Strike Anywhere

By Michael Lista

It’s a shame that so much of the little discussion of book reviewing we have in this country gets hung up on the label of whether it should or shouldn’t be “negative.”

The charge of negativity is a hard one to shake. In popular culture the bias toward liking things is deeply ingrained. One thinks, for example, of the long struggle to have Facebook include a “dislike” button (because what sort of a terrible person would dislike something?). We shouldn’t be surprised that the default position for book reviewing is relentlessly and strictly upbeat, and that any contrary opinion is going to stand out.

As the title of this lively collection of literary essays and reviews, mostly on Canadian poets and poetry, indicates, Michael Lista isn’t afraid to group himself in with the bomb-throwers and arsonists, but to limit his critical outlook to any one label is misleading. Lista isn’t a “negative” critic so much as a passionate one, enthusiastic in both his likes and dislikes.

This is essential, since book reviews and most literary essays are by their nature ephemeral and it’s only their passion, personality, and intelligence that makes the best of them worth re-visiting. Lista’s writing has all of these qualities, delivered in a confident, categorical voice that speaks in absolutes but which never comes across as pompous or affected. Instead, his observations are grounded in earthy, humorous language and anecdotes (his trip to the Dante house museum in Florence being a good example). If there’s a fault it’s that the pieces here are so short we never get to see Lista show what he can do beyond quick takes.

A book like this also raises a pair of questions about literary criticism in Canada today that are worth pondering.

In the first place: why is poetry criticism in particular so active? In the last few years there have been a whole shelf of excellent collections of essays on contemporary Canadian poetry published, but next to nothing addressing the state of our fiction. Why is that?

Second: why is popular literary criticism, the kind addressed to the general reader, being written almost exclusively by freelancers or columnists like Lista? None of the best books of literary essays and reviews written in the last several years has been by an academic. Where are the professionals?

Whatever the answer to these questions, we can at least be happy that the flame of criticism is being kept alive, and likely to strike anywhere.

Review first published in the Toronto Star August 21, 2016.

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