Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Thoughts on Book Reviewing

Never a person to keep anyone waiting, I’m going to say a bit—at the suggestion of Matthew Thorburn (and, yes, I suggest you start w/ BB, then move on to Live at the Filmore East)—about book reviewing. Over the last couple of years, I’ve written a heap of reviews, and though there are many, many young poets whose critical writing I respect a hell of a lot more than mine, I think I’ve done enough of this stuff to say something about it.

I dunno, I guess I got started because my poems were too undergrown to make their way into journals, but my enthusiasm was too big to keep to myself, and I wanted to be involved somehow with the bigger little po-biz game. Then, of course, there was the part of me that always loved writing long critical papers in college and didn’t want to give it up. That’s pretty much how I’ve always thought of it—how can I engage with this book such that my favorite college prof. would give me an A? Also, there is the desire to open or join a conversation with the people in the contemporary poetry scene, to place new books in relation to old books and other new books, to try and establish the mini-cannons that go in each pocket of the contemporary poetry pants. So, too, there’s an element of trying to speak in such a way as to evade the comprehension, at least a little, of the old folks whose poems bore me. Still, I also want to impress them and make them realize that young poems are way cooler than theirs.

Striking that delicate balance, juggling all those balls, seems very difficult to me. Stephen Burt is very good at it; he tends to lean toward the accessible side of things, making himself something of a popularizer. But anyone excited about popularizing D.A. Powell is doing good work in my book. On the other end, you have someone like Cal Bedient, whose critical writing is full of gadgets and sneaky tricks, can be nearly as inaccessible as his poems, meaning he often goes for flair over fair, but is thrilling to read. Lots of young reviewers write reviews that are so far in their head—and often too full of praise (without a healthy dose of skepticism, which, granted, can sometimes be hard to muster, criticism doesn’t matter)—that they don’t really make any sense. Then other young writers have too little flash, and are boring (I think I tend to lean more toward this kind of writing).

A big problem with the reviews in many literary magazines is a lack of editing. For whatever reason—whether because book review editors, like most other little mag editors, are not being paid, or because young editors don’t want to seem presumptuous to young writers—many book review editors do very little actual editing. Really being challenged, poked, and prodded by an editor is amazing. It’s hard, but great, to be called on the holes in your argument, to be made to fill them, and to feel like someone else in the world gives a shit about your prose and whether or not you’re saying anything. My best experiences with really engaged editors have been with Christina Thompson at Harvard Review, Timothy Donnelly at Boston Review, Kevin Prufer at Pleiades, and Mike Scharf at Publishers Weekly. All of them have sent back reviews with massive red lines through my paragraphs (Harvard even rejected an entire review before accepting my next one), and the final published piece in each case is still work I’m proud of. Anyone interested in reviewing should pick a mag, find out who the review editor is, and send ‘em a query. Editors are always looking for new reviewers, and chances are they’ll send you a book.


Matthew Thorburn said...

Thanks Craig. As someone on the fence about trying my hand at reviewing, this is really helpful and encouraging.

Zachary Schomburg said...

Um, wanna send Octopus one of those reviews? The flashiest one you got. I'll get my red pen warmed up.