Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Reviews, Resurrected

The second issue of Galatea Resurrects is up, including a reprint of my review of Victoria Chang's Asian American Poetry: The Next Generation. It's a good opportunity for me to try to respond to the interesting discussion around reviewing--particularly of Asian American poets--that's been going on the past couple weeks.

Barbara Jane Reyes has been asking some tough questions (parts 1, 2, and 3) about the function of criticism: in particular, what happens when an Asian American critic reviews an Asian American writer.
...the question came up of whether we ought to be even writing these critical reviews, non-endorsing reviews, stating that a book written by one of our community members does not appear to be well-written, does not appear to accomplish what it has set itself up to accomplish. Then citing the text in order to explain why we think this is the case. Perhaps then proposing alternatives, what do we think would make the work work...So, should we be doing this to books written by "our own"?
I'd venture to say that this is a question not just for Asian American writers but for almost any poet today: the reviewer is likely to be part of the same, relatively small "community" as the author being reviewed. As I argued a while back in saying "death to reviews" (a command I obviously haven't heeded myself), the print-culture model of the critic as objective gatekeeper, sorting the wheat from the chaff, would seem to have little relevance in an era where major book reviews ignore poetry and most critical discussions of poetry take place in relatively specialized zones (little magazines, blogs, academic articles). It's increasingly unlikely that a writer will be asked to review a book of poetry by someone he/she doesn't know and in whose work he/she has absolutely no stake. This might seem like a rather cynical view. But I think it can also be rather liberating. Reviews, in this model, are less a Siskel-and-Ebert-style thumbs-up-or-down and more a way of keeping a certain kind of aesthetic conversation going, an engagement with and response to a book as much as an evaluation of it.

I tend to take the same approach to thinking about reviews of Asian American writing, although the stakes may be somewhat different. This is, after all, as much a political category as it is an aesthetic one, and the promotion of Asian American writing is often seen as part of the broader cultural and political struggles of Asian Americans. The critic Sau-ling Wong puts this point powerfully: just as the category "Asian American" is a political coalition, the category "Asian American literature" is a "textual coalition," whose interests it is the professional task of the Asian American critic to promote. Or as Barbara Jane puts it:
there appears to be so little F/Pilipino American literature "out there," that we ought to be calling people's attention to the work, writing reviews to convince readers to read the work, ultimately, buy the work. The rationale is solid, I think: we F/Pilipino American authors need our books to sell. Otherwise, we are constantly crippled by statistics which show that F/Pil Am authored books do not sell, and that F/Pil Am's do not read.
These certainly seen like reasonable goals. But it's also true that under this logic, the negative review is going to become an increasingly endangered species, and a positive review risks being seen as mere boosterism.

I don't particularly enjoy writing negative reviews. I'm more likely to follow mom's advice on this one: if you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all. We all know that when it comes to books there's no such thing as bad publicity (cf. runaway sales of James Frey's A Million Little Pieces or the brisk eBay trade in now-illict copies of Opal Mehta). Particularly when it comes to a poetry book--which is not likely to get noticed by a large number of reviewers--the nastiest thing you can do to a book you don't like is to ignore it. For me, this is less a question of intellectual honesty or fearlessness than a question of the best use of my time, and yours: I'd much rather discover what is interesting and productive in a book than spend time bashing it. Nor do I think it's my job as a critic to explain to a writer what they're doing wrong and how to do it better: that's a role better approached as a colleague or a friend.

All that said: so under what circumstances does it become necessary to write a negative review? I use the word "necessary" because that seems to be my own standard: such a review has to be written when the book in question is potentially going to have a significant impact, and when that book--I don't know what other way to put this--puts forward an argument that seems to me wrong or even pernicious. It may seem strange to characterize a book of poetry as having an argument, but I think most do: they argue in favor of a particular aesthetic, a particular politics, a particular way of looking at the world, in a way that goes beyond some simple judgment about whether they are good or bad.

