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On the Ethics and Aesthetics of Choosing a Book Reviewer: A Letter to the Book Review Editor Who Assigned Me Jeremy Colangelo’s First Fiction Book

By Terry Trowbridge

January, 2022

Dear [Book Review Editor at a Major Canadian Literary Journal]:

Thank you for asking me to review a book for your next issue. I was delighted to find a surprise in the envelope. I am an acquaintance of Jeremy Colangelo. His book of short stories, Beneath the Statue (2020), from Now Or Never Publishing in Surrey, British Columbia, was unexpected. Unexpected, probably because the pandemic has made every success arrive as an unexpected package. I am also fazed to read that you originally assigned several of your regular book reviewers to read Jeremy’s book, and they refused. When you offered reviewers to choose from a list of books, not one reviewer chose Jeremy’s book. All of the refusals were because each one of them did not recognize Jeremy Colangelo’s name, nor his publisher, Now Or Never. Eventually, you ambushed me by Canada Post. You should have just done that from the start. You know I want to review this kind of book. Additionally, CanLit, being a national bubble wrap of tiny social bubbles gingerly protecting unexpected packages, you and I have a personal relationship for which I still owe you some eye-popping literary output. Jeremy’s book is a big opportunity to make a contribution. Thank you.

Can I please have your mailing address so that I can return Jeremy's book to you?

I am not the right person to review it in a major literary journal.

Colangelo’s stories are really, really, good. And while I have something to say about it, he shouldn't be stuck with me as his first reviewer. He has a collection of stories that could win some awards, but on an imprint that nobody knows about. If I review his book, myself, as a former organizer from the controversial era of the Art Bar Poetry Series’ uneven responses to social change, and as an estranged academic with a dubious CV, my review could be Jeremy’s career kiss-of-death.

I cannot do this to Jeremy. His book deserves an established writer-reviewer with a following; somebody whose review would be meaningful; whose review might be read for any number of reasons. Any review that I write could encrust his book in a literary booger. Normally, I am a successful reviewer of poetry chapbooks. I review poetry chapbooks in order to highlight their credibility and engage new, purposeful audiences (me: 2019a, 2019b, 2019c, 2019d, 2021). I'm sorry for inadvertently diverting Jeremy’s book to me. I did not know you would send short stories, nor that you would ask me to write a make-or-break review for the author's entire subsequent career.

Meanwhile, self-motivated to write book reviews, I have written a few reviews that are oriented to examine social change in multiple, concurrent career choices for authors, publishers, social researchers. Those are being rejected everywhere I send them. You know my biography, so I will skip my temptation to spend this missive relating my bildungsroman to all my incoming rejection letters. My book review style, though, is a solution to socioeconomic problems that I see, thanks to my background in Humanities and interdisciplinary Social Sciences. My long association with learning and teaching generates a kind of personal responsibility (if not exactly a recognizable ethic), to address those problems. I’m almost compulsive about it. Book reviews are an effective vehicle for my purposes.

My year-long tenure as an organizer of The Art Bar Poetry series in Toronto was also relevant to my role as a reviewer of creative writing. When I joined Art Bar, Canada’s longest-running weekly poetry series that paid the featured poets (a self-aware, very specific claim to enclaved importance), Art Bar was suffering from self-inflicted reputations for antagonizing writers who belonged to racial, gender, and citizenship status minorities. Those of us put in charge of the series in 2018-2019, Margaret Code, John Oughton, Rosa Arlotto, Hana Shafi, Leah Cohen, and myself, used our opportunity to bring critical theory to bear on the series’ operation.  I will briefly articulate our goals as best I can now, but I will loop back to our relevance to Jeremy’s review quickly. 

We worked as organizers with the theory that Art Bar, as a weekly institution, was a shared experience by the organizers, three invited poets, ten nightly open mic poets, the audience, and the social space of our venue (the Free Times Café in Kensington Market, Toronto). Every weekly Art Bar night had the potential to somehow transform all of those participants. We inferred that Art Bar had succeeded in that ongoing revolutionary experience, the liberating core of Art Bar as an institution; but what was part of the literary criticism-in-action of a poetry performance was how the live performance affects the careers and aesthetics of the participants differently. A poetry reading series is literary criticism in the form of a performance. The organizer’s role, as I performed my tasks, is lightly scripted and heavily improvised. 

Before I arrived, some decisions by the organizers, and some in-the-moment actions of invited poets, the actions of a few ongoing influential audience members, had contributed to various obvious systemic injustices. At worst, Art Bar’s creeping systemic injustices managed to reaffirm the presence of Toronto’s various regionally recognizable local prejudices. These prejudices led some poetry audiences in Toronto to argue that Art Bar was no longer relevant. (Does Jeremy’s British Columbian publisher, on the Pacific margin of the Canadian empire, perhaps fall into a marginalized CanLit category)?

Nonetheless, we organizers decided the funders, including the Canada Council for the Arts, the Ontario Arts Council, the Toronto Arts Council, had recognized the transformative core of Art Bar. That core persisted, and was worth funding. Our job, as organizers, was to nurture that liberating core, while radically opposing the injustices that Art Bar had begun to institutionalize. We owed a sincere attempt at social change to the funders, the poets, Free Times, Toronto’s multicultural mythology at-large, and the Art Bar’s critics.

