On Reading & Reviewing: Anita Lahey

When I was editing poetry reviews for Arc Poetry Magazine, I had my radar tuned for pieces that were mean-spirited, careless or just plain blind. These sins, however, were rare, and when caught (usually) easily addressed. What troubled me more was reticence, reserve—any smokescreen cloaking the reviewer’s true feelings. I believe a review should offer some indication of what it was like to be at the author’s mercy for however many pages the experience lasted. But more often than I expected, I found myself trying to extract a reluctant confession. What did the reviewer really feel about the book? Would he or she recommend it if asked? If our contributor remained coy, we were left with a noncommittal description of poems that “evoke,” “provoke,” “reflect,” or “interlace” this with that—to what effect we were left to guess—the kind of report that gives credit neither to the book’s author nor its potential readers; prose as boring to read as it must have been to write.

In a reader’s life, turning the cover on a new book is a moment fat with anticipation. I sometimes pause with the book in my lap, cover pressed back for the first time, and look around the room. Something is about to happen and I have no idea what, so I hold off before delving into that first line. If the line is good, and if those that follow are rich, assured and compelling, I’ll disappear from the room for a time and sink down into the environment of the book. When I resurface, the room might feel or look different to me. I might feel or look different to me.

Where a book will take me, and what will happen along the way, in the text and in me, matters to me. I don’t want to know this ahead of time, at least not all of it. But if I read a review of a book before cracking its spine, my main concern is the whether the reviewer found it worthwhile being led along by this author, and why. Honesty doesn’t seem like an extraordinary thing to ask, but I’ve been surprised to learn that it’s often the very thing a critic avoids. A reviewer should absolutely do her best to anchor a book in its time and place, and peer inside its craft. But reviews can become crowded with context: how such-and-such a book fits into an author’s career, where it lies on the continuum of books attempting a similar thing. Is it new? Is it gutsy? Is it metaphysical, political? Is it genre-busting? As a reader, I accept such information appreciatively. Meanwhile, there are two questions in the back of my mind, rising more and more insistently the longer the review fails to address them: Okay, great, thanks, but did you like it? It is any good?

Answering those questions, even asking them, is more controversial than I ever would have imagined before I served as editor of Arc. In what has become a years-long CanLit debate—at times an almost vicious undercurrent—two sides have, it appears, become firmly entrenched. One side argues that there is no legitimate defence for wasting precious print real estate explaining why we don’t like a book. We have no luxury for negative reviews. It’s our job to steer the public toward books we’d encourage them to read. The opposite extreme calls for a concerted effort to root out dreck—to expose and dismiss the books (or, more pointedly, their authors) hogging attention better deserved by others. I sympathize with both of these impulses; indeed they might be diametrically opposed means toward the same end. We have no shortage of books, and few strategies for matching the books that most deserve them with hungry, discerning readers. Prizes catch some, but many fine, even great books slip through with barely a whisper.

I can’t help feeling that the parameters of this debate miss something essential: the connection between writer and reader, which gives literature its purpose and its pulse. The reviewer is an appointed messenger between the two, the one who makes the introduction. (It’s up to the reader to decide whether he or she wants to hang out with the writer.) In this one task lies our integrity. A colleague once told me that when he reads a poetry review, he doesn’t want the reviewer’s opinion so much as to learn about the work of the poet in question, some context that will broaden his skills as a reader and his reading landscape. I want this too. But is it too much to ask for both the lesson and the frank response?  I like what Heather Jessup says on her website about reviews being  complex pieces of literature in their own right, built on “listening” to a writer and  endeavouring to “find genuine delight in the texture and impulse of the words” and to “write about the experience of reading in a way that is as complex as reading it itself.” I agree that our overriding impulse should be generous, curious, open. We must be willing to be drawn into a writer’s project even, or especially, when it throws us. But I also think that the piece of literature we call a review should be plain-spoken and forthright about the ways a book did or didn’t work on the reviewer, trusting its reader to know that their own experience with a book may be quite different. If the reviewer skips over her own relationship with the book in question, she’s engaging in subterfuge. She’s abandoning her post. Doesn’t the crux of any literary adventure rest on who we are inside the world of that book and what follows us out? I am one reader, and you another. If I can’t tell you what I’m truly thinking while sitting at my desk, considering the lingering effects of the volume of poems I just closed, then what is the point of talking to you at all?

In Wisława Szymborska’s collection of short essays, Nonrequired Reading, she confesses that she attempted to review books, mainly overlooked titles on the newspaper’s books received list and found that she could not: “ Basically I am and wish to remain a reader, an amateur, and a fan, unburdened by the weight of ceaseless evaluation.” Despite her claim to eschew evaluation—she even threatens to cast displeasure against anyone insisting on calling her pieces “reviews”— Szymborska offers her honest response in these brief, marvelous pieces. It’s not evaluation in the grander sense, not by setting an author’s work against or beside that of his peers and forerunners, but in the sense of assessing her own encounter with a book. In her summations and reflections, in her ruminations and arguments that sometimes stray far from the work that spurred them, and in her complaints (when they require airing, she doesn’t hold back), you glean a book’s impact on her. What’s more, you are allowed a glimpse of who she is, what kind of reader,  what sort of mind she has, what sense of humour and wit, what nature of cares and concerns. When this happens, a review offers a triangular meeting of minds, which is so much more than an impassive description, a gratuitous dismissal or even a recommendation.

I grew up, career-wise, in the world of journalism, mainly as a magazine writer and editor. I was trained by those who kept and promoted the highest standards and ideals for the trade. In that milieu, when something you write is lacking in any way, you are told, sometimes in impressively emphatic ways by multiple editors, all on a single draft of your story. You are pushed constantly to improve: your reporting, your clarity, your brevity, your ability to synthesize facts and judge their relevance, your skill at drawing a reader in. Your entire effort, in fact, is toward the reader. To inform, enlighten, engage. And every such effort is, in part, an exercise in learning where you come up short and how to do better next time. I’m not suggesting our literature would be better off if there were hard-nosed editors breathing down the necks of our reviewers, but I confess I’ve imagined how such a scenario would play out. How would a reviewer respond if “Huh?” and “English, please!” were scrawled in red all over her piece and all her obfuscating literary jargon unceremoniously crossed out? How would she fill the gaps? What would she say? Obviously, expectations for news reporting are different than those for poetry, for good reason: poets take facts and observations and assemble them for different purposes than journalists do,  and those who review such works are rightly mindful of that. But our consideration for that creative intent can clam us up or lead us into an exclusive, poet-to-poet conversation that entirely disregards the reader. If you’ve read Journey with No Maps, Sandra Djwa’s biography of P.K. Page, you know that the violinist Isaac Stern’s declaration that communication with his audience was the artist’s “main task” once angered Page enough to cause her to throw a glass of red wine over her shoulder and out the window. Well, I stand in awe of Page the poet. But on the question of the importance of communicating with people when we write—no matter what we are writing—I’m with Stern.

Regardless of who has written it—first-time author, veteran, icon—when reading a collection for review, I note my thoughts and reactions in the margins so that I can track and revisit my evolving response. I immerse myself in the voice and world of the book and, as best I can, figure out what the author is up to. I try to look at previous collections if I’m unfamiliar with the writer, as well as read past reviews. I seek those idiosyncrasies that make every book and every newly encountered writer’s voice uncharted territory. Never far from my mind is the possibility that I am missing the boat. The late poet Diana Brebner, a mentor and friend, once wrote a biting response, in poetic form, to a reviewer who had done exactly that with her work. The poem, which appears in The Ishtar Gate (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2005) is called “For the Poet Who Told Me to Think Less and Feel More,” and it begins with the couplet: “I will not assume that you/ are an expert about feeling.” The implication: that the reviewer had based his or her reading of Diana’s work on assumptions about her, the poet. Assumptions (and presumptions) have a way of creeping in; I try to keep my radar tuned. I hold up as a standard the work of critics I deeply admire, such as Joan Acocella, whose every piece adheres to Bert Archer’s checklist for great reviewing, a list he reveals in a discussion with Zsuzsi Gartner in The Malahat Review’s special issue on the topic (issue 144, fall 2003). Archer tells Gartner to trust those reviewers who “on a not-so-irregular basis give you insight, not only into the book in question, but into the world, too.” (He also says to trust reviewers who “who dislike more than they like,” which disqualifies me!) Lastly, I pay attention to what is happening to me as I read.[1]

As a reviewer, my word on a book is not and should not be the only or final word. Yet we are all familiar with the problem of dwindling book pages in the media. If there aren’t enough venues for criticism to allow other  perspectives on a particular book to balance or counter or go deeper than mine, then that is what we must strive to fix. Likewise, a reviewer should not be so self-important as to think he should be organizing our entire literature into what matters and what doesn’t. Nor should he believe an author’s career rides on his opinion. An author’s ego may be a fierce and flimsy thing, but it’s not the reviewer’s job to mollify or tame it. As a writer, I know that when I put my work in the world, I’m letting it go: to be taken up, interpreted, misinterpreted, enjoyed, disdained or ignored as the case may be. If a reviewer doesn’t “get it,” that may be my own fault. If a reviewer is not caught by my subject, or finds my treatment of it clumsy, shallow or been-there-done-that, I want to be told.  Sometimes a reviewer’s bluntness is a relief. This is not to condone nastiness or attacks disguised as reviews. We should never be blasé regarding someone’s heartfelt endeavour: humility and common sense demand basic awareness of the difficulty inherent in creating anything. But here’s the thing: I want to be challenged. By readers, by editors, by reviewers—by people who give a damn about what I’ve written and what I may be capable of writing and who make no bones about letting me know.

