The Art of the Book Review, by Barrie Jean Borich
Earlier this year, we began to mull over the idea of highlighting the creative process of our poetry and CNF book reviewers, Stan Sanvel Rubin and Barrie Jean Borich. We wanted to devote a space to allow these long time reviewers and contributors the opportunity to share with our readers what the “essay review” means to them and why they enjoy working for Water~Stone Review.
This is a special two-part post. Part two will feature Stan Sanvel Rubin. This post was written by Barrie Jean Borich.
I contribute what is commonly called “the essay review,” which, defined broadly, is a hybrid of the book review and the personal essay. I would not say that I have parameters in mind, but my models are the reviews Judith Kitchen wrote for Water~Stone Review for many years, which I will say include three notable features: identifiable voice, eclectic scope of reading, and connections back to creative nonfiction as a genre category.
Process is probably too formal a word in creating these reviews. Some of this has to do with whatever creative nonfiction question I am most interested in at the moment — perhaps because of something I’m teaching, or a craft essay I am writing for a conference or talk. Sometimes issues or concepts I’ve been teaching for years keep repeating through my classrooms, which leads me to write on these themes in order to pay attention in new ways. Otherwise the process is basically instinctual. Which books do I feel most drawn to write about? And what are their common moves, themes, or resonances? And how does that relate to where I am and what’s happening around me as I begin to write?
I honestly don’t feel I am any kind of expert on the book review form. I would say that there seems to be more of an appetite of late for reviews that wander a bit into the ideas and associations of a book or other work of art, as seen through the peculiar eye of the reviewer. I’m not that interested in reading or writing reviews that simply recount storyline, or follow that old review model where the reviewer has to say one negative thing to justify the praise. Neither am I interested in positing my own judgment as universal. I am interested in the ways form moves story, in the way our proximity or distance from events changes story, in the way surprise, or vulnerability, or our relationship to what we call “the truth” interacts with story, and I am interested in the ways our memories and self-portraits interact with the places and people that made us. I am interested in the ways we all perform ourselves in nonfiction, and I am interested in what happens when books call attention to their own performances.
I can’t think of a time that I reviewed a book without prior knowledge of that book, or prior intention to read that book. This is perhaps one way an essay-review differs from a standard book review. The essay review is about the essayist’s reading sensibilities and reading desires, and puts conversation before judgement. In that context, I am always in the position of choosing the books I am going to write about and that choice has to do with how I want to weigh in on the current state of nonfiction literature, and the current state of the world. That said, when essay-reviewing, I do look for different resonances then I might if say, I was teaching a book, because I am writing to respond to some essayistic question.
I am a journal editor myself, and when requesting reviews for my magazine — Slag Glass City, a nonfiction journal of the urban essay arts — I am looking for a conversation about books that engages with our mission. We publish essay reviews that seek to expand our engagement with urbanity, identity, sustainability, and climate change. As the editor, I appreciate how critical writing expands our engagement and broadens our scope, while also allowing us to participate in the ongoing creative nonfiction conversation. As far as Water~Stone Review is concerned, I always harken back to my own days as the journal’s first nonfiction editor — an editorial point of view that grew out of the whole reason Water~Stone Review has a tradition of nonfiction reviewing. I’ve always loved the story about Judith Kitchen agreeing to be a regular reviewer for the then-new magazine only if she could focus on nonfiction. I have always understood her request as a dedication to nonfiction as an intellectual and artistic category, worthy of our lifelong attention.
Aside from attempting some short pieces about living through the pandemic, I am working on a book called Oh What A Beautiful City — a book-length lyric essay that interrogates what it means to live in the palimpsest of urban history, memory, and the inevitably aging body. The particular city is Chicago, from the 1950s to the present day, though the writing reaches out to all urban spaces. The point of focus is my own, that of a queer female who has lived through addiction and recovery as well as a timeline of constantly shifting fields of understanding in regards to gender, sexuality, and the body.
Barrie Jean Borich is the author of Apocalypse, Darling, shortlisted for a Lambda Literary Award which PopMatters said “soars and seems to live as a new form altogether.” Her memoir Body Geographic won a Lammy, and in a starred review, Kirkus called the book, “an elegant literary map that celebrates shifting topographies as well as human bodies in motion.” Borich’s My Lesbian Husband won the ALA Stonewall Book Award. She is the editor of Slag Glass City, a journal of the urban essay arts. She is an associate professor in the English Department and MA in Writing and Publishing Program at DePaul University in Chicago.