One way that Art Bar reinforced the injustices of Toronto, was that it exclusively invited poets with at least one Canadian book published, almost always more than one book. This policy was untenable. Toronto is a city where more than half the residents were born in another country, often without Canadian styles of book publishing and culture industries. By which I mean, poets come from countries that did not fund a feedback loop of publication in journals and book publishing, in the manner of Canada’s decades-long public-private partnership model culture industry. Also, those newcomer poets might have nurtured a vibrant culture industry in their previous home, but they are almost always excluded from Canada’s culture industry loop (see: Zan and Manole, 2022). Meanwhile, Art Bar had become hyper-focused on the GTA, which meant the audiences and the newcomer poets at the open mic were not connecting with the wider Ontario culture, like, say, the traditionally ignored poets of the Niagara region, Peterborough, or Windsor. 

This was the context in which I invited Jeremy, a Niagara writer, to be a featured poet at Art Bar. Happily, he delivered the goods. His reading was, according to some audience members, one of the more fun and memorable readings “in a long time.” Jeremy, featured before his first book was published, hailing from the Niagara region, helped to create regional connections across different stages of careers and different variations on the theme of being an outsider to Toronto’s literary establishment. Maybe he introduced the audience to opportunities for early career literary culture beyond the limited reach of the TTC streetcar tracks. (Alternatively, maybe Jeremy introduced the audience to opportunities beyond the airport cities that connect Canadian academic tenure tracks).

My own experiences with the successes and failures of my goals as an organizer at Art Bar contribute to what I can accomplish, and what I cannot accomplish, as a book reviewer. My background includes formally studying reflexive theory and generative theory in critical pedagogy (hooks, 1994, 2003, 2010). I treated my organizer status in Art Bar as a kind of participant action research for social change, focused on one institution’s intersectional role as an intersection, Bloor Street and Spadina Avenue, where Toronto and CanLit societies have always traditionally met. 

As a social justice and sociolegal researcher, and poet, I am informed by our successes and by our failures. As a book reviewer, I must recognize that any book review I write is coloured by two facts. Our successes were far too limited compared to other reading series. Our failures were publicly discussed as too endemic, and too amplified, by Toronto’s wider pre-pandemic social changes. I am worried that if I am Jeremy’s first reviewer of his first book, I will be considered Art Bar’s somewhat noteworthy, more-so uninspiring, activist try-hard; a footnote member of Hana Shafi’s celebrity squad; and that will be the context in which the literati of Toronto might read my reflections. Or worse, how they will read my praise for Jeremy’s socio-politically hilarious satire.

Yet I have a more important reason for highlighting book review as a genre, in the context of a literary culture based on live urban poetry readings. I am convinced that CanLit clique cells, such as reading series, or such as college publishing courses that are catalysts for the audiences to form, are going to fragment, and be unable to sustain their literary communities after Covid. The culture industry’s blindness to the systemic flaws “out-there” is lamentable; but worse, the poet-professoriate’s institutionally compelled blindness is intractable.

Editors are, to put it mildly, immolating themselves and the credibility of CanLit on uninformed doubts. Some Toronto writers and readers think that Art Bar’s attempts at diversifying its audience and literary canon was a complete failure. They are incorrect, having not consistently attended Art Bar (or maybe any series) to observe changes as they happened over time. Those same people, meanwhile, stake their literature’s existence on American control of Toronto networks through websites like Eventbrite (San Francisco) and Artery (New York City), linked by Submittable (Missoula, Montana), and a Canadian funding regime unwilling to pay attention to the technological strengths of Gen Zed. That editorial caste’s passionate love of American colonialism over Toronto restaurants and living rooms and bookshelves will impede everybody's reputations and everybody’s voices. I’ve watched new publishing structures emerge from new political divisions between generations of writers, while too few of those structures are offering reflective theories about how writers and publishers create their sociopolitical power. San Francisco, New York, and Missoula have Toronto in an iron grip, and the writers of Toronto embrace them with a loving squish.

Book reviews are a fading art. Review essays generate almost no cultural capital and no literary conversation. How can we even claim to acknowledge social change while restricting the word limits of book reviews to fewer than 1000 words and discouraging the career benefits of response essays about new literature? When it comes to myself, I don't think that anything I have to say about Jeremy's book is going to resonate with Jeremy’s potential future funders and editors who've been spending all these years rejecting my ideas, and who reject the most important analyses I have as either too political or, ironically, not political enough for their colonized post-reading pub-crawls where they talk about Canadian taxpayer-funded jobs that merely sell American platform capitalism. Maybe I could write a review of Jeremy’s book on some middle-ground, but I’m never good at middle-ground. Not even here where my family lives, just 40 miles from the US border, on a fork of Forty Mile Creek.

I’m afraid that Jeremy’s future world will see my name the same way CanLit cliques don’t see my name. Blink and they will miss my reviews, so they will pass over Jeremy’s short stories, and miss a book that informs us about the best traits of Canada’s intellectual potential during the Covid pandemic’s apocalyptic sociopolitical upheaval. They will ignore my review, so pass over Jeremy, whose first book is full of questions from social philosophy and epistemology, written in the minute interactions of ordinary people under extraordinary, unexpected stress. The plot hooks of these stories are variously that their protagonists have been isolated from their normal lives in some unusual, unexpected way. Those plot hooks are relevant right now. Right now.

Jeremy shouldn't be stuck with me. A poem of my own, or a review I write about someone with strong identification with audiences regardless of what I say, are the kinds of documents I can submit for publication. Jeremy needs a review by someone who sits on committees or who can tip award juries. He needs a Puneet Dutt (Dutt, 2018, 2019), a Gavin Barrett (Barrett, 2020), or a comparable impresario. 

