Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Yet another symposium on... reviews and criticism

I remarked, the other day:

Is it not strange that we should regard a critic or editor who praises us as a very competent judge, while as soon as one finds fault with us we declare him or her to be incapable of passing judgment?

To which Lemon Hound replied:

My thoughts are more inline with Groucho Marx: I don't want to be in a group that would have me. Praise alone is suspicious, no? Makes all of my warning bells go off.

To which I replied:

Hardly any poet will dismiss a positive review or critical essay. Or turn down a prize, which should be the biggest warning bell of all.

To which LH replied:

Oh, I don't know. I hope you're not right in this instance Mr. Share.

To which I replied:

Well, if someone wants to test my own integrity with a prize.....  But seriously, maybe we can agree with Lichtenberg: "Honor is infinitely more valuable than positions of honor."

To which LH replied:

I am not sure that refusing a prize is necessarily a sign of integrity but I love it when Atwood gives her prize money to charity

To which Brooklyn Copeland replied:

I know I'm small potatoes, but I'm also suspicious of praise. I dread receiving anything that resembles it, usually because the person praising is dishing it out for something THEY've inferred through their "close reading," not something I intended and achieved. On the other hand, I get some satisfaction from knowing I've been read, and enjoyed. I get bigger satisfaction from knowing I've been read, hated, read again, and can remain friends with the hater. :-)

To which LH replied:

Well, I prefer neither the lover or the hater. A solid, generative reading will do quite nicely. One that asks questions and contextualizes, and pushes at the text.

To which BC replied:

For me, the lover and the hater make the dream of having any kind of audience worthwhile. Eggheads can push my text around and contextualize to their hearts' content once I'm dead. There's a .000005% chance they'd be interested in my work even then, so I'm not going to spend much time worrying about it while I'm alive. :-D

To which I sort of replied:

Could be, again pace Lichtenberg, that reviews are a kind of childhood illness to which newborn books are subject to a greater or lesser degree: sometimes the soundest die of them, while the feeblest often pull through, and many don't catch them at all.

To which LH replied:

I do get your point. An early play of mine got a rather odd, and I thought, damning review in the Toronto Star. My older writer friends said, Oh, you've earned your badge! And I guess I had...

To which I sort of replied:

"For a Critic Who Tries to Write Poems," by Thomas McGrath:

Well, well, little poet!
Still looking for a dew drop
In the middle of a thunderstorm!

To which LH replied:


Steve Fellner then said:

No poet would dismiss a positive review, Don? I don't buy that. I think plenty of poets, at least the ones worth reading, might think about one of their positive reviews: they like me for the wrong reasons. Am I naive or you too cynical?

I said:

I'm not being cynical at all. It's just hard to think of a contemporary poet who has actually and publicly and sincerely abjured praise.

Though I added:

"He who says he hates every kind of flattery, and says it in earnest, certainly does not yet know every kind of flattery..." - Lichtenberg, again

Phil Metres said:

I had to go through all the reviews and blurbs for various books I'd done, and my feeling remains: I'd rather have an engaged and serious review that criticizes the book than a puff piece that says nothing. But you're right, there is this sense of begging, of ego-wallowing, that seems to be a particular illness of ours (our poetry tribe, not just you and me).


There can hardly be stranger wares in the world than books: printed by people who do not understand them; sold by people who do not understand them; bound, reviewed and read by people who do not understand them; and now even written by people who do not understand them. - Lichtenberg, "waste-book" entry ca. 1793-1796


Lemon Hound said...

ha. love that last quote. so contemporary. but yes, really, so contemporary. good to remember how tenuous our hold on the book and what we want and think it is has always been.

Anonymous said...

So. I am one of those people who likes criticism. "Like" is probably the wrong word; I am more comfortable hearing what is wrong with what I have done than what is right. I think, personally, this has a lot to do with my childhood/parental situation; but I also think--and some of this must be because of my gender--when someone does praise my work, I cannot ignore the fact that even if Reviewer X likes my work in some journal, I am still writing in the (very humbling) context of so many other writers, living and dead, who did so many other things so much better than I am. I don't know if that's the Harold Bloom in me speaking, or what. I do think it has something to do with gender; when I left grad school, everyone I knew was applying for all the same things--Provincetown, etc--and while none of the women I knew assumed they would get a Stegner, the only people I knew who were visibly, publicly upset about not getting the Amy Lowell scholarship they *deserved* were men (obviously not all the men had this attitude--but I found it very shocking. There is ONE Lowell scholarship a year! Suck it up. Etc.).

Also, I think if you are writing to get a Lowell scholarship...that might not be the best reason to be writing.

I probably wouldn't turn down a prize in the hopes that it came with money...and I would tack that on to my CV...but I would probably keep it out of my bio. I don't even like listing journal pubs in my bio (ha like I have so many!) which turned into a fight with my editor when my first book was published. So maybe bragging is gendered, too.

Also, when someone provides me with criticism, I can work off of it--you can't do that with praise. Or, I can't.

Or, I just have really, really low self-esteem and/or I'm a masochist.

Lemon Hound said...

I'm not sure where this idea of not having criticism keeps coming in...wow. I'm probably one of the harshest critics I know, but I don't think that need be negative.

Negative to me is wasted criticism: as in, I really just don't groove on your project but because I can't just say that I'm going to list all the ways in which your project fails to meet my criteria.

That's negative.

Telling someone they need to think more deeply about the subject of inquiry, or that you don't see any consistency in the line breaks, or that there is no attention to the form, or they haven't sufficiently thought about what "nature" might mean in this context, or man, you know, you have a great rhythm here, but it just peters off, am I missing something? Is there a reason? I don't see this adequately bolstered up in the poem, etc.

That to me is not negative, that's constructive.

This entire discussion of negative positive, it just misses the point.

But hey, it gets hits.