Date: Sat, 12 Oct 2002
Subject: Re: "Review a small press book
this year, and hang around"
In an essay or letter, I
forget which--- Virginia Woolf wrote asking what the purpose
of (negative) reviews were, and how things could be different.
She re-imagined reviews
into a utopian, new situation. Rather than having the review put out
in the public sphere, where it might be an embarassment to the author
(out of modesty? for unfairly biasing/seducing readers?), she imagined
an appointment could be
scheduled between the author and the critic, where the two would sit
down face-to-face for an hour or two, for the purpose of the author
taking in the criticism/review that is *needed* for the work. I
forget if she imagined there might be some payment by the author for
the reviewer's services this way. (If there were, surely it would be
transacted simply: an envelope pushed across a tabletop.)
So, the essence of her idea
was that reviews are a one-to-one communication between the critic
and the author, that the audience is more or less inappropriately eavesdropping
In re-imagining a world
for reviews, note, she was not open or prone to imagine a world
They were necessary to the
writing, maybe even so necessary that they shouldn't be diluted by the
voyeurism of the audience.
Were Woolf right, then,
reviews, at base, rather than being some piece of oratory similar to
barkers at circuses luring spectators into a sideshow tent to see The
one-to-one akin to
the one-to-one of, say, love poetry.
The motor force that drives
the "good" review may be very similar to the love sonnet,
to ask a question that will match an answer already given: who are you,
you enchanted me, you puzzled me.
["he kissed me, he
but only kissed / The fingers of this hand wherewith I write":
Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Sonnet XXXVIII]
The review was not always
written as a bait to attract consumers into purchasing books or seeing
works. Reviews (see French journalism from the eighteenth century clear
through at least around the 1930's, viz. Francois Caradec's biography
of Raymond Roussel) were written in a spirit where it was taken
for granted that
anyone of taste, any member
of the bourgeois community would have been there,
or, if some obligation prevented
them from attending, such as another artwork (---how else, after
all, might people have occupied their evening, unless at a dinner party?---),
the review became a way of their sorting through all the hearsay
that they would have encountered about it.
That is to say, the review
as a way of giving shape to jumbled impressions that needed sorting
out, as a spoon for cold tapioca, especially when it came to controversial
modernism. The review standing in relation to the artwork as a definition
beside a word in the dictionary, not contesting it or threatening it
bullyish, even where it exposes the original to conceal some fault-line
(slang), but simulating the other half of the helix that artworks set
up, since, if one were not reading a review, one would be arguing
out a less clear-headed version of the same with friends and neighbors
("What did you think of it?": is it a basis for community
or a new community, or will it be divisive for us), but over too many
cupfuls or confections.
I would add:
Reviews have their own autonomy
or independence from the work they critique. At its best, the review
derives from its own creativity.
. . . Which is why, in general,
the etiquette is that
(1) the artist puts out
the artwork, then
(2) the reviewer hers,--- and there is no third step
(3) where the artist responds and contests the review.
(In fact, it does happen
from time to time, usually to the merriment of knockdown/drag-out results:
Los Angeles Times, August 24, 1997 [four days before his seventieth
birthday], page 10: John Ashbery: "To the Editor: . . .
I'm also pleased that when Alexander Theroux doesn't like my
poetry he lumps me with 'the likes of . . . yam-in-the-mouth Charles
Olson, a total fraud' . . . I for one would have been interested
to learn why a writer of Theroux's stature has it in for . . .";
Alexander Theroux replies: "incomprehensible doodles of his which
he has the whim, even if I do not, to call [poetry]. . . . although
how the writer of the following lines from "Idaho"
said. Can this be the one time
Biff: The last Rhode island reds are
"diet of hamburgers and orange juice"
I see into the fields of timothy
the others time
, , , , , , , and they walked back,
can presume to call upon anyone to clarify or outline the nature of
anything is beyond me. . . . How can a poet of such byzantine contrivances
. . . ? Who should know better than he the moral and aesthetic bankruptcy
of calling gibberish "poetry" or nonsense "modernist"?
. . . My ambition is not that hacks stop writing or that they stop publishing,
but for anyone to try to fob off twaddle as poetry, without criticism,
is another matter entirely. May I request that Ashbery do me a favor
in return? Only explain for me why there are, respectively, precisely
40 question marks and seven commas in a row in "Idaho" and
whether using, respectively, 39 and six would have ruined the meaning
of that, um, poem." Ashbery Ashbery Ashbery)
One editor continually grills
me on whether I'm friends with the poet I want to review. (But who would
befriend me?!) I'm not sure if reviews that expressly entered
into print with an agenda such as promoting one rank of publishing houses
against another wouldn't be similarly partisan.
Although incomplete, this
is my language of pleasure. http://phreeque.tripod.com/sealo.html