I will drop some names to illustrate my point. If I am returning this book, I can at least assist you sling-shotting it to the next reviewer. Pandemic Era book reviewers have no choice but to sit and wait for whatever is delivered to us. And during a pandemic, we cannot leave isolation to work toward social change, meaning that without in-person attendance in literary venues, book reviews are our vehicles for social change. The only freedom we have in isolation is to stay still and notice new details over the edge of our masks. Jeremy’s book is one of those details. I mean, really, who is fully vaccinated, and who likes wearing an N95 mask in the blizzards of February 2021, so much, that they can plausibly have an alibi to turn down reviewing any book at all (see: Garner et al., 2020)?

Jeremy’s writing is funny; accessible. He uses an unpretentious vocabulary to build sumptuous descriptions vivid enough to establish a rhythm of trances from one paragraph to the next. Jeremy is an unexpected aesthete. He could be reviewed by the fictional “Vivian” in Oscar Wilde’s dialogue The Decay of Lying (Wilde, 2020). Who would that be in Canada? Someone whose poetry readings conveys the text with their body and breath. Adeena Karasick (Karasick, 2019)? Honey Novick? But Jeremy punctuates his prose with hilarious, short, mock-epic sentences and his reader laughs, loudly. As comedies, his stories could be analyzed by the funniest Canadian writer of all time, Jessica Westhead (2011, 2017). Westhead’s characters are fascinatingly simple people who are easily outsmarted by mundane situations. Her characters puzzle over their own boring relationships. I think that what she would say about Jeremy’s obverse cast of characters, clever characters in stupidly obtuse surreal situations, would be like reading a Canadian codex revealing an alchemy of humour.

Alternatively, focus on the deflationary effect of Jeremy’s humour, grounding the description in some sudden, blunt irony. His protagonists are trapped by ironies that they never quite understand, although their dilemmas are obvious to the reader. And yet, Jeremy is a comic writer, and his characters find ways to get what they want out of small steps in endless struggles. Susan Musgrave is the west coast god of inescapable ironies and their cheerful victims. Musgrave’s humour is introspective, mordant, forgiving of characters obtruded on by an unforgiving universe (Musgrave, 1995; Virgo, 2000). She is a better reviewer than I.

Or, who would recognize Jeremy’s motivations? Max Layton, in his poetry (2012, 2015), can spot a gentle working-class thinker who is not overpowered by the social forces that hurt them. Jeremy’s literary nuances seem to spring from years of privileged reflection, but his choices of characters, their believable personalities (not one of them is a Mary Sue), are the products of knowing people in a way that only comes from the imposed-upon work and home lives of the lower middle class. And, following that, Layton has the wisdom and experience, (far beyond mine), to decide if Jeremy overreached with any of them. I don’t think he did, but what do I know, besides to ask Max Layton?

Jeremy’s genre, if we have to choose, and I won’t, is surrealism and science fiction. One story is horror (more on that story later). Since his prose style has leapt from his brow fully formed in his first book, he deserves to be longlisted on awards for spec fic and sf.  He should be reviewed by an editor who can recognize and parse these genres for Hugo and Aurora. Dominik Parisien would do. Parisien would have the added effect of his reputation as an editor (see: Simon & Schuster, 2021), to really put Jeremy’s small publishers, Now or Never Publishing, to the test. Meanwhile, as an emerging writer, Jeremy would build the confidence of any emerging panel at a venue like the next AugurCon. His peer, as an author, and his de facto genre leader with power to determine his place in the near-future of Canadian speculative fiction, would be Terese Pierre (Pierre, 2021). Pierre has a knack for finding deep intellectual influences, as well as for identifying moments in text where an author made an interesting decision. Her review would be instructive for Canada’s inevitable Gen Zed spec fic wave. Months later, were Parisien or Pierre to be in a public conversation with Jeremy, I am sure that would be worthy of CBC or NPR radio broadcast.

But Jeremy is funny, and writing funny surrealism is almost impossible. The attempt usually turns into a deadpan bore. There are very few writers whose prose can gratify like John Cleese or Gary Barwin (2016). I think that the editor who has the innate personality to have glorious fun doing a critical exercise with Jeremy’s sincere, whimsical philosophy, and to truly see a mirror of her own dreaming in a few of the stories, is Casey Plett (Plett, Ed., 2017).

One last suggestion is to use Jeremy’s book to invite literary criticism from Indigenous writers. Now that Indigenous sci fi and spec fic has a secure (for now) place in Canadian literary circles, it is time to ramp-up the opportunities for Indigenous criticism of current settler writer spec fic. I think there is nothing wrong with going to a landmark collection like mitewacimowina (McLeod, Ed., 2016); and asking any of the authors inside to review a spec fic book. The mixture of humor, horror, and politics in that collection suggests that there is much to gain from engaging them with literary criticism as a conversational catalyst. But to name one Indigenous authors who I think would be interesting, try Waubgeshig Rice.

