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 that

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 upon.

In re-imagining a world for reviews, note, she was not open or prone to imagine a world without reviews.

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 Seal Boy,

would be

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"

"Carol!" he 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,
small hand-assemblies"

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.