Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Poetry, eugenics, and... doing the dishes!

I like Joel Brouwer's comment on my earlier post about reviews and criticism so much that I'm highlighting it here; I'd said that critics, like doctors, ought to know about the pathological as well as the healthful if their role is to help sustain well-being.

"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."

To which I replied, "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 the Orwell piece; his conclusion:

"The best practice, it has always seemed to me, would be simply to ignore the great majority of books and to give very long reviews--1,000 words is a bare minimum--to the few that seem to matter. Short notes of a line or two on forthcoming books can be useful, but the usual middle-length review of about 600 words is bound to be worthless even if the reviewer genuinely wants to write it. Normally he doesn't want to write it, and the week-in, week-out production of snippets soon reduces him to the crushed figure in a dressing-gown whom I described at the beginning of this article. However, everyone in this world has someone else whom he can look down on, and I must say, from experience of both trades, that the book reviewer is better off than the film critic, who cannot even do his work at home, but has to attend trade shows at eleven in the morning and, with one or two notable exceptions, is expected to sell his honour for a glass of inferior sherry."

Eugenics is a loaded word; to be clear, I'm not advocating weeding out the bad from the good in poetry or in anything else; my good is your bad, and vice versa. But one has to know the physiology nonetheless. That's my point, and in fact I've argued elsewhere for the great and enduring value of very bad poetry (which I read in enormous quantities). But I think there's much to assent to in Joel's remarks, particularly with regard to "civil society," which does seem to be vanishing (like sherry-drinking and dressing gowns)... assuming it ever existed, that is.

PICTURED: Pertinent entries from Samuel Johnson's Dictionary

27 comments:

Anonymous said...

I think Joel Brower's comment is fine. He's right that no one wants all of the one kind (positive), or all of the other (negative). And everyone wants, regardless of kind, a predominance of clear-eyed consideration.

But he misses a major point, at least in relation to many of the views expressed in the Mayday forum: that in our poetic field, weather, and time (poppy-strewn, puffy-clouded, twilit) there's too much of one (positive) and not enough of the other (negative).

There is (to use Joel's nice word) a dearth of scrum.

Kent

Anonymous said...

Sorry for misspelling Joel Brouwer's name. I know who Joel Brouwer is!

Kent

Daisy said...

"Everyone who publishes a book in a given year should be required to review five others published that year."

Joel--I know you're sort of kidding, but to the part of you who's not kidding, it's a nice idea, but who's going to pay all those poets for all those reviews? Are you calling for volunteer work? Sorry to seem so mercenary, but, well, I am mercenary, so I would never call on others to write prose for free when I mostly don't. (Except for Mayday. Because it seemed like fun.) Daisy

Henry Gould said...

Nice work if you can get it. I've never written anything about poetry for money. & I've never been paid for it (except for a couple poems on a newspaper op-ed page : & I had to twist their arm just to send me the checks). That's one reason I've never gone in for MFAs or teaching poetry-writing or anything like that. I don't want money to have anything to do with it. It scares me.

John Latta said...

“Who’s going to pay?” Did I just see “Who’s going to pay?” Oh my heart drops like lead, and my contempt for my age grows ever fiercer.

JL

Michael Robbins said...

I reviewed in the early days for free, & still do sometimes. But if I weren't getting paid for it, I wouldn't do it as often as I do. There's something wrong with this? I work at my reviews. I'm not embarrassed to call myself a communist, but that sure don't entail giving up on recompense for labor!

I think after poets publish their first books they should be required to wait five years before publishing their second. There are too many books out there, not enough writing.

Archambeau said...

I hope my dressing gown doesn't vanish at an awkward moment.

Daisy said...

What, John, people shouldn't be paid for honest work? This makes you feel contempt?

Explain please.

John Latta said...

“Paid for honest work” is the talk of a politician, like saying “hard-working Americans.” Is writing poems, then, dishonest work, or simply honest work done gratuitously? I reject the split. One writes because one cannot not write, and the scraps (they are all scraps, and most of them’ll be swept away into that overflowing dustbin) fall where they may. It’s all one conversation—reviews, essays, poems, off-kilter snarls. My contempt is for the hydra-headed professionalism graft’d awkwardly to the trunk of “pure” poetry. You read a book, you got something to say about the book, you put it out there for everybody to see it. That’s being part of the scrum. There needn’t be anything portentous, or “contractual” about it. Cash ought to be mere afterthought, or any other recompense.

Dale said...

The business of America is Business, right? Money's the only reason to wake up in the morning.... Back to bed....

Anonymous said...

Whatever happened to the good old days, when people used to write for *cultural* capital?

Kent

Jordan said...

That's what poets are for, to diffuse society's rage against reality.

Oh, no actually that's what pets are for.

Henry Gould said...

Those were the bad old days, Kent.

The Poet ought to write very early in the morning, after being instructed by dreams (I don't do this, myself).

