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At Lemon Hound: Over 30 Reviewers Discuss the Review/Reviewing/Negative Reviewing
Our friend Sina Queyras has a pretty amazing resource up on her blog, Lemon Hound. As she writes, it includes “[o]ver 30 reviewers including Michael Robbins, Stephen Burt, Daisy Fried, Ange Mlinko, Ken Babstock, Sonnet L’Abbe, Jan Zwicky and Maureen Maclane etc., respond[ing] to questions on reviewing, including how they deal with reviewing books they don’t like…come on. We’ve been talking about this for a while now…” The responses span the years, with Anselm Berrigan’s, for instance, from 2010:
LH: Is there a quality you are looking for in a review that you haven’t found?
AB: Yeah. 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. It’s not just some disposable construction.
LH: Critical work is increasingly unpaid work; will you continue to do this work despite the trend? Do you see this trend reversing, or changing course?
AB: If I take up writing reviews again with some regularity it will be out of a sense that a bunch of things I’m very interested in are not going to be otherwise taken up. I’d like to get paid for that – I’d like a big bag of money for it, in fact – but the lack of the big bag wouldn’t prevent me from doing it. Being driven crazy by writing reviews instead of poems might be a problem though.
Aaron Kunin might have our favorite response to the question of the negative review (cf. The Claudius App):
LH: Have you been in a position where you have had to write about a book that you don’t care for, or a book that is coming out of a tradition that you are perhaps opposed to, or resistant to on some level? How do you handle such events? Or how have you noticed others handle these events?
AK: William Blake wrote on the title page of his copy of Reynolds’s Discourses: “This man was hired to depress art.” Too true! And it happens all the time. I’m interested in the arts, I want my work to be related to the arts, my dream job is reading and writing about books, and to my horror I discover that I have taken on the ignoble, mercenary task of depressing art!
But what is Blake doing when he annotates the Discourses if not depressing Reynolds’s prose? Isn’t he being disingenuous when he reads this book? Hasn’t he already made up his mind to despise Reynolds before reading a word? Why does he possess a copy of this book anyway? Surely he knows that reading it will enrage him, and perhaps he also knows that he will relish the experience.
There is a significant difference between Blake’s polemic against Reynolds and his concurrent diagnosis of the depression of art (which is a real job assignment that we wish to avoid). Reynolds is a suitable object of anger because he exists. He matters. He is a worthy enemy. Those who depress art, on the other hand, do so by allotting it a diminished share of reality.
What does it mean to depress art? “You think you care about art, but you really want cultural capital.” “You want recognition.” “You want to do well in school. To please your teachers.” “You want sex.” “You want money.” “You want to support your friends.” Those are all good things, and I might want them, but insofar as they are bribes in place of art, they are not good enough. If you don’t believe that a book of poems is something worth having, then you are studying the wrong object. If you believe that a book of poems is a cover for social distinction, then you are studying the wrong object.
“The key to this book is a different book.” “The existence of this book may be entirely explained by the influence of another writer.” “This book is written in a genre that remains unchanged since the classical period.” “There is nothing new or different in this book.” If you believe that a book adds nothing to the world–if, as far as you are concerned, the book does not exist but only pretends to exist–then you are studying the wrong object.
Negative reviews are not the problem. Sociological analysis, allegory, generic categories, and lineage are not the problem; they are tools. The problem is that some reviews ascribe no value at all to poetry.