Friday, June 17, 2005

Death to Reviews! (II)

The reviewing thread seems to have turned largely to a discussion of ethics/back-scratching, which I think is okay but, come on. This is a small world; nobody's going to review us poets but us poets. The marketing value of any review is that it mentions the name and title of a book and gives maybe some sense of what it's about and whether I should bother with it; a nasty review can do this as well as a good one. The number of outlets that review poetry where column-inches are such a precious commodity that we should get upset about it is laughably few.

I'm sorry to hear that Simon DeDeo has decided to quit over this discussion (and I'm no stranger to melodramatic departures), but I rather wish his farewell hadn't had the tone of a kiss-off. I've been thinking on and off over the course of the day whether I should even say anything about it, and I probably shouldn't, but it's been bugging me. Perhaps it is because I do occasionally write about underpants.

Hey, we're all "shouting into a void." It's taken me two-and-a-half years of fairly regular blogging to become what DeDeo calls one of the "usual suspects," and I doubt I have that many more readers than he does. Don't throw in the towel after six months because the Great Public hasn't found you yet. If you believe in the work you're doing, and it's productive for you and those who read you, keep doing it. For God's sake don't do it as a public service.

I suspect DeDeo's frustrated because his blog is an example of what he, and many others, would call real reviewing, not the diaristic fluff the rest of us produce. DeDeo says his blog has been about the actual practice of poetry, perhaps a cousin of the "actual poems" some wished we would return to about a month ago. Well, there's more than one way to skin that cat.

DeDeo missed the unspoken assumption of this discussion, which is precisely that blogs are not best seen as repositories of reviews. From Jordan's perspective, that's why we need a "paper of record," a print forum for the more formal work of evaluation and filtering that reviews do. From my perspective, blogs represent a shift away from the culture of print reviewing as the primary way to sift through contemporary writing--a shift that simply reflects real changes in the way poetry is produced and read. That isn't to say reviews aren't still important. I write them too. But for me they're closer to my academic work, written when I have something that I think is reasonably interesting to say about a book that seems important.

And the blog is something else again. I realize that DeDeo's comments aren't directed at me: you'll never find out what kind of underpants I'm wearing. But they are directed at some of the blogs I think are important, which do have precisely that mix of the critical, creative, and diaristic. It's odd to demand that one of the few forums in which poets and critics freely talk to each other (and in which that endangered species, the poet-critic, seems to have new life) live up to a standard of critical decorum.

Okay, Simon, I'm off my high horse. Just blogger to blogger: you've done good work and developed an audience, which is all any of us can do.


Anne Boyer said...

Simon is at Princeton finshing his Phd in Astrophysics. Poetry is not his day job.

Maybe quantum field theory printed underwear?

Tim said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Tim said...

Oops. My bad. (I've deleted the offending passage.) Well, that makes what he's been doing all that much more impressive.

I do like your underwear theory, though.

Nick Piombino said...

I think you are dismissing the idea of
a blog review of poetry by non-poets
too glibly. Maybe it seems advantageous
to poets to either preach to the converted
or to manipulate a football play type
"we know who's best" routine, but it
isn't. The idea has simply not been tried. There
are tons of academics, for example, in
English departments who are not poets who might be delighted to be asked to review books of contemporary poetry; also there are numerous
MFA candidates in other arts areas who wouldn't
mind getting their name around; there are
novelists, sculptors, dancers who could be asked.
It would take some reaching out but this could
be done. Why do poets want to shut out the rest
of the world? Like so many areas of "expertise" we've chosen voluntary isolation. "It ain't necessarily so."

Tim said...

Nick: I certainly didn't mean that non-poets should NOT review poetry; indeed, the people over the last few decades who have been thought of as the major reviewers for American journals (Vendler, Perloff, Bloom) are not, in fact, poets. They are, however, largely disappearing from the scene, as those same journals decide that "regular people" don't care about poetry.

My remark that "no one reviews poets but other poets" was simply meant to call an end to debates about whether is it "appropriate" for poet X to review poet Y, if there's a conflict of interest, etc. It's simply impossible to avoid such conflicts altogether, and I'm not even sure it's desirable: why shouldn't a reviewer be someone who's familiar with the poet's work and context? A review by Vendler or Bloom, neither of whose careers can be appreciably advanced by Jorie Graham or John Ashbery, is as likely to be myopic and self-serving as a review of a poet by that poet's best friend.

Tim said...

Sorry, Nick, I hadn't yet read your blog post before I made my last comment. The context makes a little more sense to me now.

I certainly understand the idea of having a blog of poetry reviews by non-poets. As I've stated, this hews closely to the ideal of the print review: an act of evaluation and gatekeeping by a neutral judge of literary quality.