The type of tempered offerings that used to frustrate me while editing Arc—reviews recast as opinion-free zones—offer an insult deeper than any take-down. They presume a fragility so pervasive as to overwhelm the artistic calling itself. Does the impulse to coddle or be coddled belong in a mature, vibrant, ambitious literary culture?

I was first offered the chance to review a poetry collection by John Barton, then co-editor of Arc, in 2000. I took home a few slim volumes to consider and felt myself drawn to Shawna Lemay’s All the God-Sized Fruit, which  delves into art history. I’d had my first poem published the previous year, a piece on a photograph by André Kertèsz, and Lemay was poking about in a world that intrigued me. That didn’t mean I would like the book. In fact, it might have made me a more demanding reader than one with no inherent interest in the subject. I confessed to a colleague that I was worried about the task of reviewing: what right did I have to say what I thought? I was no scholar; there were so many famous, canonized poets whose work I’d barely dipped into; there were contexts or references I might miss. She said, yes, maybe. But you’re a reader. You care.

from The Mystery Shopping Cart: Essays on Poetry and Culture, by Anita Lahey (Palimpsest Press, fall 2013)


[1] A friend asks whether this very attention might alter the experiment: would the result be different were I just reading for the sake of reading, rather than for the purpose of reviewing? My answer: I don’t know. But it’s a question all reviewers would do well to keep in mind.

 

anitaembedAnita Lahey’s second poetry collection, Spinning Side Kick, was released by Véhicule Press in 2011, and her new book, The Mystery Shopping Cart: Essays on Poetry and Culture, will be published this fall by Palimpsest Press. Her book Out to Dry in Cape Breton was nominated for the Trillium Book Award for Poetry and the Ottawa Book Award. Anita is a former editor of Arc Poetry Magazine, and a journalist who has written about subjects ranging from climate change science to seahorses to the allure of roller coasters to luminescent mushrooms to the legacy of the Sydney Tar Ponds for publications such as Saturday NightThe WalrusCottage LifeMaisonneuveReader’s Digest and Canadian Geographic. An Ontario native and former resident of Ottawa, Montreal and Fredericton, Anita now lives in Toronto with her husband, son and two cats—and still spends as much time as she can in her father’s “homeland,” Main-à-dieu.

On Reviewing: Zoe Whittall

LH: What do you think the purpose of a review is? If you also write about books on a blog (as opposed to an official publication), why? What does blogging let you do differently?

ZW: To start a conversation about a new book that a) lets readers know it exists b) talks about how it fits (or doesn’t fit) into the world of similar books that came before it, what it does differently, what it fails to do differently c) how it differs from authors previous works d) did it do what it set out to do? E) if I think it’s worth your time and why

ZW: I don’t blog. If I really like a book I’ll tweet about it.

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?

ZW: My approach varies according to the type of book. I try to review the book in front of me and not the book I wish the author wrote. My approach is not academic at all, it’s more conversational and critical.

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?

ZW: A successful review should leave the reader with a succinct impression of what the book is about without giving them a play by play; it should be written with a narrative voice of its own and not in Divorced Reporter Voice. It should try to be funny sometimes. It should resist using the words Seminal, and empty adjectives Riveting, Heartbreaking. If I’ve used too many empty adjectives it’s because I don’t have enough meaningful stuff to say about the book and I’m trying to make my word count.

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?

ZW: The particular text, unless I’ve already read the backlist. Reviews pay so little I won’t read any other books unless I’m interested anyway. There’s rarely enough time.

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?

ZW: Completely different. I don’t know how to explain it.

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?

ZW:  Absolutely. There isn’t really a tradition I’m opposed to as much as incredibly bored by. I used to take some glee in ripping these books apart. Now I try to give them a fair assessment keeping in mind the context of the book they were trying to write, and then I point how I think they failed to meet their goals.

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?

ZW: I’ve read a ton of critical reviews of Heroines, and every smart female writer friend I know who has read it has hated it with such an intensity I had to buy a copy and see for myself.

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

ZW: Yes, most reviews do not have an interesting authorial voice. In order to really like a review, or read it to its end, I have to know who is writing them to really believe them or not, and if the author is too distant or not present, then I get bored. I wouldn’t ask a stranger’s opinion on the street about a movie, I’d ask someone I know. I have to know who is talking to me.

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?

ZW: I won’t write for free, ever, unless it’s poetry.

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

ZW: I definitely think reviews can bring new readers to text. I guess I hope to be a part of the literary community by contributing to public conversations

 

MallorytownPhotoZoeZoe Whittall has published three books of poetry, Precordial Thump (08), The Emily Valentine Poems (06), and The Best 10 Minutes of Your Life (2001). Her latest novels are Holding Still for as Long as Possible and Bottle Rocket Hearts. She has recently become a contributing editor to Lemon Hound.

 

On Reviewing Natalie Walschots

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?

NZW: The purpose of a review, be it a book review or an album review, is to communicate with that text’s potential audience, to place the text in its cultural context, and to engage with both the writer and the potential readers about the text’s success.

I see two potential purposes that a review may have, and an individual review can embody one or both of these traits. First, to work as a piece of cultural criticism. This involves situating the text within it’s cultural context, examining how is upholds or disrupts the status quo within that context, and analysing the cultural work that the text is doing. This can involve categorizing the text within a genre or genres, looking at the text’s form and content, identifying moments of innovation and change, and otherwise providing a detailed look at how and where the text operates in the cultural landscape.

Another potential purpose of a review is to match a text with a potential audience.
This involves identifying the audience that the text is attempting to reach and analyzing whether or not the text is successful is doing so. In this regard, the purpose of a review is also to let that audience know whether the text in question is any good or not, and whether a member if its target audience might enjoy it. A review is also an endorsement, a vote of confidence or a warning.

Sometimes I turn to blogging when I don’t want to do either of these things, when I instead wish to write about my own, personal, not-necessarily critical relationship with a book. Texts often act as triggers, or can become am important marker in our lives — a record we listen to obsessively during a break-up, a book that we passionately identify with while navigating a difficult life change. Blogging allows the space and freedom to do this free from the “work” of criticism. That said, even on my own blog I usually write reviews.

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?

NZ: I employ exegetical, contextual, close, reader response and evaluative techniques most often in my own writing. I tend to avoid excessively academic and theoretical language because I find that it often alienates my potential audience. Poetry and heavy metal are both difficult mediums that require a lot of readers and listeners, and further complicating things by writing reviews full of impenetrable prose seems counter-intuitive and unwelcoming. In terms of my method or approach: the most important aspect the review writing process for me is time spent with the work, and research. If it is a book, I read it more than once and allow myself some time to digest what I have written. If it is an album, I listen to that album several times and in different contexts. On each pass I take notes. I also read up on the author or band, in the form of interviews, bios, and other materials, so I know as much as possible about the work when I begin writing.  


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? 


 NZW: Good reviews are defined by good writing featuring a deep engagement with the text by an informed reader who has taken the time to get to know the substance and context of the work extremely well. If there is one thing that defines a good review, it is knowledge and confidence, opinions that are stated clearly and bravely, and backed up with proof.


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? 


NZW: I always focus on the book/album at hand, as that is always the primary thing that is being reviewed, but the creator’s body of work is definitely something I consider as part of my review of the single text. The context of the author’s other work, and indeed their life is extremely important. For example, I refuse to review albums or books by people who have made openly racist, sexist, homophobic or other hateful statements (I have slipped and mistakenly reviewed things that sadly fall into these categories, but I strive to avoid them as much as I can). A knowledge of the author/musician’s life and other work is necessary to be able to make these calls. 


