins, Cleveland Public Library Brooklyn Branch
- Centring the Margins: Essays and Reviews
Published on November 12, 2016
Centring the Margins: Essays and Reviews
By Jeff Bursey
190 pages; $22.95
“Centring the Margins: Essays and Reviews” is another non-fiction collection, and again a highly specialized selection. Jeff Bursey is a deft and engaged critic, and these reviews cross genres and span a decade or more.
They include “John Domini, The Sea-Gods’ Herb: Essays and Criticism, 1975–2014” and “Ornela Vorspi, The Country Where No One Ever Dies.”
The somewhat esoteric material is written by a reader with a sharply observant eye and wry voice: “In 1986 (British literary theorist) Terry Eagleton gave what was called the Pratt lecture at MUN. Dressed in a loose-fitting, or possibly sagging, cardigan seemingly made from oatmeal or at least that colour, Eagleton spoke at length, in dry tones, no affectation of style or vocal modulation permitted, on ‘the End of English.’”
Bursey to Eagleton: not so fast.
Joan Sullivan is editor of Newfoundland Quarterly magazine. She reviews both fiction and non-fiction for The Telegram. ~ Joan Sullivan, http://www.thetelegram.com/living/2016/11/11/almanac-records-womens-voices-stories-4684452.html
- Centring the Margins: Essays and Reviews
Broken Pencil Magazine; Issue 74, News, Norman Feliks, Saturday, January 14th, 2017
Centring the Margins: Essays and Reviews, Jeff Bursey, 189 Pages, Zero Books, zero-books.net
As Jeff Bursey contends, we are endlessly taught that, “[l]iterature contains singular imagery, the perfect word lodged in its perfect spot, rounded characters, believable settings, a confident narrative (if not a confident narrator).” The stuffy English Lit cannon morphed into a similarly narrow mainstream publishing consensus. As a result, alternative styles of writing, which are for Bursey innovative, are tarred with the warning term, “experimental.”
Bursey’s crusade can be a smidge too present, yet often it is framed in an eye-opening way, such as when he notes that for typical critical writing, “[t]he excitement will be intellectual, but won’t commit someone’s blood and soul to the works, which [William] Vollmann, with Steinbeck in mind, has written from the fibre of his being, as used to be said before the author supposedly disappeared.” Here Bursey reminds us that there isn’t only one way to write and that readers may be rewarded for delving into the unfamiliar. The strength of this collection is that it drives us to seek out neglected voices, even if it means having to read an occasional paragraph twice before we get it. Bursey inspires us to seek out important writing instead of settling for the typical and easy to digest.
If there is a weakness, aside from some unclear sentences, it is that a wide variety of works are looked at through a personal lens informed by an ironically narrow spectrum of writers. For instance, Bursey compares all sorts of people to Henry Miller, Miller representing his literary awakening. Other favoured reference points are Pynchon, the Powys’, Dos Passos – and all sorts of stories are referred to as Oulipian. On the other hand, the wide variety of matter covered made a consistent measuring stick a welcome tool. (Norman Feliks) ~ Norman Feliks, http://www.brokenpencil.com/news/book-review-centring-the-margins
- Centring the Margins: Essays and Reviews
John's Reviews > Centring the Margins: Essays and Reviews
Centring the Margins: Essays and Reviews
by Jeff Bursey (Goodreads Author)
reviewed by John Domini
Jan 07, 2017
Read from November 01 to December 01, 2016
By any fair standard, Bursey's selection of reviews & criticism must be counted insightful, wide-ranging, & humane -- a winner, really. Still, I suppose I must own up to being the recipient of his enlightened reading myself. My own SEA-GOD'S HERB is one of the books he considers here. So, there's full disclosure, and it doesn't in any way lessen Bursey's accomplishment. The first word in the book's title alone, CENTRING, conveys something of the book's special qualities: idiosyncratic & yet entirely correct. For example, the long & brainy essay on William Vollman, nothing less than an essential overview, has a scope few critics would risk, looking over a wide of work in prose, perhaps twenty titles all told, & yet it never loses sight of Vollman's bedrock values: his commitment to "important human problems" & to writing that does more than merely make him famous. The same sense of how literature can matter infuses Bursey's series pf briefer reviews of fiction out of his own homeland, Canada. I've never read Chris Eaton, for instance, but Bursey's treatment of his BIOGRAPHY has prompted me to seek out the man's "much-needed light on the lighthearted North." As for writers out of cultures far different, see, especially, his perspicacious review of César Aria. In claiming "our complacency is rebutted" in Aria, actually Bursey might be speaking of his own sharp yet sensitive interpretations -- booting us out of comfy mindsets, waking us to more challenging pleasures of the text. ~ John Domini, https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1870644807
- Uncertain Futures
https://socialecologies.wordpress.com/2017/01/17/edmund-berger-uncertain-futures-a-review/ ~ S.C. Hickam, Social Ecologies blog
- Advancing Conversations: Srećko Horvat - Subversion!
