At our 2018 festival, The Word On The Street hosted seven great panels of magazines professionals on our Careers in Canadian Magazines stage. Here on the WOTS Blog, we will sit down with some of our esteemed panelists to get an in-depth view on their role in Canada’s magazine industry.
WOTS: Welcome to the WOTS Blog, Steven! To start, could you walk us through a typical day at Quill & Quire? What does a workday in the role of Review Editor look like?
Steven Beattie: It’s hard to say because I’m not sure there’s any such thing as a “typical day.” Production cycles ebb and flow, and the busy periods can be anticipated, to a certain extent, but publishers send books on their own schedules, so there is a constant process of reading, reacting to, assigning, and discarding potential submissions for review. More books come across my desk than it is possible for any one person to read, but it’s important to keep on top of what is being submitted in order to make informed decisions about how to assign reviews. It’s necessary to ensure a mix of small and large publishers, new and established authors, as well as adequate regional representation, books by racialized authors, LGBTQ authors, Indigenous authors, and so on.
During production, there are various rounds of editing, proofing, fact checking, layout, and design. Outside of production periods, time is spent determining content for future issues, assigning reviews, organizing section lineups, cover stories, author profiles, and other features for the magazine and website. This is interspersed with more mundane tasks like answering email, opening mail, processing invoices, and other paperwork.
Then there are the things you can’t anticipate: someone dies, a company gets bought up, other news breaks and has to be responded to in a timely fashion. One of the most crucial attributes any journalist – not just a book review editor – can possess is an ability to pivot on a dime.
WOTS: At WOTS 2018, you sat on a panel titled “Year in Review: Studies in Criticism”. Is there an aspect of being a critic that would surprise the average reader?
SB: I think one thing that might surprise people is the congenial relationship that exists between writers and critics. The stereotypical notion is that the relationship is strictly adversarial but what I have found is quite the opposite: most writers, in my experience, are incredibly friendly and forthcoming.
WOTS: What is your process like when you are paring down book choices for “list” articles like “10 Best Books of 2018”? In your opinion, is there a better model to highlight worthy picks?
SB: I am not a fan of “list” articles (I prefer long-form criticism) and I particularly dislike “best of” lists. The only way to really determine what constitute the year’s best books (ignoring for the moment the inescapable subjectivity underpinning any critic’s sensibility) is to read them all, which is obviously impossible for any one person to do (see question 1 above). So, the whole notion of “best” books is based on a faulty premise. I much prefer “favourite” books. And even those will necessarily be culled from the small fraction of published books that any one person is able to read over the course of a given year.
Bearing in mind that any determination of quality involves an element of individual taste, what I look for in determining literary worth is writing that is technically or stylistically fresh and invigorating. It’s not hard to recognize this kind of writing because it prompts a physical response: you laugh or gasp or sit up straighter in the chair. (Or the opposite: I have actually, literally, tossed a book across the room in frustration.)
WOTS: When conducting research for a feature piece that focuses in on an author, where do you like to start?
SB: By reading the author’s book(s). It sounds elementary, but I am constantly astonished by stories about people who don’t do this. To me, whether it’s a magazine profile, an onstage interview, or any kind of feature coverage, familiarity with the author’s work should be the bare minimum in terms of prep.
WOTS: Does your role as Review Editor affect your personal reading habits?
SB: How could it not? By and large, I think my job has expanded my horizons in terms of the kinds of writing I enjoy and has introduced me to a whole coterie of writers I otherwise might have missed.
That said, because I read so much Canadian writing for my day job, when left to my own devices I tend to read international stuff. This provides perspective and offers a window on what Canadian writers are doing that is similar to, or different from, writers working in other countries, other languages, and other literary traditions.
WOTS: What is your number one piece of advice for those who are pursuing a career in the magazine industry?
SB: The magazine industry in general, and book criticism in particular, is in a precarious place at the moment: it isn’t terribly remunerative, budgets and page counts are diminishing, consolidation and closures are ongoing, competition is fierce, and jobs are finite. If you really want to pursue work in the sector, make sure you’re passionate about it, because you’ll need to find reasons to persist beyond the meagre paycheque and long hours for scant recognition. If it’s something you feel you have to do, then go at it with all your heart. If it isn’t, do something else.
WOTS: Thanks, Steven, for your insights and advice!
You can follow Steven on twitter @stevenwbeattie or find him in the pages of Quill & Quire.