Saturday, May 30, 2009

Reviews and Objectivity

The book review seems to be the topic of the moment, maybe because online discussion of new books has partly supplanted reviewing in the print media. Tonight in New York the National Book Critics Circle has planned a roundtable discussion of the topic. A young poet named Jason Guriel prefaced a recent review (in Poetry) of three books with a justification of writing negative reviews and received a long letter in response to it further examining the question of negative reviews. This became the subject of a long exchange of comments on Poetry’s “Harriet” blog. The debate was then picked up by an online magazine called Mayday, which invited guest comment on the topic; their online forum was in turn linked by the blog of Magma magazine here in the U.K. So clearly it’s a subject that excites enormous interest, no doubt because book reviews can affect the careers of both reviewer and reviewee; and we live in an era where career is everything. We might wish that the practice of the art of poetry itself was the main attraction for anyone drawn to it, but, considering the public rewards of being a successful poet nowadays (high-paying teaching posts, prizes in excess of $100-thousand, lucrative reading fees) that wish is clearly quixotic. The following comments are informal, composed at random, and necessarily incomplete.

The conventional wisdom about reviews in the fine arts is that the worst review is no review. To gauge the value of a review, get out the tape measure and see how many inches of column it occupies. It doesn’t matter what is said. A pan can interest readers just as much as a puff. The author’s name recognition increases, and that is all that matters in terms of material success.

But surely the conventional wisdom is too simple. A rave review in The Sunday Times Book Review or Poetry can lead to copycat raves elsewhere and then to the awarding of a prize. There is a high correspondence between prize-winning and favorable reviews in the Times and the New York Review of Books. If the reviewer is a person with great prestige, like Helen Vendler or Harold Bloom, a review can form the basis for lifelong career prominence.

Fairness and objectivity are the stated goals of review editors, leading to questions like “Do you know the author?” (always asked at the Times) and “Has the author ever reviewed a book of yours?” This is admirable but doomed. Almost everyone in the poetry world knows, with varying degrees of closeness, everyone else. The insistence on impartiality also ignores literary history, which gives us Coleridge’s ecstatic reviews of Wordsworth as well as his qualified praise of the same; or Jarrell’s rave about his best friend Lowell’s Lord Weary’s Castle or Bishop’s (also a close friend) North & South; and the list goes on (add your favorite examples). One of mine: When Chester Kallman’s first collection of poems appeared, W.H. Auden, his partner of thirty years prefaced a highly favorable review with these words (which I'm robably not remembering exactly): “The fact that I have been in a close association with this author for three decades shouldn’t prevent me from doing a little log-rolling.” Honest? Yes. Objective? No.

Putting aside the question of possible damage done to the career of someone attacked in a review, Auden said we shouldn’t write negative reviews because it was bad for one’s character. I can see what he means. Because it is so easy to find fault, we can lull ourselves into feelings of superiority over not only the poor scribbler we’re mopping the floor with but also humanity at large. We can become absurdly vain about our ability to find funny one-liners that skewer a poem or its author. In fact, we can become so entertaining (almost everyone loves satire) that we get more and more assignments in ever more prominent forums, writing reviews that are much sought out for their satiric readability, not for their ability to clarify aesthetic goals of the authors in question. We can build a whole career on cleverly phrased pans, but if we are poet-critics our poetry books probably won’t meet with the same success. Other reviewers will avoid writing about them for fear of reprisal. Since prize committees are composed of poets and quite possibly poets whose work the savage reviewer has trounced, the latter won’t win prizes. So it’s easy to imagine the case of a young poet who started out with the high ideal of doing something comparable to Keats or Geoffrey Hill and then, after a decade of reviewing dabbled in only as a sideline, ending up as a celebrated reviewer-satirist; but meanwhile never discussed as a poet and largely unread as one. So perhaps it’s a paradoxical kind of success.

