Anonymous reviews have obvious drawbacks and dangers. Even when screened by an editor who could block or edit out offensive language, a disrespectful or unprofessional tone, and ad hominem attacks, they may still encourage a drift toward the vitriolic style common in anonymous comments on blogs, youtube, etc.. And, they don’t have the advantage of building a coherent body of critical opinion that readers can rely on when looking for reviews to read, and also make allowances for when assessing the merit of a review. A practice of pseudonymous reviews would address this last issue, and for that reason, I think pseudonymous reviews would be more worth trying than entirely anonymous reviews.
That said, I support the idea of anonymous, or even better, pseudonymous, reviews for three major reasons:
I think this practice would encourage reviewers to be more honest and, more specifically, to take the reader’s side. As Kent points out, most reviewers at the moment are poets and, as such, are not really acting in the interest of a poetry reader’s needs and point of view. Since their names are involved, they are most likely acting in their own interest, as poets making a career. Anonymous reviewers could be more honest and, I hope, would be more likely to take on the responsibility of standing in for the reader rather than for po-biz. The reader would benefit, and poetry would benefit.
Around 1990 when I began editing an anthology including women’s critical commentary (A Formal Feeling Comes), a number of women I invited told me that they were reluctant to publish their critical opinions and incite the kinds of attacks and battles that seemed to go along with publishing criticism. Things are better now, but we still do not have enough women reviewing books. I think anonymous or pseudonymous reviews might encourage more women to write and publish reviews and lead indirectly to a critical mass of female reviewers. If enough women were encouraged, through anonymous or pseudonymous reviewing, to enter the critical arena, the arena itself could be changed. At the moment, female reviewers are most confident and successful when they play according to the rules that have been established by centuries of male tradition. With anonymous reviews, I think we might find a shift, first in the kind of tone and discourse now common in writing about poetry, and eventually in the content of that discourse: the nature of commonly accepted critical standards and criteria.
Finally, I think the practice of unsigned reviews may help remove poetry somewhat from the career arena and towards the arena of art, reminding poets that we are all part of a centuries-long endeavor much larger than any individual’s publication record. This is the overall spirit in which I take Kent’s proposal.
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