Friday, February 20, 2009

On going negative

"The negative review is a curiosity, unique to anxious enclaves like the poetry world. It’s not that people who review movies don’t say harsh things – they do. But when a book of poetry receives a tough verdict we often label the review ‘negative,’ and speculate about the reviewer’s motives, the agenda behind the takedown. Indeed, behind words like ‘negative’ and ‘agenda’ and ‘takedown’ lurks the sense that the reviewer is the one making the trouble and the book of poetry – whether it deserved a kicking or not – is being bullied. We’re far less paranoid about motives when, say, a movie receives a tough review in the New Yorker or Slate or Rolling Stone, even when we disagree with the verdict – even when we’re so outraged we fire off an e-mail to some editor’s inbox. This is because negative reviews of movies (and LPs, and TV shows, etc.) represent the norm, and aren’t usually labelled ‘negative.’ Movie critics with whom we disagree are merely wrong; poetry critics (and politicians) go negative.

Maybe poetry is so marginal, so fragile a commodity, we worry about kicking it when it’s already pretty clearly down. Whatever the reason for our anxiety, the negative review, when it appears in magazines like this, is often more of an event than it ought to be. But negativity, I’m starting to think, needs to be the poetry reviewer’s natural posture, the default position she assumes before scanning a single line. Because really, approaching every new book with an open mind is as well-meaning but ultimately exhausting as approaching every stranger on the street with open arms; you’ll meet some nice people, sure, but your charming generosity won’t be reciprocated most of the time. What’s worse, a tack-sharp taste, dinged by so much sheer dullness, will in time become blunted (into blurb-writing, no doubt). When braving any new book of poems – particularly by an author you’re not too familiar with – it’s best to brace yourself and expect the worst. This needn’t involve cynicism. Indeed, you probably shouldn’t be opening the book in the first place if you aren’t, on some deep level, already hoping for the best – that is, the discovery of a great poem. But hope should remain on that deep level, well-protected, until the shell that shields it is genuinely jarred.

After all, how many volumes of new poetry, published in the last calendar year, will still be jarring us in five years? In one? Shouldn’t the negative review, if we’re honest and adult about it, be the norm? And if so, shouldn’t we retire the adjective ‘negative’ in favour of something far more accurate, if a little awkward, like ‘necessarily skeptical’, as in, ‘Man, William Logan sure has gone necessarily skeptical on that poet?’

These are not purely rhetorical questions. If you’re frequently having the top of your head taken off – Emily Dickinson’s description of what authentic poetry does – I’m glad for you. But you’re reading better books than I am. And Emily, too. After all, the gist of her metaphor, it seems, is that such head injuries are by definition exceptional. Rare."

-- Jason Guriel, March 2009 issue of Poetry; click here for full article

Note: the preceding does not necessarily represent the views of this blogger; it represents Jason Guriel's views and I have posted it here for the purposes of constructive debate, assuming that's possible. With apologies to the once and future Lemon Hound.

Pictured: Poetry staff checking to see if you're a simultaneous submitter or not.
Not pictured:
Christian Bök on criticism.


Shameless Hussy said...



Don Share said...

Had to lance the boil, SH, alas, alack.

Shameless Hussy said...

Good Lord. Who is one to lay claim to any poetry that will take the head off another? Who makes of themselves the arbiter of taste? Of such refined judgment as to who should fail or no? What terms?

"After all, how many volumes of new poetry, published in the last calendar year, will still be jarring us in five years? In one?"

Indeed, let time do its work. And we ours. Let that which doesn't inspire grow cobwebs of neglect and celebrate and engage with what moves forward and with that movement raise us all a little from the muck.

Jordan said...

The reviewer is an advocate for the reader, not the author. Where the art, the world, and the reviewer's own interests figure into it will vary.

As for Guriel's remarks, I'm a little puzzled -- aren't negative reviews the norm in Poetry? Wasn't there, for a while at least, a regular feature devoted to taking reputations down a peg? And as such, is it possible to read his essay as anything other than notes toward a house style. I can't.

I say that as someone who differentiates between an open mind and open arms, and who still keeps reading despite this alien view.

Don Share said...

Well... I live in the house, and no, it's not the house style, nor even the norm. Saying that it is underscores, unwittingly, Guriel's point that it's the negative stuff that gets noticed. And what about the negative reactions to the magazine itself - or does that not count? Over to you.

Shameless Hussy said...

Hey Jordan,
Yes, the reviewer should be an advocate for the reader, and sometimes I think that the reviewer confuses that with being an advocate for their own poetic agenda. I don't like this nonsense therefore no one should.

What bothers me about all of this is that there seems to be a faulty logic than says negative = critical, and positive = a gloss. Aren't there a lot of decisions to be made in between those poles?

Jordan said...

Witting, unwitting... what I thought it underscored was that a reputation is hard to change.

