Thursday, January 3, 2013

On Reviewing

A friend recently asked if I might write a review for him (he's reviews editor of a popular online journal), and I agreed, though I've never written a review in my life.  You'd think we would have been required to do something like this in poetry school before being deemed "Masters of the Fine Art," but no...Which made me confront a very basic issue: why DON'T I write (or read) reviews?

Partly it's that the few times I DID look at reviews (in the early 2000s, in Poetry), I was turned off by the snide, biting deconstructions I found. And also because when I think of all the new literature, art, music, and film I've come to love in recent years, it's come directly from friends, teachers, and colleagues with an eclectic array of tastes. As much as I admire a number of publications that run reviews and want to believe in the idea of the review, I hardly ever find myself discovering a book of poems or short story collection or novel because of them. In fact, I can't think of a single thing I've discovered or read because of a review.

As a result, perhaps I sometimes miss out on The Hot Thing Of The Moment, whatever is "trending," as they say. Though what's good enough to stick around in the cultural craw is usually still there years later when I manage to stumble upon it or have a friend place it under my nose (Pavement sounded as good to me in 2009 when my friend Adam introduced them to me as they must have in the '90s. Same with poet D.A. Powell who I've just started reading thanks to his VSC visit last year). Plus part of me is always thinking my god, I've not yet even read all of Nabokov!  How could I possibly bother to read enough books that were published in 2012 to find something good or even create a Top 10 list?!?  I digress....

What inspired me to think a bit differently came from an essay by William Matthews, who writes:
In the midst of such distractions [publications, prizes, grants, careers, the whole ego thing], one way to care for your share of the literary climate is to sit down with some poems, read them as intelligently and passionately as they and your own limits as a reader will allow, and to describe accurately to yourself your affections for and distrusts of those poems.
To do this in public is to write a review.

William Matthews, from New Hope for the Dead: Uncollected Matthews (Red Hen Press, 2010).
He's appealing to our duty as "literary citizens," and though there's no small amount of egoism and slime hiding under under the banner of so-called artistic citizenship, I agree with what Matthews is saying here, for it's really about the same as what I always strive for as a reader--intelligent, responsible readership. Readership that is itself an active, creative force and a welcome collaboration with the writer.

So I welcomed the assignment of writing a review and took my pick of recent titles I'd never heard of and scanned a few. One rule, I decided, is that--as with recommendation letters for former students--I cannot write a review of a book I feel less than enthusiastic about. I read a few reviews of recent poetry and fiction and thought about why I read poetry and came up with a rough outline for reviewing:

1. What is the thing before me? Describe it.
2. What does it seem to be doing/trying to do? Does it succeed in this effort?
3. Why would it be worth someone's time to read?
4. What do I have to say about it that someone hasn't already?

That's how I approached reading and reviewing the chapbook The Branches, the Axe, the Missing (Black Lawrence Press) by Charlotte Pence. You can find the review here.

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