Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Fishwrap Reviews

Mark Wallace asks about the value of poetry book reviews over at Thinking Again. I left this in the comment box:
Hi Mark,

Appreciated your thoughts about reviewing in MAYDAY. Esp. struck by your question about whether poetry from other eras was any better for having had anonymous reviewers. Poetry suffers more than most arts, I think, from the “golden age” disease, imagining a time when poetry was supposedly more popular, vital, “in touch,” etc. I wonder if the call for more negative reviews is really a golden age-type wish for more readers. And I’m sort of dubious about the idea that reviews, negative or otherwise, will reel ‘em in.

Reviews are like fishwrap—important for the task at hand, but kind of disposable once the goods reach the kitchen. Which is maybe why reviews from other eras are almost never cited except to show how wrong contemporaries were about the poet under fire. We chuckle when we read contemporary reviews of Keats, or Stein, or Stevens: or, less often, we’re surprised at how much they got right, by our lights. But we rarely seem to go to them for information about the poetry and why we should still be reading it.

My hunch is that the role poetry serves in our culture right now plays out mostly in the universities. Whatever gets your books studied there is what counts; for getting read, reviews are adjunct I think to curriculum decisions. I’d rather have a course adoption or two than a wave of blog chatter, or an anonymous review. One can influence the other, but I wouldn’t want to confuse the cart with the horse. Maybe the number of reviews a book gets is more important than anything they say, because it generates the attention makers of syllabi need to make their decisions. I don't know, maybe that puts too much on the university's shoulders. What do you think?
No diss intended, btw, to the many thoughtful poet/reviewers out there who take their work seriously, and do serious work. Jordan Davis, Franklin Bruno, Ange Mlinko, Stephen Burt, Joyelle McSweeney, Stan Apps, Barry Schwabsky and several others jump to mind as folks who might take exception to the “fishwrap” rap.

Just trying to think through changes in the larger literary culture, and reviewing’s place within it. If poetry meets its readers differently than it did in, say, Johnson’s day, I don’t think it’s because we’ve got less brainpower or more timid & puff-prone reviewers.


mongibeddu said...

I liked this! Vis-a-vis the past, here's an essay you may find interesting:

Lara Langer Cohen, "Democratic Representations: Puffery and the Antebellum Print Explosion," American Literature 79 (2007): 643-72 (excerpt here). A history I learned about when I did my apprenticeship to Poe!

rodney k said...

Hi Ben,

Thanks, & thanks for the reference. "Puffery!"

I liked the first page, but not enough to pay $15 for the rest. When will these restricted journals wake up and smell the iPod?

Off to say "puffery" 10 times fast ...

mongibeddu said...

I'll send a photocopy!

mark wallace said...

I wanna read that Cohen piece too.

Jordan said...

Me three.

I've always liked reading reviews, though. Even the sloppiest show signs of life, whereas most poems betray themselves as attempts to please some elder or other. (You say workshop, I say apprenticeship, let's call the whole thing an oedipal poetics.) I suppose reviews do that too, but it's trickier to get away with it in prose.

I expect Eliot's reviews will turn out to be his best prose.