Don Share said...

Ah. On that we can agree.

Don Share said...

P.S. My favorite positive review recently in the magazine is Ange Mlinko's delighted take on the publication of David Shapiro's new and selected poems.

My favorite negative one is by George Oppen, quoted in my post here yesterday, in which he complained about the shorter poems in Allen Ginsberg's Kaddish (he admired the title poem, however).

Henry Gould said...

I don't think negative reviews need to be the norm, since there's always the wastebasket factor. Silence is golden.

But I do believe there is a certain objectivity which pertains to art and to the beautiful. & it's the business of the critic to know something about that. The objectivity translates into the critic's standards. & sometimes a good critic's standards are granted assent (though never unanimously) by the culture at large.

What I'm saying is, objectivity entails judgements about good & bad. So there will necessarily be some of both. This doesn't require a critic to be dogmatic, ungenerous, unkind (though occasionally the nakedness of the Emperor must be pointed out). These extremes (unkindness, etc.) usually just accentuate the critic's own limitations (while unfairly bludgeoning a poet's work).

There is a lot of gunk out there which gets in the way of people noticing good things. Hence the need for some standards.

Shameless Hussy said...

Absolutely, there is a place for pointing out the Emperor's nakedness. I have read a few scathing reviews that seemed to me to be quite well-timed and in context. Though I think that in situations where the negative is the norm it breeds a community of ill-will and silences many who might otherwise want to join in the conversation.

Anonymous said...

Hm, I guess I'd have to read the whole essay, but ... Guriel's sensible "4 takes" review of a few months back struck me as the antithesis of this. In that review, as I recall, he faulted Jorie Graham's ambition to take off the top of our heads, and praised Sarah Hannah's modest but affecting verse. I was inclined to agree with him. I'm tired of the "take off the top of my head" trope -- it starts to feel like blackmail. A greater range of sensation makes us better readers. -- Ange

Anonymous said...

Oh, Don, I didn't even see your comment before I posted! Thanks!

Don Share said...

Playing devil's advocate for a sec, what think you of this, by the New York Times's (negatory?) David Orr, in a piece to appear on Sunday:

"It may be starting to sound as if greatness isn’t all that great; that it’s simply another strategy for concealing predictable prejudices that poets should forswear on their path to becoming wise and tolerant 21st-century artists. That is, however, almost the opposite of the truth. Yes, greatness narrowly defined to mean a particular, windily dull type of writing is something we could all do without, and long may its advocates gag on their pipe smoke and languish in their tweeds. But the idea that poets should aspire to produce work “exquisite in its kind,” as Samuel Johnson once put it, is one of the art form’s most powerful legacies. When we lose sight of greatness, we cease being hard on ourselves and on one another; we begin to think of real criticism as being “mean” rather than as evidence of poetry’s health; we stop assuming that poems should be interesting to other people and begin thinking of them as being obliged only to interest our friends — and finally, not even that."

Shameless Hussy said...

I think sometimes we forget to simply see what's in front of us. Never mind greatness. Just describe what's there.

I also wonder about the idea of reviewing in any case. Who is it for? Who reads poetry reviews? I have a naive notion that a review can actually do the work of introducing readers to a book...not promote the reviewer's ideas about what the poetry world should be.

So much reviewing is hiding behind very cagey positions. Combine that with negative and what have you got?

On the other hand, one can engage with a text, really tear it apart and see what it's doing and ask questions of it, and be rigorous, and to my mind, not be at all negative.

Shameless Hussy said...


Did he read Jorie Graham? Did he simply read Jorie Graham?

Anonymous said...

Well, more sensible than me, SH. I tend toward the hotheaded myself, but age is mellowing me.

By the way, I agree with you: "let time do its work. And we ours." But "conservative" critics aren't the only ones who shrilly foreclose on possibilities outside their frames of reference. I was extremely alienated by Bok & Goldsmith on Harriet for doing exactly what you accuse Guriel of doing -- being arbiters of taste -- and with a lot more smugness.


Shameless Hussy said...

Point taken.

Jordan said...

> what think you

Maybe in context Orr's argument is more persuasive, but I think "exquisite in its kind" and "greatness" are in a shell game in that quote. Who would want to lose sight of either of them? We're asked to look at them while he switches them with criticizing-not-critiquing. It sounds too much to me like GOB telling Buster "Stop hitting yourself!"

We just want just readers.

Zachariah Wells said...

"Who makes of themselves the arbiter of taste?"

Oh, I don't know. Anthologists, perhaps, however naively/disingenuously they may protest au contraire.

A reviewer/critic can only become an arbiter of taste if enough readers value that critic's opinion. By "value," I don't necessarily mean "assent to," but deem it worthy of discussion. No one can appoint herself an arbiter of taste by fiat.

