Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Response to Ross Leckie's Response of a Response to an Essay

Ross Leckie responded to Michael Lista's response to a republished essay by Jan Zwicky on negative reviewing. I've had my say a few posts back about Zwicky's misunderstanding of listening in that essay as it pertains to a so-called negative review, or to any review, for that matter. But it's interesting to investigate, at length, Leckie's own thoughts on this subject, the scary or pejorative "negative" term problematic since those opposed to negative reviewing can't or won't state the many definitions of this category that surely have to be explored before any kind of exhaustive debate can take place. (I'll touch on a few of those questions as I go along.)

After reading through Leckie's essay in its entirety the first thing one notices, by overview, is its common structural layout. First praise, then for the bulk of the essay,  attack, finally wrapping things up with a gentle call for more of the good stuff. This is the passive-aggressive approach at its most effective if, by now, a bit obvious. The upshot, I suppose, is that negative reviewing (or more to the point here, criticizing the critics) is OK if a few bones are thrown to first entice the dog and a few pats are administered after the "loveable" pummeling. But I've always preferred arguments that are more transparent.

Why do I preface this piece with thoughts on tone? Because much of the opposition to so-called negative reviewing has nothing to do with content. Critics of the critics either can't attack the arguments point-for-point; they're under the assumption that a tone offensive to them somehow invalidates all points made, holus bolus; or they simply give up on thinking about the piece in question or even finishing it because it upsets them. Too harsh or inaccurate? Scan the comments streams under the various entries on this topic.

But any of these three responses assumes, firstly, that the reviewer is writing primarily for the author. The reviewer's first responsibility is to her- or himself, of course, to write a decent review. But beyond that, the responsibility is to the reader: to provide an entertaining consideration or fuller exploration of the book under study. The writer can't be responsible, ultimately, to the author because most authors are going to want the reviewer to share the same desire to understand, the same love bestowed on the time-saturated reading process, the same time-saturated considerations given to the content, including sussing out many references, buried forms, musical play, and cross-poem ambiguities. When it comes to the author, the reviewer can never win. And that's OK. We each have only one life to live, and the reviewer must move on, to many other books, and perhaps even to his or her own work. Imagine that!. The reviewer engages with the text with varying interest. If the poems tease, perhaps it's cruel for the reviewer to give up on them so easily. Many poems don't deserve any review because they're so generically bad that, indeed, silence, rather than dismissiveness or negativity, is the better option. But many poems tease and irk us in differing ways. Perhaps an idea intrigues, but fizzles out in bromides. Perhaps a form has a rich cadence but breaks down (without content parallels) into a monotonous mass. Perhaps the poem uses a philosophical preface to telegraph its message. There are a million ways one of these poems goes bad. And every good poem is good in its own way. So when one complains about a "negative" review, there is usually no such thing if by "negative" we are looking at one end of a lonely spectrum. Most so-called negative reviews are better classified as "mixed" reviews which, if the reviewer has any sense of proportion at all, are most of them. Sometimes , because of space considerations (especially in today's shrinking review space), and to get to an honest perspective of how one reviewer sees the book in question, negativity will have to be exclusive. Sometimes a book will get so many unjustified raves (in the reviewer's mind, of course), that a similarly hyperbolic corrective on the negative side of the ledger will be useful to shock complacent opinions. (Or one would hope, though granted,  it often has no effect.). Sometimes a book actually offends the reviewer in some way, and a blistering response is the most honest one. (Offense seems to be a one-way street for Leckie, Zwicky, and many others.)

I've previously written more than enough about why "negative" (or more often negatively-slanted) reviews are necessary, so I won't go into any more detail here. And Mr. Lista does an admirable job in support of their worth, so I'll (finally) get to Leckie's response.

"There is no question that Michael Lista is a master of rhetoric, a skill that he has employed in his many reviews to provocative effect. I have learned a number of things about poetry from reading his reviews, but I inevitably find I learn most when he is enthusiastic. In his negative reviews his rhetoric gets the better of him and he doesn’t seem to be able to resist lighting the books on fire before throwing them in the trash bin". -- Leckie

This is a paragraph-long non sequitur. I'm not disputing Leckie's thoughts. He has a right to them, of course. But why does Leckie feel that Lista falls short in his "negative" reviewing while his "positive" reviews are more informative? This is, so far, an argument of tone only.

