Monday, May 4, 2009

Dr. Feelgood & the Muse of Criticism

Responding to the Mayday roundtable on negative reviews (and/or "criticism"), a number of people have started to latch onto and reiterate Steve Burt's (generous) view that "it's not worth writing a negative review of a book that will sink without a trace, which most poetry books do." Another formulation is that "If a review is going to be wholly negative, why give it the journal space? Why not use it for a book that deserves recognition?"

I respectfully and wholeheartedly disagree. This is like saying that doctors should only see healthy patients, and not waste time on sick people. I think that the well-being of poetry, in a larger and very general sense, depends on a critical comprehension of pathology, and not just good health: each state is a function of the other.

Maybe the distinction here is really between "reviewing" and "criticism;" in the roundtable, I argue that ours is an age of blogs, reviews, interviews (about which click here), chatter, publicity and social networking, but not criticism. Nothing wrong with these various other modes except that it crowds out critical thinking, which is more demanding as well as less rewarding.

Sing, ye Muse of Criticism . . .

"The Age Demanded"

The age demanded that we sing
And cut away our tongue.

The age demanded that we flow
And hammered in the bung.

The age demanded that we dance
And jammed us into iron pants.

And in the end the age was handed
The sort of shit that it demanded.

Decline and Fall of Reading, part II (Pt. I here)

Grave reports on the decline of literary reading notwithstanding (and here's where I wholeheartedly agree with Steve), I saw the following books read by apparently normal people on public transportation this past week:

Complete Poems and Plays of T.S. Eliot - in the Faber edition!

Fable of the Bees by Mandeville!! [Timely, too.]

The Dance Most of All
by Jack Gilbert

(Now that's a positive use of space...)

FINE PRINT: Note that I am not saying we need criticism to read with our own eyes (on the contrary, we need it to read with others'), or that I care more for criticism than poetry (I don't), or that I'm only interested in "negative" reviews (I'm not). Thank you.

ADDENDUM: Seth Abramson on Steve's Mayday response.


Jordan said...

I like the medical analogy. I think, actually, that it speaks tactfully and forcefully to zingfests that substitute criticizing for critique.

Joel Brouwer said...

I find the medical analogy creepy, Don; it has the potential to lead to a conception of criticism as a form of eugenics. I prefer the idea of criticism as jury duty. Everyone who publishes a book in a given year should be required to review five others published that year. And, as with jury duty, they should hate having to do it. Doing loathsome scut work for the greater good is just another way of saying civil society.

The whole negative/positive reviews conversation is so played. Orwell said everything that needed saying in "Confessions of a Book Reviewer" more than half a century ago. It's funny how everyone needs to re-agonize over it for themselves; I suspect people are just trying to avoid doing the dishes. Because we all already know the answer(s): Some reviews are useful and some aren't, and so shall it always be. No one with any sense would wish for all negative reviews, or all positive, or all "fair and balanced," or all partisan, or all highbrow or lowbrow or professional or amateur or etc. The usefulness/lessness is in the scrum. Anyone taking the time to say that reviews oughta x or or reviews oughta y is wasting time that could be spent writing one, or, perhaps even better, not.

Don Share said...

Well put, Joel: thank you. (Though the doing dishes analogy is creepy. Just kidding.) My only cavil is that I do think things need to be played and replayed, and see little harm in that. And I like the Orwell, but it's not necessarily the definitive statement (ignoring most books, as he proposes, is silly), and not everyone will have stumbled upon it. Here's a link to it:

Michael Robbins said...

Criticism as eugenics: now there's a platform I can get behind!

Michael Robbins said...

also, what the hell line are you riding?!