This is what always has me scratching my head when the periodic call for a ban on negative reviews is made: just what harm is the negative review--if we accept the terminology as valid, which I don't, really--supposed to do? So what if a reviewer is "being an advocate for their own poetic agenda"? It's equally probably that this will be the case in a "positive" or "descriptive" review as in a "negative" one. Again, if this is done transparently and without nuance, the criticism is self-defeating.

It seems to me that those who call for an end to "negative reviewing" are far more negative than those doing the reviewing. Have you ever heard a call for an end to positive reviewing? No. Because it would be ridiculous. It's just as ridiculous to call for an end to negative reviewing, but because it can me derogatorily misconstrued as being mean-spirited, it gets taken more seriously than it deserves to be. These pleas for peace invariably involve some caricature of the negative reviewer as a frayed bundle of frustration, resentment and bitterness. Which doesn't fit at all with my experiences with people like Jason Guriel and Carmine Starnino, who are consummately decent, generous-spirited people.

An eminent/award-winning/highly respected/etc. Canadian poet published a lengthy essay about five years ago calling for an end to negative reviews. She actually said that giving a book a negative review is akin to telling your friend she looks fat. This is exactly what David Orr is talking about, and it relates rather interestingly to things in Edwin Muir's critical lectures The Estate of Poetry, in which, basically, Muir argues that even if poetry effectively has no public, it's deadly to stop imagining one.

I don't think we need an extrinsic reason for skeptical reviewing. When it's done well, it's entertaining and intellectually stimulating.

Henry Gould said...

It seems like the views of Orr & SH need not cancel each other out. I feel like you're both right. Except when Orr says "real criticism", I wonder : have we seen any of that lately?

Maybe there is a sort of scale running from "fair, honest reviews" to "literary criticism". The former is what SH is talking about; the latter is something more rare. More like Coleridge, Johnson, Emerson, Poe, Eliot : taking on the whole set of principles, an entire poetics; realigning all the goal-posts. There are a lot of people TRYING to do that, who end up looking like Ange's caricature (the "arbiters"). Logan. Kirsch. Vendler. Bloom.

I guess, finally, I agree with Orr. But I don't think such critics come along every day. & when they do, usually they are poet-critics. But most people who writer about poetry are over at the SH end of the scale (reviewers). & most of them are usually mouthing idees-recus, & it comes off sounding like part of somebody's homework assignment or part of some teapot vendetta.

Shameless Hussy said...

Hm. I don't recall anyone calling for a ban on negative reviews...anyone?

I think my point was why suggest that negative is a good place to start? And really, just reading what the poet is saying rather than what we want to hear is a good start.

Zachariah Wells said...

Wasn't referring to anything said in this comment thread. I thought that was pretty clear in this phrase: "when the periodic call for a ban on negative reviews is made." At no point did I say it was being made here and now. I was referring to things like the Jan Zwicky essay I mentioned, and to the blanket policy of magazines like _The Believer_ and others of not running negative reviews. Or "snark," as they'd have it. I had a commissioned review turned away by a magazine once. The editor told me it wasn't because it was ill-argued or poorly written--they assured me it was neither--but because it was "more critical than reviews we generally publish." They'd asked me to write it; they were familiar with my body of work as a reviewer; they thought the review well-written--and yet they rejected it. (Worth noting that the book was authored by someone on the mag's masthead.) There's a lot of hostility towards skeptical reviewing out there and most of it is knee-jerk. Sorry if I read



as being a specimen of this. Silly of me. Paranoid even. Combined with the rhetorical question "Who makes of themselves the arbiter of taste? "--implicit answer: no one should--this seems to me an argument against writing negative reviews. No?

I suggest you take your own advice and actually read what Jason is saying, instead of what you assume he's standing for: reviewers should come into a book fearing the worst, as tho it bore the inscription on the gate to Dante's Inferno. That way, one isn't apt to find Paradiso around every turn of the page. That way, a reviewer is less apt to fall victim to the praise inflation of our blurb-happy review culture.

michael robbins said...

What is a "negative review"?

Jordan said...

> They'd asked me to write it;
> they were familiar with my body
> of work as a reviewer; they thought
> the review well-written--and yet
> they rejected it.

I've had the same experience.

And yet, I still feel that a negative disposition is a strike against a critic's reliability. Add to that the strike most critics earn just for being an interested party and you see why I record a lot of backwards Ks in my scorecard. I mean, the things most critics do to prose in the name of critical performance... brr.

Look at that, I have a negative disposition too.

C.S. Lewis's An Experiment in Criticism bears on this discussion. He argues that, well among things he argues that after the modernists all poetry is likely to be good for is civil service examinations. But his main argument is that most evaluative criticism, especially negative criticism, is a concealed judgment of the uses a book's audience makes of it. That there is an ethical question -- and not just the cui bono when one salesman points out the bad workmanship of another salesman's goods. The question is, what right do we have to meddle with other people's enjoyment.

