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.