To return to objectivity, it can only exist in relative terms in the field of the arts. To appreciate any work of art, you must greet it with a kind of welcome, with sympathy and a disposition to appreciate. This can arise from many sources, especially friendship with the artist. It can also come from a reputation of greatness that precedes the first encounter with a given work. It can also be created in the mind of a reviewer who knows the author is in a position to give him or her a leg up in the world. By the same token, the readiness to dislike can precede a first reading of the work, either because of personal antipathy to the author or to the artistic circle or social or ethnic category to which she or he belongs; or because the author has often been negatively reviewed before. Also, it’s possible to give a bad review because you are aware the disparagement will please someone with power and patronage to dispense: they may decide to dispense some of it to you.

Those reviewers who want to approximate objectivity must do two things: they have to quote generously from the text being reviewed and they have to construct arguments that are plausible, based on common sense and fresh insights into the nature of verbal communication. It’s good to adduce opinions about the art of poetry (or about experience) stated by generally admired poets and critics in support of a point of view. What's thoroughly lame is a bald, “I love this” or “I hate this.” Opinion divorced from demonstration is nearly useless, even when stated with vehemence. That is why short reviews are nothing more than notices of publication. They shouldn’t be taken seriously as reliable appraisal because they can neither quote at length nor argue in detail. Wait, there’s a third thing that helps us trust a review: the reviewer must write well. A sloppily written review implicitly calls into question the validity of the reviewer’s judgments about others’ writing. I won't go so far as to say no one should review who hasn't published a book, and yet a published book is a credential more than usually valuable because we can read it and form an independent opinion of the capacities and biases of the author.

We always focus on the problem of objectivity of reviewers, but the discussion should move back one domino in the whole process and mention the decisive role of the book review editor. It’s so obvious, no one states it: assigning or not assigning a book is a kind of review. Because, remember, the worst review of all is the one never written or published. I doubt that the decision on which books to review can be any more objective than the eventual review itself. It is based on considerations similar to those involved when the review actually comes to be written, and we should recall that more than half of book review editors are writers, too, and themselves interested in publishing, being reviewed, and rewarded.

A dismissive review can throw formidable obstacles in the path to acceptance and admiration. But the same is true of a failure to assign books by a given author. Indeed, as a means to hinder, it is probably more effective. A negative review at least makes known the book’s existence. Readers may be prompted to read a book despite sharp critiques. But if they don’t know it exists, they won't look for it, won't read it, and can't arrive at any opinion about it, positive or negative. Book review editors have more influence on the fate of books than any single reviewer. Letters to the editor expressing dissatisfaction about negative assessments of books are very common. I don’t ever recall seeing a letter to an editor criticizing him or her for failing to assign a book. But the principle of accountability, in a society attempting to align itself with justice and fair dealing, applies to everyone.

Glancing back over the above paragraphs, I see that much of it touches on what could be described as venal behavior. Unfortunately, the history of literature shows that such behavior is common. And the answer to the natural question, "How do people who behave that way live with themselves?" clearly has to be, "Oh, very easily." Perhaps once in a while a spark of self-knowledge is struck by something seen or read, but the task of extinguishing it is pretty quickly handled, by alibis and ad hominems of one sort or another.

I think we'd also have to say that book reviewing is, in the universal sum of things, not so important after all. Very few book reviews are reread, and they do not in the long run determine the continued admiration or disapproval of authors, e.g. Melville (panned) and James Gould Cozzens (puffed). They are ephemeral. Still, here, as well as in contexts immensely more crucial, I like to call to mind what the great Jewish sage Hillel wrote: "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am for myself alone, what am I? If not now, when?"

Wednesday, May 27, 2009


Since yetserday's post, Ruth Padel has given up her appointment to the Oxford Chair of Poetry. In view of the critiques that have been made, and the loss of the prize, I feel the debt should be put paid, and she shouldn't continue to be hounded. Besides, it's good to remember Shakespeare's "Unless this general evil they maintain:/All men are bad, and in their badness reign."

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

London and Controversy

This blog having just been named as one of the top 100 poetry blogs by Online University Reviews, I feel I ought to post something today. It was good to see other blogs I read mentioned as well—Ed Byrne’s, Mark Doty’s, Paul Lisicky’s, Sandra Beasley’s, for example, and I’ve begun to explore others on the list that I didn’t know about. Also, I don’t see why they omitted Joan Houlihan’s or Terry Hummer’s, and even Reginald Shepherd’s, despite the fact that Reginald died in September. It has been carried forward some time after his death by his partner and, anyway, what he wrote there before his death is worth rereading.

