DO: A good review is a persuasive judgment entertainingly delivered. Criticism itself is a broader category, and includes exploratory essays, polemics, advocacy, whither-the-poets-of-yesteryears and so forth. Poetry has plenty of critics, but fewer reviewers than it probably deserves.
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?
DO: My method is coffee in the morning, liquor at night. If a piece is going badly, this procedure may be reversed.
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?
DO: Martin Amis, who’s often wrong but almost never boring, once wrote that the real problem with most book reviewing is “dullness.” That sounds about right to me. If you’re a poetry critic writing for a general audience, it’s essential to realize that the overwhelming majority of your potential readers think of your art form the way most people think of Renaissance faires. That perception is wrong, of course, but it’s one you ignore at the risk of having your audience read your opening sentence and promptly assign you to a pigeonhole adjacent to the jousting fanatics.
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?
DO: You always do your best to look at the writer’s body of work; the writer is owed at least that much. It’s no small thing to have written more than one book, even if some of them were less than good.
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?
DO: The key difference for me is the word “deadline.” It probably would be better for my non-critical work if I didn’t believe that to be the case. Aside from that, I suppose I think of my critical self and my creative self as fraternal twins: they have certain similarities, but each would be annoyed if you mistook him for the other.
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?
DO: I try to be fair. That said, I don’t give any tradition much respect unless it is, in fact, a tradition, and not simply a series of not-very-good writers cribbing from each other. We don’t get much outside scrutiny in the American poetry world, and consequently we have a number of “traditions” that wouldn’t survive two minutes in front of an even slightly skeptical audience.
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?
DO: Oh dear. I think I’ll just say that we’re in an especially strong critical period.
LH: Is there a quality you are looking for in a review that you haven’t found?
DO: I’d like to see more actual thinking going on. One of the sad facts about poetry reviewing right now is that many poets pay more attention to their own team uniforms than they do to reviewers’ reasoning. They want to hear what they want to hear, and they can be excessively charitable to bad arguments that happen to suit them, and obnoxious toward interesting arguments that don’t fit their world view. As a result, many reviewers – and I include myself in this criticism – can find themselves becoming concerned with framing and positioning at the expense of making sense.
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?
DO: If I’m getting paid, I’ll continue to write criticism, and if I’m not getting paid, I can’t afford to write criticism. I’m afraid it’s that simple.
LH: What do you hope to achieve by writing about writing? Do you believe that reviews can actually bring new readers to texts?
DO: Let me answer the second question first: Yes, I believe reviews bring new readers to authors. I know they do, actually. As for what I hope to achieve, well, I’ve always thought that criticism is its own art form. It’s true that only by reading poetry can we have the experience “reading poetry,” but it isn’t clear to me that that experience is richer or better than the experience of reading criticism, if the criticism is good enough. So I guess by “writing about writing” I hope to achieve something at least as interesting to the reader as a decent poem or pop song.
David Orr is the poetry columnist for the New York Times Book Review and a recipient of the National Book Critic Circle’s prize for excellence in reviewing. His first book, Beautiful & Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry, will be released by HarperCollins in April in the United States, June in Canada.