Each chapter of Waubgeshig Rice’s novels (2014, 2018), feels like it could also be a stand-alone story. His writing is often ambiguous. Characters who are in the midst of oppressively serious emotions glow with small moments that make readers giggle. Rice is a writer of interpersonal relationships containing ambivalent emotions, challenged by a capriciously conscious world. He is also a writer of Indigenous speculative fiction and post apocalyptic fiction. To Rice, Jeremy’s surreal settings would be transparent. The depth of the relationships would undoubtedly get their due attention. Although Jeremy’s stories all feel complete, without a plot hole or untied shoelace anywhere, the problematics at the center of his stories are clearly going to be expanded as technology and society change, and his characters might reappear one day in movies, video games, or comic books. A review by Rice would set the table for those visual media to add new dimensions to Jeremy’s ideas.

Or they might not.

You might be wondering why I am subjecting you to this long personal email, especially since you can see it will go on longer, below. 

Besides reminding you, [Editor], that I am prolix and disagreeable (do I ever shut up, am I ever not indignant, etc.), there is something to be said for flailing my tiny fists at CanLit’s inscrutable, funded-but-underfunded friend networks (like yours and mine). CanLit mistakes their clique’s reading recommendations standards for a model of publishing ethics. How can a piece of literature be evaluated at all under these conditions? 

I tried to get two friends, X. and Y., to buy Jeremy’s book. One friend, X., reads several books a week and professionally reviews some of them. She refused to read Jeremy’s stories at first, because she never heard of him. I nagged her into looking up the book. She refused a second time, because she could not find a woman writer on his publisher’s website. I found a few, though (Alexis Kienlen, Carolyn Bennett, Gila Green, Jane Woods, Jennifer Coffey, Jessica Wallace, Liz Worth, Lucy Black, Maria Cichosz, and others you can find on Now Or Never’s website). Ultimately, X. refused a third time, because Now Or Never’s gender ratio was, quote, “not convincing.” She is no longer “wasting her time reviewing boys publishing boys.” I should point out that X. is not squeamish about buying potential drek; but apparently X. is squeamish about the company drek keeps.

As for the limited reach of my own influence… My other friend, Y., is a book buyer for a bookstore in the Hamilton, Ontario, area. Y. refused to read Jeremy’s book because Jeremy’s writing has not informed any international influence yet. I eventually nagged Y. enough to get the bookstore owner to stock one copy (not my goal, but a surprise victory nonetheless). However, Y. refuses to read it unless the owner says it’s good enough. Not just good, but good enough. Emphasis enough. And Y. is a Brock University grad just like Jeremy, who was born in the Niagara region, just like Jeremy (although Y. is not from Jeremy’s Brock English Dept). Their regional and alma-material cultural connections were not conducive enough to power a book read, let alone a book review. Y.’s New York approved literati lists were stronger stuff than geography and mutual friends. 

So much my own, personal hero-worship of the power of Canadian cliques.

Between X. and Y., who are accomplished book reviewers, I see an unstable basis for imagining our cultural canons. What kind of affinities are we rejecting when we reject reviewing a book? When does it count as an expulsion rather than a disinterest or a focus?

Canadian reviewers demonstrate an exquisite resistance to taking books on the books’ own terms, choosing instead to review books for our own CVs. We do not meet writers as if they have value in themselves, nor think about their work as if they are neighbours. And an editor procuring a Nobody, like me, to review a first book is like burying the Invisible Man in a peat bog (I am the bog in this analogy) and asking a germophobe to dig him up using only his sense of smell and his bare hands (the germophobe is the picky reader/reviewer public). 

Wealth makes a reviewer posh in-the-way-of prissy, and social capital seems to set cliquish agendas. Books are not the technology of the wealthy, or the means to building twenty first century social capital. Books, as a technology, are for readers of modest socioeconomic means. Short stories are media for those people who cannot choose to externalize the consequences of their choices, who must contemplate relationships and live with mistakes. Books are not just for living with our own mistakes, but those of us who have to live with each others’ mistakes. We are a social class. Books are for The Rest of Us. For my part, book reviewers have me confused about what actual capital makes them powerful. How are reviewers insulated enough that they can ignore some books on principle, while their principal job is to acknowledge the cultural context of books? “Clang!” go the class conflicts.

The only power that Canadian literary authors have is the sort of social mobility that makes the novelist Mugabe Byenkya (2017), into a hero of mine. Although he was regularly treated terribly in Toronto (including, especially, Art Bar), Byenka became the best-selling novelist in Uganda. Given Uganda’s much larger market, and given, perhaps, the more urgent choices of a reading public with less money to spend on literary fiction, Byenkya is clearly the superior author among Toronto’s literary elite. Toronto should recognize its failures to respect him on stages and in audiences. And shall we send Jeremy’s book to Uganda for review? Why subject any writers to the career delays caused by Canadian incuriosity?

Of course, I can return to my note that Jeremy is from Canada’s Brock University, a contemporary of Eric Schmaltz (2018), Jade Wallace (2021), Lindsay/Jimmy Cahill (2021); the first cohort of writers who seminared with professors/poets Tim Conley (2012), Greg Betts, and Adam Dickinson, (after Brock expanded its Eng Lit program to include creative writing and not focus only on criticism). In downtown St. Catharines, Jeremy debated poetics with Jordan Fry (2017), and James Millhaven (2017), (the deschooled and the unschooled poets, respectively). Jeremy schmoozed with CanLit at The NAC and Fine Grind, on Fry’s, Betts’, and Schmaltz’s rosters of invited poets (rosters that can be traced in the coauthors and publishers of: Barwin and Betts, 2011; Colangelo, 2020; Schmaltz and Doody (Eds.), 2021).

