Who would be the usual suspects? Reading groups, maybe. Bookshops and libraries, definitely. Book bloggers, with their ever-rising influence, worth a try. Local media, yes. And the review sections of the national press, a cert.
All are insightful critics who help spread the word about a new book hitting the shelves and the ether. Any exposure is good publicity; although the possibility of hatchet-jobs remains a source of anxiety. However, as far as marketing-targets go, they are tried and tested – not least because they work. They are also safe and obvious.
But what about a prisoner? Would a convict make a good book critic? Not only has a US men’s fiction magazine, Bull, pondered that very question, it has gone on to use the services of Curtis Dawkins, a Michigan Reformatory inmate with an Master of Fine Arts from Michigan University, as its chief book reviewer. For cynics, this will be nothing more than a gimmick, a shameless publicity stunt that has nothing to do with literature.
And, regardless of how open-minded we might believe ourselves to be, the doings of prisoners beyond our sheltered images of shackles and days of endless nothingness always raise a few eyebrows, followed by a few questions about justice and morality. Should inmates be allowed to vote? Should they be able to profit from their crimes? Or, in the case of Dawkins, does he have any literary nous and should we listen to anything he has to say? To the final question, at least, the answer is a simple and resounding yes.
Via a prison anecdote or two, Dawkins imparts fascinating angles into his book reviews. From suicide rates in US jails to the story of an inmate who had a thriving business amid the tall stalks of sweetcorn (the growing of sweetcorn has since been banned), to more personal, reflective stories about childhood and life prior to prison, Dawkins enlightens a book with inroads which most literary critics would be hard pressed to dream up. Reading his reviews is accompanied by an unsettling sensation. After all, there are not many reviewers who could open a book critique with the news of a premeditated stabbing just a few cells down the corridor. You are forced to step out of your literary comfort zone.
There is a philosophical angle, too. While it would seem, should we believe the advertisers, that it would be nigh on impossible to read a book without the aid of coffee and chocolate, and while books and prison might not be the most marketable of ideas to promote the benefits and joys of reading, for book-loving inmates such as Dawkins there is an altogether more immediate and profound relationship between time and reading – a relationship we would do well to consider.
A statement on Bull’s blog, when it unveiled Dawkins as its book critic, said: “…here was someone for whom books would not be a symbol of the time he didn’t have, but the time he did – the time he was resigned to and now had to live with. And here was a perspective that may more accurately see each of those books for what it was: a printed and perfect-bound escape.”
It is all so refreshing. Not a sniff of snobbery, not a whiff of nepotism. The world of book critiquing has long been a swap shop of back-scratching and back-biting. But in Dawkins’ latest review – of Nod by Adrian Barnes – he sets aside a comment made by the author in an interview that clearly irritated him, going on to describe Nod as an “unassuming existential, multi-layered…apocalyptic masterpiece”. Dawkins has limited access – as well as inclination, it would seem – to the internet. Such restrictions to background research might explain his willingness to separate the writing from the writer, the ego from the work. Art for art’s sake, maybe. Perhaps this is how we should look at Dawkins the book critic, who also happens to be a prisoner. After all, we are all many things other than just some of the things we do, or have done.
When I first heard about Dawkins’ reviews, my initial response was to find out why he was in prison. What crime had he committed? I got as far as discovering that Michigan Reformatory holds Level II and IV prisoners, whatever that means. It dawned on me that to find out more would be to tag the human to the offence, unable to separate the two thereafter. So I did not dig any deeper. To do so would have been to narrow the breadth of the many angles and insights brought to us from behind the prison wall. It would have been to squeeze the life from Dawkins’ reviews, which would have been a crying shame. For Dawkins is no usual suspect.
Ross Jamieson is the online editor at Bluemoose Books.