I think this is especially true of books we put into the category of "Asian American poetry." Because to do that to a book is to make some kind of claim about it, about what it is for and what it is doing in the world. I do not say that there is only one kind of way in which to make this claim, or even that I can say with any precision what I would mean by it myself. But it's important to recognize that it is a claim, not just a neutral category. Sometimes this claim may be made quite directly by the author; sometimes it may be made by an editor or publisher; sometimes it may be made by a reader, critic, or teacher. But because it is a claim with some ostensible political substance, I think we have a responsibility to evaluate its relationship to the work at hand.

When we start doing this kind of evaluation, I think we're less in the realm of reviewing than in the realm, more broadly, of criticism: a kind of writing that steps back from a work, views it in its historical, aesthetic, and political contexts, and tries to understand why we might value certain things in it and not others. That's what I tried to do in my review of Asian American Poetry (and why the thing ended up so darn long). Call a book that and you clearly are making a certain claim: that there is such a thing as Asian American poetry and that what's between the covers shares its characteristics. But what troubled me was that the anthology itself seemed to undermine even that claim, suggesting that Asian American poetry had little about it that was distinct at all. I think that was because the anthology didn't cast its net widely enough, either historically or aesthetically. There was no sense that the anthology was entering into a four-decade-long debate about Asian American poetry and politics, and the anthology's position seemed to me to come perilously close to the argument that Asian American poetry is just poetry written by those who "happen to be" Asian American: in which case why have the category at all? That's the point, I think, where the critic needs to get involved.


csperez said...

hi tim,

i just read your review and have been following the comments on barbara's and pamela's blogs. altho i am not asain-amer nor am i a major player in the community of pacific island writers (so i dont have to worry about writing reviews), i am very intrigued by the discussion.

i hope it is okay that i post these comments....


in your review you wrote:

"Chang is more frank than is usual about editing with an eye to the market. Asian American Poetry, she writes, is part of “the growth of anthologies that cater to specific subgroups of readers, a development that indicates readers’ strong desire for editorial expertise.” This volume’s publication by an academic press would seem to confirm that editorial authority.

Wonderful that you point out her eye as "market driven." I wonder also if you would argue that anthologies of the "other" are "ethnographically driven"? that they are in a long line of the fetishization of "ethnic" writing? i am thinking of some of pound's early translations, of rexroth -- and by extension the ethnopoetic collecting of rothenberg, of Bishop on Brazilian poetry, anyways the list is long.

Is there a difference when an Anglo collects the work as opposed to somone within that ethnic group? is chang's or carbo's or wendt's anthology a fundamentally different project? the idea of "market" seems inextricably connected to the idea of ethnopoetic interest / fetish...what do you think????

do you think having an asian-american editor authenticates the anth(rop)ological project?

in the review, you also wrote:

"Yet the historical and aesthetic narrowness of this collection stands in sharp contrast to the scope suggested by its title [...] readers have a right to expect more from a collection titled Asian American Poetry [...]"

I have to question this a little, as far as what readers expect. it seems that anthologies of any kind are built as much on the act of exclusion as on the act of inclusion (whether of poets, poems, aesthetics, or history). It also seems like whenever a new anthology comes out, the immediate critical reflex it to point out who is excluded, what it doesn't do...etc...and this is precipitated from, of course, the title of the collection, which usually suggests a premise of representation.

I am not disagreeing with your actual assessment of the anthology's shortcomings, but this is more a general comment regarding the validity of the reader's expectation (this can also be applied to Silliman's critiques of Young's "Bay Poetics.")

I would argue that 1) the reader no longer takes an anthology's claims of representation seriously 2) thus, the reader expects exclusion from an anthology despite the title....

ginsberg said (now i am quoting from silliman's recent blog): “One generation points at the moon, the next generation notices that they’re pointing.”

To me, the titles of anthologies are that pointing...during the anthology / ethnopoetic craze (which we are descended from) these titles were perhaps convincing (that is, evinced the illusion of representation) but now, it is just a bunch of pointing, an aesthetic / marketing sleight-of-hand.