In my opinion, of all the Brock literati, Cahill’s composite wit, and imagination, and optimism, are the most comparable to Jeremy’s. A love of digital entertainment and futuristic idioms make Cahill into a symmetrical surrealist cyberpunk reflection of Jeremy’s ironically cyberpunk content with classical storytelling mode. (Pardon that I am unsure if Cahill goes by Linsday or Jimmy for the purposes of literary criticism. I am referencing the name on Cahill’s older chapbooks on my shelf so that you and I can look those up easily; otherwise, Tweet Cahill for accuracy; autre otherwise, I am comparing the early Cahill to the current Colangelo – Brock University’s two cybercomedian writers).

But, so what? Why can’t I write a review for Jeremy’s book? There might be a necessary element of biography in book reviews. I’ve probably stretched it. Every author who refused to read Jeremy’s stories would read this letter and say that I am wrong about how to choose a reviewer. They would read my list of names and say I am “being prescriptive.” They might claim I am trying to conscript a reviewer and demanding they accept who I think they are, and what to write in their review. They might say I am mistaking the author’s social life for his work. I’m talking about a book review as if it is about a community of writers and not about a book. Almost, they might say, like I am pretending to be a champion like Milton Acorn and his People’s Poetry (1973); instead of serious critics like George Bowering, who believes poets are almost-a-priesthood apart from the obvious constraints of normal life (2019), or Northrup Fry’s insistence that poems represent nothing but the forms of human thought (1997). They would accuse me of not wanting a book review at all, because by talking about the potential alchemy of writers in conversation, I am avoiding the entire question of how to review a book as an object of art that stands apart from its creator.

And if they did argue suchlike, the authors who refused to read Jeremy’s book should be reminded that they refused to review Jeremy’s book on the grounds they never heard of him, and they never heard of his publisher. They not only mistake his social life for the book, but they mistake their own social lives for the standard of reviewing a stand-alone work of art. In contrast, I am saying that a book review editor needs to choose reviewers based on the social lives of our imagined communities (Anderson, 2006; Authers, 2016; Clemetn, 2016; Powe, 2014). The spaces we share in both our own little spheres of influence, and the problematics we share (the second time I’ve used that word in this essay), in the wider society. That is what I mean by the potential alchemy of writers (distilling in the alembic we call book reviews).

My personal strength as a book reviewer comes from my education in social science. I am able to identify a problematic reflected in a poem, a story, in a relationship between characters and the normative relationships in our diverse society. The word problematic is a noun that comes from institutional ethnography, and most notably Dorothy E. Smith, a researcher from the University of Toronto (Smith, 2005). The problematic of an institution is a lot like what the literary critic Charles Baxter calls subtext (2007). A story makes no sense without setting, personal pasts and futures, blanks in relationships and emotional intentions that the reader and writer can share. Social institutions consist of normative relationships as well, different than their mission statements, different than the way they go about starting and finishing the tasks they are made for.

A problematic is a little bit different than bias. Ethnographers often refer to a matrix when they talk about a problematic. Wherever people interact is where “the social” exists. By watching how people talk to each other, where they talk, what controls their conversations at work, or in a setting (for example, a kitchen table is a cultural institution, and full of family hierarchies), sociologists can empirically see fragments of unspoken, maybe unconscious, maybe conscious, conflicts that people must resolve, in order to maintain their relationships. And those relationships, of course, must also retain flexibility.

For my own part, I see books as social. Reading a book (as opposed to writing or storing a book on a shelf), is a social process. To have books, we need architecture like chairs, couches, commuter train seats. We need institutions like “going to the beach” and “bedtime stories.” The writer and the reader are communicating in text and subtext. A reader has total agency to finish the interaction with the book itself, or to stop halfway; but we, as observers, do not know much about the reader’s encounter with the author, in the form of a conversation. Ideas from a book can be discarded, or they can change a life. They might be forgotten, or not return to mind for a few years. But, a book review, in my estimation, is the difference between the social institution at play when the book is being read and the institutions at play continuing the encounter. Writing a book review, publishing a book review, and reading a book review, are all social activities that extend the encounter that makes literature social. 

If you want an example of two poets who write with a conscious eye on the institutional problematic, I recommend looking up Afua Cooper (2006), and George Elliott Clarke (2017). They write nonfiction and poetry specifically to develop their awareness of Canadian history. They expect their readers to carry on thinking about institutions and daily life, extending the experience of reading a book into an experience of reading the world (see: hooks, 1994; 2003; 2010).

As a book reviewer, I ask the question, “Why read this book?” My answer is to find the problematic, a matrix that the stories identify and develop. This list of writers I gave you above, and the reasons I gave for choosing them, are not supposed to shape what I believe their reviews would be about. I am not proposing the content. I am saying that those writers share those qualities with Jeremy’s writing, and that if we hypothetically did read their hypothetical reviews, in that social interaction between short stories and reviewer, we, the readers, would be able to see institutional problematics peculiar to their shared strengths. We would be wiser for reading those reviews, and if those reviews are not written, we might never know those problematics. And since I am an aspiring ethnographer try-hard who, trying for a PhD, brought Dorothy E. Smith and Charles Baxter to observe Toronto’s bail court from the back row, I am not saying that the book reviews would even mention what I mentioned. I am saying that their book reviews would be social, and they would benefit our Canadian society, because we think about books and book reviews as we interact with our worlds.