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? 


NZW: Completely different. Criticism is an utterly different mode of writing for me — though, both are certainly creative acts, and I don’t value one over the other. The headspace that I occupy when I am writing is extremely different. I can produce criticism to deadline, under tight time constraint, whereas with poetry, I need to be much gentler with myself. 


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? 


NZW: Absolutely, I write about albums I don’t care for all the time. I don’t feel that this is problematic at all. As a cultural critic, one of our roles is to point to material that we think is unsuccessful and explain why. Some pieces fail. The ideas don’t work, the structure is not sound, the themes are not properly executed, poor choices are made. I don’t think there is anything problematic with pointing those things out. In doing so, you are flagging these problems for potential readers, and backing up your opinions with examples from the text. Criticism that is unable to make value judgements is toothless. This illuminates something that I think is a key difference between music journalism and poetry criticism: as a music critic, you are absolutely expected to say whether a piece is good or not. This is a given. The supposition that this is somehow improper or off limits is poetry-land boggles my mind. That said, I think there is a precedent for work being dismissed out of hand by critics who don’t understand it, or who look down upon work of a certain genre or by someone who conforms to a certain demographic. Hence, the hesitation to make calls ourselves.



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? 


NZW: I never rely on single reviews of an album or book to make my purchasing decisions. Instead, I read as many as I can, and take them together to get a better idea of how that book is being received by may writers and different publications.

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


NZW: The best reviews are the brave ones, where the writer genuinely states their opinions and does their best to back them up. Not enough reviews exhibit real vulnerability combined with intelligence, or take enough risks.

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? 


NZW: All the book reviews I have done, I have been paid for. In music journalism, reviews are very seldom paid work but are often connected to features, interviews, etc. that do pay. They are a gateway to paying work. As such, I will continue to do both. 


LH: What do you hope to achieve by writing about writing? Do you believe that reviews can actually bring new readers to texts? I absolutely believe, and see demonstrated all the time, that reviews both attract and inform new readers and listeners.

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Natalie Zina Walschots is a music writer, poet and editor based in Toronto, Ontario. She writes for a variety music publications, both in print and online, including Toronto Standard, Toronto Is Awesome, Hellbound, About Heavy Metal, Angry Metal Guy and Exclaim!. Natalie currently serves as the Managing Editor of Canada Arts Connect, and her weekly column about feminism and aggressive music, “Girl Don’t Like Metal,” is hosted on Canada Arts Connect Magazine. She is the Metal and Comics Editor for Toronto Is Awesome, where she contributes the columns “Heavy Metal Ambassador” and “Image Seeks Words.” She is also the Reviews Editor of This Magazine, and her biweekly column on individual songs from recent Canadian metal albums, “One Track Mind,” appears on the This Magazine website. Her first book, Thumbscrews, won the Robert Kroetsch Award for Innovative Poetry and was published by Snare Books in the Fall of 2007. Natalie’s second book of poetry, DOOM: Love Poems For Supervillains, was published by Insomniac Press in the Spring of 2012. You can follow her on Twitter.

On Reviewing: Jan Zwicky

LH: What do you think the purpose of a review is?

JZ: To inform people who might be interested in reading the book that it exists, and to offer an imaginatively and intellectually engaged appreciation of it.
LH: If you write reviews, how would you describe your approach, or method?
JZ: I do review, but not frequently because I do a lot of editing; and the work in the two cases is very similar. That work is founded in an attempt to listen — to make myself available to the voice, to pick up on its gestures of address. Sometimes this is extremely difficult, sometimes it is breathtakingly easy; sometimes it involves a mix of work and recognition. One aspect of listening is trying to remain alert to the tastes and preferences I bring to the situation, and this is particularly important if I find myself distanced from the book for some reason.
            Here, I should make a distinction between two types of books that I review and edit: philosophical books and books of poetry. Nearly all philosophical books are arguments of some kind: I try to expound the argument as clearly as I can, and then to engage with it critically. (That’s critiquein Kant’s sense, which does not mean throwing rocks, but unfolding the argument’s fundamental, nearly always unvoiced, assumptions.) It is my hope that by doing this, if I’ve got the argument wrong, the author, at least, will be able to see this and then inform readers. If I think an argument is not compelling, I say so; I try to do this without rancor and, of course, to give a thorough account of my reasons.
            Poetry, on the other hand, is rarely structured as an argument. The lyric poetry that I most frequently review and edit is resonant in form, and needs to be approached as one would approach music. (I take this resonant form, rather than the presence of some introspective “I”, to be defining of lyric thought in any medium.) I still attempt to provide readers with information about the book — its preoccupations, its tone, its style, the tradition in which it might be located — but I try to do this much as one might attempt to describe one friend to another. If I can’t make friends with a book of poetry — if I feel there’s too much static for me to appreciate the project — I recuse myself. If I don’t ‘get’ a work of art, I believe the most helpful thing I can do is to step out of the way and let someone who does get it show me and others how to attend to it.
            That, I believe, is the secondary function of reviews of lyric art: to assist others in attending to that art. If one can’t attend well oneself, it is unlikely one will be able to assist others. Making a display of one’s insensitivity is graceless — irritating to most readers and ultimately embarrassing to oneself. There are exceptions to this general observation, of course. A truly great reviewer can write a review of a book she doesn’t like and still assist readers in appreciating it. But this requires deeply focussed attention, extensive quotation, and a lot of self-knowledge on the part of the reviewer.
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?
JZ: In my experience as a reader — which is broader than my experience as a writer — there is no recipe for a successful review. But there are two ingredients that have been present in every good review I have read: a wide-ranging articulate intelligence and respect. The latter is not equivalent to agreement with the author’s views — indeed, in philosophical and political contexts, a review can, often must, express deep and trenchant opposition. But a good review will always convey respect for the process of discussion; it will be clear that its own standpoint is particular. (Here I think of some fine reviews I have read by Gary Wills.) In the case of art, a good review always conveys respect for the attempt to make art. If forced to address work by which it finds itself repelled, it proceeds with the awareness — which it communicates — that its voice is one of many, that there is room for disagreement, that it may be missing something. (There are tyrants of the mind as well as of the body politic. Behind most trashy reviews is someone who wants to run the world.) Darren Bifford has expanded on this, writing, “Critical attention is characterized by respect in at least two ways: we acknowledge that the poem’s existence has inherent worth; and we acknowledge, in its existence, a mystery, which entails a mind that climbs toward that which it attends. The result is a criticism that seeks illumination rather than the priority of its own attitudes over all materials. The latter, even when it’s negative, involves a kind of consumption for pleasure or entertainment — it uses a work.” This is a striking way of putting the point — it sees the respect that characterizes a good review as analogous to respect for persons.
            But — someone might say — doesn’t respect require honesty? Doesn’t honesty demand plain speaking? If somebody has exhibited a urinal in a public gallery and you find the gesture offensive, shouldn’t you scream your outrage from the rooftops? Take aim in every public organ available to you? Confront the so-called artist in person and call them a sniveling idiot to their face? —I’ll wager that at least some of these suggestions strike most of us as excessive. Why? Perhaps because plain speaking, despite its reputation, is a nuanced business.
            I’d like to offer two true stories as illustrations of this point. A family I know tells with great relish an anecdote about one of its least-liked members, a self-righteous and manipulative woman who always needed to be the centre of attention. This woman, herself overweight, apparently went up to a well-liked woman at a church supper once and said loudly, so as to be overheard, “Carol, as your friend, it’s my duty to tell you you’re fat.” Why do we laugh? Isn’t this a perfect illustration of virtuous plain speaking, founded in a wholly laudable commitment to public health?
            My second story: I was teaching Plato’s Republicand, hoping to shake students out of their unreflective hero-worship of Socrates, had asked them to reflect on his teaching methods. In Book I, Socrates matches wits with a brilliant adolescent male, a self-styled ethical nihilist who isn’t afraid to speak (what he thinks is) the truth about morality: it amounts to nothing more than the ability to enforce your will, might makes right.  Socrates (of course) doesn’t agree, and seeing the boy as an example of the rot that has infected imperial Athens, fences with him verbally in front of a crowd of other young men, adroitly cornering him and forcing him to drop his rhetorical sword. The kid is deeply ashamed, blushes furiously — a fact to which Socrates calls attention — and stops arguing. From that point on in the dialogue, whenever Socrates attempts to solicit his opinion, he says, “Oh, of course, Socrates, whatever you want me to say, Socrates”, in sneering imitation of Socrates’ acolytes. I asked the students if they thought Socrates had achieved anything by taking the kid down in public. To my astonishment, roughly half the class said they thought being publicly shamed was an effective way of learning; a couple of students even volunteered that it had happened to them, and that it had been a salutary experience. The other half of the class was appalled, claiming that it was a terrible way to teach, amounted to bullying, and served only to entrench bad feeling. And now, what seemed to me at the time to be the kicker: the split in the class was cleanly, and without exception, on gendered lines. The gals thought public shaming was pointless and destructive, the guys thought it had merit and was potentially effective.
            Of course it was just one class, on one day. The gender split could have been a simple coincidence, or it could have been the superficial manifestation of a deeper non-gendered phenomenon (maybe all the women had been abused in some way, and none of the men had). But even if it wasn’t coincidence, even if it reflects something profound about how a majority of young adult women and a majority of young adult men think, the deeper issue transcends this distinction. For I know men who loathe public displays of the sort Socrates stages, and know of women who enjoy them. Although the gender split in my story must give us pause, serious pause, the deep lesson that we, as a reviewing community, must draw is that peoplehave different reactions to being humiliated in public. In a different dialogue, Plato argues the most general version of this point: if you are really concerned to effect moral improvement, he says, you have to cut the speech to fit the soul. And what I think my second story ultimately underlines is that a passionate commitment to the health and beauty of literary art entails almost nothing about how to bring it about in a particular case.
            If, then, we regard reviewing as, in some manner, a moral calling — the duty of respect entailing honesty entailing plain speaking, and all this in aid of reforming backsliders and encouraging paragons so that the art we love and honour may remain undefiled — we need minimally to be aware that the culture in which we practise this calling is no simple thing. If we are serious about improving matters, we need to do more than bang pots or hurl insults. Moral reform is a subtle business because people are subtle beings; their situations are subtle, and our interactions with them are more complex than our interactions with toasters. Further, we must be wary of the presumption that we ourselves are somehow especially fit to accost the alleged poetasters of the world. As Sophocles says: May no one arrive at my fireside who will not wonder what he is and does. In evincing respect, a good review conveys its susceptibility to this doubt.
            Complementing respect are two other ingredients I’ve noticed in good reviews. One that seems always to be present (where word limits allow) is extensive and careful exegesis and quotation. And a fourth ingredient that is common, though not ubiquitous, is generosity. A failure of generosity is often ugly; but even a failure of insight need not sink a review if the reviewer is generous. Here, I think of a review of Franz Wright’s God’s Silence by Helen Vendler. Vendler herself, it seemed to me, did not understand Wright’s project. But I was able to discern this — and immediately bought the book — because of her generosity. The seriousnessof her attempt to understand revealed things about the book that she herself apparently did not see. 