I woke up this morning thinking about the Gateway Arch in St. Louis MO. Why? I don't know. Next book-length poem, probably.

Daisy said...

John--
Good pay or bum work, as the IWW used to say.
Daisy

Michael Robbins said...

Yes, Daisy! "One writes because one cannot not write" - I speak as one who admires John's writing a great deal - is so much fan-fic romanticism. Unless you're Kafka, you don't know what it means to be unable to not write.

John Latta said...

I’m not sure unassuming hypergraphia is any more (or less) a species of “fan-fic” romanticism than Wobbly or “call myself a communist” reveries of so-call’d “cultural work.” It—constant writing—is simply something one sees oneself doing.

Don Share said...

"... as someone who has neither taken nor given a single poetry workshop or creative writing class, it is natural for me to ask—“not in sorrow, but in contemplation,” to borrow the great Milosz’s phrase—how I would survive if my pay, prospects, pension, and tenure were to depend, irrespective of the vagaries of a fickle muse, on my being able not only to prove my poethood through regular publications, but also to act as a kind of creative sat-nav, plotting my students’ routes toward expressive fulfillment."

- Dennis O'Driscoll, May '09 Poetry

Chien Bâtard said...

Clearly I am an idiot for writing my blog, for talking about poetry, for thinking about poetry? Who knew I should be waiting to get paid to do it?

Michael Robbins said...

Uh, no one's talking about getting paid for blogging. Or for talking about it. Or for thinking about it. So, as much as I love you, Ms. Hound (& I do!), I must call foul. Fowl!

mr said...

"It" is poetry, not blogging.

Joel Brouwer said...

ABOUT MONEY

Reviewing books can pay in other currencies than cash. The many reviews I've written for free helped me to learn to think. Also exposed me to a lot of poems and poets I wouldn't have thought about otherwise. Also frequently got me free books. Also, if you want to be pure products of America about it, taught me how to work with editors, and allowed me to assemble a file of clips which I later used to land jobs that did pay cash. But that's not to suggest that writing reviews for no money should only be done in order to move into a position where you can make money at it. I still write reviews for "free" if the task "pays" in some other way. Recently did some for a new magazine, Lana Turner, because I was excited about the journal and because I was allowed to review some books I thought deserved more notice than they'd gotten.

How about this: Anyone who writes a review and gets nothing in return has done a crap job of it.

Joel Brouwer said...

ABOUT NEGATIVE AND POSITIVE

I don't care if a review is positive or negative. I care that it's coherent, insightful, clear, engaging, and, crucially, capable of being in uncertainties. A harebrained negative review is every bit as useless as a harebrained positive review. An incisive positive review is every bit as useful as an incisive negative review.

Joel Brouwer said...

ABOUT PLAYING AND REPLAYING

Don, you're right. These issues do indeed need to be revisited. I should not have sounded so dismissive.

I don't think, by the way, that Orwell means for his essay to be read entirely seriously, either. He paints a picture of the reviewer as a soulless hack, but don't you think we're also supposed to understand that there's a kind of nobility in the reviewer's Quixotic quest to find the one or three good books in the heap? If we keep in mind that Orwell himself wrote hundreds of book reviews in his time, we might read this essay not as a condemnation -- or not *only* a condemnation -- of the reviewer's trade, but as a kind of grim celebration of it. Even executioners and plastic surgeons have to be allowed to take *some* kind of pride in their work, no?

Anonymous said...

Brouwer blithely says, with fake cheer (or, scarier still, real cheer?): "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." Really? No writer would want all of her or his reviews to be all "fair and balanced"? Just as no citizen would want society to be all "fair and balanced"? Oh. Huh. Brouwer's argument, masquerading as logic, disguises something sort of creepy here, but, as in his poetry, it is not quite clear what.

Joel Brouwer said...

My thanks to Anonymous for reminding me why I avoid having conversations on blogs. What is it about this medium that attracts the peevish and cowardly like pedophiles to the schoolyard?

I meant "fair and balanced" to refer to the motto of Fox News. Hence the quotation marks. In that context, as I understand it, the phrase means "insisting that one is being fair and balanced while one is in fact being unfair and unbalanced." (Orwell also had this one pegged some time ago.)

Ms Baroque said...

Actually I'd love to have lots of fair and balanced reviews interspersed with a few rapturous ones, and maybe one negative one that I would go around fuming about for weeks. The rapturous ones would have convinced me that it was play to think of the negative one as a pile of crap.

In real life though, I think I got two reviews. One was fair and balanced, the other was a little damning with faint praise by someone who was never going to like by essential enterprise in the first place.

But what I really came all the way down here to the bottom of the comments thread to say was - isn't "the crushed figure int he dressing gown" absolutely marvellous. Doesn't that image just say it all.

By the way, I review well over five books a year to one published. Average fee, oh, £20? But, of course more than that in kind.

VNTuongLai said...
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