Based on rich personal experience and participation in constructive subversion, along with wide reading from classics to the latest dreams of artificial intelligence, Horvat leads us on a whirlwind tour of the maladies and discontents of modern civilization and the many ways to right what is wrong and achieve a better future. ~ Noam Chomsky, MIT
- Dark Matters
Dunn trained as an architect and this is a crucial part of what is at play here: Out in the dark, walking himself to sleep – he hopes – the architect coincidentally has the buildings removed for him by the lack of light, and then delivered again anew, in flashes. Here, sleepless, the city becomes something else. Another nocturnal Manchester urbanaut, Mark E. Smith, wrote of ‘entrances uncovered’ and ‘street signs you never saw’, all ‘courtesy of winter.’ There is nothing gothic about this book, despite its dark title and cover. In some ways, night time does exactly what snow does to the urban landscape. It makes it strange, it makes you see anew.
Whiteout or blackout, the space is transformed, momentarily, and this impermanence of states is important to its power to ‘other’ your view of it. If it were always daytime there would be no other side to cast this transformed view against. The title implies the night as another dimension, ‘dark matter’ as the invisible glue of the social. But that is not all this book does. It ‘makes manifest’ the urban night by shuttling between theory and description.
So much leftist writing hides what it really thinks in abstraction, or older, tried and tested rhetorics. This book does not make any wincingly worthy cultural capital out of hauntology, the problem seems to be, actually – and chillingly – that in the night city there are no ghosts left and the few that remain are becoming even more fugitive: ‘Far better to embrace the world and its contradictions, difficulties, untidiness and dirtiness, physical and psychic, than to summon long-vanished ghosts.’
The equally chilling thesis is that the only way to escape from the ‘intoxicating pathologies’ of the city, is to vanish into ‘night practices beyond consumption’, to an edge zone almost completely drained of light, in order to ‘be’. But this is the manifesto, that in nightwalking the city we might find the black mirror of the everyday, which might teach us more about that everyday than we could have imagined before going out there. ‘Urban areas are pathological’, the ‘nocturnal dowser can summon these neuroses…’
This book is useful, it is both open and closed. Closed in that its form as a manifesto really puts its cards on tables. Open in that it advises particular spatial practices in the interests of seeing anew. Open in that it encourages others to develop that way of working further.
Now it’s over to you, on the night shift. ~ Steve Hanson, Manchester Review of Books
- Advancing Conversations: Srećko Horvat - Subversion!