Lewis is very clear that there are bad books, clearer in fact than I am, and I read everything that comes over the transom. Nevertheless he calls for a moratorium on evaluative criticism, for critical and editorial conscience re dismissals.

Zachariah Wells said...

Thank you, Michael Robbins, for your sagely socratic question. The "negative review" has to be a stereotype. Seems to me that any piece of writing acknowledging the existence of a book is a de facto positive act and artifact. It says: this is worth talking about. The truly negative review is the choice not to review at all. Insofar as an actual piece of writing can be deemed a "negative review," it must be a poorly executed, unbalanced thing. It is noble to wish that such things were never brought into the world, but it is as utopian to wish them away as to call for a ban on stupidity, halitosis and parasitic insects.

Jordan, I really think we need to focus on what Jason says about not framing things with the term "negative." What he's talking about is not a "negative disposition," but the adoption of a stance of doubt, a suspension of credulity. Unless I misread him.

And I think we should hearken back to what Henry Gould says above about the scale between reviews and criticism. What Lewis argues makes sense if we're talking about writing criticism about an established body of work by a poet no longer writing. But reviewing recently published books is another ballgame.

There is the potential for big-C criticism in reviewing--I've seen it in _Poetry_ and I see it in many of the reviews I publish in _Canadian Notes & Queries_--but most of it is more journalistic. I write a dozen or more reviews a year between 300-500 words. Not much potential for Criticism there. A dash of context, a pinch of description/summary, the balance an evaluation as nuanced as I can make it, given the constraints. Most of these reviews are written for a publishing industry trade mag. The audience is mostly booksellers and librarians trying to decide what books they'll acquire. These are hard decisions, given how many books are published and how tight budgets are. They need help. Evaluation is necessary. Eschewing it in this context would be irresponsible.

I think all these terms--"negative review," "evaluative criticism," etc.--are bogeys. A lot of things can be done in criticism. Why limit the field?

Anonymous said...

I'm surprised the word "snark" hasn't come up yet. Wasn't it The Believer who forswore such some years back, pledging not to engage in overly negative reviews, where critique crossed over into personal attack and innuendo?

Not long after its virtuous pronouncement, the magazine published, in '04, a long essay on Yasusada, by Michael Atkinson, film critic for the Village Voice, in which a number of bizarre, outrightly slanderous charges were made against my person. The magazine had never published such a vitriolic, ad hominem, and libelous piece before and certainly hasn't since. (When letters of protest, some of them searing, most of them perfectly thoughtful, were sent by more than thirty poets--according to the Editor more than they had ever received for a single article--the magazine refused to publish them, even on its website, where doing so would obviously have presented no problem.)

I'm bringing this up because I wanted to ask Jordan Davis, who now writes about poetry for The Nation, if his comments above signal some sort of change of heart about the "principles and ethics" of reviewing. Because I do recall that when the "review" I've mentioned appeared, he wrote me a couple of gleefully sarcastic emails, clearly chortling about the matter, offering "congratulations for all the good space in The Believer."

That said, I have nothing myself against "negative reviews." I think we need more William Logans, Eliot Weinbergers, and Dan Chiassons (different as they are) in the mix. More Randall Jarrells! But a turn towards sharp candor, even satire, in critical practices need not involve lies and libel.


Bobby said...

Hi all, I tried to leave this comment yesterday but it somehow got swallowed. I'm reposting it as-was because I'm out of town, but apologies for any needless reduplication of things that have already been said.

Wow, what a great subject. I’d like to read Guriel’s essay in full before I say too much, but I can’t resist a few comments.

I share Guriel’s taste for negative reviews, but I’m not sure he’s a great spokesman for the position. The fallacy in the excerpt from his essay--and in Orr’s--is the assumption that poetry ought to be faulted for not being head-loppingly great. Ange is exactly right to call this blackmail. There’s a lot of poetry out there that lives in the territory north of competent and south of art-changing, and I feel no compunction in saying that a critic who holds out for greatness exclusively is a bad critic. Greatness is easier to spot than legend suggests; it’s making the finer distinctions--Ange’s “greater range of sensation”--where a critic earns her pudding.

Put it another way: when we go see a movie we don’t judge it by whether it will make the AFI’s best of the millenium list; we want it to be worth our two hours and ten dollars. Why should poetry be any different? I disagree strongly with what I take to be SH's position, but I do agree with her that any critic who imagines himself a gargoyle on the castle of the canon is pretty seriously self-deluded.

