Is it too glib to say that what I look for in a good review is what I look for in a lover: that it be smart, witty, and pretty (and in that order)?
Then how’s this, from Martin Amis: “The adversaries of good book-reviewing are many and various, but the chief one is seldom mentioned—perhaps because of its ubiquity…The crucial defect is really no different from that of any other kind of writing: it is dullness.”
Dullness and its opposite make a better axis than positive and negative to talk about reviewing because, pace Jason Guriel, there is no dearth of negative criticism, at least once you get outside the hothouse world of lit magazines. (Guriel doesn’t say outright that he thinks there’s a lack of negative criticism, but unless he was merely trying to clear his conscience, I can’t see another reason for all that huffing and puffing in front of what were, after all, three pretty feeble demurrals.) Top-tier reviewing outlets like The New York Times and Poetry have never shied from running harshly negative reviews, and for the reasons Kent suggests, reviewers have never shied from writing them.
Dullness is a different matter. What Amis wrote thirty-odd years ago is no less true today: dullness is everywhere, top-tier and bottom, margin and center, inside and out.
The question, then, is how not to be dull. I can think of three ways.
The most difficult way to avoid dullness is simply (ha!) to outwrite everyone else. However unfair it might seem on the hyperuranean plain where truth trumps rhetoric, here on Earth a reviewer who writes brilliantly can get away with bad taste, bad arguments, personal vendettas, body odor, and thousand-word digressions—everything up to and including literary manslaughter.
Of course, just as no writer this side of Kenny Goldsmith sets out to be dull, no one decides not to be brilliant. But if brilliance is what you want to lean on, you’d better be sure. Going on your nerve is fine if you can keep up with the track stars at Mineola Prep, but if you can’t, well, there may be better ways to duck that knife.
Perhaps the easiest way to avoid dullness is provocation. It’s certainly the favorite in an age that measures success in page counts and blog comments. This roundtable is evidence enough that controversy gets attention, and that shouldn’t be gainsaid. You don’t have to be perpetually anxious about poetry’s relevance to think that arguments are good for art.
Provocation has more important purposes too. Kent’s right that many reviewers, especially those trying to catch a foothold in the poetry world, use their criticism “as a form of ingratiation with their associates.” And even when professional self-interest isn’t involved, the “necessary skepticism” that Guriel advocates is a useful corrective to the sociological accretions—cliques, conventional wisdom, sacred cows—that cloud our judgment.
But one problem with provocation is that its traffic in hyperbole and empty generalizations often makes it inimical to intelligence. Controversy is not always a synonym for debate, and when provocation is done poorly it ends up sounding like a bad Slate article. “American poetry may be about to run out of greatness”? (Oh my, what is to be done?) “Is Cole Swensen a conceptual poet?” (Yes, and aren’t we all, dear.) The negative review “is unique to anxious enclaves like the poetry world”? (Dale Peck, anyone? And what about Jeffrey Chodorow’s $40,000 advertisement-rebuttal to Frank Bruni?)
A bigger problem is that our most skilled agents provocateur—William Logan, Adam Kirsch, David Orr—seem much more eager to draw up the gates of poetry’s castle than they are to blow out a wall. (Eliot Weinberger is the single exception to this trend in recent memory, and he’s not reviewing anymore.) In its brilliant autopsy of The New Republic, n+1 showed just how corrupting conservative provocation can get when it becomes reflexive:
There is a kind of fake refinement that turns into a vulgarity baser than any other. It doesn’t come from saying the worst, it comes from deciding what other people can’t say—and adopting a bullying, innuendoish, dishonest tone in trying to shut them up.
To my mind the most underrated way to avoid dullness is to make intelligent, instructive arguments: about goodness, yes, but also about how poems work and why they are (or are not) important. People often marvel at The New Yorker’s willingness to run 10,000 word articles on Bolivian water projects, but I pin it on their figuring out that—shhh!—some people like to learn.
We obviously won’t get from poetry reviews the kinds of things we learn from, say, a biography (at least not usually) but that doesn’t mean a review can’t teach. My own touchstones for this kind of criticism are Michael Fried’s “Art and Objecthood” and Wyatt Mason’s review of David Foster Wallace’s Oblivion. Neither essay can be fairly described as “positive,” since both Fried and Mason have serious, non-superficial complaints about their subjects. But both critics exhibit such sympathetic rapportwith what they’re criticizing that the reader leaves their company feeling emboldened to decide for himself. The gift these critics convey is not mere knowledge: they’re actually expanding our sensibility, they’re make us better readers of art.
The need for this kind of poetry reviewing would seem to be obvious, since poems (good ones, anyway) don’t surrender their secrets at first touch. But major print outlets seem much more interested in finding instructive reviews of fiction than they do of poetry. Where are poetry’s Wyatt Masons and James Woods? (Stephen Burt, who has made the pedagogical review a specialty, probably comes closest, but for whatever reason he never seems to get into the meat as thoroughly as Mason or Wood.)
Taking for granted that the world can always use more sheer brilliance, where does that leave us? Kent’s proposals seem an eminently reasonable way to get more provocative criticism, but I’d like to see more of the instructive kind as well. When Aristotle said that all men desire to know he was certainly showing his optimistic side. But let’s face it: the people who don’t fit that bill probably aren’t reading poetry reviews.
Read more responses here.