History has only produced decency when good people infiltrated despotic institutions and succeeded in subverting them, often at a terrible cost to themselves. Horvat explains brilliantly subversion’s creative potential, in juxtaposition to isolationism and escapism which are the establishment’s best friends. ~ Yanis Varoufakis, Economist, former Finance Minister of Greece
- Dark Matters
A brilliant book. Dark Matters is an adventure into the heart of the city at night – the time when the true nature of the beast reveals itself. ~ John Robb, Louder Than War
- Romeo and Juliet in Palestine
As a polyphonic text, Romeo and Juliet in Palestine is more than just the voices of its author and his students included amongst its pages […] Perhaps the voice that resonates most strongly in the text is that of Lisl Sperlinger, Sperlinger’s grandmother who fled Vienna in 1938 and lived out her adult life as a committed Zionist [… This] is a difficult book to categorise: Is it a pedagogical text? A political one? Is it autobiography? How many stories of how many people’s lives does it tell? The book is not organised chronologically but, as Sperlinger professes himself, anecdotally, composed out of the interspersed fragments of his own story and experiences, alongside the experiences of others. The book makes no grand claims, but herein lies its strength: it cannot speak for Palestine, nor be the authoritative voice on Palestine, but it can, and does, give us a small, but incredibly personal, insight into Palestine, grafted from the relationship that Sperlinger garnered with his students while teaching there. ~ Rachel Fox, Hong Kong Review of Books
An intellectually gripping analysis of what its author Josie Appleton characterises as a new kind of state power, one that is arbitrary and encroaching on what is left of our unregulated lives. Overall this is a subtle and intelligently argued essay. Its reconstruction of the essential trajectory of the officious state will be a valuable weapon for those keen to argue for greater freedom in everyday life. (http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/the-rise-of-the-officious-state/19081#.WHOgfnipvFI) ~ James Heartfield, spiked
- Dark Matters
A must read for anyone who's starting with hauntology, dérive or urbanism in general. It's short, urgent and written with poetic sensibility. ~ Nicolas Diaz, NetGalley
- Fire Hides Everywhere
Fire Hides Everywhere is gripping fiction by way of fascinating literary experimentation. Instead of simply dramatizing existing ideas on the subject, it defies subjectivity itself. ~ Alfie Bown, writer and editor-in-chief of the Hong Kong Review of Books
- Centring the Margins: Essays and Reviews
Dec 12, 2016:
Jeff Bursey’s Centring the Margins: Essays and Reviews
by Alex Good
Many years ago, as a graduate student of English, I was told something about where the discipline was headed by one professionally minded (but not cynical) academic. “You have to be on the margins,” he said. “That’s where the action is. If you’re not on the margins, you’re nowhere.”
By the margins he meant the space that was becoming exclusively occupied by identity politics. The Dead White Men of the unholy patriarchy were the centre, so being on the margins was the result of having been forcibly marginalized or oppressed. The “action” was all about identifying with minorities and victim groups.
Jeff Bursey is a survivor of a graduate English program but the title of this collection of critical writings, Centring the Margins, indicates something very different than a rush to where the action is. For Bursey, the marginal is associated more with aesthetics than politics. At university he was subjected to a conservative curriculum that “reflected staid, English, or with-it taste that would never really upset anyone or anything.” This is what constituted (and perhaps to a large extent still constitutes) the core, the canon, the centre. After an awakening brought about through exposure to the writings of Henry Miller, what Bursey as essayist and reviewer wants to talk about are obscure or neglected figures, writers who seek to innovate, explore, experiment, and challenge readers by daring to be unruly and difficult.
A clear statement of Bursey’s own marginal aesthetic credo, and its rejection of what we might paradoxically refer to as orthodox marginalism (not the same thing as political correctness, but bearing some relation to that label), is laid out in his review of Herb Wyile’s Anne of Tim Hortons: Globalization and the Reshaping of Atlantic-Canadian Literature.
When it comes to aesthetics, this book resolutely shies away from declaring that a novel is good or bad or inferior. The roaring of those “political, social, and economic” engines largely has drowned out the poetry and the craft of the writers Wyile has chosen. He does a good job elucidating novels and plays (a welcome aspect) on the topics that concern him, but do these books have intrinsic properties that make them Art? The books chosen, or at least some of them, took effort on the part of the writer as he or she fashioned a sentence. By leaving out the aesthetic qualities of the books under consideration, and concentrating on class, race, gender issues, and consumerism, Wyile leaves untouched a pertinent question: If the books aren’t artful, how will they do whatever he wants them to do? They might as well be tracts left to molder on a doorstep. Wyile’s earnestness, coupled with his thesis, tells the reader little about the literary aspect of literature.