That said, Jordan’s right that a reviewer is an advocate for the reader--and I think that explains why negative reviews are necessary. As everyone here I’m sure agrees, there’s a lot (”a lot” understood on the miniature scale of contemporary poetry) of biased hype out there, from publishers, blurbers, authors’ blogger friends. This happens for lots of reasons: as Guriel says, some people see poetry as such a fragile commodity that they think it needs protection from any attack. Others want to help their friends or advance their careers. (Even Guriel isn’t innocent of logrolling; I noticed that when he was defending Carmine Starnino’s critical integrity the other week at Harriet he neglected to mention that Starnino is the poetry editor for his publisher.) I don’t have time to read every book of poetry that’s published, but reviews certainly help me decide. If it’s a bad book, I want to know.

For me, the biggest problem with reviews is not that they’re too positive or too negative, but that they’re often too dull. I think every writer’s first job is to be interesting, and when it comes to reviewing even fairness and accuracy take a back seat to that prime directive. Ideally, of course, a person wouldn’t have to choose between those qualities, as one does with William Logan.

In any case, Michael Hansen and his commenters hit on some of these issues at digital emunction in a post about Logan. (I’d post a link but Blogger won’t let me.)

Dr. Ursus said...

I think the most snide "negative" comments made about so-called "negative reviewers" is when the motivation question is trotted out, when the "negative reviewer" is characterized as bilious, or curmudgeonly, etc. and it's believed that their stance is negative out of some kind of opposition to the world. The reviewer is attacked ad hominem. And sometimes I see the unfortunate "negative reviewer" strike back, in which the "negative reviewer" suggests that they only have the courage to tell the truth, etc.

Ah, the letters pages.

I used to review for a provincial arts insert, until a group of local writers wrote a petition of protest to the editor, saying that they would refuse to write for the insert for as long as I was writing reviews for them.

Orwell said, after all, that the lesson of reviewing -perhaps the law of reviewing- is that most books are bad, and I thought that pointing out the bad was a way of pointing towards the good. The editor rang me up and apologized, saying I was dropped because "there was no point in publishing negative reviews, because a bad book should die a silent death and the local arts community needs fostering..." I later found out, from someone who refused to sign the letter of petition, the truth.

I also had a review refused by a literary magazine -it turned out that this would not be the first time- not because it was poorly written, but because it was too caustic. In fact they took pains to say how well-written it was. I objected strenuously to a book authored by a poet who often appeared in that magazine, and I was told that "it would make things difficult for us here" if it were published. I did not categorically dismiss that book; but I did write a sentence that, if memory serves, went like this: "There is not a single memorable utterance to be found in this book." And that was fair; the poet wasn't enamoured of expression, he could be found amidst a refuse pile of anecdote. The review was very, very negative, but not exclusively so. (Yet one could regularly find in their pages very, very positive reviews.) The first response by my editor was, before they grew increasingly uncomfortable with the review and eventually declined it, was: "You need to get rid of that sentence."

I refused, saying it was true.

"It may be true, but we don't publish sentences like that. It must go."

I refused, asking why they didn't print true sentences.

"We don't print attack ads, we print reviews. Get rid of it."

I'm sure these absurd conversations are happening across the land. There's something about the "negative review" that makes people uncomfortable; it interrupts the postive feedback loop for poet, publisher, publicist, and the goodwill generated thereby to the magazine.

Mary Meriam said...

My Dashed-Off Book-Reviewing Manifesto

1. A good review says as much about the reviewer as the book being reviewed.
2. Intelligent readers understand and accept #1.
3. Book reviews, like all writing, should be as interesting and well-written as poetry.
4. Resent, resist, and fight every book of poems you read.
5. Demand that the poems reach out and grab you.
6. Then, if you have a review to write, take the poems in your arms and love them.
7. If you are a serious poet, welcome constructive criticism.
8. If you are a book reviewer, capture the essence quickly, honestly, and succinctly.
9. Keep your book-review readers in mind.
10. Build a bridge between the book and your readers.

Matt said...

I like the Believer.

Zachariah Wells said...

"The fallacy in the excerpt from his essay--and in Orr’s--is the assumption that poetry ought to be faulted for not being head-loppingly great."

I don't think Orr is saying that. He's saying that we "shouldn't lose sight of greatness" and that poetry "should be interesting to other people." As for Jason's piece, I think I'll wait till the rest of it's published.

And a note re: logrolling. I'm quite sure Jason was singing Carmine's praises long before they became acquainted. Carmine's a good friend of mine--and is editing my forthcoming collection--but I knew and respected his work years before we became personally acquainted. So it goes.

Bobby said...

>[Orr is] saying that we "shouldn't lose sight of greatness" and that poetry "should be interesting to other people."

Look at Orr's sentence again. He's making a causal argument: "When we lose sight of greatness...we stop assuming that poems should be interesting to other people." Maybe it's just a non sequitur, but the way I read it he's implying that poems can't be interesting to other people if they're not great. It's nonsense either way. (With that said, I think the rest of Orr's essay is worth a read. His idea of greatness sounds pretty absurd to me, especially when he tries to associate it with a vocabulary or a style, but I did like his take on Pinsky and Milosz.)

