Thursday, December 31, 2009

On Reviewing: Ben Friedlander

LH: What do you think the purpose of a review is? If you also write about books on a blog, why? What does blogging let you do differently?

BF: A lot of my reviewing was done pre-internet for a small community of readers who, truth be told, knew a lot more about the books than I did. Reviews in that context were statements of poetics, a form of self-assertion in which someone else's writing took precedence over your own. And for me in particular, being younger than the others, it was also a public form of self-education. Later, in the early years of the internet, when I was in grad school--writing long essays for the first time--reviews became exercises in judgment, very much inspired by mouthy critics like Poe, Mary McCarthy, Clement Greenberg, Robert Christgau, and that was fun; stirred up a lot of shit. But wasn't, ultimately, what I wanted to do. After that I wrote a few, I guess you'd call them pedagogical exercises: a lot of summary, a lot of context, a lot of dot-connecting. Useful, time-consuming work, a little boring, which is probably why I've done so little of it. For the last decade, I've mostly worked in other genres. But I do love the compression of a review, the chance it offers to figure out what you think, the discipline of particularity, the freedom of ephemerality. That's why I like contributing to Steve Evans's Attention Span.

Blogging is new to me. I took it up at least in part to force myself out of the habit of endless revision. But so far, no luck--change comes slowly.

LH: If you write reviews, how would you describe your approach, or method? Do you offer or engage in exegesis, theoretical, academic, reader response, close, contextual or evaluative readings? If you don’t write but read reviews, what aspects of reviewing do you notice?

BF: I like it when a reviewer is working something out, and doing it well, so I tend to focus on those places where thinking, if there is any, is in evidence. That's pretty vague, I know. Of course, I also appreciate good craft: even a set piece that says nothing can be enjoyable, when it's beautifully written, or the critic is having some fun. Pop critics are better at that. I guess it's because books take so long to read--that tends to drain the fun out of it.

LH: What do you think makes for a successful review? Is there an aspect, a stylistic choice, or perspective that necessarily produces a more significant document?

BF: I'm greedy; I want something I can use. Information, an idea, a direction, a reawakened desire to write. Stupidity, showing off, ass-kissing, boilerplate, those things exasperate me.

LH: When you review, do you focus on a particular text (poem, story), the book at hand, the author’s body of work? Do you think this choice of focus influences criticism, or your own criticism, and if so, how?

BF: I focus on the book at hand. Length determines the amount of detail, the amount of context. I tend to mistrust generalization, and reviews are the least trustworthy place to find them, so I take it as a bad sign when the focus widens. And cherish the exceptions.

LH: If you also write non-critical work, how different is the way you approach reviewing or critical writing to the way you approach your own “creative” writing?

BF: Night and day, allowing for twilight at regular intervals.

LH: Have you been in a position where you have had to write about a book that you don’t care for, or a book that is coming out of a tradition that you are perhaps opposed to, or resistant to on some level? How do you handle such events? Or how have you noticed others handle these events?

BF: For me, the problem doesn't fall along that line. I can like a book and have nothing to say, and dislike a book and be actively engaged. It's my own work as a reader, finally, that interests me. I do think a good review should find something meaningful in its subject, whatever the judgment. So the problems occur when I've got nothing to say, nothing that pushes the discourse forward. On such occasions, the critic is forced to rely on his or her wit, which isn't my strong suit.

LH: What is the last piece of writing that convinced you to a/ reconsider an author or book you thought you had figured out, or had a final opinion on or b/ made you want to buy the book under review immediately?

BF: I take hints gratefully from all comers. Colm Tóibín's recent essay on Thom Gunn (in the New York Review of Books) has a reference to Thomas Wyatt I'll be looking up. I ordered the journal Hot Gun! because of a mention on Juliana Spahr's blog. Paul Muldoon sent me back to Carl Sandburg, briefly. A footnote sent me to an old essay by Karen Swann, which sent me to Wordsworth, a poet I've never quite gotten. Slowly, over time, the critics are eroding my incomprehension.

LH: Is there a quality you are looking for in a review that you haven’t found?

BF: Yeah, I'd like to find an entirely new standard of value, or at least a hint of one--basically, a revolution in poetry, expressed as an act of attention.

LH: Critical work is increasingly unpaid work; will you continue to do this work despite the trend? Do you see this trend reversing, or changing course?

BF: A few jobs aside, I've never been a paid critic, so it really makes no difference to me, apart from the broader effect on intellectual life. In the nineties, a wave of poets entered the academy--I was part of that--and for a while it drained the poetry world of energy; then the balance righted itself. If the economic changes you mention put new emphasis on communities and scenes, so much the better. If it drives another class of intellectuals into the academy, so much the worse.

LH: What do you hope to achieve by writing about writing? Do you believe that reviews can actually bring new readers to texts?

BF: I do believe that, absolutely. At present, I'm working on nineteenth-century American poetry--still trying to figure out how to write about it, how to bring its poetic cultures back to life. In literature, there's nothing so deadly as a settled opinion. What I'd like to accomplish, I guess, is a little un-settling. Victorian America provides a lot of dust that I can work with!
Recent critical writing in Wild Orchids, PMLA, and Radical Poetics and Secular Jewish Culture. Squibs on the 19th century at (photo Mel Nichols)

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