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?
JZ: Where there is context for an individual work, describing this context nearly always broadens understanding. It is hard to imagine how it could be irrelevant. But the way in which context is provided can be quite various, just as treatment of background in painting and photography can be various while remaining, in every case, a fundamental aspect of the work.
LH: How different is the way you approach reviewing or critical writing to the way you approach your own “creative” writing?
JZ: Because I am not aware of an ‘approach’ I bring to my creative work, at first I did not know how to respond to this question. But on reflection, I think the answer is probably straightforward: there’s not much difference. In both cases, what I’m trying to do is to listen with as much imaginative reach as I can muster. In one case, I’m trying to attend to the world, in the other to a piece of writing.
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?
JZ: Yes, this has happened to me as a philosophical reviewer. Not often, but it’s happened.
            First, I take a big breath — I try to set down my resistances, and to ask whether this book might open to me a perspective that has previously been closed. Once or twice this has worked, but by no means always. If it doesn’t, step two involves trying to be honest about my bristly-ness, and laying it out for readers in a way that invites them to think through the issues themselves. But I certainly don’t always succeed here either. Step three is thus crucial: I ask at least a couple of friends, who share my sense of the importance of respect, to read a draft and to tell me where I’m not being fair. (Or where an attempt at wit has turned flippant.) I’m sure even this hasn’t always worked, but it’s saved me from at least some lapses into ham-fistedness.
            With poetry, so far, I’ve been able to say no to review requests when I’ve been unsympathetic to the project. In editing situations and workshops, though, I haven’t always been able to avoid speaking to manuscripts I don’t like. But I’ve been astoundingly lucky. So far, I’ve found in every case — every case! — that if I ask the person whose work I’m resisting to explain their goals, to help me understand what they’re trying to do, the door has opened. I’ve discovered common ground; it has turned out that we share some significant commitment. That commitment has led the author in one direction, and me in another; but we’ve been able to map this out, and speak across the distances. I have no idea how to explain this, unless it’s that the decision to engage with poetry selects for people who are in tune on fundamental matters.
            Or maybe it is just luck. If so, I hope it holds.
LH: What is the last piece of writing that a/ convinced you to 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?
JZ: I’ve mentioned the review by Helen Vendler that made me go out and buy God’s Silence; it’s not the most recent example, but it’s one of the most memorable. The other day, I ordered Gjertrud Schnackenberg’s The Lamplit Answer on the basis of a review by Doug Beardsley. In general, Tim Lilburn, Sue Sinclair, M. Travis Lane and Warren Heiti are writers who frequently manage to stimulate me to buy a book, or to pick up a classic that’s already on my shelves. As for reconsiderations, Northrop Frye recently convinced me to have another go at Wallace Stevens. Stevens still eludes me; but this is not Frye’s fault. He reallymade me want to try, and helped me make a serious attempt. (I remain hopeful that enlightenment will strike some day.)
LH: Is there a quality you are looking for in a review that you haven’t found?
JZ: No.
LH: Critical work is increasingly unpaid work; will you continue to do this work despite the trend?
JZ: Since writing poetry and philosophy are also unpaid work, and since editing them is, at best, grossly underpaid, my time is limited. But if I’m flush, and have the time, yes, certainly I’ll continue. I have no principled objection to unpaid work. Quite the opposite.
LH: What do you hope to achieve by writing about writing?
JZ: To promote clarity of thought about fundamental philosophical and political issues, in the hope that increased clarity might lead to beneficial change. And to convey my love or enthusiasm for a work of art that’s changed my life.
LH: Do you believe that reviews can actually bring new readers to texts?
JZ: Yes. They’ve done this for me.

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Jan Zwicky’ most recent book of poetry, Forge, is a finalist for the upcoming Griffin Prize for Poetry. She has published eight collections of poetry including Songs for Relinquishing the Earth, which won the Governor General’s Literary Award in 1999, Robinson’s Crossing, which won the Dorothy Livesay Prize and was shortlisted for the Governor General’s Literary Award in 2004, and Thirty-Seven Small Songs and Thirteen SilencesHer books of philosophy include Wisdom & Metaphor, which was shortlisted for the Governor General’s Literary Award in 2004, Lyric Philosophy, now in a revised second edition, and Plato as Artist, a non-specialist celebration of Plato’s writerly talents. Zwicky has published widely as an essayist on issues in music, poetry, philosophy and the environment. A native of Alberta, she now lives on Quadra Island, off the coast of British Columbia.



On Reviewing: David Orr

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?

DO: A good review is a persuasive judgment entertainingly delivered. Criticism itself is a broader category, and includes exploratory essays, polemics, advocacy, whither-the-poets-of-yesteryears and so forth. Poetry has plenty of critics, but fewer reviewers than it probably deserves.

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?

DO: My method is coffee in the morning, liquor at night. If a piece is going badly, this procedure may be reversed.

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?

DO: Martin Amis, who’s often wrong but almost never boring, once wrote that the real problem with most book reviewing is “dullness.” That sounds about right to me. If you’re a poetry critic writing for a general audience, it’s essential to realize that the overwhelming majority of your potential readers think of your art form the way most people think of Renaissance faires. That perception is wrong, of course, but it’s one you ignore at the risk of having your audience read your opening sentence and promptly assign you to a pigeonhole adjacent to the jousting fanatics.

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?

DO: You always do your best to look at the writer’s body of work; the writer is owed at least that much. It’s no small thing to have written more than one book, even if some of them were less than good.

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?

DO: The key difference for me is the word “deadline.” It probably would be better for my non-critical work if I didn’t believe that to be the case. Aside from that, I suppose I think of my critical self and my creative self as fraternal twins: they have certain similarities, but each would be annoyed if you mistook him for the other.

