Publishing Tips

Reviewing as Spiritual Practice:
The Way of the Tithe

Shane Neilson

September's Publishing Tip comes to you from Canadian poet Shane Neilson, a previous Malahat contributor and reviewer. Here, he explains why all writers should dedicate at least ten percent of their creative energy to critiquing fellow writers' work.

 

The Malahat Review posts “Publishing Tips” as a bimonthly guest column on its website and in Malahat lite. Follow it in order to learn how to improve your professional skills, from the writing of cover letters, to what house style means, to choosing a rhyming dictionary, to having an author photo (as opposed to a selfie) shot. Pitch us your tips and you might get published on our website!

 

I often receive requests by poets to review their work. They write me flattering emails, extolling my integrity as a tough critic. Then they move on to compromise that integrity by explaining why I should review their book. The really cheeky ones proposition me in person. Usually my assailant is a debut poet (and therefore hard to blame). No matter the stage of the writer making the request, the intrusion occurs often enough that I’ve developed a way of dealing with the nuisance. When propositioned, I now explain:

  • that it takes me about 40 hours to read a book, contextualize it, compose a prose commentary, and then revise that commentary to make it entertaining. At least.
  • that this time takes me away from my own writing
  • that my fee is $1000 for a 1000 words (modest, really, when you think about it)
  • that they should secure a print venue for the review before I begin (a lot harder than it seems, since we’re talking about winning over a reviews editor about an unsolicited piece)

Unsurprisingly, no one’s ever taken me up on this counteroffer. And why would they? Writers who make this kind of request don’t value reviews in the first place save as personal attention.1 So why write that review, anyway? Might as well teach them an alternate valuation.

On a personal level, I’m trying to squelch the practise of asking for a lot with no more compensation than the provision of a copy of a book. It’s been a lot of fun, especially since, for many years, I felt guilty for declining these requests; and for years before that, actually capitulating! Do you know how demeaning it is to schlep a piece I wasn’t paid for, and wouldn’t be, to journals across Canada—a process that usually took up more time than the writing of the piece? Now I take all requests on, at $1000 a pop! It’s a price made fair by the value of my time which, to date, has never had to be spent.

After being asked to write this column, though, I’ve decided to change my practice. Or more accurately, to reframe my practice. Given the Malahat e-pulpit, I wish to ask: do you, perchance, recall the beautiful custom of tithing? Long ago, the faithful were expected to donate ten percent of their earnings to the church (the word “tithe” comes from the Old English word “teogotha,” meaning “tenth”). Though I am not a religious man, the spiritual benefit of tithing seems unassailable to me: generosity becomes obligatory. The rule is that one can’t acquire, and keep, everything. The implication is that one shouldn’t acquire and keep everything.

The same practise should apply to writers. All our words should not be spent on ourselves, writing our own poems, stories, novels, and plays. Ten percent—and I argue at least ten percent—should be donated to the works of others, and with the highest scruple and work ethic. We should spend that ten percent as conscientiously as possible.

By making explicit the writing tithe, I make my own practice explicit. Since I started as a writer, and up to the present moment (currently I spend at least half of my professional life attending to the writing of others in essay form) I am immersed in the writing of others and I contribute to a conversation about that writing as a matter of course. On an ad-hoc basis I fended off authors with my fee of $1000 while also systematically spending extravagant amounts of time writing critical pieces on other writers.

Tithing is not just a matter of generosity. It is also smart: two benefits accrue to the tither. The first is that one’s own writing is supported, spiritually, by one’s investment in others. The dividend paid is one of good faith: the writing gods (damn them!) will provide for their supplicant, given enough time. The second benefit is more fleshly: like in life, what goes around comes around. Creating a space for critical work means that one is creating a space for criticism about one’s own work.

Therefore I heartily recommend to all Canadian writers (let’s start in this home and native land): donate—invest!—ten percent of your professional time towards the writing of others in the form of reviews. No cheating—don’t substitute the writing of criticism for some other writing-philanthropic activity (and keep those up too!). You hear me, Margaret Atwood of Atwood Inc? Yes—even you, Peggy! Oh Peggy, you used to be so much more responsible in this way! Yes—you too, Alice Munro. Look at Travis Lane who keeps writing great reviews as an octogenarian. Age ain’t nothing but a numbah when it comes to reviewing as a spiritual practice. Our best, most lauded writers should lead the way, doing more than abdicating contention in juried prizes. The best should donate to the future of writing, as should those with the least renown. If you all do this, then as a community of writers we’ll all know the value of reviews.  And: you’ll get reviewed more yourself, without the need to receive my form letter.

1. Publicists pose the same problem, though they are cannier. They try to send “complimentary” copies of books to me with no strings attached, though a long time ago I’ve learned the string is that they inform their author that I’ve received a book. To respond to publicists’ seemingly innocuous queries about my mailing address, I send the same form letter I send to the cheeky poets, but with one modification: that as a condition of sending the book without meeting my terms up front, they acknowledge they send the book without expectation of a review. This insurance policy has left me much better prepared to deal with the impositions of aggrieved acquaintances.
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