Almost everything Kent Johnson says here seems true to me. I, too, would support some anonymous reviewing, though it’s worth remembering the disadvantages there (look up an essay by F. W. Bateson, “Scandalously Anonymous,” directed at what was then the TLS’s all-anonymous all-the-time policy). It’s also worth noting the meanings of reviewers’ names. Reviewers whose name almost nobody recognizes are in effect anonymous except for their mentors and friends, which is one reason the most cutting, most memorable negative reviews so often come from the young and unknown: they have nothing to lose. Reviewers with some track record have something to lose (which can make them too cautious, too generous, especially if they are poets, or academics, or both), but those reviewers also bring that track record itself into the utility of their work: if John Doe calls a sonnet “beautiful” and moves on, that doesn’t tell much about that sonnet, but if Steve Evans or Ange Mlinko or David Yezzi calls a sonnet “beautiful” and says nothing else about it, that’s information on which I can act. Pound, going to extremes as usual, says we should never listen to critics who have not themselves produced memorable work: that’s wrong, but it shows what I mean. The additional meaning supplied by reviewers’ names—when those reviewers are themselves “names”— is a real asset to readers—it conveys information. It’s also, unfortunately, an asset to editors, especially those who assign most of their reviews (rather than editing unsolicited submissions or accepting pitches) and who have to use very small word counts. That “bonus” (what editors get from using known reviewers) makes life even more unfair to smart people who aren’t already known: and literary life is stacked in favor of the already-famous in so many ways already that it would be good to have more venues reserved for unknowns. Let the anonymity resume!
Here’s one additional reason so many reviewers are poets (one that does no discredit to them): poetry isn’t capital intensive. Almost anyone who wants to try to write poems can do so, and can send them out. And that means that the pool of potential reviewers looks a lot like the pool of people who publish poetry. Both pools are comparatively large, with relatively low barriers to entry, and they are the same barriers (principally, personal acquaintance: you can get published through a slush pile but it’s a lot easier once an editor knows your name). The barriers to entry for movie reviewing, on the other hand, are not the barriers to entry for moviemaking– and the latter are much, much higher. A movie reviewer who takes it into her head to make movies has to raise tons of cash, and once she does, the process can take forever. (Maybe most movie reviewers would try their hand at directing, if it didn’t cost so much and take so damn much time.) Novels, which are time-intensive but not capital intensive, fall in between poetry and movies in terms of how close the reviewers are to being practitioners, how likely it is that the reviewers will have creative work out there they want to promote/ protect, and how much the time commitment involved in making the art in question nearly precludes the making of ancillary works (e.g. reviews).
And here’s one more reason so little poetry attracts negative reviews: it’s not worth writing a negative review of a book that will sink without a trace, which most poetry books do. Negative reviews in poetry these days only seem worth while when they attack (a) examples of bad trends or (b) people who are very famous and don’t deserve it . In both of these cases, a bad poet (a poet I consider bad) is worth “taking down” (seems to me worth a negative review) because bad poetry, praised in high places, really distorts the sense of the art the younger generation gets; such praise, uncountered, makes it harder for new readers to like the good stuff. Under the right circumstances I would write a blistering attack on any of about eight very famous or widely respected poets, with my name attached (you get a cookie if you can guess which poets). I write negative reviews when editors ask me to review poetry I don’t like and when it falls into one of the categories above. But I almost never solicit work for review that I know I won’t like, and I certainly won’t write really negative reviews of poets who aren’t already well-known. It doesn’t seem worth my time, or theirs.
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