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?

DO: I try to be fair. That said, I don’t give any tradition much respect unless it is, in fact, a tradition, and not simply a series of not-very-good writers cribbing from each other. We don’t get much outside scrutiny in the American poetry world, and consequently we have a number of “traditions” that wouldn’t survive two minutes in front of an even slightly skeptical audience.

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?

DO: Oh dear. I think I’ll just say that we’re in an especially strong critical period.

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

DO: I’d like to see more actual thinking going on. One of the sad facts about poetry reviewing right now is that many poets pay more attention to their own team uniforms than they do to reviewers’ reasoning. They want to hear what they want to hear, and they can be excessively charitable to bad arguments that happen to suit them, and obnoxious toward interesting arguments that don’t fit their world view. As a result, many reviewers – and I include myself in this criticism – can find themselves becoming concerned with framing and positioning at the expense of making sense.

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?

DO: If I’m getting paid, I’ll continue to write criticism, and if I’m not getting paid, I can’t afford to write criticism. I’m afraid it’s that simple.

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

DO: Let me answer the second question first: Yes, I believe reviews bring new readers to authors. I know they do, actually. As for what I hope to achieve, well, I’ve always thought that criticism is its own art form. It’s true that only by reading poetry can we have the experience “reading poetry,” but it isn’t clear to me that that experience is richer or better than the experience of reading criticism, if the criticism is good enough. So I guess by “writing about writing” I hope to achieve something at least as interesting to the reader as a decent poem or pop song.
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David Orr is the poetry columnist for the New York Times Book Review and a recipient of the National Book Critic Circle’s prize for excellence in reviewing.  His first book, Beautiful & Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry, will be released by HarperCollins in April in the United States, June in Canada.

On Reviewing: Thom Donovan

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?

TD: Review differs for me a little whether I am reviewing performance, visual art, poetry/literature, or something less identifiable through its particular field, discipline, genre, etc. In the past couple years, for instance, I have been reviewing more dance and performance. Basically, I started reviewing dance/movement performance as a way to learn how to write about dance, and as a way to start sketching a set of conceptual coordinates that may help me to think more clearly about choreography and movement. In regards to my dance writing, I like the notion that one doesn’t need to be an expert to write about something; that their naivety may be able to produce an openness, or that their perceived expertise in another knowledge context or discipline can perform a dis-equilibrating or estranging effect towards a critical discourse. Maybe I’ll say something that hasn’t been said about a particular performance because there are ossified ways of writing dance criticism—a field which I remain largely outside of, though I am beginning to become friendly with more and more choreographers and dancers since I started writing reviews, and am finally beginning to teach myself more about the history of dance criticism and dance itself.
In the past five years, I have also been writing more about contemporary art. Writing about visual art is tricky to me for a variety of reasons, and set apart from the realms of dance/movement and literature/poetry. One of the main reasons for it being set apart is the current economics of art—or at least the New York ‘art world’—in which you find artists in very exploited situations, many of whom are trying to survive in a kind of market game (it is widely known that art is one of the most deregulated markets in the global economy). I am not interested in bolstering the reputation of an artist for the sake of their work’s profitability, nor do I think one review can determine the success of an artist (though it certainly helps if Jerry Saltz or Roberta Smith recommends your work). I am, however, sensitive to the fact that reviews can shape what artists do (and are capable of doing) and so when writing about a show or exhibition I tend to be fairly generous while keeping the reality of the artist’s situation in mind as much as I can, as well as the situation where their work is being shown, which is increasingly foregrounded in our current economic atmosphere. For instance, I am currently trying to write a review of Mika Rottenberg’s show at Mary Boone gallery, Squeeze, which alludes extensively to the commodity fetishism of her product (one encounters a picture of Boone herself holding the ‘product’ of Rottenberg’s art—a cubicle of trash—before one enters the installation space in which one sees an approx. 20 minute video of the cubicle being produced), and the situation of its distribution (said cubicle is withdrawn to the Camons Islands where, by contract, it has been agreed to never be exhibited publicly).

Then again, I am very interested in artists who are trying to work as much as possible outside of art market dynamics. One of my current outlets for writing about said artists is PBS’s Art21 blog, where I have a regular column called “5 Questions for Contemporary Practice.” The first three features are with Miriam Katzeff of Primary Information, a press which republishes facsimiles of rarified visual art printed matter and distributes PDFs of uncopyrighted art writings; Temporary Services, a group from Chicago who has been proliferating work having to do with the investigation of public space and DIY culture since the late 90s; and Carin Kuoni, who curates the indispensable Vera List Center for Art and Politics, an organization based at New School University whose programming tackles an incredibly diverse range of issues and practices pertaining to civic responsibility and cultural politics.

Writing about art, I often have pangs of bad conscience, because I don’t want to just be an advertisement or endorsement for a particular artist or cultural institution (though maybe this can’t be helped?). Yet, I am also partisan, and so I think that certain individuals, groups, and institutions need to be supported more than others (and, in many cases, more than they are) so part of my work is in the interest of both making legible the necessity of that organization or individual within a broader context and of promoting what they do while simultaneously maintaining enough critical distance to reflect on why that doing matters historically and within out current situation. With art, not being particularly educated in the field of art history (I haven’t completed an art history degree, nor an MFA, nor a degree in curatorial studies or art conservation), I tend to be led by my nose. In regards to individual artists in particular, there is something that I see in their work that reflects my own concerns and practices, so I wish to write about their work in order to know it better, or so that I can express something I may wish to say through it. Some of the things I’ve written about Guy Ben-Ner, Catherine Sullivan, Adam Pendleton, Martha Rosler and others I would certainly put in the category of a kind of investigation or essay rather than review per se, though these writings have some of the rhetorical and generic trappings of the review as a critical format.

With poetry, generally, I feel like I have a considerably different relationship with the things I choose to write about. Mainly, I feel like writing about others’ work can be a gift to them—an act of devotion, courtesy, or friendship (though I have been criticized recently for writing introductions that were not “short” enough). Yet, perhaps more importantly, I feel like others’ work can reflect larger problematics that I detect within a culture at large, and which become exigent through those works. To write about another’s work can help you to voice your own concerns and preoccupations. It can also help one to deepen a discourse about historical preoccupations pertaining both to poetics, literary criticism, and cultural production at large. More and more, I wish to write criticism that participates in a conversation among my peers, which is to say, among the people whose work really excites me, and which I see as adding something to an ongoing conversation that I feel myself to be most a part of. If I haven’t gone the ‘negative’ route in terms of what criticism I’ve written (there have been so many calls to ‘negative criticism’ in recent years, as you know), it is probably because I am still too busy celebrating my peers and connecting the dots between different ideas which still really haven’t come into focus, or simply cohered. Maybe this connecting will never end; or maybe it is the true route to the negative—through a situatedness within the particularities of a discourse rather than outside one. As if anyone could be objective anyway, or impartial, which always seems like a self-perpetuating myth of criticism since the New Critics (who seem to be more in vogue now than in the past forty years, no?), especially the ways certain people would articulate the ‘purpose’ or ‘function’ of criticism/the critic. If you love something you want to care for it. Why would it be any different with criticism? Criticism can bring into existence forms of caring, while also potentially saying something that really speaks to the situation we’re in, or the conditions (and I think this is a crucial distinction) that we will have wanted to have been. Which is to say, that will have brought a certain future into being.

Blogging lends a certain independence to this activity, because the weblog—despite its “devaluation” as a format (I’m using this term after an insightful article written by Rich Owens about Sean Bonney’s blog, Abandoned Buildings, and the blog that I have edited for the past five years, Wild Horses Of Fire, recently published in the Poetry Project Newsletter)—is fairly autonomous and flexible. I have long used a blog because something felt like it needed to be said fairly immediately and, as reviewers know, it can take a long time to pitch a piece and then have to edit it—often months. One has so much control over what they do at a blog. The only thing is that some people feel like the blog is cheapening. I think what people say at blogs can tend to be cheap, and perhaps the format promotes this, but I don’t see why people can’t post sustained criticism at a blog, especially with many of the new templates that have emerged in the past few years such as Tumblr and WordPress, not to mention the advances in PDF and POD formats, which can supplement blogs through printable objects.

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?

TD: It is different with dance/movement performance, art writing, and poetry/literary criticism. With dance/movement performance the criticism is so dependent on my mindset seeing the performance live—since there probably won’t be another opportunity to see it. So when I attend dance/movement performance I usually am caffeinated, take a lot of notes, and try to look back on those notes as soon as I am at home, or in a place where I can tell whether or not they can eventually be useful. If they are not useful, I try to supplement them with more notes and reflections on what I just saw, anticipating that I may be forgetful later.