And so, I am not the correct reviewer for Jeremy’s book. What I am saying is apostate. I would go straight for the problematic. I would situate Jeremy’s book in our society. I skip literary discourse steps. The most important review I have written, about a chapbook written by Jaclyn Desforges, is about how nuanced and impressively her poetry exemplifies the new institutions of CanLit. My review attempts to expose certain shared problematics central to the crises of Canadian and American society, in the age of the Alt Right. Every editor rejects my review with scathing comments (comments that, later, I see show they were blind to problems which, since I wrote the review years ago, have become actual violent public conflicts). Jeremy deserves a big-name reviewer with an ethos like Oscar Wilde’s Vivian; like Catherine Owen (2015), like George Bowering, like Jessica Bebenek (see and grok: Bebenek, 2018). (You know I also live as a conduit for aesthetics, but in my poetry, not my reviews, not my PhD candidate Day Job).

There are 19 short stories in Jeremy’s book. I will not give you a book review. Instead, I will give you a list of (what I think are) the societal questions in the problematic of each story. Well, the first 7 stories. These are excellent topics for response essays. Or, in my opinion, they would be excellent themes for interviewing Jeremy about each story, for publication in any number of magazines, journals, or on podcasts. Go ahead and spread these ideas around. Assign interviews, find venues, gather audiences.

The Forever Pit

I want to hear what a room of high school students can say about the way this story illustrates ecological disaster. A construction company sets out to dig a bottomless hole. Of course, some people fall in. There is no explanation for the hole except that it is the company’s contract, and when one of the workers falls in, he has no direction about what to do with the hole. However, the rest of society has their own uses for the hole, disposing of household garbage like food, discarded furniture and media. So, people who find ways of changing their rate of descent end up meeting each other, falling in love, making a family.

We live in a disposable society full of unnecessary construction projects. But nothing we ever dispose of truly disappears. Other people find the pieces, and make their lives around it. Even stories of the previous world survive. Jeremy recounts how the falling people marry, have children, read and become philosophers. The children speculate if the upper world exists at all. What was there before falling, and what was there before the hole? These are real questions that parents deal with today when they explain forests and lakes to their children.

What makes Jeremy an essentially Canadian author is that the people who make use of the disposable society’s dispossessions are fundamentally Canadian. For decades, Canada has been the most educated country in the world. Jeremy’s characters, confronted with crisis, choose to create their new lives around reading, conversing, and learning for a general education regardless of their tragic circumstances. This might be the most definitively Canadian cultural difference between other societies facing absurdities and irreversible change. We define ourselves by our learning. Thematically, this story is important to the collection because all of Jeremy’s protagonists deal with their ordeal by trying to learn about the wider world.

Once Again

Several stories in the collection are suitable to be labelled Kafkaesque, as a genre. However, it is the optimism about a potential to learn that separates Jeremy from Kafka. Leaving aside that general observation that Jeremy is a Canadian answer to Kafka, this is a Kafkaesque story about an amnesiac trying to escape from solitary confinement in an unknown prison. Her only contact person is a servant who brings food and occasional media. The prisoner uses a spoon to dig, but the prison seems eternal, and the servant seems unconcerned about either the escape attempt or the prisoner’s failed memory.

The servant is gaslighting the prisoner (Wilkinson, 2017). Every question the prisoner asks, the servant replies with another question, or an apparent observation about the prisoner herself. The servant always redirects the prisoner into a relationship of trust and delay of self-assertion. In our current historical moment when we are hyperaware of the concept of gaslighting, and hyperaware of over-punishment and over-imprisonment, we could learn more by asking if gaslighting is Kafkaesque. The movie Gaslight is clearly not Kafkaesque. There is no mystery for the viewer. We know what is really happening. The tension is watching the victim discover the truth. Kafka leaves the real truth out of reach for his readers and characters.

Jeremy also keeps the prison and any sense of fact or substantive knowledge mysterious; for instance, by renewing the prisoner’s amnesia, and reinforcing the servant’s evasive conversation. What separates Jeremy’s story from the Kafkaesque is that there is no specifically legal consciousness to even explain what the punishment is, when the prisoner is allowed to escape. “Escape” the verb, present tense, forever, is still escaping, is it not? There has got to be a metaphor here, somewhere, for cyberspace and gaslighting.

Unconditional Love

This is a story about a mother’s destructively strong ego unleashed during a family car trip. At the center of the story is a relationship between a father, mother, and son, when the parents’ marriage has dissolved. The marriage is so dissolved that they cannot agree on the shared ownership of a car they jointly paid for. Yet they retain the institution of the family. The importance of institutions to the mother leads her to berate her spouse and to complain about a man whose car breaks down, even though bickering they breeze past him without helping. Later, their own car breaks down on the highway and another family passes by, remarking on how raggedy and improper they look. As if we intend the world to see us, when our car breaks down…

This is the least surreal story of the collection that is otherwise obviously science fiction or speculative fiction. If it is a story about egotism and keeping up appearances, the implied infinite regression of drivers and antipathy to unexpectedly stranded motorists is a literary conceit meant to illustrate a point. But what if the inception of stranded drivers and un-self-aware criticisms are not just a conceit, but a sort of magical realism on a cursed stretch of road? What does that illustrate about the way personal conflicts reproduce social biases (I’m getting a little Durkheimian, here)? Is there, in fact, something about the private spaces of cars and the geography of highways that can reproduce these judgemental moments?

