On Reviewing: Catherine Daly

LH: What do you think the purpose of a review is? If you also write about books on a blog, why? What does blogging let you do differently?

CD: I have taken to writing mini reviews, mentions, reader reports, and draft reviews – mostly of .pdf versions of books – on my blog.  Most of this is time pressure; I rarely have time to write “real” reviews right now.  But people keep requesting reviews from me, and offering books.  I find I can slip something on the blog in the a.m., while looking at .pdfs.  I discovered this a few years back; I could do it from work.

So, then, what is the purpose of a review, and what, indeed, is the difference between a mini, mention, report, draft and a “real” review?

I am frustrated by my tendency to read for the title, epigraphs, title poem, first poem, last poem, collection ars poetica, book project, when reviewing.  I think of this as the Publisher’s Weekly review, although they don’t have many reviewers anymore, and their reviews seem to have been reduced to one liners or very blurb-like entries.

In a way, I miss the negative Kirkus review; I wrote a review for Kirkus which wasn’t negative enough for them.  It was of an acquaintance’s first book; I mostly explained why libraries would want the book.  Which I think ought to be the Library Journal or Kirkus review.  They stopped covering poetry altogether.  And, guess what?  My library will no longer even accept donations of local authors’ books without a review in a major review organ.

So, I think there should be reviews which differ by function:  the reason a library or bookshop would want or not want the book, which is about audience, context, and “importance”; the reason someone might want to buy or read the book, which is about appeal and collecting; what the book is about, which is exegesis, criticism, etc. 

LH: If you write reviews, how would you describe your approach, or method? Do you offer or engage in exegesis, theoretical, academic, reader response, close, contextual or evaluative readings? If you don’t write but read reviews, what aspects of reviewing do you notice?

CD: I try to figure the book out, and do whatever I have to do to figure it out.  I try to answer “how” and “why”.  I’ve written somewhere that I generally go through most of my review time really loathing the book I’m reviewing.  The reviews of my work I most appreciate are author reviews, not book reviews.  Yet I write mostly book reviews.  It is what I get assigned.

LH: What do you think makes for a successful review? Is there an aspect, a stylistic choice, or perspective that necessarily produces a more significant document?

CD: While it is common for some of the “top reviewers” to come into a review with criteria, standards, whatnot, and to slot writers into / allow the reviewer to create movements and schools, I think that is a very bad way to review, because I think a useful review starts with the work under review.

LH: When you review, do you focus on a particular text (poem, story), the book at hand, the author’s body of work? Do you think this choice of focus influences criticism, or your own criticism, and if so, how?

CD: I think I mentioned some of that earlier.  I tend to review the book; sometimes I will place the book in context with other books “out there” or by the same writer, especially if there is a marked similarity or difference with them.

LH: If you also write non-critical work, how different is the way you approach reviewing or critical writing to the way you approach your own “creative” writing?

CD: I think if I didn’t write first, and if I didn’t writing more critically-aware creative writing than some, I would be less interested in figuring out how other people write or think.

LH: Have you been in a position where you have had to write about a book that you don’t care for, or a book that is coming out of a tradition that you are perhaps opposed to, or resistant to on some level? How do you handle such events? Or how have you noticed others handle these events?

CD: Well, this allows me to attempt a more coherent answer than “at some point I hate the book I’m reviewing.”  I used to get assigned books to review or toss out reviews of books I felt I needed to figure out for my own purposes.  The editors and / or publishers knew I was primarily interested in reviewing more experimental women. As time went on, there were fewer and fewer more experimental women writing in English that I wasn’t personally acquainted with, if I liked their work. There are also a number of more experimental female writers I think are idiots.  There are many female writers who don’t get credit for being really smart writers who are writing work I really enjoy.  But it is less and less likely I won’t have some sort of conflict of interest with a review assignment.

LH: What is the last piece of writing that convinced you to a/ reconsider an author or book you thought you had figured out, or had a final opinion on or b/ made you want to buy the book under review immediately?

CD: Nothing immediately comes to mind, but I like Goodreads, because it has given me a book list, and I’d really been needing one.  So just knowing that poet x is reading or has read a book will urge me to reconsider or read.

LH: Is there a quality you are looking for in a review that you haven’t found?

CD: I think it is rare to find a review that is staggering towards a new way to write criticism.  I would like to do more of that and read more of that. 

LH: Critical work is increasingly unpaid work; will you continue to do this work despite the trend? Do you see this trend reversing, or changing course?

CD: I think there are several things going on.  One thing is that it is easier to find what ordinary people think about just about any product, creative or not.  This is driving down the demand for something more informed, and it is making writing at length considerably less rewarding,  But another aspect of this is that something gets reviewed if somebody really like it, hates it, has an agenda, or if writing a review of the work is really easy

LH: What do you hope to achieve by writing about writing? Do you believe that reviews can actually bring new readers to texts?

CD: I want love and respect.  But I don’t know about new readers; I would hope that I get some books better readings by the readers out there.

Catherine Daly lives in Los Angeles.  Her most recent book is VUAXHALL (Shearsman, 2008); several more are forthcoming, including OOD:  Object-Oriented Design, the next installment of her CONFITEOR project. She has written reviews and taught reviewing and reading poetry.  She blogs but it is as likely to include recipes and reading announcements in LA as reviews.
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