As a result, i approach every anthology expecting exclusion and disappointment, like baudrillard going to Vegas. in albert wendt's anthology called "Nuanua: Pacific Writing in English Since 1980", there are no poets from Guam (where i am from).

I was not surprised or angered or critical. it is to be expected from such a title.

And so this leads me to my last question: how much would your review change if the title of the anthology was "Jennifer Chang's selection of about two dozen poets of asian-american descent"?

well, thanks for listening to my rant...i hope you will have time to respond....THANKS AGAIN!

csperez said...

hee hee, i meant "victoria chang's selection of about 2 dozen poets of asian american descent under the age of 35"

pam said...

hi, just quickly jumping off Craig's comments on reader vs. market expectations of anthologies, one thing that comes to mind is the academic market as distinct from the trade market. I think general readers are apt to be more skeptical as Craig says and less likely to "judge the book by its cover." But then I think of the academic market-- I've been told anecdotally that SPD Books in Berkeley experiences a huge demand for their cultural studies titles, and that much of this demand is coming from instructors teaching courses at colleges and universities. So that SPD's categorization and cross-categorization of their inventory as Latin American Studies, Gay/Lesbian Studies, and so forth is in many ways a direct response to this academic market demand. I've also heard that as soon as an anthology like Chang's becomes available, SPD receives surefire orders for it. (SPD doesn't actually carry Chang's anthology; I'm thinking of anthologies like it from smaller presses, you know what I mean hopefully.) It would be interesting to see the list of course titles that these books/anths are being ordered for. Just taking a wild guess, I imagine that many of them are survey or intro courses, and that the anths are indeed being selected for use on the premise that they provide a representative introduction to a particular niche sub-culture or aesthetic. This of course gets into the issues of "ethnopoetic collecting" that Craig mentions. It also reminds me of the notion of "liberal multiculturalism," which I learned about from reading an essay by Juliana Chang (another Chang!) where she refers to David Palumbo-Liu's definition of liberal multiculturalism as

a process whereby ethnic texts are "deploy[ed]" as "proxies" for ethnic peoples, giving the illusion of a democratic pluralism. The reader attains the enlightenment of cross-cultural understanding, which s/he imagines as both enabled by and contributing to such a democratic pluralism. Potential social conflicts and tensions are presumably smoothed over in these literary encounters.

This is as opposed to "critical multiculturalism," which

would confront the student with "the rough grain of politics and history" that continues to contribute to the formation of groups with unequal access to resources, institutional power, and life opportunities.

I see a lot of nobility and good intentions in liberal multiculturalism, and on a day-to-day level I think this is the multiculturalism that has made our society a more civil, compassionate, and tolerant one. But on a deeper level I see it as part 1 of the multicultural project, as in the liberal part is the foundation for developing the critical part, which is where the next level of understanding and action kicks in. Just stopping at the liberal part does seem to suggest an air of complacency and quiescence, and contributes to the trade market phenomenon of promoting "ethnopoetic" products as niche flavors to be consumed.

So the question I ask is, if an anthology like V. Chang's is used in a college course, is it being used to promote liberal or critical multiculturalism? Does it lend itself more toward one than the other? Could there be an anthology that encourages readers, even the most general, survey-student readers, toward both the liberal and critical modes?

Tim said...

Thanks for the comments.

Does it matter whether the editor of an Asian American anthology is white or Asian? The answer is that it is supposed to matter--that an "insider" should have a more "authentic" view of the field than an outsider. (You could ask the same question of whether it matters if an anthology of "language poetry" is edited by Ron Silliman, Douglas Messerli, or David Lehman.) I think it's broadly true that a white editor of such an anthology might have certain preoccupations (e.g. "Confucianism," "Chinese tradition," "reticence," etc.) and might make certain gaffes that an Asian American editor might not. Chang's idea of "editorial expertise" is, I think, a code phrase for this kind of ethnic authentification: the Asian American editor's "expertise" is precisely the fact of her or his race.