With art writing, the situation is a little bit more involved. Usually, before I write a review now, if the artist is a contemporary (like, say, Mika Rottenberg) I request their press package and any media that may be procured from the gallery which represents them. In the case that the artist does not have gallery representation, I will try to contact them personally through Facebook or email or some other means. Of course there are situations in which one cannot be so deliberate, so what I am trying to express instead through the review is a registration of reaction or encounter. An example of this approach is a series of pieces I published at Art21 around consecutive museum visits to the New Museum, Harlem Studio Museum, and P.S.1, in which many of the works that attracted my attention during those visits were ones by artists whose work I’d never encountered before. In this case, what I tried to present through the review were impressions, hunches, and perceptions. There is a certain freedom that this kind of review affords, which I like very much, however it can also make me nervous—that I am being glib or irresponsible without more context. My ideal situation writing about visual art is to form some kind of relation with the work, a kind of process in which I am able to deepen my understanding of the work throughout the course of writing the review or conducting an interview with the artist. This approach is certainly true of the interviews I have conducted with Adam Pendleton and Guy Ben-Ner for BOMB, who presented me with a lot of challenges throughout the interview process, and overturned many things that I thought I knew or understood about their work. It has also been true about reviews I have written of Catherine Sullivan, who increasingly I approach more as a scholar than as a reviewer. Which is to say, I am increasingly interested in conducting research about and around her work than I am in responding to the immediate circumstances of the work presented in exhibition.

In terms of literary criticism and art writing in particular, “exegesis, theoretical, academic, reader response, close, contextual or evaluative readings” are all in effect. Most of all theoretical, reader response, close, and contextual. For me, though, all of these forms of criticism start from an idea, images, sounds, affects/emotions; they try to be useful at the level of concept, or how the object could serve something social, ethical, interpersonal, public, even political. Almost every critical offering I have made has gestured towards, if not laid bare, its political-ethical commitments, and how one might approach an object of cultural interest or value through a sense of its socio-political content. Certainly, that is a guiding principle. Though I would not want this sense of content to overdetermine the object. The subtlety, it would seem to me, of the critic, lies in their ability to maintain a sense of reality about what the object can do—or what it is actually doing or can do though its appearance within a particular context or milieu. Then again, I am an optimist, or better yet an affirmationalist, and if you suggest that an artist is doing something (or resisting something in certain ways) then I believe there is a possibility you may activate a particular reception or performance of the object. Wishes, or simply certain kinds of belief, in other words, can lead to action. And art works are active to the extent that we enable them to be; that we, in other words, interact with them.

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?

TD: I am pretty open to different styles of review. The reviews I find useful, when I read them (which is probably not often enough), inform one about the object, provide a sense of their investment in writing about the object, and reflect that object within a broader (and not purely formal) milieu. Passion, personal disclosure, investment, motivation, desire, even worship, I believe, can produce exceptional reviews. So can the ‘sober’ eye of a reviewer who is trying to be as generous as possible towards something that might be problematic, or just not quite working for them. Although ‘flaming’ reviews can be entertaining, I’m not exactly sure where they get us. This is an issue I have with many practitioners who use of the term ‘negative’ nowadays, since they are using it in the most pedestrian senses of the term. Whereas I prefer a negative criticism that literally approaches the object through its qualities of negation, or its refusal of certain cultural or socio-political imperatives. I find precedent for such a negative (or negational?) criticism in so many thinkers, writers, and artists that it would hard to enumerate them all, though the Frankfurt School is always a good place to start, as are artists like Robert Smithson, Mike Kelley, Hollis Frampton, and Martha Rosler, all of whom wrote criticism and essay as both a means towards and out of the making of particular works and projects. I guess what I am opting for instead of negative reviewing is ‘immanent critique’; the idea that one is complicit not only in the reception, but the production of this object by participating in its reception, thus its social and historical imbeddedness. And perhaps, a la Walter Benjamin, that a particular object not only can make visible our complicity with certain powers relations, but also holds the promise of a different world, different futures. My friend Dana Ward recently called this manner of transcendence a “redemption through fetish.” Benjamin pointed to the redemptive qualities of commodity culture through those “dialectical images” offered by any particular object of consumption. At bottom, I guess I believe that dialectical materialism can still get us somewhere—that we have not exhausted its possibilities—but dialectical materialist criticism resolves around thinking and not just rhetoric. Too much contemporary criticism would seem the result of rhetorical histrionics that extend from turf wars and personal gripes (and maybe this is all much of what we call ‘criticism’ eventually amounts to, unfortunately). Sometimes I wonder what would happen if before making a critical statement about something people took a step back and asked why they were making the statement, what the intended result of the statement is. For many, including myself at moments, I think this could be a potentially ugly moment of self-reflection, since I think most of us would find the answer is power—its attainment and maintenance. What if obtaining and maintaining power was no longer the principle motor of criticism and what replaced it were accountability to one’s actions, intentions, and decisions in regards to a particular phenomenon of cultural production and to those perceived as one’s community, friends, and peer group? Would criticism per se whither, because what one was doing was something else? (Nietzsche’s comments that one should “deserve” their friends and their enemies is relevant to what I am saying here.) I keep gesturing towards this something else whenever I have to reflect on the ‘purpose of criticism’ though I’m not exactly sure what it is yet. If nothing else it has something to do with ethics, and love, and (social) justice, and a sense that critical reflection can still act transformatively through a limited universe of possible actions.

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?

TD: A book of criticism that I really love—and unfortunately don’t have in my possession, because it never came out in a softback, and the hardcover is really expensive—is Peter Quartermain’s Disjunctive Poetics. A strength of Disjunctive Poetics, is Quartermain’s approach to criticism through exploring a single poem, in some cases a single stanza or line of a poem. There is a lot to be said for this method, especially when it can relate the entire body of work. This is certainly the case of the canonical American texts by poet-critics: W.C. Williams’s In the American Grain, Charles Olson’s Call Me Ishamel, Louis Zukofsky’s Bottom: on Shakespeare, Robert Duncan’s The H.D. Book, and Susan Howe’s My Emily Dickinson (and I’m sure we could add quite a few others to this short list at this point). That there is a poignant sense of scale; that a single word or phrase can address the whole work—as in the case of Howe taking up Dickinson’s “My Life Had Stood a Loaded Gun,” or Zukofsky the ‘play within a play’ of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. Sometimes I think I would like to write a book in a similar spirit, but I don’t know how to go about it in a way that feels right for our present circumstances. I have taken all of the approaches you mention, but with contemporaries (and I write about contemporaries quite a bit) I especially love to consider the entire body of work to date, and to try to articulate what I think holds it all together. I have attempted to do this especially in the magazine I co-edit with Michael Cross and Kyle Schlesinger, ON: Contemporary Practice (which actually advocates this approach to a contemporary’s work as opposed to single-book reviews), when I wrote about the work of Brenda Iijima in the first volume of the magazine and Bhanu Kapil in the second. How a writer or artist gets from point A to point Z, which is to say, how they approach their problematics as artists horizontally in many cases, is fascinating to me. Yet, there is also the sense sometimes that a writer or artist is pursuing discrete problematics simultaneously, and it is exciting to identify and articulate what these discrete problems are too.

On the other hand, there is a simple pragmatics when writing criticism, a kind of ‘bottom line’, especially living under certain labor conditions both within and without the academy in New York City (I work part-time as an archivist while adjuncting and writing criticism on the side). And this pragmatics has to do with the fact that certain labor conditions allow you to write certain kinds of criticism. Living in New York, I feel that my life as a critic is very much contingent on other forms of labor I need to perform in order to subsist. It is also contingent on who asks me to do what, and what leeway I have given a particular assignment. Sometimes I feel under pressure to perform more as a journalist, sometimes more as an academic/scholar, sometimes more through my practice as a poet. Criticism, here, becomes largely about ‘audience’, but it is also about who is editing you and where you are publishing. Oftentimes an editor is incredibly helpful in shaping your piece; other times you are seeing what you can get away with. These dynamics produce constraints that both can help and hinder the result of any attempt to write criticism. Fortunately, even though I have had to make compromises, I don’t feel like I’ve written anything that I would ‘take back’, and dread a day when I do. Feeling compromised, to my mind, would involve an editor asserting something I completely disagree with, but letting it go because I am in need of the income or have become tired of working on a piece. Occasionally I dream of having all of this time to work on a more extensive article or book length project, something that would only become possible for me through the award of a grant at this point in my life, or finding a full-time job that did not pull me in a thousand different directions. But then I wonder, what would I even pursue? And would this even be useful—to have so much time at my disposal? I joke with my friends that what I am doing now is “small game hunting,” but maybe it’s the small game—blog writing and essays for little journals and correspondence—which eventually leads to the “big game” (or whatever to call it). I love this only half-serious metaphor of the hunt (which I lift from Catherine Sullivan), even though there is something bitter sweet about not being able to write through more sustained projects, or what one would perceive as a ‘project’.

