Saturday, January 23, 2010

On Reviewing: Marjorie Perloff

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?

MP: I take the purpose of book reviews to be description and evaluation. By description, I mean that the reviewer must try to convey to the readers the essence of the book in question, what its central argument is (if a critical book), or, in the case of poetry or fiction, what the distinctive characteristics are. Description also involves historical and geographic placement: to what tradition does the book belong? How does it relate to the author’s previous work? How does it reflect (or not) its culture. Evaluation, less and less frequent in reviewing, is central, but should be based on the analysis itself, not on some impressionistic response.

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?

MP: I always try to give a close reading of at least one or two passages so as to sample the work. And placement is crucial. How does X relate to other comparable books? Is it original? Important? Most reviews I see do not ask these questions and, frankly, are not reviews at all but just puffs, endorsing this or that.

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?

MP: Knowledge and judgment! And breadth. And good writing. I must say I think reviewing today is at a low ebb. The major papers and journals don’t review serious books, not to mention poetry books, at all, and when they do, and I happen to have read the book, I am appalled by their errors, misstatements, and incomprehension. The smaller reviewing venues, on the other hand, publish only favorable and largely superficial reviews meant to promote the book in question.

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?

MP: It depends how much space the journal in question gives you. If there’s a strict word limit, I try to foreground one text but sometimes there are ancillary issues that may be more important to talk about. The author’s body of work is central to any discussion. But there’s no rule of thumb.

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?

MP: Well, since I’m not a poet or creative writer, I can’t quite answer this but I think I write the same way whether I’m writing memoir like VIENNA PARADOX or a review—same sensibility after 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?

MP: Often! I’ve never had to write about any book but I’ve written dozens of negative reviews in my time although one does it less as one gets older because one knows too many of the authors! I’ve written critically of poets that, had I known them personally, I probably would not have done it, thinking it’s too cruel. There’s also Frank O’Hara’s argument that it will go away without me. But it doesn’t always go away and when I see poets get huge awards and win prizes—poets I am convinced are third-rate-- I’m ready to get embattled again. The inbred quality of current poetry reviewing is a problem: obviously it becomes a form of back-scratching. On the other hand, when it comes to contemporaries, critics who are not themselves poets rarely care enough to bother, so it’s Catch-22. I wish I had a solution to this problem but I don’t. The best journal editors can do, I suppose, is make sure the reviews aren’t written by friends. Or, if they are, make clear what the relationship is.

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?

MP: The spate of recent reviews of Thom Gunn’s Collected Poems made me think I should take a second look at his work. But it doesn’t happen often.

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

MP: Well, as I said above, most reviews in the poetry journals and on blogs aren’t reviews at all but just little appreciative blurbs. And I especially object to the “reviews” on most blogs, where anything goes. I believe absolutely in EDITORS—Editors to assign reviews, editors to ask for revisions, and so on. My own bĂȘte noir is the review of a great poet in translation by someone who doesn’t know a word of the poet’s own language. Whatever it is these reviewers are writing about, it certainly isn’t the poetry.

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?

MP: It depends on the journal. I usually accept assignments from TLS because it’s a real challenge and my editor there is very tough and corrects every word. I love reviewing for Book Forum, which is also very exacting. These venues, by the way, do pay a decent sum but I don’t do review for the pay but because I am happy to have an opportunity to have my say and perhaps bring a new readership to this or that author. I loved, for example, reviewing David Antin’s Talking at the Boundaries in the late 70s, for The New Republic. And reviewing Frank O’Hara’s Art Chronicles in the same journal. That review opened up a new world: George Braziller saw it and asked me if I wanted to write a book on Frank O’Hara.

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

MP: Absolutely! I first read Georges Perec’s Life A User's Manual as a result of reading a review in TLS that made me want to read it. And that has happened many times.

Marjorie Perloff is Sadie D. Patek Professor Emerita at Stanford University and currently Florence Scott Professor Emerita at the University of Southern California. She is the author of thirteen books on Modernist and Postmodernist poetries and poetics, European as well as American, including books on Robert Lowell, and Frank O’Hara; The Poetics of Indeterminacy: Rimbaud to Cage (1981), The Futurist Moment: Avant-Garde, Avant-Guerre, and the Language of Rupture (1986, new edition, 1994), Radical Artifice: Writing Poetry in the Age of Media (1992), and Wittgenstein’s Ladder: Poetic Language and the Strangeness of the Ordinary(1996, 1998 paperback). Her memoir The Vienna Paradox was published by New Directions in 2004. The Sound of Poetry, the Poetry of Sound, co-edited with Craig Dworkin, has just been published by Chicago, and her book Unoriginal Genius: Poetry by Other Means in the New Century is forthcoming from Chicago in 2010. Perloff has held most major fellowships, including a Guggenheim and NEH, and has lectured extensively in the U.S., Europe, East Asia, and Latin America. She is a Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She has published close to 300 reviews and counting. You can find her online.


Jonathan Ball said...

"Evaluation . . . should be based on the analysis itself, not on some impressionistic response."


Lemon Hound said...

The inbred quality is problematic. You review me, I'll review you, then I'll mention my review of your if you mention your review of mine, and so on and on...

Brenda Schmidt said...