The Images

“The Images” is a postapocalyptic world, and a change in tempo, reminiscent of anime like Mushi Shi (IMDBa, 2021), and or even the DC comics cartoon universe like The Flashpoint Paradox (IMDBb, 2021). After a long period of international war, ghostlike entities begin to repopulate the world, “[T]hese were not the shades of the dead that wandered among us, for sometimes the person who’d replace them was alive…But I guess by now we’re used to having two of things…But once they got going they needed to come up with a reason,” (Colangelo, 32). According to one character, “It seems the war continues, that it will always continue, though not in the same way. Pockets of warring congregate like weather systems…always in the places people forget,” (33). We readers live now, in an era of endless war. The parallels seem obvious.

Jeremy’s story helps to warn us away from the simplistic theories of reproduction and multiplicity of persons in a hypermediated world whose economics are driven by international wars and international supply chains, blinded by local political competitions and fungible job titles. We could cop-out and read Baudrillard. I think Jeremy’s story is important because it appeals to those of us who’ve had a couple decades of independent adult life. Baudrillard appeals to the superyoung because simulacra are easy to dismiss or to undermine. Jeremy’s story is about two of everything (or more), where they occupy social relationships and create more than mere interaction. They are life. The two of everything still get be active, critical, emotive, attentive, and people’s biographies cannot stand without them. Baudrillard can always separate society from the pretend (he claims the opposite, but I think he creates nothing but disdain for the simulacra in his readers). Jeremy’s story fills in a gap about the reality that led up to the Russian interference in the democratic world’s election, Brexit, pandemic denialism. Since endless war is still endless, his story better describes our situation where we are all losing our quality of life while somehow multiplying our social lives through fungible corporate controlled personalities. As if, I suppose, the graphic design of Etsy or the action of swiping right is actually appropriate for everyone; rendering (using AI edits of our uploaded pics) us all ghosts of one another. 

Perhaps I am under-selling the aesthetic experience of an endless war as a prolonged apocalypse, with everywhere the center and the everywhere else the conflict. This story is manga. Read it as manga.

Note on Filicide

This is the only horror story in Jeremy’s collection. It is a one-page homage to research ethics. I submit that it is the only story in which there is no protagonist. I also submit that it is the only story in which no character wants to deal with their situation by exploring ideas and gaining knowledge. Even the villain, a Psychology professor, performs a Kafkaesque experiment merely because she is dissatisfied with the literature available, but not because she has a proper research question. “Note on Filicide” is a portrait wherein every character is dismissive and incurious, competitive but only insofar as they don’t want to make anything similar to a synthesis out of the knowledge they already have. I believe this antithesis to all his protagonists is what really reveals Jeremy’s own philosophical ethos in the book. He is the Canadian Kafka, well aware of torture machines, yet still optimistic about learning, and only actually frightened when critical reflection is absent.

Lapidary Eyes

This short story might prove to be the tension at the core of all of Jeremy, PhD’s, present and future academic writing in the field of English literature. Is every image produced by a human an example of ekphrastic art? What is the boundary between ekphrastic art and a dream? Are dreams ekphrastic? Is art about a dream ekphrastic?

Do we see anything other than the interior of our eyeballs? If dreams are ekphrastic, and the only thing we see is the interior of our eyeballs, does that mean that the only art which isn’t steeped in ekphrasis is a naturalistic interior view of our own eyeball?

When a work of art is reproduced, commercially, on a t-shirt or mug, what other experience can be reproduced by looking at that t-shirt or mug? How much science would it take to turn a mass-produced image into a sublime experience, thereby mass producing a sublime experience? 

Living Arrangements

In “Living Arrangements” the narrator is an elderly author, Priscilla Noctis. Noctis sits down to produce a memoir, and, rather than writing about her life, proceeds to write an exegesis on character and plot. Jeremy invents a poetics that could very well be channeling Neil Gaiman (Bender, 1999), slowly developing a metaphysics of writing parallel to the ethos of Gaiman’s Sandman character Dream. Several passages are especially poignant for readers of Gen X’s graphic fiction.

At the beginning of her career, Noctis noticed the act of writing was an independent universe. Society was insensible, reproached, remote. 

When I work is it as though I am become the space I occupy, that I am not a body seated at a desk…I am not among the dust and trash of the room. I have no relation to them because relation presupposes a perspective, a point of view. But in the reverie of writing, I abandon the points from which I view, the fact and placement of my body, and from that vanishment work emerges as though it were the mere detritus of a dream (Colangelo, 41).

At first, Jeremy’s passage appears to contradict what I said to you in my objections a few paragraphs above. The act of writing is independence, release from being in society. Whereas I claim a book is a place where author and reader interact, Noctis reports being without any thought of the reader. In fact, I experience something similar, and “As though I become the space I occupy” is as good a phenomenological description for the self-sufficient and satisfying alienation of a long stretch of writing, as any I’ve devised. And it is a description that eludes most critical theory in the Social Sciences, part of the reason they are in a power struggle with the Humanities, (and I would dare to theorize that it is one horizon over which we battle over the limits of freedom of expression and the power of discourse in practicing dignitarian human rights). But Jeremy’s poetics, and Noctis’ exegesis, evolve over the course of Noctis’ fictional career. Expanding the role of dreaming, Noctis recounts.

I realized while I was writing…that a character was just a set of words and notions that a person put a name to, and that words were just another way of letting dream step out to your brainspace for a second, which is really all it needs (41).

