On Reviewing: Aaron Kunin

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?

AK: Attention is part of it. Sorting. Valuing. In fact, reviewing books isn’t too different from writing them. The main purpose is to make it possible for something to exist. We’re trying to add something to the world.

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?

AK: I like to start with an observation, some small stylistic detail, then slowly enlarge that detail until the entire book fits inside.

I also like to end abruptly, but no editor has ever let me get away with that. Editors always ask me to add a paragraph or sentence to tie the piece together.

I would not ordinarily look outside the history of literature or art for an explanation, interpretation, or context for a book under review.

I take figurative language seriously. I used to worry that there might be something wrong with me, that my serious attitude represented a basic ignorance of the frivolous nature of figures of speech. Maybe I’m too gullible. (“You always believe my whoppers,” a friend once said.) Now I think that’s the best way to read poetry. At least that’s how I read.

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?

AK: Here is a simple test of criticism. (I mean academic criticism as well as journalism.) Does the critic at least describe a world in which artistic creation is possible? If a review has no account of creativity–consign it to the flames.

Some of the best, most advanced criticism is hostile to artifactuality and creativity. Unfortunately my test excludes this work.

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?

AK: Yes. Setting the scale may be the most important decision you make as a critic. My favorite reviews tend to focus on a line or a word.

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?

AK: By the time a critic arrives on the scene, the damage has been done. Someone already wrote the book, and the critic has to describe it. “Just tell the truth,” I tell myself. Why is that so difficult?

Considered as writing, criticism is extremely close to poetry. The advantage of doing literary criticism (as opposed to writing about art, music, or film) is that you are working in the same medium as the object you study. You can quote from a poem to test your account of it. The words of your review can inhabit the same space as those of the poem.

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?

AK: William Blake wrote on the title page of his copy of Reynolds’s Discourses: “This man was hired to depress art.” Too true! And it happens all the time. I’m interested in the arts, I want my work to be related to the arts, my dream job is reading and writing about books, and to my horror I discover that I have taken on the ignoble, mercenary task of depressing art!

But what is Blake doing when he annotates the Discourses if not depressing Reynolds’s prose? Isn’t he being disingenuous when he reads this book? Hasn’t he already made up his mind to despise Reynolds before reading a word? Why does he possess a copy of this book anyway? Surely he knows that reading it will enrage him, and perhaps he also knows that he will relish the experience.

There is a significant difference between Blake’s polemic against Reynolds and his concurrent diagnosis of the depression of art (which is a real job assignment that we wish to avoid). Reynolds is a suitable object of anger because he exists. He matters. He is a worthy enemy. Those who depress art, on the other hand, do so by allotting it a diminished share of reality.

What does it mean to depress art? “You think you care about art, but you really want cultural capital.” “You want recognition.” “You want to do well in school. To please your teachers.” “You want sex.” “You want money.” “You want to support your friends.” Those are all good things, and I might want them, but insofar as they are bribes in place of art, they are not good enough. If you don’t believe that a book of poems is something worth having, then you are studying the wrong object. If you believe that a book of poems is a cover for social distinction, then you are studying the wrong object.

“The key to this book is a different book.” “The existence of this book may be entirely explained by the influence of another writer.” “This book is written in a genre that remains unchanged since the classical period.” “There is nothing new or different in this book.” If you believe that a book adds nothing to the world–if, as far as you are concerned, the book does not exist but only pretends to exist–then you are studying the wrong object.

Negative reviews are not the problem. Sociological analysis, allegory, generic categories, and lineage are not the problem; they are tools. The problem is that some reviews ascribe no value at all to poetry.

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?

AK: Anne-Lise François’s essay on Hardy’s Poems of 1912-1913. Michael Clune’s essay on 1984. Mark McGurl’s book The Program Era made me want to read Joyce Carol Oates.

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

AK: How about an optative evaluative criticism? (The critic ‘s impossibly hyperbolic praise becomes a new standard, inspiring or shaming poets to do better work.)

John Berger’s clear, forceful style?

Manny Farber’s lists?

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?

AK: I must confess that I more or less stopped writing reviews several years ago to concentrate on academic criticism. I still think that journalism is important work, and hope that people will be paid for it.

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

AK: I’m usually trying to say something that feels obvious. To state the obvious artfully. I don’t claim to know what other readers want.

Aaron Kunin is the author of Folding Ruler Star: Poems (Fence, 2005), and a novel, The Mandarin (Fence, 2008). Another collection, The Sore Throat and Other Poems, is forthcoming. He lives in Los Angeles.

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