"What one finds, however, is that Vendler’s negative reviews are uninformative. It is in her enthusiasms that Vendler is at her best. If you wish to find a way into the difficulty that is John Ashbery, then there is no better place to begin than with Vendler’s review from The New Yorker. The same would be true of the very different kind of complexity presented by James Merrill. Start with Vendler. Her best reviews are reprinted in the books Part of Nature, Part of Us and The Music of What Happens"-- Leckie

Again, this is Leckie's view. We all have individual opinions (I would hope). I'm not familiar with Vendler's reviews of these two poets, but I am, for instance, familiar with many of the views of William Logan and Randall Jarrell, to pick two critics at random. I find Logan's praiseworthy pieces quite benign. Geoffrey Hill comes across as a master of form and seamlessly retrofitted arcane knowledge, his conscience and gravitas awe-inspiring. But quotations and a necessary (especially for Hill) historical (world and poetry) arc is either negligent in its play or poorly represented. Logan is the true hatchet man: much more enlightening and engaging when dealing with someone whose poems he finds wanting. (Even here, Logan is often partially positive, so again the reminder that the truly awful or nondescript is unworthy of comment.) And Jarrell wrote equally well of the work of poets he thought good, bad, or indifferent. And again, my thoughts about these critics are no better, worse, or relevant than those of Leckie's. My point is that anyone can use their personal experience as representative of either view (or other views altogether). Because Leckie says something doesn't, in itself, make it so for every reviewer.

"I could talk extensively about rhetoric as it is employed in Lista’s response to Zwicky’s essay on reviewing, from the false bravado of “Cue the violins, folks” to the rather snide “How, Jan, did he ever go on?” He pretends that Zwicky really does believe that the critics killed Keats, when it is obvious to anyone reading Zwicky’s essay that her citation of Byron is a rhetorical strategy of her own. This pretense, however, allows the definitive dismissal, nicely shaped within parentheses: “(Keats died of an infection of the tubercle bacillus, TB).” Did you know that TB stands for “tubercle bacillus?”" -- Leckie

If Zwicky uses Byron's citation as a rhetorical strategy, it failed. Zwicky makes the point again in the second  paragraph of her essay which sidles up to "given the potential seriousness of the consequences for the work’s creator, we also have a duty to be pretty sure we’re right". Yes, Keats didn't die outright of a shattered sensibility, but if one is going to trade in such inflammatory and gross metaphors, it would be resposible to draw a clear distinction between history and the speculative fate of all artists on the receiving end of a barb. Zwicky wants it both ways, and it was entirely appropriate (and not at all a cheap rhetorical ploy) for Lista to point out the distinction. And speaking of "rhetorical ploys", it's becoming clear that Leckie is irritated by rhetoric in general, positing a false value slide between reason and rhetorical unsubstance.  More on this later.

"Zwicky believes that a reviewer should only speak to his or her enthusiasms and remain silent on books she or he dislikes. Lista finds it unethical for writers not to speak their minds about each other’s work, regardless of how much love or hate they might feel for it. As he says, “Call me old-fashioned, but I think the truth sounds beautiful, and there’s an intrinsic value in discovering what writers think of each other’s work.” Well, it’s a pretty sentiment to be sure, fit, perhaps, to be carved on a Grecian urn." -- Leckie

Leckie earlier scolded Lista for Lista's scolding "How, Jan, did he ever go on?". The last sentence quoted above shows Leckie himself is no slouch when it comes to snide remarks. Wose, though, is that Leckie, in that oh-so-common Canadian passive-aggressive manner, imputes to Lista the reviewer's supposed desire that his "truth sounds beautiful" assertion will not only stand the test of time, but rival Keats' famous urn-ending in profundity. More on this under the next paragraph

"What feminists have known for a long time, however, is that it is important to know whom it is who is proclaiming the truth, within what ideologies the truth has been shaped, and from what platform that truth is being spoken. Ah, if we only had world enough and time, we could create a utopian twitter feed where we would all have equal time to say what we truly think of each other’s writing." -- Leckie

So much to discuss here, but for reasons of time constraints (hey, not so different from the limitations of reviewers who make only passing investigations of several poems in an 80 poem book!) I'll keep my comments brief.

Leckie's high-toned say-nothingism above is laughably overstating Lista's meaning. Lista's "truth" is not at all grandiose. He simply means it in the manner of anyone who reads a book, considers its contents, and then sets out to write about what they think of it. "His" truth, in other words, which is all the truth we can ever supply. To bring in feminists out of left field to make an argument based on a faulty premise is, itself, quite curious. Feminists themselves don't have specific ideological agendas? And why would limitless time on a twitter feed change the way people feel about being honest with the work of poets they've read? The issue has nothing to do with time, and everything to do with ... well, we'll wait for that a few paragraphs down.