While perhaps problematic in the grand scheme of things, I find back-scratching quite intriguing. Maybe even instructive. If, say, I'm interested in a particular poet's work and want to track their contemporary influences, it's sometimes an easy matter of following the reviews of their work and the work that they review. Acknowledgment pages are not as dependable as they once were in this regard as more and more people tend to streamline them or go without, perhaps to avoid controversy when it comes to awards juries, but it sure makes relationships between writers harder to track. That's a pity, really, as I used to rely quite a bit on acknowledgments to introduce me to other writers. However, blogrolls are proving somewhat helpful and intriguing in their own regard.

Brenda Schmidt said...

Just to clarify, when I say I find back-scratching quite intriguing, I mean from my viewpoint as an observer.

Lemon Hound said...

Obviously I am old-school in this regard, but no, I do not think friends should review my books, nor should they ask me to review theirs. I prefer to have people I have never met read and review my work. It may be a slower journey, but I'm comfortable with it.

I find the coteries of poets reviewing and promoting each other problematic...which I know is also problematic so many seem to accept it...but it's rarely a surprise to see who people support as you'll know if you've googled and done your cross-referencing. I prefer to be surprised...

Of course an appreciative and probing piece of writing from one colleague of another can be very illuminating. Those gestures are very important. But it seems to me reviewing is another matter.

Perhaps this stance seems in contradiction to my sense of community just makes me queasy. As does talking about it.

I have discussed poets on this blog who have since become friends. We'll see how that changes my ability to write about their work in various contexts. Perhaps, like Perloff, I'll do it less, but I hope not.

As to the matter of influences and discovering new poets, I am with you on that as a practice. For my own part, I try to signpost influences in the epigraphs included in my work. That, it seems to me, is one thing they are very good for.

Mike S. said...

The asking part is the problem. Can that ever be a productive context?

Mike S. said...

Voluntary coteries, though, are productive in a good way, if the belief in the work is really there. Ashbery on O'Hara in Poetry etc.

The problem is then is that it's no longer possible to make a living as a freelance art critic etc (i.e. square one).

Mike S. said...

I mean O'Hara on Ashbery, on Some Trees. Did Ashbery ever review O'Hara, other than after his death?

Lemon Hound said...

I have to put a link to Vanessa's essay for Constant Critic on how to get reviewed by Vanessa's hilarious, and instructive.

Simon said...

There is a huge appetite for negative reviews. I am not sure it is a healthy one -- and I wonder if negative reviews actually end up improving the quality of poetry, prizes that are won, etc., as Marjorie suggests. My sense is that they are quickly metabolized into the political process.

Lemon Hound said...

There is a huge's a blood sport. Not fun. On the other hand, a gloss isn't useful either. At the moment we see a lot of glossing...

There is a time when a negative review is necessary, absolutely. Not a problem for me.

The problem is other things, tone, high-handedness, vendettas handed down from one reviewer to his protege...these kinds of dull games that go on and everyone knows but doesn't say.

Give me a well-written review that is tearing into a work, I am thrilled. I have learned from every book I have written. I'm still learning. Do I need to be assaulted to learn? I don't think so. Could I benefit from some intelligent reading and hard questions?


Sarah said...

That reviews are inbred is common knowledge; as such, I'm more interested in who reads them and why?

It is so very rare that an unbiased, well-written, and thoughtful review of a book is given that I (for the most part) ignore them.

Perhaps it is a fault of mine, but personally, a short intro (at most) and an excerpt is what I want and all I need to decide if I want to continue reading and/or buy a book.

Lemon Hound said...

Well, there are different types of reviews...different venues for them. Not sure the poetry world is cognizant enough of this. And because there is so little audience and that bit is shrinking, there is much focus on the reviews that could potentially reach new readers...

Those are the ones that fall prey to the most inbreeding and posturing alas, because those are the very ones that poets are trying to make careers out of...

The only time non-poets have come up to me excited about a book of poetry they bought on their own is when the globe and mail did their "How Poems Work" columns....

Again, and again I argue that people want a way in to poetry. Give them one and they usually go with it.

Sarah said...

I agree there are various types, venues, and that the market is very small.

That said, I wouldn't call something like "How Poems Work" a "review" more than an "exploration" or well, as you have suggested, poetry-outreach.

And I also agree that having venues that can function much like an art museum as both a place of exposure and education (and even just acceptance of new work) are great and people do respond well.

Unfortunately, this is not the role of the typical poetry review.

Lemon Hound said...

That's my point. Something like How Poems Work is much more useful in a national news or review venue...

Or better yet, ask who the audience is...when I reviewed Babstock for the G&M it was tempting to write for the poets, but that would be a waste--I wrote the review, or tried to write, to a non-poetry audience.

If I were writing it for Can Lit, or some such place, it would be a different matter. On my blog, a different matter.

There are certain responsibilities that come with having a platform it seems to me.

Lemon Hound said...

I find something like the Wesleyan poetry series a valuable place to scratch backs--I just published a 25 page back scratch of Lisa Robertson. There are all kinds of ways to spin out of that.

I think there's a way in which a query into a work will open it up for poets too. Reviews should do that, but too often it's about the reviewers ego, not the book under review...