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?

TD: We have discussed this before Sina, particularly during our blogging stint at the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet weblog, but as I have written before, a lot of the work I produce as poetry writing is ekphrastic, or rather represents a kind of ekphrastic mode which does not seek to describe the object, so much as wonder what the object would say about the conditions of its making. The object, then, becomes a subject in a certain way; or flickers off-and-on subject/object, subject/object. I think this contributes to my own sense of objectivism, and my sense of “sincerity and objectification” (to take-up Zukofsky’s terminology). That a lot of things can form relationships of sincerity with the poet (not least of all the words of the poem themselves), but especially other objects of cultural production. During a lecture about Jack Spicer for the St. Mark’s Poetry Project’s Monday night series, Kevin Killian said that he was personally “dictated” to by the Ted Turner Broadcasting Network. There are a lot of things that certainly dictate to me—one of them is friendship, another community, yet another my reading practice—but so, too, does visual art, and perhaps less often film, music, and other forms of art and media. I’m sure this is because I am writing about visual art more than I used to, but also because I am attracted to a form of synaesthesia which one can cultivate through an ekphrastic practice. It is interesting to me, in many of the things that I’ve written, that the emphasis actually tends not to be on the image, but on sound and semantics and idea; as if the image ‘track’ was too easy to simply describe, and to avoid or withdraw image was to forego a description that may be all too visually arresting or identifiable (too ‘easy’, as such). Another way I have thought about poetry writing in relation to visual art is as a kind of pre-scriptive device, or as a processor. Before writing more discursively about a work of art there can be a more direct or intuitive comprehension of the object through the recourse to poetry. The process I am referring to is both alchemical and constructive, mediative and meditative. I usually don’t publish the ekphrastic work without considerable recursion and revision. I often find that it is easier to write the criticism after having wrestled with the poem; likewise, poems often come at some point during or after the process of writing criticism. In this way, ‘poetry writing’ and ‘critical writing’ form a kind of circuit or feedback loop with one another.

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?

TD: One can always be more or less generous to an object they have elected or been asked to critique. And I normally try to be as generous as possible, to start from a position of generosity rather than closing myself off. That said, it is hard to resist hating when you see something or someone being favorably reviewed and you just don’t understand why that person or thing is gaining favor. I think this is where most ‘negative’ reviews come from—a knee jerk reaction to something new, or illegible, or simply outside one’s sensibility/solidified set of values. I try to resist saying something critical unless I think I understand, and suspend judgment until I have found some point of entry that would allow me to understand what a writer or artist is attempting to do. Then again, as I find with many books of poetry, poets are still calibrating their practice early on, so what a negative review would serve a younger or emerging writer is beyond me, except maybe to keep that person from a job, or further publication. Then again, I think it was Anselm Berrigan who said that in our current moment the worst review one can receive is not to receive one at all, because it seems like you don’t exist, or no one cares enough about your work to say anything at all—whether ‘positive’ or ‘negative’. I look forward to situations in which people can be led in their critical practices by their sense of having a conversation with others, in which arguments and agreements can depart from this point. Most of my own work as an editor—both with ON and with a new project I recently launched called Others Letters, which features the correspondences of contemporaries—is geared to producing such moments of interface and dialogue that may make a larger field available to those within and without particular communities and coteries.

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?

TD: The question you are asking seems to have to do with consumerism, which I don’t think is what reviews should serve (and again, maybe the problem is with the review itself as a format, because it grows out of a culture which oftentimes seeks to make objects irresistible to the consumer). That said, often when I am shopping for music, it will be helpful to read about what a group ‘sounds like’, or who their ‘influences’ are. I have been persuaded on more than one occasion to make a purchase of a LP or CD based solely on a description at a local music boutique like Other Music in NYC. I think another way to think about this would be to throw less emphasis on the review/reviewer, and more on the press, which obviously injects a book of poetry with certain values before you know who the author is, let alone the work itself (a friend who is a visual artist, but who is also familiar with contemporary poetry, once remarked that presses were like galleries in the art world, and full-length books of poetry like having a solo show). Same is true of magazines, schools, other institutions. We seek things out because they interest us, or are well made, or have a quality we can’t easily account for. And this goes back, I think, to Dana’s sense of redemption through fetish, because I think most of us would have a hard time imagining our lives without this relationship to certain products, which partially constitutes us as subjects, and which is not easily reconciled by an imagination of alternative economic possibilities, consumer habits, etc.

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

TD: I think it is less that there is a quality in reviews that I haven’t found, and more a sense that the review, as a form of criticism, should whither. In fact, what I really want more of are forms of literature that enfold their critical reception, and especially their reception as it is inflected through community, friendship, and civic responsibility. What if the poetry book included the review (the blurb is an unsubtle device gesturing at this)? What if the book disappeared into its reception and distribution as, for instance, Tan Lin’s Seven Controlled Vocabularies seems to do in some ways. What if, in other words, the work itself started to constitute an act of meta-discourse that intends to present its role in exchange, community, correspondence, reception, distribution, and its complicity in all of these events. What if distributed authorship (or choral modes of criticism—a term I have been using recently to describe a recent trend within contemporary poetry) made the perceived object disappear, dissolved in a network of others, in becoming, in archive and collective performance and the desire for emergent modes and models of subjectivity? Perhaps, for many of us, that is what the poem already is. Though there is nothing announcing this formal quality through its context within a book, magazine, or wherever else the poem may be encountered. The problem I’m identifying involves a crisis of the media itself, which continues to ‘implode’ in relation to the US’s current oligarchic political system, but perhaps also points to the unsustainability of anything which does not acknowledge its connectivity through higher forms of organization, systematicity, and corporatization.

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?

TD: I don’t think I would continue to write reviews and essays if I didn’t think it was somehow useful for my own and others’ practices. One way that I believe criticism can be useful is that it can help you define a set of questions and concerns, and relate them through other forms of work—whether these be writing, teaching, performance, library science, curation, or any form of cultural production one performs (in my case, all of the above). The payment question is tricky, because I do think people should be paid for their work, and especially if they do a ‘good job’—which is to say, invest time, care, and effort. But the way we evaluate things—the way prestige and authority is invented and maintained—seems pretty out-of-wack. And the fact that people compete for resources which may or may not in fact exist doesn’t help this situation. I think people should write reviews largely to serve their own practices and concerns, as well as their friends, peers, and community, because with art and writing in particular, it is not clear who else you would be serving by writing a review except a potential consumer or, at best, a larger public who prefers to consume poetry rather than a Hollywood movie or baseball game (at least in the US). When I see people gunning to appear in widely distributed and some would say ‘prestigious’ publications such as the New Yorker and the Paris Review (whether reviewed or reviewing) I wonder what they are gunning for, and if competition is not to blame for a lot of the ill behavior that goes on and ideas about how criticism can and should function. My critique here reflects much larger concerns that I have for ecology, where competition, speed, over-consumption, immiseration, misuse of resources, and an inability to see things in relation are (literally) killing us. These ways of approaching things need to be rethought, and I think writers can do their part by modeling certain practices and conducts. I am talking about aesthetics here; the problem Wittgenstein referred to when he cited ethics and aesthetics as being one and the same thing. Criticism, too, partakes of this equation.