"The reviewer of poetry, however, is taking up the extremely limited public space given to poetry reviews, and, therefore, has an ethical responsibility. I’m not sure from his commentary whether Lista appreciates that the ethics of reviewing is about choice. Remembering that Lista’s commentary originates as a response to the Canadian Women in the Literary Arts new website, it is crucial to note that if men choose to review predominantly male authors, then that is an ethical choice. Perhaps more subtly, however, if one chooses to trash a book, then that is a choice to give the author of that book that form of verbal abuse, and it is a choice to allow books truly deserving of praise to languish without review." -- Leckie

Remember that I said Leckie's essay was cleverly if generically structured. We've gone from a Marcus Aurelius "Brutus [Lista] is an honourable man" to a rather alarming "if one chooses to trash a book" and " a form of verbal abuse". But then, unlike the effective skill and desire of the demagogue, the paragraph-closing pullback is upcoming. We can't have the "rhetoric" of mobs and entrenched interests (as if they existed in some sci-fi zombie movie, just waiting to be activated). Sticking with the above quoted paragraph, though, we see that the somber thrust continues. "The reviewer of poetry ... has an ethical responsibility." Again, the resposibility is to be true to one's own opinion of a work he or she has engaged with, and again, engaged with in a limited time next to all the other things a reviewer must do in her or his daily life. This is not to let the reviewer off the hook. A book of poetry, if one is to pronounce upon it publically, should be read several times over, at least, all in attentive and open interest. Then, stray thoughts, cohering or not, should be entertained over a period of time. Further re-reading should give some shape to one's thoughts. An argument about specific lines or entire poems should then begin to form. And eventually, a structured overview should begin to take shape. After an initial write, opinions should be wrestled with -- a devil's advocate role, or at least an emotional counterweight should be entertained. A re-write may be in order. And eventually, the harder and often more drab process of rewriting for form's sake itself should be given heed. Now all this is done, mind you, without there being any guarantee that the reviewer will like the work. If you think it's easy, even preferable, that a reviewer who has put so much work and thought into a book's response (and all books should be given serious time and thought if they're up for review -- it's no way of deciding to dislike a work by a short, dismissive, silent refusal to go ahead with it) send it back to the editor with a "thanks, but no thanks" note, it straps the editor and publisher, but it also sets up a particularly nasty habit whereby a reviewer will only take on a book he or she is already familiar with ( to sidestep the nasty business of dirtying one's hands and reputation with a negative review). So much for going into the great beyond of surprising discovery, negative but also positive.

Leckie then performs the agreeable professor's head nod to lecture (again, so gently, so repectfully) about "choice". But when one's modus operandi, in the Zwicky primer on reviewing, is to keep quiet on not only bad books, but on books which (far more often than the former) engender a mixed response, this is no choice at all for the reader of the review. It's a self-censoring editorial policy which does no one any good, not the poet herself who may not know what readers (as reviewers) think about her work, not the reader who gets a stilted impression of the general thrust and quality of Canadian poetry, and not the reviewer who must always couch even the mildest of raspberries in silver linings and white lies. And not least of all, the general reader from another country who may be mystified by all the congratulatory back-and-forth between the covers of journals, whatever their circulation.

If "men choose to review predominantly male authors" it is not an ethical choice, it's an aesthetic one. It's no secret, for example, that I've reviewed more male than female poets. ("Ah, but that's only in a blog, that doesn't count.") Sure, but as a reviewer for other publications as well, I've had assignments given to me in addition to others  where I've been able to choose the book or books. It doesn't matter to me because I've discovered quite a few excellent female poets I'd otherwise may never have stumbled upon, (and male poets, too, of course), but I approach a journal review from a position of unknowing, not preference (unless there's something specific I really want to pick up). I find male poets, in general, speak to me more intimately than do female poets. Others, and Lista has stated his preference for female poets, feel differently, and that's great. Variety, spice, etc. But here's the point in this boring gender-bitching-fest: every reviewer, and certainly every reader and poet-reader, has prefrences. Biases. Emotional reactions. There's nothing wrong with that. And that's gonna come out in our reviews. We're not balanced automatons devoid of personality, devoid of tics and unpleasantness and unfair reactions. That they be kept in context is the best way to approach the fact of the intrinsically imperfect reviewer, imperfect human. We're not passing infinite tests on our impartiality as selected jurors in a notorious multiple-murder trial. But let's reserve where this leads to in his next two paragraphs.

