On Reviewing: Stephen Burt

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?

SB: I’ll confine my answers here to reviews of literary writing—poetry, fiction, personal essays, graphic novels and the like, books that aspire to be judged as works of art; I’d give different answers were I writing about reviews of discursive, argumentative, or expository nonfiction (studies of Wallace Stevens, most sports memoirs, books about climate change).

Reviewers should describe the book accurately in a way that makes clear which (if any) readers will likely enjoy it; reviewers should say what’s interesting, what’s well done, what stands out (for good or ill) in a book. If the book, or its author, or books much like it, have already attracted attention, reviewers might also say why; if the book (e.g. almost all first books of poetry) hasn’t attracted much notice as yet, reviewers should explain why it deserves notice, why it’s worth our time (if indeed it is).

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?

SB: I read through the book a few times, make plenty of notes, then arrange them into what I hope makes a vivid and well-argued essay at the appropriate length. Depending on the length, the venue, and the sort of poetry (or other writing) under review, all the modes of reading you name above might play a role (except possibly “reader-response,” which names a limited and perhaps obsolescent mode of academic meta-analysis, explaining what other readers have seen in a book). Exegesis, theory, “close reading,” impressionism, context, and flat-out evaluation each have their place, though simple ratings (letter grades, stars as for movie reviews, adjectives such as “great” or “superb” or “remarkable”) rarely convince skeptics; reviewers should say not that books are good or bad, but how and why.

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?

SB: Not “necessarily,” no, and reviewers, like other kinds of writers, differ: Greil Marcus, Alex Ross, Helen Vendler, Christopher Ricks, Marjorie Perloff, and William Hazlitt all come to mind as superb and effective reviewers, and they certainly don’t write much like one another.

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?

SB: When I’m writing a short review (under 1,000 words) I do think about how much attention, how much space, I can give to an individual poem, as against short excerpts from, or broad discussions of, the whole body of work. When I’m writing longer reviews, I find room to do both.

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?

SB: Reviewing, like all other literary criticism, like the making of chairs, like the making of film scores, is an applied art: it’s heteronomous, serving ends outside itself, and should not let its own artfulness detract from those functions. My own “creative” writing—the poetry I manage to write—is not, or not usually, heteronomous in the same ways.

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?

SB: Yes, I have. I’ve rejected assignments when I’ve felt unable to do a book justice; I’ve also accepted requests that I review writers whose work has left me ambivalent or dissatisfied. In each of these cases I try to do the book justice, to explain what it seems to be trying to do, why that goal seems worthwhile (if it seems worth while), and what other goals it occludes or prevents. I don’t seek out those sorts of requests, but I do accept them: I would hate to live in a world where all poets, or all kinds and schools of poetry, get examined only by the subset of critics who already think they’re great.

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?

SB: Great question! Clive James on the Australian “formalist” Stephen Edgar (this is not a general Clive James endorsement, much less a general endorsement of neo- “formalists”); several discussions in the Chicago Review special issue on British experimental poetry, which made me want to look again, in particular, at John Wilkinson; Douglas Wolk on David Mazzuchelli; Fredric Jameson on Kim Stanley Robinson; Alex Abramovich in the LRB on the novelist Percival Everett.

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

SB: I’ll know it when I find it!

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?

SB: Ugh. Nobody starts out writing reviews for money (not reviews of poetry, anyway): you do it unpaid, then almost unpaid, and then, perhaps, with luck, for better pay. Fortunately I don’t depend on freelance income for rent and insurance and such; if all the journals that pay me to write book reviews suddenly went belly-up, I’d continue to write about new books, though I might make different choices as to what books, and at what length, and for whom.

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

SB: Of course I believe it; I’ve been such a “new reader.” I still am.

Stephen Burt is associate professor of English at Harvard. His latest books including Close Calls with Nonsense: Reading New Poetry (2009); The Forms of Youth (2007); and Parallel Play (poems; 2006).
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