Bursey’s preferred approach is, in relation to our dominant modes of critical discourse, marginal: it’s basically in line with what John Metcalf dubbed the “aesthetic underground.” This is a method that enjoys no favour in academia or the media today, such practices as close reading and value judgments being now viewed as archaic, misguided, and unworkable. The “literary aspect of literature” is no longer the province of the professional critic.
This critical marginality is, in turn, addressed to what are – and I say this without prejudice – a number of marginal authors. The titles Bursey reviews here are, for the most part, well outside the mainstream. They are not award winners or books by established, canonical names but more often works in translation and/or the products of small presses. As already noted, Bursey prefers books that challenge, experiment, and take chances rather than those with mass appeal and genial charm. A more poetic approach is commended over the verities of staid realism. Steven Galloway’s Ascension is finally damned for being written in a style of “earnest fidelity” and “flat verbal photographs” that is “all net, no wire,” while Michelle Butler Hallett’s “particular kind of realism” in Double-Blind “is objectionable because it clearly overlooks the more tender aspects of life, and relegates much of the world’s artwork to the ashbin.” Of course realism is a difficult term to pin down, but in insisting on an expansive definition that includes spiritual values, Bursey does no harm.
Many of the names surveyed I freely admit to never having heard of. This isn’t a problem, indeed it might even be considered a good thing, but if Centring the Margins comes up a bit short in anything it’s in not making me want to seek more of them out. While Bursey’s championing of obscure titles performs a valuable critical service, and he is always an insightful and well-expressed advocate, I came away unconvinced that the conceptual author Davis Schneiderman really needs my attention, or that Marja-Liisa Vartio’s The Parson’s Widow would be worth the hard slog Bursey admits it to be. But to each their own. Though often constrained by the limits of the review form (his longer pieces are the best), Bursey does make a respectable case for and against the objects of his attention.
Another point – that’s again more of a personal response – is that Bursey doesn’t spend more time dealing with Canadian writers and the Canadian literary landscape, and examining the question of where and why Canadian literature rates in his scale of values vis-à-vis the rest of the world. To be fair, Centring the Margins doesn’t attempt an overview of contemporary Canadian writing, so I don’t want to take it to task for being something it never intended to be. That said, Bursey is, as his introductory remarks lay out, very much a product of (in the sense of a reaction against) our home and native cultural environment and its conservative values. Which, I think, is something both ironic and germane to his thesis.
Canadian culture has always had a special relationship with the margins. It begins with the fact that Canada is a marginal country, literally appearing as such on the map: a ribbon of population stretched out along the border with our imperial neighbour. Our cultural productions have been almost by definition marginal, at least in terms of audience and influence, to what has been the dominance of British and then American literature, music, and film both in this country and globally.
Within Canada, however, we have the phenomenon I’ve already mentioned, orthodox marginalism, with its own critical and cultural establishments. Bursey is, in Canada, a marginal critic. His aesthetic approach is marginal to the identity politics of the academic-media mainstream and his reading interests are marginal, bordering on invisible, to the public taste. It is precisely this that makes him essential. The centre of Canadian culture is a hole being dug to nowhere. Bursey’s criticism isn’t another shovel but a rope.
—A CNQ Web Exclusive, December 2016 ~ Canadian Notes and Queries, http://notesandqueries.ca/reviews/jeff-burseys-centring-the-marginsby-alex-good/
- Fire Hides Everywhere
A rich, haunting and haunted, fever dream of a novel. ~ Tom Lutz, novelist and editor-in-chief of the Los Angeles Review of Books
- Centring the Margins: Essays and Reviews
Sep 28, 2016
flowerville rated it really liked it
disclaimer 1.: i’m a continental academic foreigner not primarily operating in english, who is almost all the time well baffled by the stuff that goes on in the anglosaxian literary world; & as someone who’s always indiscriminately read everything i have a hard time getting my head round all those positions, genres and things. those books like bursey’s are written in a culturally different background and as an outsider to those debates the literary crusades going on in there aren’t mine. re the great modernism vs third person omniscient divide bursey is firmly on the josipovici kind of side.
