Kent Johnson’s right, I think, to agree with Jason Guriel about the importance of the honestly negative review: it matters for (ahem) the Future of the Art that we say what we really think when we write reviews. And Johnson’s right, too, about the source of the glut of reviews laden with overly exuberant praise. He zeroes in on the timidity and obsequiousness of poet-reviewers — specifically, academic poet-reviewers, who feel there’s no percentage on writing a negative review, whereas there’s at least the possibility of some reciprocal logrolling should one write a glowing review of another academic poet’s book. Publish or perish remains the mantra of academe, and even the citadel of tenure doesn’t seem to make poet-reviewers free from the fear of some kind of reprisal for the failure to slather a thick layer of praise on the slim volume in question. I’m with Johnson on all of this, but I think he goes awry in the particular solution he proposes to the problem: the revival of the unsigned review.
The problem with Johnson’s program comes from the incentive system. Very few people ever approach the ideal of acting in a disinterested fashion; most of us, most of the time, act in response to one or another kind of incentive. Right now, the incentive for reviewers is to over-praise. But what would the incentive be for reviewers if their work went unsigned? For many, there’d be none at all. While some journals pay reviewers in cash, it’s rarely enough to justify the investment of time by itself. Worked out as an hourly rate, the majority of paying journals aren’t really offering much more than one could earn at, say, Chick-fil-A Most journals offer considerably less, although the work is marginally more congenial. Reviewers are really paid by seeing their names in print, and by being allowed to feel (with some degree of justification) that they’re becoming part of a conversation, and getting recognition from a literary community. Deprived of this sense of recognition, some reviewers would surely put their laptops to other uses. Others would use the anonymity to settle scores and vent bile: incentive enough to write, surely, but not really a good thing, or at any rate not an improvement on the current system of obsequious praise. Johnson tells us editors wouldn’t allow for such impure motives to come into play, but given that editors have failed to prevent the current vice of kindness, one doesn’t imagine they’d do much better with a new vice of cruelty.
If the problem lies in the perverse incentives of the academic poet as reviewer, one imagines the solution may lie in finding another sort of reviewer. No, I’m not saying we should turn away from academe: the academy is an inevitable fact of our moment in American poetry, and there’s not much point in pretending otherwise. We could, though, think of ways we could get critics and scholars to step in and take on the task of reviewing, a task which does, after all, have some consonance with their skills and interests. Again, the question comes down to incentive: we still run our universities on a nineteenth-century German model, a model that values peer-reviewed journals and the research article more than any other form of publication. It’s a model that has never worked as well for the humanities as it has for the sciences and social sciences, and perhaps it’s time we got serious about tinkering with it a little. A few years ago the Modern Language Association suggested we start counting reviews as publications worthy of consideration at tenure and promotion time. If we took this charge seriously, we may find ourselves with a new pool of reviewers less prone to slather on praise in hope of a quid pro quo.
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