Verdict: The Volta’s latest reviews issue is good. It isn’t a super read because the survey form it adopts (a series of six questions about writing criticism posed to reviewers of poetry who are generally also poets, as it goes) naturally becomes grating. But it’s good to see those questions asked and answered. Actually, it’s good enough that I take back the complaint I just lodged about the survey and revise my opinion to say that there’s something helpful in seeing this line of questioning (covering the goals and role models of the critic, advice to the aspiring critic, etc.) bluntly and systematically explored. Joshua Marie Wilkinson’s introduction opens up the questions that attend the review form with well-informed ease. He’s done his research and incorporates perspectives from sources ranging from neat, small blogs to pieces written by high-profile reviewers in high-profile publications; for me anyway, it was like the I-Was-Sleeping Guide to catching up to a contemporary conversation about the stakes and status of book reviewing right now.
Not surprisingly, the second question the Volta survey poses to reviewers is this: What’s your take on all the positive reviewing that happens of new poetry books? Is that a misnomer? Should there be more negative reviews? The question of positive reviewing, which is actually the question of negative reviewing, also weighs heavily in Wilkinson’s introduction. In this vein, he cites from Adam Kirsch in The New York Times (writing a negative review makes you enemies and enemies hurt) to Jacob Silverman in Slate (beware the silver-lined lies of the blogosphere) + more (like Johannes Göransson on Montevidayo reminding us that “ignoring things we disagree with” may not be the best strategy for expressing that disagreement). The opinions of the introduction and of survey responses tend toward balanced perspectives about the hope that a review is a critical and engaged piece of writing, rather than one that thoughtlessly affirms or attacks. Fair enough.
Just to harp on the negative a little more, I want to point to one moment in Wilkinson’s intro. This moment would be his invocation of David Gorin’s negative review of the Claudius App’s negative reviews section. Wilkinson calls it an “excellent piece,” and it is. But I also think it misses the point. Gorin seems to believe that the editors of the Claudius App have created a negative reviews section because 1) they misguidedly believe that negative reviews are less biased and more honest than positive reviews and 2) they and their user-unfriendly magazine with good but life-unfriendly poetry have an aesthetics of negativity to maintain. Okay, point two is great. But do the editors of the magazine actually believe that the negative review is an honest form, or do they think that it is a too-lacking form? If a lack, it’s one that they address with a good dose of humor and irony while also opening up space (a safe space! how cozy and strange) for reappraisal of works that have been lauded up and down and even off the internet. What do you really think about Ben Lerner’s Mean Free Path? What are your deepest darkest discontented thoughts about John Ashbery? the magazine seems to ask. And then, in opposition to any naysaying of negativity, the sense that: You can tell us; it’s okay. This is not a call for a balanced critical engagement, but in some cases it might be a call for balancing.
To sum up: people are talking about reviewing in The Volta and this raises questions about poetry’s relevance outside the sphere of poetry, about the practicalities of an art form where critics are generally also practitioners, and about the merits of saying yes and no as well as how to do both most helpfully. To all of this I would only like to add: Who is reading The Kraus Project, Jonathan Franzen’s newest-latest? Franzen is one of those Figures negatively reviewed but also too-easily trashed (in this way he shares a weird but somehow inevitable bond with Kenneth Goldsmith) and he had a hard few days of being blogged about and tweeted against when he published what must have been an insufferable article in the Guardian to promote his annotated translations of Karl Kraus. I didn’t make it through that screed. But probably there’s something in those translations that is useful to this conversation. As I understand it, Kraus ruled the negative review when he was writing in Vienna. I wonder what that dissent sounded like and what compelled it, how his poison pen resonates with reviewing culture now. It’s worth a trip to the library, a day set aside for some apocalyptically annotated apocalypse.
* Photo of Karl Kraus from www.karl-kraus.net.