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The on-going review-interviews taking place over at Lemon Hound have my attention at the moment (I’m one of the interviewees, an admission that I suppose qualifies as full disclosure here if you believe such a thing exists in the demi-world of warm soft fact), and I’m particularly interested in the question of what one might be looking for in a review and not finding or not finding too often as it were. So compiled below is a very lightly edited list of responses thus far, to which I’ll add further responses as they come in (there may be a few more or many more). By “lightly edited” I mean that I’ve taken shorter bits from some longer answers in cases where the whole answer may be overlapping with other questions asked by Lemon Hound or the interviewee (there are also a couple of pieces on Sina’s blog that don’t answer the question, and I’ve let those be). It’s also worth noting that these answers are clearly pulled from the flow of their respective pieces, and may function somewhat differently on tonal and other levels when read in context. That said, I have a permanent crush on the list becoming a work, and beyond that there’s the potential for a little glen of response one might consult for pivot or perspective when starting in on a take. Names are tags, or else found in reverse order on the side of the original site.
Is there a quality you are looking for in a review that you haven’t found?
All the time. I keep trying to write it.
I guess I’m still waiting to have my socks knocked off. I’m hopeful, and wear oversized socks.
I wish there were more reviewers who were articulate about poems and really showed what it is to have an individual human response to an individual work of art. That’s when reviewing is good. Not so much when it explains but when it shows real engagement.
I don’t expect reviews to be perfect. There are too many possible variations of opinion. I want reviews to be clear. To express an opinion and back it up with evidence.
I think it is rare to find a review that is staggering towards a new way to write criticism.
I’ll know it when I find it!
Where the writer is sitting. Literally and in their world of thought. People often exempt themselves from scrutiny which I think is frightening.
I like cats.
Could reviews function more like poets and painters working together, meaning could we privilege the experiment, a way to say “nice move” so as to encourage further work as opposed to valuing the work as good or bad?
I’d like to find an entirely new standard of value, or at least a hint of one–basically, a revolution in poetry, expressed as an act of attention.
I’d like to read some reviews of poetry books that get closer to an understanding of humor as an inherent quality of consciousness. Everyone has a sense of humor. That’s very odd.
I always appreciate a humble reviewer who understands the limits of his or her abilities as a reader, and thus works hard to study a text. Most reviewers do not work hard enough for a work that falls outside of their preferred tastes.
Fabulous writing, unputdownable writing, writing you’d want to read for its own sake, breathing with charismatic charm
…..genuine breadth of vision—making sense of the current poetic divisiveness and helping heal it rather than exploiting it
I think that a review can make room enough to be an entertainment medium even after it fulfills the prerequisites of an informative and discursive one.
“I wish there were more reviewers who were articulate about poems and really showed what it is to have an individual human response to an individual work of art.”
Passional disinterestedness & its inverse (“It is difficult to be interested as you know”—Gertrude Stein). Research whose range and humor matches that of the original work. Wildness of lexicon, of syntax, of association.
I would like a book review to do all those things you mentioned in the previous question. (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?)
They could do with a little more suspense.
I don’t think so. But there are a lot of qualities I see too often. I don’t like reviews which preach and attack if it seems like the writer hasn’t even tried to understand the book. I don’t like reviews which claim that a book has failed according to a certain set of values when the book has been written consciously to defy those values (this happens a lot to more innovative work). And self-satisfied reviewers who seem convinced in advance of their own, often too narrowly-defined correctness bother me.
Yes. An I. Reviews are so often more about the reviewers than the reviewed books. Why not admit it and get on with the conversations that matter most?
I think I continually see elements of good critical writing, and would just like to see more of them in the future. I want to learn more, and to keep being taught by those who think and write critically and generously.
I think the honest answer is no, there isn’t. At least not if you mean “that I haven’t ever found.” The way I know what qualities I’m looking for is by thinking about reviews I’ve appreciated for one quality or another. But I would say that the one quality that I don’t find often enough—besides those I’ve already noted above—is personality. The reviewer’s, that is; what we sometimes mean when we say “voice.” Actually, let me qualify this: what I really mean is likeable personality. I read a-plenty of those snarky, rant-y, negative-agenda-driven pieces, and more than I want of the vaguely condescending, damning-with-faint-praise pieces. Give me a review with a sense of humor (akin to my own, that is), one whose author sounds like someone I’d like to have a glass of wine with (I don’t drink beer).
….one more quality I’d like to see a lot more of: culturally informed contextualization, in reviews of poets of color by reviewers who are not (of color). Far too many reviews by white folks will talk about a text by an African American poet (for example) without showing any sign of awareness of the African American tradition that informs it (along with whatever else is informing it). Or will take a different, but also annoying, course that involves using one “totem” black poet (maybe Hughes, Brooks, or Hayden—or among the living, Dove, Komunyakaa, or Baraka) as the point of comparison for whatever other black poet is being reviewed. How can I put this without making it less likely for people to review black poetry? I wish for more of that sense of responsibility that I’ve spoken of, that would make a reviewer feel accountable for doing enough homework to locate the book being reviewed in its African American, as well as its American, context. (In each instance, “black”/“African American” can be replaced with Latino, Asian American, or Native American, with corresponding examples, e.g., Martin Espada, Li-Young Lee, Joy Harjo.) This problem is not always an issue, of course, but too often it is, and since I’m putting ideas about reviewing out there, I feel compelled to raise this.
How about an optative evaluative criticism? (The critic ‘s impossibly hyperbolic praise becomes a new standard, inspiring or shaming poets to do better work.)
Reviewers often lack wit. I keep looking for a tone of detached argument, infused with intellectual provocations, all of which suggest that the reviewer evinces a “coolness” worthy of emulation.
guess if anything seems to be “missing” to me, it might be a kind of writerliness in reviews themselves: a sense of criticism as itself literary, and literature. There’s lots of workaday prose out there. BORING. Also boring: volcanic slipshod polemic and phallic hooey.
Of the three qualities I most admire in a successful review—consideration of audience, curiosity, context—curiosity is potentially the biggest draw for me. The least successful reviews are those in which a reviewer’s presence is so permeating that it overtakes the subject of critique. I can’t really get curious about a book that’s buried in a reviewer’s persona. I am likely to stop reading that sort of review altogether.
most reviews in the poetry journals and on blogs aren’t reviews at all but just little appreciative blurbs. And I especially object to the “reviews” on most blogs, where anything goes. I believe absolutely in EDITORS—Editors to assign reviews, editors to ask for revisions, and so on. My own bête noir is the review of a great poet in translation by someone who doesn’t know a word of the poet’s own language. Whatever it is these reviewers are writing about, it certainly isn’t the poetry.
Intelligence, thoughtfulness, and consideration are the qualities I look for most often in reviews. And, of course, good writing. And yes, quite often these qualities go wanting.
Now add yr own (you can also choose to bitch our mutual friends, or your own):
Tags: Aaron Kunin, Ange Mlinko, Annie Finch, Benjamin Friedlander, Catherine Daly, Christian Bok, Daisy Fried, Eileen Myles, Elizabeth Bachinsky, Emily Warn, Evie Shockley, Gregory Betts, Jacob McArthur Mooney, Jennifer Scappettone, Jonathan Ball, Jordan Davis, Marjorie Perloff, Mark Wallace, Matthew Zapruder, Maureen N. Mclane, Michael Bryson, Michael Robbins, Michael Turner, Rob Winger, Ron Silliman, Stephen Burt, Steve Collis, Steven W. Beattie
Posted in Uncategorized on Tuesday, January 5th, 2010 by Anselm Berrigan.