I’ve been reading the online book reviews by Benoît Lelièvre (or Ben to his friends) for a long time before he actually reviewed one of mine, and then another. I was flattered, because not only is he extremely insightful and eloquent, but also very fair. If he doesn’t enjoy a particular work, he’ll explain why in a manner that is not insulting to the readers’ intelligence or a knock on the author’s integrity. Likewise, if he does write a favorable review, he provides contextual evidence to support his subjective but unusually educated perspective.
His blog, Dead End Follies, is one of the most popular and unique book review sites out there. I was honored that he had reviewed two of my books so far (favorably, whew!), but also happy that he took time out of his busy schedule to offer further evidence why his name is held in such high esteem amongst this competitive community, whether he admits it or not…
You are one of the most respected reviewers of indie fiction (particularly the crime genre) out there. What got you started in this field?
I feel like I've never really had any competition, to be honest. Nobody does what I do. People review books here and there, but serious reviewers with their own venues tend to flame out quick. I don't blame them. It's a weird, thankless and somewhat pointless job in a business where Goodreads and Amazon reviews matter WAY more to the bottom line than a well-thought, nuanced piece. So, you gotta like it and believe in the value of criticism if you want to be a reviewer/critic. There are LOTS of great, passionate critics on YouTube, but very little in the more classical, written form.
So, when people say I'm well-respected, I tend to take it with a grain of salt, you know? Many authors and publicist tend to think they're doing me a solid when they send me an ARC.
I've started the blog in 2009. I was at a dead end in my life, back when (hence the title Dead End Follies). I was working in a call center, slaving over a disastrous master's degree and I did not know what I wanted. So I opened a blog just to talk about books I was reading, movies I was seeing and life in general. One of my co-workers back then was running a very successful blog on Atheism, so he showed me the ropes. How to get traffic, form a network of people and get my name out there.
I became more serious about criticism when I discovered the work of Chuck Klosterman, a pop culture critic who became somewhat of a patron saint for the blog. His writing reconciled me with my failure to pursue an Academic career and with the fact I could have my own ideas on culture and that they had value. It's been a work in progress ever since. To be honest with you, Will, I feel like I'm barely starting to figure out what the fuck I'm doing. (Side note from interviewer: Welcome to the club).
As a Canadian, do you feel you have a uniquely objective perspective on U.S. literature specifically and pop culture generally, and if so, how so?
I was fascinated with American culture for as long as I can remember. My dad was a fan of Sylvester Stallone movies and introduced me to them at a very formative age, so his work, its warped vision and its gruesome violence became iconic to me. I don't know if I have a special perspective on American culture, but I enjoy the hell out of it in all its excess and depravity. Especially when it doesn't take itself all that seriously, like for Stallone or Schwarzenegger movies.
I mean, it's not without its problems. Hollywood movies perpetuate the myth that every problem can be solved with a hail of bullets, which is the farthest thing from the truth. The situation in Iraq and Syria with ISIS is evidence of that. It's a problem the U.S tried to bury under bullets and bombs that spawned back in another, more extreme form. I also think that mainstream culture has the noxious habit of making everything about good and evil. Everybody thinks they're the good guys, because they see their interest as some kind of a moral crusade. That's why I take interest in morally ambiguous material. Breaking Bad was a great example. Walter White's personal development blossomed when he embraced his dark side. Dealing meth and blowing people up was what he really needed to become his best self. There also are great, morally grey elements to True Detective. I loved that scene where Colin Farrell's character confronted his son's bully by breaking his dad's jaw, threatening to buttfuck him and making him watch. That scene was mischievously Ellroyesque and heartbreaking at the same time.
In general, American authors have a strong understanding of the headless beast of a society they live in. There's a vulnerability and a hopelessness in American fiction that I find quite moving. And you can find it in confrontational work like Chuck Palahniuk's Fight Club or in weird, over-the-top, difficult narratives like Blake Bulter's 300,000,000. There's this self-consciousness of living in a ticking time bomb to all American fiction.
Do you ever have the desire to write fiction yourself, or are you completely content as a creative conduit/impressive impresario - and why?
See, I find it interesting that you would use the word impresario.
My job is not to promote material, it's to forge a bond with my readership. The few people interested in my opinion on things and everyone else, who are just looking for new and exciting books, movies or albums. If anything, I take the criticism extra-seriously and I try to nuance my reviews as much as possible. My work helps creators promote their work by nature, but I also want them to understand what they did that moved me and what they did that didn't work out. Because this is what differentiates me from casual Amazon and Goodreads reviewers. I don't just give my opinion, I tell you what the creator did that shaped my opinion and why it shaped my opinion a certain way.
But, to answer your questions: yeah, I write fiction. I have 20 short stories or so published, but I haven't published anything since early 2016. I was just writing them to write them, you know? There was a journal or an anthology, I would submit something just to say I did. I believe some of this material is good. Some a little less. I've been trying to write a novel since forever, but I can't say I have really prioritized that. I just want to keep it fun, you know? Do it because it's my fun thing to do and not because I want to change the world and become David Foster Wallace. I love life too much for that.
Anyway, everybody writes fiction. Chuck Wendig once said the internet is 50% porn and 50% writers and he was right. If someone is involved with publishing, there's a great chance he writes fiction.
What are some of your influences, literary or otherwise?
For criticism, Chuck Klosterman is, by far, the most important influence but there are others. I've worked with Jared Bauer and Alec Opperman at YouTube sensation Wisecrack for a short while and they had a huge effect on my thinking and writing both. Mikey Neumann, Walter Chaw, Wesley Morris, Chris Ryan, lots of movie folks. David Foster Wallace too, of course. He was a pioneer in making essayism cool again.
As far as my very quiet and intimate fiction writing career goes, I'd say Nic Pizzolatto on his best day is an influence. I love the attention he puts in bending genres and crafting sentences one by one. Brian Evenson and Laird Barron, who attainted some kind of Bushido level of originality and meaningfulness in genre fiction. Their work have an identity and a life of their own, you know? I admire Australian author Iain Ryan's economy of language very much too. John D. MacDonald for his superhuman storytelling skills. That's about it :)
What’s next for you?
I don't know. Hopefully a lot of writing. I want to write more about basketball for the upcoming season because it's something I'm passionate about and I feel there are many business opportunities in sports. Much more than in culture. So, be on the lookout for that! Dead End Follies will keep going for the foreseeable future because I find value in what I do. It makes me happy to talk about what I read/watch/listen. I'm thinking of branching out into podcasting, perhaps YouTube too.That's about it!
Damn, that’s more than plenty! Cheers.
Benoît Lelièvre is a pop culture blogger, author and sports enthusiast living in Montreal, Canada with his better half Josie and his elderly dog Scarlett. You can find his writing on Dead End Follies and sometimes on Vice.
PHOTO: BENOÎT LELIÈVRE