I arrived in London last Wednesday and first off saw James Byrne in his new Hampstead digs, and then a few days later again at a dinner party he gave with Sandeep Parmar. Somehow unpacking and jet lag haven’t prevented me from seeing people and attending events. Mimi Khalvati and I attended the celebration of the poetry of Yehuda Amichai at the National Portrait Gallery, the participants including Elaine Feinstein, Ruth Padel, Ruth Fainlight, Alan Sillitoe, Danny Abse, Yvonne Green (the organizer), and Hannah Amichai, widow of the late poet. She was impressive and attractive—warm, level, direct. This emerged during questions after the readings. One that interested me was the relationship between Mahmoud Darwish and Amichai. Darwish admired Amichai’s poetry and said so. They were associates for a while until Amichai interpreted one of Darwsh’s poems as being against the State of Israel. After which, Amichai said he couldn’t appear on the same platform. This puzzled me because Darwish never denied the legitimacy of Israel’s statehood. Just because you are for the Palestinian people doesn't mean you can't be for the continuance of Israel. What Darwish opposed was the refusal of right of return to those who had to to leave their homeland during the disruptions of the transition, and the reduction of large numbers of Palestinians to second-class status in the new state. Not to mention the harassment of checkpoints and the bulldozing of houses and the imprisonment of anyone even suspected of dissidence. As for the ensuing war, the most general kind of humanitarian guidelines as established by international law, irrespective of where war occurs, couldn’t possibly condone what happened. Heads of state and military officers make decisions that ultimately the civilian has to pay for. At this point it’s futile and destructive to try to say who is right and who is wrong. Blockading an entire region is wrong and from time to time depriving it of water, electricity, and food is wrong; firing rockets on civilian targets is wrong, the same as saying you intend to destroy a sovereign state; making settlements on land not recognized by the U.N. as belonging to you is wrong; suicide bombings are wrong; using phosphorus weapons is wrong; preventing the wounded or ill from getting to a hospital is wrong; shutting down peaceful gatherings is wrong; and refusing to negotiate is wrong. The only important issue now is how to bring the violence to an end and to establish viable, peaceful government. That issue should override any prideful clinging to punctilio and protocol. Clearly the people at large want the strife to end. If no move is being made to end it, then it’s the leaders who have to accept the blame. Because the peace and safety not only of the Middle East but the entire world depends on speedy resolution of the conflict, then the world at large should exert pressure on the leadership to put a stop to rhetoric and get down to negotiating.

I seemed to have arrived in the U.K. during scandal season. The misdeeds of MPs who misappropriated public money for private purposes has been so much discussed that there’s nothing to add here. On the other hand, the scandal surrounding the Oxford Poetry Chair is still recent enough to bear examination. I was angry when I heard that Derek Walcott had withdrawn his candidacy for the position because of a history of suits involving sexual harassment in years past had been cited as a reason not to appoint him. I don’t like the following analogy, but it is all I can think of to point up the issues. Compare Walcott to the convicted offender who serves his time and is released. Once he has “paid his debt to society,” this person should be allowed to make a new life for himself. If he isn’t allowed to, he will either harm himself or others. If we don’t believe in rehabilitation, then we have to hand out life sentences only. The smear campaign against Walcott was like convicting someone in advance of a crime not yet committed. Note, too, that the Chair of Poetry doesn’t involve courses and evaluation of students but only public lectures. It’s fair to say that Walcott in one of the three most important living English-language poets. Add to that the non-negligible fact that he has African ancestors—non-negligible in an era when Britain is trying to make up for the injustices of the colonial period. He would have been a brilliant choice. (I can’t help wondering, incidentally, if African ancestry didn’t turn against Walcott here. Overt or subtle, sexual predation of students among white professors is as common as student cheating on exams. But a black professor who attempts this is going to be called to account much more quickly and severely.)

