At first blush, Kent Johnson’s proposal makes a lot of sense. Problem: how to reenergize the review mechanism, which — as Johnson has it — suffers from the puffery of academic poet-careerists who are only too willing to forgo genuine critique for the chance to gain a leg up in the poetry lottery.
Though Johnson’s etiology could explain the glut of critical coddling — it surely explains at least some coddling — we probably ought to examine things in a more pixelated light. While we might not be witnessing a crisis in reviewing, exactly, it does seem to this correspondent (and I’m far from the first to say so) that the critical function has taken a serious hit with the full-blooded arrival of the amateur, courtesy (first and foremost) of the Web. If publishing is defined merely as going public, then anyone with an online account can be deemed — via a few self-published screeds — an author, and so it should come as no surprise that, along with this once and future flood of publishing, we’ll enjoy a bewildering array of possible critical parameters.
Whether and to what extent this state of affairs bodes well — frankly, I’ll take the good with the bad — I leave for another time. Certainly any attempt to [cough] regulate the scene via an appeal to xyz parameters will be (has been) met with resistance from these selfsame amateurs, who will circle the wagons by way of offering their own counter-critiques. And around and around we go, the notion of provisional and contingent judgment and the like often supplanted by sheer whimsy, ingratiation, vituperation, what have you. Hence one can find online commentary that adjudges Led Zeppelin variously as the distorted amplification of overheated libido, the electrical apotheosis of the blues, and so forth.
Mind you: those who brandish such appraisals are hardly on the market for symbolic capital, or if they are, they generally pursue same in inexorably local, and at times desperately libertarian, terms. Explanations? We don’t need no stinking explanations! Moderation? We don’t need no stinking moderation! A site like GoodReads can attempt to provide something of an antidote to this deluge of de gustibus by creating a structured response space, but such gains are offset by the abundance of inexplicably generous five-star ratings smack alongside inexplicably severe one-star ratings, all of which ratings are customarily accompanied by little in the way of actual written evaluation.
Wait. Amateurs (I am aware of the etymology, sayeth Amato) aren’t the problem, are they? I mean, what am I, an elitist or something? Must we now append “professional” to the preoccupations of a critic or poet or poet-critic?
Well, no, old chap, but I am rather keen on appending said modifier to the occupational. Lawyers, for instance. Or engineers. Or doctors, especially the professional sawbones about to remove my…appendix. So I guess I’m wondering whether we need be concerned, not to say concerned, when so many would demand of the critical function little more than the passionate free-for-all of armchair — I mean amateur! — in/hind/over/foresight. And if one need not be Phillipe de Montebello to wonder as much, neither does this suggest an aversion to mixing it up with the hoi polloi (sez he).
Given this rash of alleged assessment, at any rate, why begrudge a relatively few underpaid educationists the opportunity to accrue a little street cred via tit-for-tat reviewing? Johnson’s corrective to such gratuities is a celebratory, if pragmatic, one. He would welcome the influx of the anonymous, however amateurish, in all of its glorious manifestations. Which, again, sounds plausible. Wouldn’t blind-on-one-side peer review prove salutary, at least until everyone figures out how to game the system (which has long since been the case in certain scholarly quarters)?
But it’s only an incremental step from here, or there, to the realization that some poor bastard, some editor, must weed through what will doubtless prove a slush pile of daunting proportions, replete with all manner of namelessness. Very well then, says Johnson: editors will simply have to ensure that the submissions are “substantive in nature” and “free of ad hominem attack.”
Ergo I conclude this squib by observing that if, apropos of Johnson’s appeal, additional burden is to be put on editors to ascertain (1) what’s ad hominem and (2) what’s substantive, then reviewers will in effect have relinquished, along with their identities, their responsibilities as reviewers. In the face of which diminishing editorial returns, perhaps it’s time to ask, à la Foucault, What is an editor?
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