But as someone who spends his working days around ostensibly professional critics (i.e. academics) who are not (at least in public) poets, I must respectfully disagree that reviews by, say, academics would avoid the problems of bias inherent in poet-on-poet reviews. Critics, too, have their own aesthetic biases and their own friends, and they will often form a certain stable of contemporary writers who they choose to promote to the exclusion of others. Indeed, I would argue that such "professional" critics may be less open-minded than a fellow poet, since a poet is more likely to meet a wide range of other writers than a critic who spends his or her professional life in the academy and who may have a limited circle of literary acquaintances.

I'm suggesting that, from my perspective (as both poet and critic), the blog form as it currently exists can be useful precisely because, as you say, it does NOT attempt to conceal its biases or its social context; it lays its cards on the table in a way the ostensibly neutral "review" does not.

jenni said...

well, i have a hell of a day job and i still have time to write some stuff. he must be having an internal conflict between writing poems and writing prose. my guess. it is hard to straddle.

Nick Piombino said...

Thanks, Tim, for your considered responses to my comments. Still, I beg to differ.

There is a vast difference between the biases of someone who might write a review who will obtain no direct career benefit in writing about a book of poetry
and someone who definitely will obtain such benefits.

It seems to me we have so entered in a kind of 1984 of a blurry boundary between pursuasive writing of various types -including advertising- and statements that earnestly strive for accuracy and truth-tellilng- that no one cares whether someone is actually trying to tell the truth or not. Most writing about poetry that I read is sheer advertising. Most writing is sheer advertising. I write plenty of it on my blog, though I strive for honesty, so I am not against this kind of writing at all- but I do not pretend to be presenting a neutral point of view. But a blog that presents itself as a "review of record" should make it a point to expect people who are writing the reviews not to benefit directly from the writer's success, or have some selfish reason to wish to see some work put down. 99 percent of writing about books is advertising, even when it is presented as objective. The New York Times has so many biases, political and aesthetic, that few of their reviews can be seen to have any objectivity at all.

We are so used to advertising that brazenly announces that everything they back is "the best"- that we expect the same razzle-dazzle in the field of poetry. We are so used to reporters of every stripe unapologetically lying that-to some extent unconsciously- we have all become cynical about even the possibility of honesty and truth-telling.

The growing gulf between readers of poetry who don't write and poets will increase if poets continue to avoid the necessary work in interesting readers who do not have a career in writing poetry. A review that makes it a point to seek neutral judging- not neutral from the standpoint of aesthetic biases- everybody has those- but neutral from the standpoint by having something to gain for their own careers as writers in writing reviews- would be a step in bringing such readers back into being interested in the contemporary poetry community. As it is, the difficulty in obtaining publishers, academic recognition and jobs quickly becomes a central driving force in much of what poets say and do. A step in breaking the vicious cycle that drives readers away from contemporary poetry is a step in breaking the cycle that reduces the differentiation between critical appraisal and career goals for poets.

When I was a young poet it seemed obvious to many serious poets that working in academia would do harm to their way of working. But that was an era when writers could reasonably expect to support themselves in part time work and survive. This is no longer possible, of course. The economics of the writing life is one of the main reasons that academia now is the central focus for most poetry. This could potentially be a benefit if poets would stop walling themselves off from potential readers and invite them in by directly asking for more participation. The fact is, as with so many other artistic enterprises, poets have voluntarily chosen to close their ranks, thinking this will offer them the most freedom in their work. As a result, poets have become the same as every other circle of "experts"- mainly talking with each other. This is poet as bureaucrat, plain and simple.

I have enjoyed blogging because of its relative open qualities. It would be sad to see blogging revert to the same bureaucratic tendencies that have taken over much of the world of poetry and every other field.-

Tim said...

Well put, Nick. You've given me a lot to think about.

I'm not sure whether I'm more or less cynical about reviewing than you are! I suppose there's a part of me that's always prized reviews of poets by poets most highly: in good ones, there's a great deal more responsiveness, even to the point that the language of the text reviewed finds its way quite directly into the language of the review itself. A review that doesn't just state, but shows the impact reading the text can have.

Whereas I'm often frustrated by more standard reviews whose impulse is to rush to judgment, to tell you what "works" and what doesn't according to some obscure criteria, rather than to respect a text's own logic.

But that's a rather different issue than the question of bias and careerism you raise. And I certainly do understand the problems of isolation and specialization for poets: the poet as bureaucrat is a chilling, if increasingly apt, image.

You're right that the disinterested review has historically functioned as a mediator between specialized knowledge and the general reader. It's possible that role could be reclaimed by a new generation of disinterested reviewers; but I do wonder if that model seems like the best way to go, in particular because it has, in recent memory, meant the repression of precisely the kinds of poetries I'm interested in. What the alternative is, I don't know precisely; I remain hopeful that the glimpses of a community-in-process available through poetry blogs might be compelling enough to draw in a wider audience.