"So it goes"--God I love that phrase, more powerful than a plenary indulgence. If I were ever to write a sociology of contemporary poetry I think that's what I'd have to call it. But look: I don't question that "Jason was singing Carmine's praises long before they became acquainted." For one thing, that being true doesn't mean there's no actual and present conflict of interest. But even if it did mean that, the point is that there's at least the appearance of a conflict, and as every journalist learns in their kindergarten journalism classes, the appearance of a conflict is no better than an actual conflict of interest. It's a question of confidence.

I realize it may seem like I'm speaking in the abstract here about distant things like principles and ethics but I'm really not. I read Guriel's praise of Starnino, then I turned to Google to see if they had any prior relationship, and when, as I suspected, I learned that they did, I immediately lost some quantity of trust in Guriel as a critic. And, I hasten to add, that happened not because of their relationship but because Guriel neglected to mention it. I think some of the best criticism can be and has been written by people with a vested interest the success of the people they're writing about. But if a critic wants to maintain the trust of his readers--and what else does he have to trade on?--disclosure is a minimum requirement.

Don Share said...

At times like this, I'm moved to quote Samuel Johnson:

"... he that applauds him who does not deserve praise, is endeavouring to deceive the publick; he that hisses in malice or sport, is an oppressor and a robber. [...] Reproof should not exhaust its power upon petty failings; let it watch diligently against the incursion of vice, and leave foppery and futility to die of themselves."

Anonymous said...

[Thinking it might be a little too intimate in topic, I'd actually written Don, asking him not to post my comment above. But too late now.]


"I like The Believer," says young Matt above, thumb on nose, tongue extended.

In fact, so do I.

The fairly evident point I'm suggesting is that there is negative criticism and there is negative criticism.

"Ethical" postures in poetics are always to some extent--and sometimes entirely--vestments of disguise adopted (individually or in group) upon the often-vicious position-taking stage. It isn't uncommon, really, for the most moral-sounding pronouncements of "open-mindedness" and "fairness" to be proffered by the most aggressive and implacable players.

In the old days, satire was one of the major ways of dealing with dramatic hypocrisy and opportunism. But in our climate, even satire is a No-No.

Actually, here's a question: What about poetic satire? Is satire "negative" and to be avoided?


Zachariah Wells said...


"Not losing site of greatness" is still several stone-throws from "praising only greatness." If there's any doubt, we should look at the broader context in which Orr and Guriel make their remarks: their body of work as reviewers. And we will find that neither one of them goes in for some cartoonish damning-because-a-hair-shy-of-Parnassian.

I'm not sure what specific instance of Jason-praising-Carmine you're referring to, but I'm guessing it's not a book review. What you're talking about is more a confluence of interest than a conflict of interest. If Jason was reviewing a book of Carmine's and didn't cop to the connection, (as I did when I was asked to review a book of Carmine's) you'd have a gotcha. If Jason was on an award jury that gave Carmine a nomination or prize, you'd have a gotcha. Saying that he likes Carmine's criticism is pretty innocuous and in no way, to my mind, undermines his credibility as a critic. As you say, it's a matter of public record that Jason and Carmine know each other and work together. He can hardly be accused of hiding something that's so out in the open.

Kent, I think satire is widely avoided, if not derided, for the same reasons as reviews. Good point.

Boyd Nielson said...

I agree w/ Bobby’s point above about the importance of disclosure in reviews. Is this perhaps a consequence of our expecting reviews to perform a function that oscillates between academic criticism and blurb? I can’t imagine, for instance, why it would be at all significant that a serious critic personally knows the poet or theorist she or he is discussing. Either the criticism makes a contribution or it does not, and it will be cited or ignored accordingly. But for the blurb almost nothing else is more significant. Its value wholly depends on its having no conflict of interest. Could there be, in fact, such a thing as a “negative blurb”? It would be something like one’s worst enemy who is simultaneously one’s best friend. O, my friends, there is no friend.

Zachariah Wells said...

I have a collection of critical essays and reviews coming out next year, which will feature exclusively negative blurbs on the jacket. More pull quotes than blurbs.

Blurbs are almost always provided by friends/mentors. I have no idea why publishers continue to use them for poetry books.

Henry Gould said...


if we didn't have the "great" we wouldn't even know what "good" is. We wouldn't have a clue. Be grateful for the great. Let Us Now Praise Famous Women. (Like Emily Dickinson. What made her realize she was so GREAT?)

Don Share said...

Speaking of Orr and "great"ness, it strikes me that he's flipped what Whitman used to say (and later Harriet Monroe) - that to have "great" poets there must be great audiences, too. Nowadays, to have not-so-great poets means we have to have not-so-great audience, too.