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

TD: I would hope that reviews could bring new readers to writing and art, but partially because they also like the review—something it says, the way it presents the reviewer in relation to the artist/writer/performer/work. I think especially that reviews can be important for a younger readership, who are still figuring out what things they are into, and the styles or problems they are compelled to pursue. I also think reviews can draw attention to things that one loves and that one believes deserve more attention. They can create a readership, in the best possible sense. Reviewing blends with editing at this point, for me, where it also becomes an act of adding crucial context for the reception of an object. Right now, for instance, I am working on editing a book by Robert Kocik, a midcareer polymath (he designs furniture, buildings, and sets; makes drawings; writes about philosophy, history, philology, theology, science, poetry, art, dance, and medicine in tandem) who, despite the fact that he has generated a ton of material, is barely published in book form. I would like to change this fact. And I believe some combination of good editing, crafty distribution/advertisement, and critical reception is one way to make Robert’s work legible to a readership which has yet to exist, but which I would very much want to exist. Making legible is crucial here, if only because readers will be encountering this work in medias res, which is to say, well into its course and without a lot of previous work to refer to and thus provide a contextual backdrop. How to provide context? How to attract the readers who will take something away from this work, who are not just poets and writers, but architects and performers and theologians and people on the cutting edge of experimental and controversial medical research? I am seriously wondering about this question right now—out of both a sense of friendship and moral commitment (because Kocik’s work might change the way we think and act)—and how to rise to the occasion without a lot of resources at my disposal (ON publishes at a loss, and out of the pockets of myself and my collaborators, as I suspect most publishers devoted to poetry/poetics also do). The critic, in this case, becomes a mediator between the work and its possible receptions—though of course the work may eventually stand alone, without the help of review, editorial, design, promotion, or anything else. And this is actually the best possible scenario I could imagine as a critic, publisher, and editor—that a work need no help from a review or other critical mediation. That whatever is said about the work may be in addition to a readership’s use and appreciation of the object.
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Thom Donovan lives in New York City, where he edits Wild Horses Of Fire weblog and co-edits ON Contemporary Practice, the third issue of which will be devoted to the work of Robert Kocik. He is a participant in the Nonsite Collective and a curator for the SEGUE reading series. His criticism and poetry have been published widely. Currently he is working on a collection of critical writings, Sovereignty and Us: Critical Objects 2005-2010, and on the Project for an Archive of the Future Anterior (with Sreshta Rit Premnath). His book The Hole is forthcoming with Displaced Press this spring. He teaches at Bard College, Baruch College, and School of Visual Arts and holds a Ph.D. in English literature from SUNY-Buffalo.

On Reviewing: Sonnet L’Abbé

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?
SL: Ideally, a review condenses one knowledgeable and generous reader’s full experience of a book. By knowledgeable I mean having a sense of what constitutes quality across a range of genres, and by generous I mean starting from a position of hoping to love the book. A reviewer should give an opinion: signal overall impressions, give some specific moments of admiration, and say what aspects of the work, if any, prevents her from being unequivocally enthusiastic about it. This seems like common sense, but so many reviews avoid talking about shortcomings. A review should take a position, give context to the degree possible and necessary, and should help people decide if they want to buy the book. The kind of information and level of detail a reviewer might pass on in a review depends on the intended audience, i.e. academic or popular.
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?
SL: My method: read the whole book through once taking notes with page numbers, close the book and write overall impressions, go back to the book via my notes to try to articulate what I think the aesthetic aims of the work are, then decide if I think those aims are worth having spent a book’s worth of work on and whether or not the book achieves what I think it set out to do. Close reading helps me get a sense of the author’s level of technical control and clarity. I often like to familiarize myself with an author’s previous work, as deadline permits, to be able to speak to the author’s preoccupations and new choices.
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?
SL: A successful review accurately reflects the book’s achievements both as a work one might read randomly – for a broad audience of readers – and as one read in the context of similar work, for more specialized audiences. A particularly successful review reads a book in its long, literary, historical and commercial contexts and can place it accurately in terms of its significance in its field. If the reviewer really digs the book, her review should risk a persuasive stance toward making people want to buy the book and read it.
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?
SL: I always want to engage with the whole book. (I’m always amazed at how many people ask me if I read the whole book when I review one, and who of those are surprised when I say yes, I often read them more than once!) If a particular poem or story in a book seems exemplary, either because it helps me to describe the merits of the larger work or is the only piece worth spending time on, I’ll let the review take shape accordingly. I like to have a sense of where the book is coming from, that is, I like to understand it as one step in a writer’s career and be able to comment on that particular writer’s favorite concerns or evolution of style. I can’t always read an author’s whole backlist, though, so if I don’t know an author’s earlier books I’ll try to get them from the library and at least flip through 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?
SL: Critical writing feels much more straightforward – easier, in a way. The text is already there, waiting to be commented upon. The steps to reviewing – i.e. reading the book and choosing a response to it, working to a deadline and a specific wordcount – all provide pretty clear expectations about the way a piece of critical writing will succeed, or at least be functional. (At least, it feels that way to me, but obviously the dialogue you’ve initiated, Sina, and the responses of other reviewers show how diverse our understandings are of the goals and nature of reviewing.) My creative writing doesn’t always let me know up front what its goals are. I don’t know how a creative piece I’m working on will succeed until it has succeeded, and sometimes I don’t recognize or come to a final decision on a piece’s success or failure until a long time after it is written.
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?
SL: Totally, yes, I have been in both situations. Writing for the Globe and Mail, I’m often in the position of only having so much space to speak about books and have some latitude to choose what I will talk about, so the desire to give space to work that deserves a wide audience often makes it easy to not write about books I don’t like. Sometimes, though, I’ll be assigned a book that will already have some readership because of the profile of the author, or ask for a book by someone I’m really interested in, then think that it sucks. So far, I’ve always handled this by writing through it. It can feel like one small step in a slow career suicide to say I didn’t like so and so’s book. Maybe one day enough of those steps will add up to a fatal fall, but so far, not. So far, writing through my dislike of a book, with a commitment to fairness and awareness of my own tastes, has almost always moved me from my first self-audits to a full and backed-up realization of why a book didn’t work for me.
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?
SL: I wish I had reviewed M. Nourbese Philips’ Zong! for the Globe and Mail when I had the chance. I’ve written about “Discourse on the Logic of Language” for the Books section, and respect Philips’ work a lot. Zong!’s mission is important, and its conceptual presentation made sense to me, but on first read it felt drawn out, as if what would have made a tight long poem had been stretched to book length. I’m always torn when work that speaks to my individual likes around political voice doesn’t satisfy me formally/technically (pace the illusory separateness of form and content here). Kate Eichhorn’s interview with Nourbese Philip in Prismatic Publics made me wish I had still given the space to Zong! to say what I had to say and bring more people to the work. I asked Martin Levin if we could still do it, but it was about one season too late – so, dear readers who haven’t already done so, go check out Zong!
LH: Is there a quality you are looking for in a review that you haven’t found?
SL: There are a couple qualities that I wish I would see more often, one of which is a sense of responsibility to articulate the larger project of a book, rather than simply synopsize its plot – I suspect this comes out of my academic training and seeing my job there as helping students, the readers I’m training, to look for the ethical, social, conceptual or representational question that the book is asking. It can be hard to locate the heart of a book, but I despair of reviews that don’t even try to demonstrate that one might look for the large questions a book can pose.
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?
SL: For the past few years I’ve tended to only say yes to reviewing for pay. Now that I’m working on a PhD, I’ve begun reviewing in my field for scholarly journals that don’t remunerate – academic capital is a kind of pay, though. I don’t know when I’ll next be in the position to do critical work for free, but I can imagine a number of scenarios where I would. I can’t say many hopeful comments about the trend. The print publishing and online publishing games, scholarly and popular, are seeing such huge challenges to their business models that all kinds of writing, not only critical writing, are increasingly threatened by a dearth of paying outlets. I do think that it’s important that as professionals, writers expect to be paid and that we keep looking for ways to hold the big machine accountable to our labour.
LH: What do you hope to achieve by writing about writing? Do you believe that reviews can actually bring new readers to texts?
SL: See above. I definitely believe reviews bring readers to texts; I’ve had readers of my reviews, and writers whom I’ve reviewed, enthusiastically tell me as much. Reviews are such an important part of the conversation and community that we create by writing books. They are the vehicles by which a book is publicly heard and reflected. I imagine writing a book that is never reviewed is a like sending your most heartfelt email out to your list of friends and never hearing back. Writing about writing, and reading writing about writing, sustains me. It’s shop talk, and – particularly because I so rarely poke my head out of my shop – I love the camaraderie and shared grumblings of fellow shop talk.
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Sonnet L’Abbé is the author of two collections of poetry, A Strange Relief and Killarnoe, both published by McClelland and Stewart. She won the Bronwen Wallace Memorial Award for most promising writer under 35, and the Malahat Review Long Poem Prize, and her work appears in the Best Canadian Poetry in English 2009 and 2010. L’Abbé has taught writing at the University of Toronto’s School of Continuing Studies. She reviews poetry for the Globe and Mail, Canadian Literature and other publications, and is currently working on her PhD in English Literature at the University of British Columbia.