"Well, what truth does Lista’s commentary serve? For one, it serves the rhetoric of the gadfly (I recommend bug repellent, as gadflies have been thick on the ground the last few years). If we, he suggests, don’t say what we really think of each other’s poetry, then the result will be “flat, uninspired prose” and “swollen reputations left to inflate and float away.” " -- Leckie

More snide remarks in the passive, deflecting  voice. Why no names? How does a ghost answer? A gadfly, of course, is an irritating fly, fattening itself on the original labour -- rather, very existence -- of other, more substantial, creatures. Parasites. Pests. What was that about "respect" and not attacking again? Or are we in a different court where one rule applies to poets and another one to reviewers? (Those curious may want to read or re-read Lista's accurate assessment of Zwicky's ad hominems in her response to Lista. The latter's attacks, however harsh the tone of his original piece, nevertheless stayed above the belt and focussed on her ideas.)

"Is this the case? Perhaps at times it has been. It can be rather cozy having friends reviewing each other’s work. But what lies in other direction? I fear it to be encampments, entrenchments, redoubts and all the fun stuff of the culture wars. Rhetoric piled on rhetoric. Now that truly does lead to shrill, uninspired prose. I couldn’t agree more with Lista when he says, “The purpose of a review, good or bad, is to begin a conversation, not to end it.” If I may be permitted a small piece of rhetorical theatrics. Really, Michael? Your review of, let’s say, Tim Lilburn’s Assiniboia is to start a conversation?" -- Leckie

Leckie's answer to his own question above is pathetic in its naivety or, more likely, disingenuousness. Perhaps, and at times? Does it really need to be outlined yet again all the ways in which reviewers shy away from even slightly ho-hum responses in reviews, having to do with the fact that a great many are players in a game where grants, awards, exposure to one's own work through publishing and readings, committee seats, and the general communal good vibes that all inoffensive (honest?) response engenders? That Leckie, in his role of editor at one of the major poetry (and prose) journals in Canada, has not himself been the beneficiary of those who just might have a small incentive not to rock the boat when declaiming on his own poetry and on the efforts of those on the Fiddlehead's roster? If all "negative" reviews are abolished, is there perhaps too much space to fill each quarterly edition with raves? And what happens to those poets who are inevitably ignored because they couldn't pass the test of an honest, positive appraisal? How long does silence go on, and how can a beginning poet hope to improve their craft and vision (almost always a major necessity in a relative neophyte) if they're met with indifference and, if they're in on the omission, an effective blackballing?

Why does there have to be an"other direction"? "I fear it to be encampments .. culture wars." Well, then, it is so. Perhaps what we should fear is the status quo, where there is no incentive for broad-spectrum evaluative reviewing.

And yes, Lista's review of Lilburn's latest was not only a good attempt at a conversation starter, it succeeded. One could chalk this up to the NaPo's greater audience compared to what exists for journals across the land, but access isn't the entire story. A boring, say nothing review won't start a fire even in a bigger auditorium. Or perhaps I should "tone down" the rhetoric. There's always that available mob, willing to throw rocks, all without a differentiated thought in their heads, just waiting for a spark.

Most book reviews, because they're not much more than descriptive filler and mild or wild pro hominem adverts, start nothing because they put the reader to sleep. Provocation is not the only way to get a conversation going, of course. Unusual associations the reviewer makes which are nevertheless appropriate, career contextual placement, Christ, just the writing alone, is often enough to get people to notice a book and say a few words about it to others.

"I know all language is rhetoric and that I have deployed a variety of stratagems in my own commentary. I also realize that it is my temperament to prefer informative and analytic reviews to scorched earth polemics. I will still admire Michael Lista when he writes a positive review. When he writes one such as the one of Bruce Taylor, he is generous, intelligent, thoughtful, insightful, and unabashedly joyous. And we need more of that in our poetry reviews" -- Leckie

After all the put-downs regarding rhetorical strategies, Leckie admits to his own. I'm confused. Rhetoric is OK only if I'm doing it? Are we back to the two sets of rules again? I own my own rhetoric. Rhetoric has a long, proud history, in every generation, and across epochs, cultures, subjects, styles, and public demonstrations. It's endlessly creative and, perhaps what irks me the most in this essay's suspicion and even denunciation of it, confident about its reception. It's the "logicians only" camp (everyone belongs to camps, some are just afraid of admitting to one or more) who often and ironically call to their own fallacies and misrepresentations, hypocrisies and "moral" high ground, strictures and refusal to acknowledge rhetoric in all its disarray and glory. And all rhetoric isn't "scorched earth polemics".

Leckie and Zwicky prefer "positive" reviews only. That's their right. As long as they keep it within their own power structures, no problem.