Certainly Ruth Padel is one of the leading poets in the U.K. There were many good reasons for appointing her Oxford Professor of Poetry quite apart from the fact that she was a candidate who hadn't been involved in sexual harassment suits. It’s not a minor consideration that she would have been the first woman to hold the post. Her recent book about the life of her ancestor Charles Darwin would have made the appointment timely not only because of purely calendrical facts but also because we live in an era when fundamentalists are challenging Darwinian theory. Any reminder, any prestige conferrable, any fact that can weaken the fundamentalist case, wherever we find it, is welcome.

But her candidacy has come a-cropper because she at first denied she had anything to do with the smear campaign. Two emails to newspapers now show that she did. To overly aggressive lobbying tactics we have to add a public lie. I think this is intensely sad. First, because it attests to a lack of confidence that personal merit alone was sufficient reason for being appointed. (And in a tradition where women have been discouraged from believing in themselves, we can understand how this might be.) And, second, because it has been the source of pain and perhaps career damage for two poets.

And what happens now? Will the Chair be offered now to Walcott? If offered, will he accept? Will it go to another poet, and if so which poet? Should be interesting to see.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Leaving Ledig House

A little backtracking. As described in the previous blog, the procedure at Ledig House is for residents’ arrival and departure to be staggered. So Amy Waldman and David Machado left, and after that, Christian Haller, and Dy Plambeck. But then new people came: Rob Schouten, a poet and critic from the Netherlands; Kaspar Schnetzler, a novelist from Switzerland; Alex Halberstadt, a writer of non-fiction who was a class member in a poetry course I taught in the Graduate Writing Division of the School of the Arts at Columbia, I think about ten years ago. And just a few days after, Chloe Aridjis left, and Joanne Wang arrived. Joanne, originally from Beijing, is now living in New York and working as a translator. Xu Xiaobing, the Chinese novelist whom Joanne recently translated, was scheduled to arrive at the same time but, finally, was denied permission to travel, which is too bad.

The international character of Ledig House sharpens your perspective on what it means to be a writer outside the U.S.A. in the 21st century. Among the short-term visitors to L. House was Taslima Nasrin, who had to leave Bangladesh fifteen years ago because of her controversial publications about the difficulties women have to face in Bangladesh. Since then Taslima has lived the life of an exile in Sweden, Germany, France, India, and now New York, where she has a fellowship from N.Y. U. to do her work. But she would like to return to Bangladesh, her home, and the place where she feels there is a lot of work to do. That same weekend we had the fiction writer Ma Thida, on a fellowship at Brown this year, but expecting to return to Myanmar at the completion of her stay. She was imprisoned there for six years on the sole basis of her publications. I found both women (who have medical degrees, incidentally) formidable in their courage and commitment to basic freedoms that Americans take for granted. I mentioned Abiye Teklemariam in the earlier blog. He received the news that several people he knew in Addis Ababa have been arrested, and that the outlook isn’t good—which raises questions about his own return to his homeland. All of this can make being a writer working in modern Western-style democracies seem very easy indeed, with our freedom to say anything we like (and be unread or ignored), our comfy teaching posts, our well-paid reading tours, and (blush) our subsidized stays in artists’ colonies. But of course we know that there are things we can do to help others in countries where circumstances are riskier.

Other weekend visitors have included Binyavanga Wainaina, a Kenyan, who now directs Bard’s Chinua Achebe Center for African Culture. Before doing that he founded a literary magazine in Kenya called Kwani?, which was innovative in several ways. For example, it published what is probably the first short story by a Kenyan dealing with gay themes. Also up from Bard that same evening was Gabi Ngcobo, South African, who is doing a graduate degree there in curatorial studies. We had a lively conversation about contemporary South Africa (whose post-apartheid constitution guarantees gay civil rights, by the way), and the recent inauguration of Jacob Zuma, about whose government-in-formation there is a lot of discussion.

We also had visitors from the publishing world: Jill Schoolman, who is the publisher of Archipelago Books. Almost everything Archipelago brings out is translated from other language traditions, which of course sets them apart from the bulk of contemporary American publishing. Jill is extraordinarily nice, and it’s instantly clear how dedicated she is to getting important foreign-language works to an American readership, which tends to fall behind in this area. We had one literary agent, Jen Auh, who works at the Andrew Wylie agency and happens to represent Alex Halberstadt. Finally, a night's visit from Anna Moschovakis and Matvei Yankelevich, who run the Ugly Duckling Presse [sic] in Brooklyn, also mainly concerned with translated work, poetry in particular.

