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?
ES: From the perspective of the reader of reviews, I would say their purpose is to give one’s readers enough information about a work for them to determine whether they want to invest (time or money) in acquiring and reading it. From the perspective of the writer of reviews, I’d say that, in addition to the above, their purpose might be (or my motivation for writing them often is) to bring attention to a work or poet one is excited about and/or to seize the opportunity to get one’s head around a text (because, typically, I don’t know what I really think until I try to write it down), but without the larger commitment that a scholarly piece requires.
I do occasionally highlight books in my infrequent blogging, and the two main differences there are: (1) I can be as brief as need be, given my available time, because I don’t have the same kind of responsibility I would in doing a review for a journal or other such forum, and (2) I feel free to feature books by close friends among those by people I know less well or not at all, whereas I would not do a review for publication by someone in that “inner circle.” I assume anyone reading my blog knows that what I write there is driven by primarily my interests and enthusiasms.
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?
ES: I don’t know quite how to separate all those from one another! For example, my scholarship on poetry (which I suppose would be covered by the term “academic”) proceeds by a combination (hopefully a balanced one) of close reading and historical/cultural contextualization—and is informed by theory, even if I don’t always foreground that. But my reviews probably lean most heavily on close reading, with an emphasis on description rather than evaluation.
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?
ES: This may not be the kind of thing your question has in mind, but one key, for me, is for the review to quote the right amount from the text—not too much and not too little. I like reviews that talk about something a poet/text is up to and then illustrate the point with a few consecutive lines. When a review is made up of more quotation than discussion, the reviewer has abdicated her duties, in my opinion. But when the review only quotes little “two- to three-word phrases” from the text in the “course of paraphrasing” a poem, it “doesn’t give” me enough of a “sense of how” the language “works in context.” I’m often hoping, anyway, for poetry that is as much about how it sits on the page or how it accumulates (or builds, backtracks, contradicts itself, etc.) over the course of several lines as it is about the articulation of a discrete image or the like. So, sometimes tiny snippet quotes can indeed be sufficient to catch my attention and convey a poet’s facility for turning a phrase or creating surprise, but I always find myself wanting to see clusters of lines reproduced (so I can see the poem’s shape) and discussed.
From a larger angle, what I think makes a successful review is either passion or intellectual curiosity. Reviewers who are passionate often do a great job of bringing evidence to support their case for (or against) a book; reviewers who are really working to understand a book typically take pains to spell out their questions and “think out loud” (on paper!) about how to characterize a text.
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?
ES: Given space constraints for most of the published reviews I’ve done, I rarely spend more than a sentence or two on locating the book within the author’s oeuvre. What’s most important (for me) is the book at hand. Gestures towards the oeuvre should function primarily to let a reader know whether her experience of previous books by the author will be a reliable indicator of how much she might like the new one. Focusing on a single poem or story can be useful, but only to the extent that it is representative of the whole text. Now, if space permits, situating a new book along a poet’s long-term trajectory can be really interesting—but I hate reviews that are only, say, 3 paragraphs long and spend 2 of them talking about All That Has Come Before and only one talking about the book I’m deciding whether to buy or not.
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?
ES: Pretty different. I’m always aware of and interested in the intended and potential audiences for my poetry, but I don’t feel responsible to them in the way I do when I write criticism. My poems don’t have to do anything I don’t want them to do, but criticism has obligations (to the author of the text, to the publisher of the review, to the reader of the review) it ought to fulfill. The freedom creative writing allows me makes the sitting down at the desk to do that, vs. critical writing, much less of a task (or not a task at all).
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?
ES: Not so much with poetry as with other kinds of books. In one such case, I just took my bias in favor of descriptive (rather than evaluative) criticism to the limit. I avoided as much as I possibly could any kind of language on the good-better-best / bad-worse-worst scale and just laid out a kind of map of what the book did. It was a truly painful process, because I had no interest in “taking down” the author—indeed, I took the assignment because I thought I’d enjoy and learn from the book.