That's progress for ya!

Don Share said...

ALSO: Geez, I heart The Believer, too, but their books award ignores poetry... which is, I guess, a kind of critical judgment, after all...

Zachariah Wells said...

You might call it an uncritical non-judgment, but that would be awfully ... negative.

Tim Upperton said...

In Eliot's formulation - later picked up by Leavis - literary criticism is 'the common pursuit of true judgement'. Leaving aside the vexed question of what constitutes 'true judgement', the focus of this definition, it seems to me, is on the prior phrase. Criticism is esssentially collaborative - or as Leavis said, 'This is so, is it not?', and it pursues an ideal. Anything else - whether it be malice or unthinking praise - is bad faith.

Boyd Nielson said...

Sure, ZW, that just makes the point in a different way: even negative blurbs are positive blurbs. Blurbs that say negative things don’t really turn the reader away. Nor are they meant to. Of course it is possible for someone to redeploy quotes that say bad things about him or her. Just go to Bill Knott’s blog, or, even, take a look at Shameless Hussy’s blog (hi to you both!). You can see all kinds of nasty things people have said about them. But one’s reaction to learning that someone said, for instance, “Ignore her, she'll eventually go away” or “There is something very dog-like about her” isn’t to think: Wow, that is really convincing. I guess I’ll stop reading now. It is precisely the opposite: Why would anyone say that kind of shit? I’d better figure out what is going on here.

We expect or want reviews to function the same way. (Well, maybe not all of us.) At the same time, we expect or want reviews to avoid falsehoods and take strong positions. But taking a position in a review is often a very curious thing. And it is here I think that Guriel’s call for negativity as default misses the point: Many times a reviewer’s position-taking ends up saying more about the author of the review than about the author being reviewed. Perhaps I am in the minority for my opinion on this, but I find William Logan pretty much unreadable as a reviewer not because he is negative but rather because, when he and I happen to be reading the same books, I think he is so often stunningly wrong. And why turn to reviews that consistently get things wrong? Reviews, after all, aren’t essays or articles. It is possible to actually enjoy reading essays that are stunningly wrong. You can take (perverse) pleasure in reading an essay with which you disagree because it helps you clarify your position. But reviews by their nature do not invite response or dialogue, and there is a good reason for this: Most people haven’t yet read (and may not end up reading) the book being reviewed.

I see no way around the fact that the review is, at bottom, an introduction (SH mentioned this); the review is designed to talk about a book the reader may not be familiar with and may not even want to read. A review that fails to give the reader incisive evidence of what a book is up to really is, in that specific sense, a failure. Even so, a reviewer’s overt endorsement or condemnation can constitute only a fraction of that evidence. No doubt we need more interesting reviews, more satire, more energy, more range of emotion. No doubt we should denounce bad writing. But we are in error if we start thinking that the main purpose of a review is, on the one hand, to nudge the reader to read the book (like blurbs) or, on the other, to take such a strong position on a book that the reader is required to have read it in order to judge whether the position is right (like essays). In both cases, it turns out, the error is the same.

(I am aware that there are plenty of talented people writing reviews who by their example complicate that last point. I am also aware that it is impossible to “give the reader incisive evidence of what a book is up to” without expressing a point of view, perhaps even a polemical one. But it doesn’t follow from either of those qualifications that reviewers should be mistaken about their primary responsibility.)

Maybe one last thing: I enjoy the excerpt from Guriel’s essay, and I look forward to the rest. But Ange is right that the top of the head trope is misplaced. Even more grating to my ear is Guriel’s referring to Dickinson by her first name. Gah. That by itself sort of makes you feel like you just received a head injury.

Brian Palmu said...

Boyd says:

"I see no way around the fact that the review is, at bottom, an introduction"

The review is not only an intro. Yes, it's often likely that not many will be familiar with the work of a little-know poet, but even here, simply to give a glancing (or detailed) description of its contents is both unrevealing and redundant. And insulting, ironically enough. Because an author, especially a poet, shouldn't have their work explained away in categorical abstraction. It cheapens poetry, and is beside the point. Poetry, if it has a cornerstone at all, is embedded in aesthetics, not message or theoretic construct. But of course when we value theory as our sine qua non, then theorizing about the theory becomes not only inevitable, but needed. And theorizing about aesthetics .... well, that industry seems to be fading, fortunately.

And an intro is obviously not needed when reviewing a work by a known writer. Just look at the side-bars on this site. Do we need a condescending, hand-holding background on Lowell and Vallejo? Of course not. Share gets right to the poems, and assumes the reader is at least broadly familiar with those poets, as is the right approach. The review, then, can tell us something deeper about the work(s).

Leave the introductions, if they must exist at all, to the back cover.

Don Share said...

