Memories of books & past lives

recitation memories books

Early drafts of my story-reviews often start out very personal. A moment or two related to grief and family, which I first bend around a review of the book, then work to find a balance.

I’ve been writing these sorts of reviews since 2014 and as time goes on I like to check back to see how I handled finding this balance. I recently looked at my review and marginalia for Bae Suah’s novel, “Recitation,” translated by Deborah Smith.

In the final version, published by Full Stop magazine, my review opens with an establishing scene and some real-life detail.

The critic read Suah’s novel, “Recitation,” on the train to and from a writers conference. At a panel about the art of criticism featuring Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Margo Jefferson the discussion turned to writing, the personal process of coming to terms with bias against different sorts of texts, the ways critics develop an approach for each piece. In the audience the critic listened as Jefferson described the nature of critical writing as “giving real coherence to ambiguity,” saying that not unlike a fiction writer a critic must also, “play different parts, very much adjusting your voice,” when interpreting a book’s potential meanings.

But compared to this opening of an earlier draft of the same review, it sounds a bit formal.

“Someone’s done my grieving for me.”

A week before her deadline, the critic paged through the novel once more, alert to anything vital she’d feel badly not to include in her review. In the margins, scribble about love, truth. The possibility of either, as pathways yielding forms of hope. She found the margin note about grieving near the middle of the book. Below it, a smiley face, two dots above a curve. Grief again, for her father, compounded by a few other deaths: a colleague, her grandmother, and an uncle. The note in the margin seemed like an attempt to leaven sarcasm with humor, or convey strength in the face of grief, a little mask in ballpoint blue to ward off the evil eye of desperation.

This was completely cut from the final review.

And when I searched back through my copy of the book for the quote I claimed to have written in the margins, “Someone’s done my grieving for me,” I couldn’t find it, or the little smiley face.

So where had it come from? Did it really exist? Maybe it was something I’d jotted in the margins of an entirely different book. (I haven’t gone back to look just yet.) Or maybe it was just something I had in my head in the voice of the critic, something I could hear her thinking. Or it could’ve been something I remembered writing in one of the reading journals I sometimes keep. (I haven’t checked those yet either.)

In searching again through my marginalia from “Recitation,” I found so many things I never wrote about. They’re like a fragmented diary of small moments, pieces from a first-time reading experience that will never happen again.



2 thoughts on “Memories of books & past lives

  1. Interesting. If I am reading specifically for review, I am very careful to keep the personal aside—either out of mind, or if something holds particular value for me, recorded in a separate notebook. Only in very rare circumstances will I bring the personal into a review (most likely in a blog post review) and as an editor I spend a lot of time removing such content from critical work by inexperienced reviewers. With your character driven review style I can imagine there might be room for a little more leeway in this respect. Give her just a little of your baggage? :)

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    • Yes, for a traditional review I also try to keep personal matters out of the discussion and interpretation. However! Subjectivity is, when we get right down to it, often an impossible ideal, which when we read a review involves just as much suspension of disbelief as reading fiction. So, without going on at length here (because I have a lot of thoughts on this topic!), I invented/started writing story-reviews as a way to add a twist on that inherent subjectivity: a persona that can both disguise the personal and make of it a hazy “plot” in a continuing story of a critic and her career. Which is all to say, yep, she has a lot of my emotional baggage!


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