As for the writing, my main reason for being here, it went sailing along, with only a few days when the anchor dragged. I’ve written several new poems, done some translation, and gone through the ms. of a new collection of poems and unmistakably improved it, adding, dropping, rearranging. And, finally, I have a draft of my two-act play about Robert Lowell.

Weather was unusually changeable. Though we had sun most days during the latter part of April, days were on the chilly side. And then mid-month the temperature suddenly jumped to the high eighties, a heat not recorded locally for April since the 1920s. It rushed up the flowering of the apple trees and the lilacs, but also their leafing, so the blossoms were quickly crowded out by foliage. Then things got cooler, and back we went to the expected cloudy, damp springs of the Hudson Valley.

I gave a reading in Hudson at Carrie Haddad Gallery, an event that was arranged by Bill Sullivan. My co-reader was Star Black, who came up from New York just for the day. We were both still upset at the news that our friend Darragh Park, whom I hadn’t been in contact with for a long time, had died by his own hand a few days earlier. Darragh was a painter, whom I met more than thirty years ago through John Ashbery. I used a painting of his for the cover of my second book, a New York cityscape, and among the best of those he did in that decade. Apparently he’d lost his eyesight and had become dependent on others. His death is understandable, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t regrettable. Star dedicated her reading to him, which seemed right. Other friends in the audience were the poet/art-critic Carter Ratcliff and his wife Phyllis, Karen Clark and Jonathan Bernstein, who drove up from New York, and Brooks Peters, who now lives across the river in Athens and whom I first met when he was a Yale undergrad back in the 70s.

It’s been a spring with a lot of sad news, beginning with deaths from the H1N1 flu, both here and abroad. And then, the poet Deborah Digges. Though I wouldn’t claim a friendship, I did meet her once, just after her first book came out, and liked her. Opinions differ on whether her death was a suicide, but in either case, a terrible thing. Equally hard to come to terms with was the death of Craig Arnold, whom I didn’t know but whose poems I’ve read. Exploring a volcanic island off the coast of mainland Japan, he fell into a deep ravine, a shock his family and friends haven’t yet recovered from.

Finally, I had an email post from Langdon Hammer the first week of the month saying that my friend Eleanor Perényi had died, at the age of 91. (In the blog describing my visit to Budapest last June, I speak of our friendship.) The immediate cause was a brain hemorrhage, and at least things went very quickly. A sad event that had an effect on my last week at L. House. We won’t see Eleanor’s like again.

I’m beginning to feel that television has been following the same track as this blog. Last June, when I was in Warsaw, I wrote here about the heroic figure Irena Sendler, a nurse who rescued 2500 Jewish children from the Warsaw ghetto. One evening during my residency, I turned on the TV and there was her story on something called “The Hallmark Hall of Fame.” Well done, gripping, and at moments hard to watch. And then, this past February when I was in New York, I wrote about seeing Andrzej Wajda’s film Katyn, a story based on the Soviet slaughter of more than two thousand Polish officers shortly after Soviet troops occupied Poland. Another night I randomly went through several channels and happened on a documentary about the period following the Nazi-Soviet pact, which once again told this terrifying story.

I realize the above paragraphs are shadowed with sadness, but I don’t want that to alter the fact that I had a stimulating and productive month at Ledig House, with the non-negligible bonus of making several new friends. Let me close with a brief mention of a dinner the painter Stephanie Rose gave in Hudson during my last week. Guests were the novelist and poet Jaime Manrique, Bill Sullivan, Carter and Phyllis Ratcliff, and Al Roberts, who collects paintings and curates shows for the Albany Institute of History and Art. I spoke of a commission from the Gulbenkian Foundation to translate fado (Portuguese popular song), something that my friend Mimi Khalvati arranged. So Stephanie played a disc of Amalia Rodrigues, the classic performer of fado, while we had our meal. Raised glasses, jokes, eye catching an eye, laughter, quiet moments of reflection, warm goodbyes.

Tomorrow I fly to London.