But I also think it's clear that having an editor of the "right" race is no guarantee of anything. I think it's especially true in this case, when the anthology does not present (perhaps does not even seek to present) a coherent vision of what the Asian American might be--indeed, quite consciously avoids doing so. The "market" here has taken the place of some notion of ethnic authenticity: it's only the existence of a "market niche" for Asian American writing that justifies the project in the first place.

Should we expect any better? Yes, I think we should; that is not to say that we really do. As you say, exclusion and disappointment are natural with any anthology. I tried hard not to make particular exclusions the center of my critique, because to me that's not the point; you will always find someone who should have been included but wasn't. But I do think certain kinds of exclusions can be explained (if not excused) if the anthology's overall conception has a certain logic and coherence. That I think we can expect, even if we can't expect every poet we like to be in there.

To me, the fact that this comes from an academic press is just as important as the title in my expectations. As someone who takes scholarship seriously, I expect an academic press to adhere to certain standards: it should choose an editor well versed in the field and ensure that sufficient research is done to pass muster both with general readers and with those who have some prior knowledge.

Pam: I wonder if this anthology could really be seen as supporting the idea of any kind of multiculturalism. Multiculturalism, even in its liberal form, does still presume the endurance of a certain degree of pluralism: it acknowledges (and ostensibly embraces) the fact of difference, even if it does not fully inquire into its conditions. What I found most unnerving in the anthology was the way it implied that Asian American identity itself seemed to be fading away in its relevance to poetics: the anthology could have been subtitled not "The Next Generation" but "The Last Generation." That's less multiculturalism than plain old individualism: which is fine as far as it goes, but then I have to ask, again, why put together an "Asian American" anthology in the first place?

pam said...

Yes I see what you mean about Next Gen’s celebration of the fading away of difference. What struck me most about V. Chang’s intro is how scrupulously she lists statistics charting the ethnic distribution of writers included between its pages (32% multiethnic, 18% Chinese American, etc.), and how this compares to the distribution of writers in the Open Boat anthology. And how she even dissects the racial/ethnic makeup of all the multiethnic authors (one poet is described as 1/8 East Indian, 1/8 Chinese). This last example comes right after the part where she discusses US Census Bureau stats of Asian Americans in general, and the rising rates of intermarriage. Calling attention perhaps to a genetic version of the fading away of difference? But all this statistical attention to racial/ethnic detail seems to be saying that genetics is the only relevant basis for assembling an “Asian American” anthology. All other factors—aesthetics, politics, stances toward the notion of identity—are just ornamental (and equivalent-to-each-other) variations on top of the essentialist genetic base. So I see what you’re saying about this not being relevant to any vision of the multicultural project. It’s more like (fading) biological diversity converted to a niche market quantity, rather than an examination of culture. I definitely see why it was necessary for you to write a critique; I’m glad you did, as it has certainly helped me grasp the strings of a conversation that really needs to happen here.

But even if the anthology intro misrepresents the state of Asian American poetry, I wonder if it doesn’t successfully represent certain tendencies in the Asian American community at large? I mean, I wonder if Chang’s dehistoricized, deculturalized, uncritically-examined perspectives do actually reflect the perspectives of a (growing) sector of the population? And if that’s true, how critically-engaged artist and intellectuals are going to have an increasing burden of working against the grain of the communities they come from?

csperez said...

hi pam and tim, am so thankful there is an intelligent discussion occurring here (unlike the craziness at Silliman’s blog – yikes).

Pamela, I think your point of examining not only the market and trade value and infrastructure of ethnopoetic anth(rop)ologies, but also their value in a greater discourse of liberal v. critical multiculturalism is an important avenue not only for the critic/reviewer, but for the editor as well. For the next year, I am going to be working on an anthology of Chamoru poetry (Chamorus are the people of Guam) and this discussion has opened my eyes to many issues that I must further consider. The editorial role seems to not only be an aesthetic / critical project, but an ethical / political project as well. I definitely do not want to “contribute to the trade market phenomenon of promoting ‘ethnopoetic’ products as niche flavors to be consumed.”