In the only other case I can think of, I’d been reviewing fiction for the local newspaper for nearly a year, while I was in grad school. I didn’t usually have much choice about the books I was to write about, but was often pleasantly surprised by my leaps into the unknown. But this particular assignment was not an unknown; it was a novel by an author whose cultural criticism I hated. I took the assignment reluctantly, but hoping that the different genre might create an opening for me to find some enjoyment. Ha. My distaste for the novel (style and content!) increased with each new page and, by the time I finished it, I knew I could never stomach writing several hundred words of even neutral-ish prose about it. I’m embarrassed to say that I just “disappeared” on the newspaper, rather than confess that I hated the book that much.
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?
ES: While I know that both of these things happen to me, I am totally drawing a blank on examples. How embarrassing!
LH: Is there a quality you are looking for in a review that you haven’t found?
ES: I wish I didn’t know that Anselm is keeping a list of these answers—it makes me want to be pithy or eloquent, rather than honest. I think the honest answer is no, there isn’t. At least not if you mean “that I haven’t ever found.” The way I know what qualities I’m looking for is by thinking about reviews I’ve appreciated for one quality or another. But I would say that the one quality that I don’t find often enough—besides those I’ve already noted above—is personality. The reviewer’s, that is; what we sometimes mean when we say “voice.” Actually, let me qualify this: what I really mean is likeable personality. I read a-plenty of those snarky, rant-y, negative-agenda-driven pieces, and more than I want of the vaguely condescending, damning-with-faint-praise pieces. Give me a review with a sense of humor (akin to my own, that is), one whose author sounds like someone I’d like to have a glass of wine with (I don’t drink beer).
Okay, one more quality I’d like to see a lot more of: culturally informed contextualization, in reviews of poets of color by reviewers who are not (of color). Far too many reviews by white folks will talk about a text by an African American poet (for example) without showing any sign of awareness of the African American tradition that informs it (along with whatever else is informing it). Or will take a different, but also annoying, course that involves using one “totem” black poet (maybe Hughes, Brooks, or Hayden—or among the living, Dove, Komunyakaa, or Baraka) as the point of comparison for whatever other black poet is being reviewed. How can I put this without making it less likely for people to review black poetry? I wish for more of that sense of responsibility that I’ve spoken of, that would make a reviewer feel accountable for doing enough homework to locate the book being reviewed in its African American, as well as its American, context. (In each instance, “black”/“African American” can be replaced with Latino, Asian American, or Native American, with corresponding examples, e.g., Martin Espada, Li-Young Lee, Joy Harjo.) This problem is not always an issue, of course, but too often it is, and since I’m putting ideas about reviewing out there, I feel compelled to raise this.
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?
ES: Reviewing, let alone scholarship, has never been about the money for me. It is a part of my job—literally and figuratively—which is to say that, in one sense, I do get paid to do it (though I don’t think of it that way) and, in another sense, my reward for reviewing and producing scholarship is not financial.
LH: What do you hope to achieve by writing about writing? Do you believe that reviews can actually bring new readers to texts?
ES: I do hope to provide exposure for texts, which sometimes means helping people become readers of texts they might not otherwise have picked up. But I think about it more in the sense of creating a point of entry for potential readers. The reviewer is like the scout; she should go out there (or in there?), check out the lay of the land (or light a torch and peer down the dark passageways or some such metaphor), and report back. If the report contains enough of the right details, the reader will know whether she wants to make the journey, which direction to take, and what equipment to bring along.
Evie Shockley is the author of a half-red sea (2006) and two chapbooks, The Gorgon Goddess (2001) and 31 words * prose poems (2007). She co-edits jubilat (with Cathy Park Hong). Her poetry and literary criticism have appeared in such publications as African American Review, nocturnes (re)view, Studio, Hambone, Center, Mixed Blood, The Southern Review, PMS: poemmemoirstory, Rainbow Darkness, No Tell Motel, and HOW2. Shockley, a graduate fellow of Cave Canem, teaches African American literature and creative writing at Rutgers University, New Brunswick. She is currently completing a critical study of the intersection between race and formal innovation in African American poetry, supported by the ACLS and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. You can find two poems from Evie Shockley here.