Thursday, July 26, 2007


Yesterday’s link list included both a defense of literary criticism in newspapers and a link to a New York Times review by James Longenbach of four new volumes of verse. That juxtaposition is worth thinking about a little more closely.

The defense is an extended version of a talk given by Lindsay Waters, an executive editor at Harvard University Press who sits on the board of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC), where he is responsible for the press’ humanities texts. As one might anticipate from somebody in his position, his argument is reasoned, well-crafted, a pleasure to read. Waters makes a defense for criticism as such without sinking to the reactionary “gate keeper” mythology that a Hilton Kramer might use – that argument is simply that the masses won’t know what to think without being told how do so by the enlightened few, so that critics are all that protect us from such barbarians as Jack Kerouac or Ron Silliman. Waters, in sharp contrast, argues for the very best in criticism, that it is simply an intelligent person confronting new work for the first time & reporting honestly about same. Waters’ climax virtually requires orchestral crescendos to accompany his prose:

Criticism is Lester Bangs. It’s Frank Kermode, Elizabeth Bowen, Mary McCarthy, Thomas Merton, Virginia Woolf, George Eliot, Michael Dirda. It is Lorenzo Valla, and it oozes from crack in the pavement in the other HUP book I brought to show you today (beyond our brand-new Donation of Constantine Howard Hampton’s Born in Flames: Termite Dreams, Dialectical Fairy Tales, and Pop Apocalypses (HUP, 2007). It’s lists, of course, it’s lists. It’s judgment upon judgment. It’s gut responses, and it’s argument. When we engage in the process of arguing about art, we devise new reasons, new ideas, new forms of thought. This is a central human activity, one that leads to the creation of new brain cells. Killing the book reviews is a phrase I’ve used elsewhere Chernobyl for the Life of the Mind.

I don’t think you have to love everybody on that list – I’m not fond of either Kermode or Dirda – to understand that Waters really wants you to connect to critical thinking at its best as his justification for its preservation.

And I think he’s right, at least partly, when he claims that newspapers killing off their review sections constitutes a “fad” among tabloid executives trying very hard to save their publications in an emerging post-print universe. The great irony, as I see it, is that publishers – it’s seldom the editors – who slash their review sections are being penny wise & pound foolish at a moment in history when that constitutes suicidal behavior. Their rationale is that the review sections no longer are profitable per se because fewer ads are bringing in revenue. That in turn has a lot to do with consolidation among the major trade publishers and the decline of independent booksellers. But immediate ad revenue is only one facet of the contribution a review section makes to a daily paper – driving sustainable readership is even more important.

Regardless of how good or bad a particular review section might be – and some of them, like that of the San Francisco Chronicle, are almost shockingly bad – reviews are a phenomenon directed at a particular fraction of the newspaper audience: serious readers. Driving off that portion of your audience that is most committed to writing in print format would seem to be openly self-destructive behavior. If newspapers actually think that they can generate loyalty and circulation amongst, say, the fans of Lindsay Lohan by focusing more attention on celebrity DUIs than they can get by actually reaching out to readers who already have a commitment to print formats, well, do I even have to finish this sentence? It’s like trying to lose weight by cutting open an artery – it sorta works, but the collateral damage is severe. What this trend really shows is that publishers don’t understand their product or their audience.

But poets getting all exercised about the demise of review sections is a little like poets getting all hot & bothered about the collapse of independent bookstores that carry almost no poetry & keep it hidden in the far back corner somewhere. This is where the Times review seems all too typical. Longenbach reviews four books, two by Houghton Mifflin, one by Norton and one by Margie/Intuit House. Three of the authors are issuing their first books, with only Josephine Dickinson, a widow who still works a farm in the north of England & has been deaf since birth, as the exception. Nathaniel Bellows is a 35-year-old School of Quietude (SoQ) poet & novelist (On This Day, HarperCollins 2003) whose verse has appeared in Grand Street, The Massachusetts Review, The New England Review, The New Republic, The New York Times Book Review, Open City, The Paris Review, Ploughshares, Prairie Schooner, TriQuarterly, Western Humanities Review, Witness, and The Yale Review. A look at the sample poems on his web site brings to mind words like “lifeless” – considering how rarely a poem gets into The New York Times, the one published there is worth looking at. Longenbach doesn’t mention this Times connection, nor does he mention that Matt Donovan, another poet with a first book at a major trade publisher, was a New York Times Fellow in NYU’s MFA program. With the exception of Poetry and Threepenny Review, tho, Donovan’s list of School of Quietude publications isn’t as glossy as Bellows.

The more interesting ringer here is Troy Jollimore, the one poet reviewed with a book from a small press, but having won the National Book Critics Circle award. Jollimore has been pretty straightforward in interviews in characterizing Tom Thompson in Purgatory as imitation John Berryman, so the real question isn’t why a young poet might take on such a project, but rather what might possess Mr. Waters’ organization to give their annual prize to something that is so obviously “smart student work” when dozens of major books were published last year. The very best I can come up with is that the form is recognizable, at least to a body whose typical member appears to be 50 years out of date on contemporary poetry. Or seventy.

Josephson’s book, which is a compilation of two of her British volumes, seems to me a reasonable project for a publisher like Houghton Mifflin. But Bellows & Donovan demonstrate very clearly that trade presses do not represent a higher quality of writing, but rather are just another small press scene, one with better distribution and advertising budgets. Does it make any sense that their books should get more attention, say, than a Troy Jollimore? No, but if the NBCC hadn’t awarded him its prize that is exactly what would be happening. And there were hundreds of better books published by small presses last year, by Quietists & post-avants alike.

It’s in this sense that the New York Times is hardly better than the independent bookstore whose poetry section, all two shelves of it, stretches all the way from Yeats to Rilke, maybe with a little Rumi & Billy Collins tossed in. And the Times is almost certainly the best daily in America when it comes to book reviews. But if the Times is willing to review very minor books from trade publishers while ignoring major collections – think of the Kyger collected or the new John Wiener’s volume – from outside of that circle, and if it fails to acknowledge its connection to some of the poets whom it does choose to cover, would the loss of the NYTBR actually be a real loss to poetry? Might it not in fact be just the opposite? The Times Book Review is a major source of legitimation for a lot of bad writing. The baldness of some of the annual prizes that similarly go to nondescript Quietist poets year after year might be even more glaring if it occurred without this fig leaf of critical sanction.

Andrew Keen is getting a lot of play these days for his book, The Cult of the Amateur, which argues that the web has opened the floodgates to “non-professional” critics who will run their various fields of inquiry into the ground because they lack the “standards” & discipline of, say, NYTBR or The New Criterion. My own sense is that Keen is 100 percent wrong. Critical sites have grown on the web precisely because the institutional critical apparatus in this country is so sclerotic & inept. This is true of not just of newspapers, but of many academic journals as well. Nothing breeds mediocrity faster than the “consensus building” process of any refereed journal. I may not agree with the likes and dislikes of SoQ bloggers like C. Dale Young or Joseph Duemer, but there is no question that their blogs have far more integrity as critical sites than, say, The New York Times or the NBCC in general. And I trust readers to be able to discern the difference. Which I think is just what Mr. Keen fears most.

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