Check out Seth Abramson's post here for another, & useful, way of looking at all this!

Boyd Nielson said...

So ready to decry condescension, BP, so eager to deploy it. It probably won’t help to point out that, as the very sentence you quote above demonstrates, I never said it was “only” an intro. And I have no idea why a reviewer’s providing a perspective on and evidence for what a book is up to (which just is what DS does ninety-five percent of the time throughout the reviews you mention) should be called unrevealing, redundant or insulting. Nor do I see how “explaining away” a poet’s work could be anything but the opposite of what I was talking about.

We do agree though that “the review…can tell us something deeper about the work(s).” We disagree about, first, whether the reviewer can even start his job if he assumes that the reader has already read the particular book being reviewed and, second, whether poetry can possibly be “cheapened” by discussion.

Brian Palmu said...

Hmm, I don't know that this is a semantic misunderstanding. I didn't say you said "only", I was simply expanding on your emphasis. "At bottom" means "reason for being", in your view, does it not? And I strongly disagree with that. It's informative to know the subject or style or poetic influences of the book. But that, as I mention, can be had, in terse fashion, on the book jacket, just so the reader can understand that he- or she'll be dealing with the mating habits of penguins rather than the War on Drugs.

And you've misapplied my "cheapened" comment. Many if not most reviews that proceed in descriptive detail, connect-the-dots influences, and message-ferretting, do so exclusively, to the absence of aesthetic and evaluative expansion and argument. I find those reviews (wait for the condescending and arrogant remark!) juiceless and unrevealing of any larger scope the book may possess.

Even when I read a review of a book I've not yet read, I'm delighted when the reviewer approaches it with depth, idiosyncrasy and passion, even if I can't understand the context. (I'm far more likely to follow-up on it, then, than hearing the bland intros which are de rigueur in Canada.)

You also said that Guriel's "call for negativity misses the point" since it emphasizes his or her views rather than those of the author being reviewed. But that's misunderstanding Guriel's post, and planing that misunderstanding to a false conclusion. I've often been biased against (or for) a book of poetry mildly or strongly before reading it. If the poems are any good, they'll overcome any negative bias, and I've always been happy to have been surprised away from my original prejudice. It's disingenuous to posit that anyone goes into a first reading of a book, especially an author one is already familiar with, without prejudice and a certain emotional expectation. Guriel is simply saying that the reader/reviewer needs to protect him- or herself somewhat from the mathematical fact that the book will most likely fail the reader's good wishes.

knott said...

well, I wasn't going to comment, but someone above mentioned my name, and

since no living poet has gotten more negative reviews than I have (see my blog for a sample),

which makes me an reluctant expert on them——

i say: why bother to bludgeon an ant? One of the admirable things about William Logan is his choice to address the famous major poets, and to pass over the mediocrities and nobodys like me——

Boyd Nielson said...

I suspect that you intended to write, BP, that you didn’t mean to imply I said only. Indeed, perhaps the only thing in our exchange so far more obvious than the fact that you clearly corrected me by saying “[t]he review is not only an intro” is that I never said that a review should “proceed in descriptive detail…to the absence [exclusion?] of aesthetic and evaluative expansion and argument.” I said precisely the opposite: that no doubt we need more interesting reviews, more satire, more energy, more range of emotion; no doubt we should denounce bad writing. (And, besides, so-called description is often by itself polemical, as I qualified, and thus already implicated in “evaluative expansion and argument”--as anyone knows who has tried to talk about Flarf lately.)

Above all, I clearly didn’t say that “Guriel's ‘call for negativity misses the point’ since it emphasizes his or her views rather than those of the author being reviewed” (emphasis added). You misconstrue the logic of my point, which is not that reviewers shouldn’t emphasize their own views but rather that reviews should not be confused with blurbs or essays. As (again) I qualified: “I am…aware that it is impossible to ‘give the reader incisive evidence of what a book is up to’ without expressing a point of view, perhaps even a polemical one. But it doesn’t follow from […that qualification] that reviewers should be mistaken about their primary responsibility.”

Just so we are clear: the last thing I am suggesting is that we need less argument in reviews. We need more argument. But we need more argument to the extent that the goals of reviews are clearly distinguished from the goals of blurbs and essays. Consider it this way: As Bobby says, for instance: “I don’t have time to read every book of poetry that’s published, but reviews certainly help me decide. If it’s a bad book, I want to know.” If you agree with that point (which you very well may not) then it is a mistake to believe at the same time that the main purpose of a review is to make the reader “more likely to follow up on” a book either 1) by invariably nudging the reader to read the book or 2) by making or extending an argument on the book that requires readers to have already read it. While it is true that any particular review may oscillate between the former and the latter, reviews are not by definition failures if they do neither.

Finally: hi Bill. My name is not someone. Ants, to be sure, come in all sizes.