Have either of you ever put together anthologies? If so, how did you confront these ethical / critical issues?

Tim, your answer that the ethnicity of the editor “should” matter is quite insightful – that an insider "should" have a more "authentic" view. This reminds me a bit of travel books, actually. Could you imagine (and why not) if anthologies adopted various travel book tropes: Asian American Poetry Backroads Anthology. Asian American Poetry on a Budget. The Local’s Guide to Asian American Poetry. Asian American Poetry Off the Beaten Path. The parallels, I think, could be quite generative if examining the parallels between colonialism / tourism / ethnopoetics. What do you’all think?

Your comment that her “editorial expertise” is “code phrase for ethnic authentification” is telling, I think, of the parallel I mentioned above. I agree also, that having an editor of the right race is no guarantee. It is equally true that even if you have a local guide in a foreign country, you will only see the country thru one pair of eyes. Now, you do mention that a white editor may be susceptible of “certain preoccupations”, would you say (and perhaps you are saying) that even editors who are ethnic insiders may also suffer from similar “preoccupations”, (e.g. self-orientalism, self-exoticism, or self-acculturation).

Your answer that we should expect better (even if we don’t), both from the editor and from an academic press, is an articulation that I admire.

You say that the anthology “implied that Asian American identity itself seemed to be fading away in its relevance to poetics: the anthology could have been subtitled not "The Next Generation" but "The Last Generation."

This is elegantly brutal. I have not read this anthology, but was shocked when I read Pam’s 2nd post and that Chang included all those statistics…. Is there precedent for such a thing? how strange to highlight the rising rates of intermarriage and multiethnicity of the writers…

I also like Pam’s articulation here: “Calling attention perhaps to a genetic version of the fading away of difference? But all this statistical attention to racial/ethnic detail seems to be saying that genetics is the only relevant basis for assembling an Asian American anthology.” This fading of difference does seem to have that tinge of dangerous “melting pot” rhetoric.

At the same time, I have to agree with Pam’s last paragraph, that perhaps Chang’s project DOES represent a sector of Asian American poetry. but I guess the point is that it only represents ONE sector, and does not attempt to grapple with “critical multiculturalism” within its own ethnopoetic formation.

thanks again

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

hi Craig,

In answer to your question, no, I've never been involved in editing an anthology myself. More power to you for taking on such a project.

In some ways, I think the niche market phenomenon is unavoidable, no matter how carefully a text is edited or framed. But I do think certain texts lend themselves more to this than others.

I suspect the statistical report in the intro is an anticipatory response to readers who will comb through the anthology and look for demographic imbalances to critique. Demographics and ethnic/national diversity having been a bone of contention in previous Asian American anthologies. Here the editor is one step ahead and presents the numbers right up front. This seems related to an earlier section of the intro, where she indicates the contributors who write about gay/lesbian topics. I can see why she would want to note the demographic diversity of the contributors, as well as the increasing multiethnic presence in the community, but her statistical approach has an oddly clinical effect. Since she doesn't offer a sufficient critical or cultural frame for the anthology (such as relating poetic forms to larger aesthetic and political motivations), her DNA report emerges as the primary justification for the existence of an "Asian American" poetry anthology.

Jacob said...

Personally I've always prefered Asian American Poetry: Deep Space Nine...

csperez said...

hi pam, thanks for responding...and your points are both about the niche market being unavoidable and the reason for the statistics are very insightful. thanks.

just one last question before i go:

could either of you describe your "ideal" anthology of asian amer poetry? (this is mainly to help me on my anthology, so the general question is simply to learn what you find valuable in an anthology?)


jacob, i also like Rick Steve's Asian American Poetry OR Asian American Poetry on a Shoestring (did i say that already?) oh well...