But they are not merely phonemes, signs and signified. Noctis’ poetics begins by recognizing the reader as the recipient of a message, far away and interacting not with her dreams and characters, but only with the words. The books Noctis wrote were, at the start, a means of production, an enjoyable product of intellectual labour. That labour was possible because Noctis abandoned herself, literally her own sense of herself. “I suppose that’s why it took me so long to get around to [memoirs]…I must write without abandoning myself, and let me tell you that ain’t fun” (42).

Characters hold real power, according to Jeremy, and the parallel with Gaiman is interpellated with what sort of influence characters, the author’s dream, have over audiences. Noctis explains her most important character in a literary conceit that allows Jeremy to explain that conflicts between characters are “an attempt to help the victim to see the world in a new way, or to express some possibility that was always there but never seen” (40). We should probably make Jeremy explain which person has never seen the revealed possibility: the antagonist, the victim, the writer, or the reader. If the author is in a kind of holistic trance, then what is it about the social realm that allows for the conflicts to be understood in the first place? But Jeremy, and Noctis, recognize the contradictions between the writer’s individuality and their membership in a community as the products of only a superficial experience of writing and character building. A lifetime of storytelling later, Noctis realizes her main character,

…[I]s a child of dream, and so is by his nature mischievous, dream being of course the land of pleasure and pleasure principle. Yet that pleasure is a land of nightmares, also. …In dream the joy and sorrow are identical, not merely aspects of some third higher thing but…without intermediary (44-5).

For a more thoroughly developed consideration of that passage, in text and drawing, you should read Gaiman’s Sandman, because there is nothing trite in what Noctis is illuminating. In the realm of social theory, of course, we can find Michel Foucault talking about the relationship between justice and discourse. At various levels, I see awareness of the unmediated ambivalences of character and conflict in the writing of William Blake, Soren Kierkegaard, Cornel West, just being themselves, or Aislinn Hunter (2009), Lisa Richter (2017), lost in a rhythm of simultaneous joy and trepidation. Dissolving the self by writing is not an excuse from everyday hierarchies or responsibility for reifying conflicts. If what we refer to as critical theory in the social sciences paid more attention to the trance of writing, though, there could be a more realistic and complicated critique of how people live a literary life. Virginia Woolf started a conversation about the importance of that trance and the social spaces of our homes, and Jeremy seems to be extending the theory Woolf started with A Room of One’s Own, therefore his character Noctis demands critical analysis.

Jeremy further develops the idea of dreaming without intermediaries by examining the general arcs of writing careers. Noctis’ late career careens to a kind of semiotic singularity. For Noctis, characters become names that a writer gives to ideas, but so are settings, events, objects. In a passage reminiscent of declaring I am Buddha, you are Buddha, the Moon is Buddha, he writes, “When I [Noctis] would previously write that Ms. Blathey stepped out into the sun,” in this book I would write that “J. stepped to J., a moving, inside there was an outside and from J. to J. came light and warmth…” (42). Jeremy dissolves the self first, in the act of writing, then the dissolved writer realizes that each element of the story is an extension of the same consciousness.

The story ends with Noctis claiming that her memoir is of the same unbound, unmediated order of things. 

Once the word of dreams that are this book find homes within the minds of others, they will cease to be my others. And the arrangements of words shall find new life among the ambles and the flows of living space. And I shall step out from this dungeon in my home and take up with the light that is of me and everything. And I shall live again (49).

Noctis is a writer who will reincarnate in the minds of readers. Writing is dreaming, and the entire universe can become a monad through practice of that dream. So, the act of reading is a way of unifying the dream in multiple shared bodies.

Not long ago, in fact just a few paragraphs above, I presented my own theory of reading a book as a social event. Book reviews, I claimed, were extensions of the social aspect of reading a book, and in writing them, we have an unpredictable encounter with some kind of problematic. Book review editors, in my opinion, might not be able to predict the content of the book review they ask for; but book review editors should be able to predict the source of the alchemy, whether sympathy or antipathy between the writer and the reviewer. Furthermore, since book reviews are themselves a social institution, by reading them, we will analyze a problematic in a new way. For now, (I don’t know for how long), I am willing to trust that Jeremy’s short story “Living Arrangements” provides the metaphysics behind my social theory of book reviews.

As for what my own review would say, regretfully, I am not the best person to make observations. In my opinion, Jeremy is the distinctly Canadian peer of Franz Kafka. Other than that precocious claim, I have offered you 7 briefs that should, in my opinion, allow you to assign an article, a response paper, or an interview with Jeremy. Maybe all three, for each of those stories. And, once you’ve done that, maybe some authors will recognize his name, because they will be required to meet him, instead of required to read his book. The benefit of my briefs is that they only require the interviewer/essayist to read one short story instead of a whole book. Laziness is a virtue, since it gives us more time for daydreaming and napping, but the role of an editor is to assign tasks for maximum virtuosity. Meanwhile, I would like to return to my pandemic survival strategy: hiding in a February cocoon of blankets on a frozen plum farm at the edge of a lake.

All of which ought to prove that I am not the person to review Jeremy’s book. Please send me your snail mailing address so I can return the unjustly damned thing.


The book was returned. It was reviewed by someone else. The reviewer chose to remain Anonymous.


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About the Writer:

Terry Trowbridge is a Canadian living on Lake Ontario, a plum farmer, a sociolegal researcher, a book reviewer, and a Pushcart nominee. His poetry and essays have appeared in something like 100 different journals, zines, and chapbooks. His Erdős number is 5.


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