Monday, December 18, 2006

Reviews review

Here are some of my perceptions of "respectable" or "prestigious" literary reviews in Canada and the US. Perhaps I should put the scare quotes around "perceptions" as well. As Silliman put it in one of his posts, literary magazine publishing is a kind of constant white noise that's hard to focus on when there are so many contemporary books to read, not to mention canonical writers (let alone -- oh yes! -- one's own writing). I've looked through pretty well all the Canadian mags over the years, and given a good going over some contributer's copies and the occasional subscription. American ones I'm familiar with through the net and the occasional trip to a university library.

In Canada there are about eighteen or so established, top-tier literary reviews, most of which are glossy, beautifully produced affairs associated with the universities. In terms of prestige or reputation, none of these clearly stands head and shoulders above the rest -- unlike in the States, with Poetry and Paris Review, where if you make it there you've unquestionably made it, can with continued effort pretty well expect a book with a good press to follow, if a book or books & prizes haven't already followed (as is usually the case). Kenyon Review, Shenandoah, Boston Review, Ploughshares, Georgia Review, Poetry North West, New England Review seem to occupy a close second rank along with a few others... hmm, help me, what others? I wonder if there's been a ranking done of lit reviews, like those rankings of universities that come out year after year? Although such rankings can be quite rank in the most obnoxious sense, they are significant in that they both express and reinforce perceptions of prestige.

In Canada, Exile, Brick, Malahat and perhaps Prism International seem to boast the highest international standard (that is, publishing international writers), the latter if only for its name: I'm not that familiar with its recent incarnations. Descant strikes me as rather august -- they've been around for ages, publish some big names, it can take about a year for them to respond, and the confusing thing by the way is that they have theme issues you have to (do you have to?) tailor your submissions around. Brick, primarily a magazine of literary non-fiction, is, as far as fiction and poetry is concerned, closed shop of eminent writers (Atwood, Jim Harrison come to mind) and other quite good ones who "got the call". According to an interview with Stan Dragland, editor of the book publisher Brick Books, in recent issue of The Word (download Jan-Feb. 07) , the press and book publisher (which is still definitely open for submissions) have only a historical affiliation; in other words, they have gone their separate ways. But I still see some bleed -- common authors -- between one and the other. Vellum, a relative newcomer, also has an eye on the world -- interviews and selections of international authors. Between the rest, many of which are dedicated to publishing Canadians only, there's not a lot to choose: one sees the same writers cropping up, even the same kinds of poems. Let's see, we've got (going roughly from West to East) Event, Capilano Review, Quills, Grain, Prairie Fire, CV2, Arc, New Quarterly, Queen's Quarterly (isn't that mostly criticism?), Matrix, Fiddlehead, Antigonish Review, Dalhousie Review. Of these, the New Quarterly stands out (in my mind at least) as a particularly engaging blend of articles, stories and poems, and frequently guest edited (as in the issue including yt edited by Robyn Sarah a couple of years back) is, in the "political" sense of the word, no bellwether. Most of these, however, strike me as coming considerably under the Kenyon Review level -- maybe more like, say, the Black Warrior Review (judging by BWR's web site/selections).

Links to all these reviews (and a lot more) can be be found on my sidebar.

It's interesting that such a large proportion of the established Canadian reviews open to new writing are ensconced on sleepy, small-town campuses. Could that be that a reason why one commentator on a recent CBC literary program remarked that although a vast majority of Canadians now live in large urban centres, an unusually large proportion of Canadian writing seems to express the reality of rural areas and small towns?


Anonymous said...

Read the entry and enjoyed it.

Anonymous said...

This is fascinating. Have you seen

Brian Campbell said...

Thanks for pointing that out. I'll put it on my side bar.