that said, i got something out of the book, i like the stuff underneath the crusades.
problem/bafflement 1.: where’s the obscure stuff? book is announced as containing crazy difficult and obscure writers with the goal of bringing the margins/marginalized writers to the centre. yet none of the writers reviewed was unknown to me (as in i heard the name before) and i’ve probably read about 2 thirds of them.
that said, the principle of the insights coming from the margins is one i heartily agree with.
problem 2.: the number of books by female writers (not quite a third) reviewed is nothing to write home about.
the book is embraced by a preface and postface outlining the ! author’s intentions ! - methodically the book is in the szondi tradition (although szondi is not invoked by bursey), immanent criticism, in bursey’s very own words:
“There is no theoretical apparatus underlying the approach taken herein, as each book, to my way of thinking, requires its own approach, if you want to view them as artworks and not treat them as exemplars of this or that critical discourse.”
in the postface bursey writes the following: "The opinions expressed may be agreed with or termed uninteresting or rebarbative, but in any event they are meant to spark discussion as to what the author meant, what he or she achieved, and what transpired within me on first reading. Never perceived as the final word, they invite a long and wide-ranging conversation. Nor were the reviews written with the daft notion of capturing everything that resides in a work of art. As Eric Ormsby wrote, “if the work is truly good, something will always elude our analysis.” In a sense, these reviews incorporate my failures, and hopefully a fruitful kind that encourages other critics to be more successful.”
i entirely concur with those reviewing principles outlined by bursey, i’ve always thought this is how it should be done and this is also how it is done by bursey, the book is in the foreground, it is looked at according to its own merits, there is lots close reading of the book (within whatever space allows), accompanied by ‘secondary literature’, a good mixture of detail and ‘grand overview’ - balanced viewpoints, calm reasoning, the books are read in good faith and discussed fairly.
there’s always stuff that escapes, some due to space constraints, some due to the very nature of art itself and that means that the conversation is never finished. bursey’s insistence on there being no final word in those reviews is a sign of theoretical humbleness, and also necessary humbleness that is at the same time a kind of generosity. one could say there are two worldviews, one assumes to know everything and that everything can be known and another worldview that allows some space for something else, whatever that is. this openness is the thing, for the books to come alive again in reading, in reviewing and in escaping again, just for it, the book (and bursey’s reviews, in this case), to welcome you on a different page all the same.
bursey’s reviews are nice to read, friendly, sincere, engaging and make one think. his reviews approachable not in the sense as in cringy, but as in: hang on, i need to look this up and there one goes, starts reading and is immediately drawn into the longlong unending conversation of literature. approaching as in looking: what is this book really, what is it about. like, walking round it and looking at it from all angles with wonder and depth, and the aim to do justice to it, to its failings and achievements, approaching them in equal measure. in this sense, the last paragraph of the last review (aira) is very apt.
all in all i prefer the longer reviews, especially the one about the letters between cowper powys & dorothy richardson.
disclaimer 2.: mr bursey positively reviewed a book (mr mitchelmore’s this space of writing) to which i supplied the coverimage. ~ flowerville, Goodreads
- Centring the Margins: Essays and Reviews
‘Centring The Margins: Essays and Reviews’ by Jeff Bursey
Posted: DECEMBER 5, 2016
Reviewed by Spencer Gordon
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.
* * *
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.”
* * *
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 ~ Spencer Gordon, The Winnipeg Review
- Color, Facture, Art and Design
Il a donc superposé de la peinture à l’huile sur une base blanche et épaisse, par des couches fines et des tons clairs, créant des effets de transparence. Iona Singh a d’ailleurs écrit une étude sur cette technique de Turner et la perception physique dans son livre Color, Facture, Art and Design. ~ Les œuvres en prisme de William Turner - Première rencontre avec Turner, by Agnès Tedman - Dieuxième Temps review