The lobbing back and forth of insults between Michael Lista and Jan Zwicky is a depressing thing to watch. I admit I was happy to see Zwicky lob back because let’s face it, we rarely see a woman taking on an aggressive young critic the way that Zwicky did. Exhilarating because we see too few women wrestling with public space on this scale. Kudos. Mr. Lista’s piece was meant to provoke. That it did. Mr. Lista doesn’t seem to have any trouble taking up that space, or hurling insults (oh at ideas, yes, yes, only at ideas), but he doesn’t much like it in return. Ad homenim, he will argue, with his book of rhetoric in the air, and fair enough.
I have not enjoyed either day. Excitement on Twitter or not. They will say, you see, this is why negative is good, but it isn’t about negative, it’s about mean.
To be fair, it seems to me that at the core of Mr. Lista’s original piece there was a good question: why is Zwicky suggesting silence to women at a time, and in a space, set up to encourage women to speak? This point comes up, but it seems to me that ultimately it’s used as a shield to bring up, once again, an old argument taken up by a coterie of poets over the years; an argument I find a diversion and unhelpful, the argument for the negative review. Why? Because who on earth doesn’t want to see truth in reviewing? Who on earth doesn’t want the best for our literature? Who on earth wants a review culture of gloss and back patting? Of lies? Who wants nice and empty? Being nice serves no one. My back gets up when Mr. Lista and others make similar arguments because they want to link the truth with negative as if that is the only other choice. It’s just not so. I don’t buy the either or.
Nor do I agree with Zwicky’s position on the whole, but I am glad that she took it. I would like to see more women take such positions even if I don’t agree with what they say. I think that the practice of choosing to publish only reviews that want to engage with a given text can be a useful one, particularly, as it seems to have been used by Zwicky in a smaller literary journal. There are all kinds of choices one can make in terms of the kind of reviewing one wants to foster. I certainly don’t think it should be mandated. But I don’t think any review style should be mandated…other than one of actually working with the book under review.
As for extremes, I want neither.
The problem isn’t whether or not a review is positive or negative, the problem is whether or not there is a basic level of respect for the book and the author under review. Swagger isn’t truth. It’s the terms of the argument that ultimately turn me off. It reduces a very complicated and necessary discussion to false opposites.
As for the critical? Bring it on, bring it on. With intelligence and humour I hope. You can write a scathing review of a book and be entirely respectful of–not only it but the entire literary undertaking. Witness Michael Robbins “takedown” of Robert Hass. If this is the guy to be emulated, please do. I have no problem with his frankness. And while we don’t always agree, I always feel with Robbins that there is an emotionally intelligent person driving the review. That and humour. I don’t have to agree, I have to be able to understand the reviewer’s position. And it’s very clear:
Like Mary Oliver, Billy Collins, and Sharon Olds—in their different ways—Hass has made a career out of flattering middlebrow sensibilities with cheap mystery. Unlike those poets, Hass has real talent. The Apple Trees at Olema is a frustrating blend of banality and brilliance. The second volume, Praise, now reads as a primer in late-seventies period style, the kind of laid-back beach koans that led people to believe Galway Kinnell’s “The Bear” was a good poem. There are more berries, more naming of flowers, more embarrassingly tin-eared warbling in the demotic:
It is different in kind from a man and the pale woman
he fucks in the ass underneath the stars
because it is summer and they are full of longing
and sick of birth. They burn coolly
like phosphorous, and the thing need be done
—From “Against Botticelli”
Does ass fucking really require such a high-minded justification? Upon being told someone is fucking someone else in the ass, has anyone ever responded, “What! Why?” I regret to inform the reader that Hass goes on to compare this sex act to the sacking of Troy.
I don’t find Robbins’ review negative. It’s smart. Elegant, funny, and smart.
I would rather read a wildly entertaining take down, a la Robbins, than pretty much any review I’ve read in Canada over the past year.
As for the question of choosing silence, it would be interesting to hear a discussion about what that means for Zwicky, and for the women who are going to CWILA, who are part of the surge to ensure more voices are heard. But sadly, all the energy is being taken up once again by the false question of the negative.