Wednesday, December 30, 2009

On Reviewing: Emily Warn

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?

EW: To begin or engage in a conversation about a book by arguing for or against its merit. Given the sheer volume of poetry titles—anywhere between 500-1,000 per year--a review also calls attention to a book worthy of such a conversation. Blogs and other Web 2.0 functionality have accentuated the conversational nature of reviews because commenters, bloggers, and other reviews can respond more quickly and entertainingly (with acerbic wit, despair, shout outs or up-in-arms anger). Being the first to review a major book, for example Frederick Seidel’s recent COLLECTED POEMS, can mean one defines the tone and substance of the conversation.

One other role of the critic in reviewing is to trace how an author’s work develops.

Blogging about books can be a shortcut to reviewing-- shout outs, responses to reviews that let you join in the larger conversation, or it can provide more substantive analysis of a book than a print review, which generally run from 250 to 500 words for quick looks and about 1,000 for longer ones. Bloggers can place a book within its literary context, or loiter awhile with a single poem.

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?

EW: I look for books that for any number of reasons deserve attention. If it’s a paid review, I follow the template that most book editors seem to agree on. In about the space typically devoted to obituaries or wedding announcement: 1) Identify the author. Why we should care about reading this review. Generally this means pointing out an author’s rank in the literary reputation hierarchy--whether they’ve a backpack full of published books, or author of a first book, or someone long out of the limelight. 2) Summarize subject matter—as briefly as possible so you can get to… 3) State your opinion of its merit. 4) Prove it. For longer reviews, or on the Internet, I review a book contextually (biographically, within an oeuvre, within literary history). Comparisons to similar or strikingly dissimilar work are generally thought provoking.

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?

EW: Well written. A chance to learn about a subject matter, or even an entire field of study—for example in last week’s NYTBR, I learned about historians devoted to the history of murder. Strong opinions—see what so and so thinks about so and so. Highly opinionated pieces always motivate me to read the book to see what I think.

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?

EW: I focus primarily on the book in hand but, space permitting, include a significant quotation from a poem so readers can judge my position and the poem for themselves. But placing a book in the context of earlier work deserves mention in a short review, and is essential in a long review where a more a more critical appraisal is possible. Such appraisals tip book reviewing into literary criticism and so lets a book critic participate in a larger and longer critical debate.

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?

EW: Very different. My poetry and non-fiction rely on imagery and associative logic to make their points or meanings, though my non-fiction retains a logical framework.

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?

EW:Yes. By reviewing it on its own terms thereby relying more heavily on placing it in the context of the author’s work.

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?

EW: I thought Elizabeth Kolbert's review of Jonathan Safran Foer’s latest book on the treatment of animals was excellent. She built her own case about whether to go vegan by summarizing Foer’s argument with Michael Pollan’s in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, transforming a book review into ethics.

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

EW: A more collaborative tone between reviewer and author. Could reviews function more like poets and painters working together, meaning could we privilege the experiment, a way to say "nice move" so as to encourage further work as opposed to valuing the work as good or bad? Also, with so many poets writing and publishing, there is a need for a referral or recommendation service for readers, similar to lists for other medium. Such a service could recommend books for people looking for an alternative to Mary Oliver, or for those looking for poetry similar to Ashbery, etc.

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?

EW: This trend will increase unless the number of people seeking MFAs tapers off in this economy. In the AWP’s 2009 survey of creative writing academic jobs, it stated that about 10,000 new degrees in literature and creative writing are conferred annually. (These join all other previous graduates looking for work.) I believe about 1,000 of those degrees are in creative writing. A good portion of the latter will publish books and turn to blogger friends to write reviews if online reviewers or the shrinking number of print reviews don’t. Plus, it’s relatively painless and free to get your friends to review your book on or Barnes and Noble, pump it up on Good Reads, etc. Book reviews are increasingly becoming comparable to reviews of electronic gadgets or cold weather gear.

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

EW: Writing about writing is the best way I know to discover what I think about a book and what I think about what other people think about it. Sometimes reviews bring new readers and sometimes they don’t. Tony Hoaglund’s book Donkey Gospel published by Graywolf didn’t receive one review yet became widely read. A positive or opinionated review in the NYTBR can bring many readers, but reviews in smaller magazines do not have much effect.
Emily Warn's newest collection of poetry is Shadow Architect (Copper Canyon Press 2008). Her previous books include The Leaf Path and The Novice Insomniac.