Collections of book reviews are inherently difficult to present as sufficiently unified to warrant republication as a book. Whatever unity of theme, style, or approach the reviews possess first of all reflect such unifying qualities as they manifest themselves in the reviews to begin with, which of course requires a critic who pursues particular themes or maintains a particular approach. Books like John Domini's The Sea-God's Herb and David Winters's Infinite Fictions illustrate how a well-chosen and well-arranged compilation of reviews can reinforce the insights provided by skilled and perceptive critics.
Often the critical perspective a reviewer offers is given its most characteristic expression when considering certain kinds of writers or a particular literary mode or genre (as is the case with both Domini and Winters). Jeff Bursey's Centring the Margins: Essays and Review exemplifies this tendency, which is signaled clearly in the book's title. Bursey generally examines works of fiction outside the mainstream (outside the U.S. mainstream, at least), including works of formally transgressive fiction, translated fiction, and lesser-known Canadian books, and certainly to the extent the book succeeds in calling attention to this work it is a worthwhile effort for that reason alone.
Bursey makes his purpose quite clear in the book's prefatory essay: "Where Margaret Atwood and other brand names are granted much leeway in sentiment and space in the press no matter if what comes out is average or bad, novels that don't adhere to some perceived notion of normal writing are received in a less friendly way. They are sometimes considered not art but an affront." Further:
I don't deny the mainstream authors their audience. However, others will seek to create new work in new forms, and if they're viewed as rude threats, that's not a bad thing. These reviews were often written with the explorers and the unruly in mind.
In collecting the reviews, Bursey expresses the hope that they might help in "bringing less popular works into the centre of the conversation" about books. However, I'm not sure that this is an altogether realistic, or desirable, goal if it means achieving an easy, automatic acceptance of such works in the "mainstream." Better that adventurous and iconoclastic works remain an "affront," as threats to established practice lest they become reflexively amalgamated into a bland and uncritical literary culture. Such works should remain unruly, even if that means some very good writers might not get the immediate recognition they deserve. Such a book as Centring the Margins is valuable because it provides access to readers who might be interested in exploring the margin, discovering it can be quite an interesting place.
If there is a drawback to emphasizing reviews that in effect seek to champion the writers and works surveyed it would be that eventually the tone of consistent approbation can become somewhat wearing, and I would have to say that Centring the Margins doesn't always avoid this problem. Bursey is certainly willing to point out flaws and missteps in the books he considers, but in most cases it is in the context of coming to an ultimately appreciative conclusion. As well, I found myself occasionally looking for more detailed analysis of the writing strategies and their effects in the works considered, somewhat less reliance on longer quotation. (In the review of Gaddis's Agape Agape, for example, we are told at the end that the book is filled with "jagged rhythms and darting wit," and that Gaddis is a "superb stylist," but there isn't much critical commentary in the review that explicates these qualities.) On the other hand, the pieces on Blaise Cendrars and the Estonian writer Mati Unt introduce me to writers about whom I know little and definitely make me want to get better acquainted with their work.
I can't say I always agree with Bursey's estimations of the writers under review (I can't bring myself to admire either William Vollmann or Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn as much as he does), but of course this is an inevitable reaction to the views of any critic (especially when they are expressed in such a relatively large number of reviews). The breadth of his reading is impressive, however, lending credibility and authority to his reviews, both individual reviews of books he has clearly carefully considered (both text and context) and the assembled reviews as a whole, which collectively leave the impression that their author reads comprehensively across formal and linguistic boundaries, and against the grain of entrenched assumptions about what books are worthy of our attention. Certainly readers will conclude from these reviews that Jeff Bursey has given the books his engaged attention, and those who would like to expand their own reading horizons beyond the books reflexively covered in the high-profile book review sections would be making a good start by consulting Centring the Margins.