Preface to “Review Review”
Book reviews. One can do a great service, or disservice, or minimal service in either case, to the work under consideration, not to mention both authors and to some extent perhaps, the “state” of American Poetry. And look around, they’re everywhere.
This potential and saturation inspired the project presented here. It’s what motivated me to seek out responses to the question of book reviews. A question, because when I ask it to myself (and I don’t think I’m alone), the familiar answer contains 500 words of as much objectivity as one can muster. But forgoing the formulaic, what actually is this activity called “reviewing?” What can it be? What should it be? And why? Is it somehow relatable to acts of reading and if so, what could that suggest for the review to be written?
Pursuing the question of book reviews over the past year led to a rather large and diverse critical forum in the first issue of Mayday Magazine, http://www.maydaymagazine.com/issue1JOHNSON.php, in response to a letter from Kent Johnson to Poetry. (Indeed, I’m indebted to Johnson and his letter for focusing my attention; so perhaps my cause and effect should be reversed.) In it, Johnson argues for reviving the practice of publishing anonymously authored book reviews. The responses from contributors to the forum grappled with the value and promise of this single, provocative proposition, and along the way many thought more broadly (and particularly) about the shoulds and should nots of book reviews.
Which led me to pursue the current project. Simply, I wanted to widen the discussion by posing the question of book reviews in the absence of any suggestion, any already formulated possibilities, propositions. Begin with the question, and the big blank page, and see what turns out. (Of course, such absence was not actually possible.)
The results of this pursuit, printed here:
1) “Review reviews,” to quote Nate Pritts, in which contributors reflect upon the state of book reviews, voice their concerns, and attempt new imaginings.
2) Examples of unorthodox reviewing.
3) Based on 1 and 2, the seeds of what could, perhaps should, be an unending consideration of the book review’s possibility.
And not wanting to miss the party, I can’t end without offering a bit of my own perspective, at times at odds with some of the ideas given here and elsewhere. My foray into book reviewing is a scant twice (Jacket 36 and forthcoming in the Exquisite Corpse Annual #2). Regardless, I’ve found the activity useful and pleasurable. Useful because I can take part in promoting work I feel deserves promotion, and equally important, because the activity provides an opportunity to sort out my own thinking, an opportunity to wrestle with something that is so attractive (or repulsive) as to move me to find the best-failing words to describe and account for it; and the activity is pleasurable for the same reasons.
Both of my reviews, of Geoffrey Gatza’s Not So Fast Robespierre and Murat Nemet-Nejat’s EDA: An Anthology of Contemporary Turkish Poetry, exceed ten pages. I’ve approached them not as “reviews” but as “review-essays” or better still, “readings.” Which is to say, I forwent any requirements of objectivity beyond my readings grounding themselves in the material as it happened on the pages before me. In terms of “fairness” and “balance,” the former again involved simply finding my own reading substantiated in the work, with an eye open to elsewhere, while the latter went straight out the window. I reject “balance” as a requirement, considering what works and what doesn’t in light of the work’s perceived intentions and positioning within larger fields, because, frankly, I’m no machine. No activity of mine is balanced; it’s always of a weight shifting this way or that. As such, when it comes to reviewing, I prefer to partake as ecstatic passenger, giving way to what passions and movements involuntarily occur. In pursuit of these I do find it worthwhile to apply pressure—to question and contradict—but I question and in this case reject the value of objectivity existing at the expense of immediacy, need (broadly considered and beyond certain basics, always subjective), or desire. I also lack that allergy to things irrational. By forgoing a mandate of “balance,” an idea that chimes “shackle,” I’m better able to make decisions about what constitutes necessary consideration, and to determine the contextual value of the work. It’s personal.
And now that I’m here, perhaps this is my biggest obstacle in coming to terms with most reviews. “Balance.” Such an idea has its place in criticism—but reviewing? Reading? I can allow that the reviewer’s reading eye is a critical eye—without it, little could be said in response. Without it, the review becomes little more than extended blurb. But too much of it and, so it seems, it becomes “criticism”—in other words, if critical “balance” overtakes reviewing, do we insist that the kind is the review? If reviewing be criticism, then why review? Perhaps the question hinges on what we re-view when we review, whether it’s the work, our reading of it, or both. At any rate, if we prefer criticism, then a 500-word review should predictably fail to engage the work at the level of “balanced,” insightful, searing criticism we otherwise enjoy.
The result, then, of much of the “balance” that I find occurring across the book reviews board, is boredom. It fails to deliver as an ecstatic event in its own right while failing to deliver in terms of critical insight. And what follows from this boredom, from which I suspect at least someone else suffers—how tragic for the reviewed, if we ignore the book.
A review/reading that is “an ecstatic event in its own right” could accomplish two things. One, it could move, excite, titillate the reader, such that she’s moved to pursue the work under consideration—not bad aspiration for the enthusiastic reader about to embark on a review. It would also free the reviewer from the drollery of marketing next to the suppression of subjective enthusiasm and thinking that “balance” would entail. It would open a space, within the fair consideration of the work at hand as substantiated by what pages lie open, for the formulation and articulation of ones own poetic thinking in the infectious lights cast by another. By thinking in terms of the “review-essay,” or “engagement,” or “fair reading entailing conditional subjective response,” perhaps I’m thinking “hybrid” or “impure reviewing.”
But to the point. Will the small gathering of ideas presented here prove successful? Will it somehow take part, help inspire, the evolution of a genre? If it at all helps keep the conversation going, the innovative thinking about the genre, then, perhaps. This all of course depends on our interest in the first place.
Jared Schickling has three books of poetry with BlazeVOX: Aurora, submissions, and O (2007, 8, and 9).
RECONFIGURATIONS: A Journal for Poetics & Poetry / Literature & Culture, http://reconfigurations.blogspot.com/, ISSN: 1938-3592, Volume Three (2009): Immanence/ Imminence