Gaby Wood interviews feminist blogger Jessica Valenti
The Purity Myth [Valenti's latest book] rails against a cultural phenomenon that has genuinely threatened young American women, at least since George W Bush became president. With the rise of federally funded abstinence education, the ever-imminent overturning of the right to have an abortion, and the general promotion of the virtues of virginity, Valenti wants to, as she puts it, “outline a new way for us to think about young women as moral actors, one that doesn’t include their bodies”. This is a laudable aim, though one that might appear to be at odds with the declaration that feminism makes you better in bed; certainly Valenti’s oeuvre so far has not exactly made women’s bodies seem irrelevant. After all, her books even contain views — and a repertoire of jokes — about pubic hair (“What do parsley and pubic hair have in common? You push them both to the side before you eat”).
Kurt Vonnegut on Phoebe Hurty to whom he dedicated Breakfast of Champions
Phoebe Hurty hired me to write copy for ads about teenage clothes. I had to wear the clothes I praised. That was part of the job. And I became friends with her two sons, who were my age. I was over at their house all the time.
She would talk bawdily to me and her sons, and to our girlfriends when we brought them around. She was funny. She was liberating. She taught us to be impolite in conversation not only about sexual matters, but about American history and famous heroes, about the distribution of wealth, about school, about everything.
I now make my living by being impolite. I am clumsy at it. I keep trying to imitate the impoliteness which was so graceful in Phoebe Hurty. It think now that grace was easier for her than it is for me because of the mood of the Great Depression. She believed what so many Americans believed then: that the nation would be happy and just and rational when prosperity came.
I never hear that word anymore: Prosperity. It used to be a synonym for Paradise. And Phoebe Hurty was able to believe that the impoliteness she recommended would give shape to an American paradise.
Now her sort of impoliteness is fashionable. But nobody believes anymore in a new American paradise. I sure miss Phoebe Hurty.
Ian Jack on the woes of publishing today
A misleading idea has arisen, however, that writers generally can earn enough money to do nothing else. The idea is ignorant of history, of TS Eliot keeping himself comfortable on academic stipends and a publishing house directorship, of Angus Wilson superintending the reading room at the British Museum [...] What you might call the moral and aesthetic case for writing — to think, imagine and describe and then communicate the result to an audience — can be satisfied online. It just doesn’t make any money. The age of the gifted amateur is surely about to return.
At British and American universities, this future has to be kept as a woeful secret. A great paradox of the age is that while newspapers continue their inexorable decline and publishing cuts its costs, journalism and creative writing degrees have never been more popular. Year on year, journalist applicants stood a quarter higher at 13,229 for courses beginning this autumn. Creative writing can now be learned at nearly every British institute of higher learning. Figures are hard to come by, but Britain is probably turning out about 1,300 “creative writers” every year.
Thanks to Kk for this link.
The Art of Penguin Science Fiction (read “sexy book covers”)
Anindita Sengupta on gender and Indian elections
As India went to the polls over the last few weeks, a small section of Indian women exercised their vote to protest against regressive gender stances. A recent spate of attacks on women by Hindu fundamentalist groups in Karnataka probably brought home the need to do so. The vigilante groups are widely believed to enjoy the support of the rightwing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which explains why some women among India’s educated middle classes adopted an anti-BJP ballot philosophy.
… and on related issues
This article reminded me of the defensiveness attached to writing from my location as a middle class, educated, privileged woman. Some usual reactions: ‘how dare you talk about Mangalore when there are so many worse things happening’ or ‘look at women in Saudi Arabia’. I often write about the urban, educated women because a) I know the most about it and b) I believe we need to be more involved in thinking, engaging and demanding more in terms of gender rights. To put it simply, we have more time and energy to do so. Nor are we unaffected by gender issues. After all, domestic violence, sexual assault or female foeticide are not restricted to the poor and rural [...] I have every right to go out and not get followed. And no I don’t have to be okay with it because women in Saudi Arabia are so much worse off. And no, I don’t have to wait until after I get raped to protest.
Adam Fieled on flame wars
… you learn certain lessons in maintaining a blog: if you flame a fool, or get drawn into a flame war with a fool, you will get a foolish response. Flame an intelligent poetry blogger in a purposeful way, and you may begin a valuable discourse. On the other hand, it is possible to be blind-sided, in such a way that self-defense is simply necessary. One cannot always choose the Other that one encounters. Heteroglossia is not always fun; it can be painful to be addressed in an alien language (especially when it seems to hold no rhyme or reason.) Yet this post is meant to act discursively, rather than as a how-to manual; what is important is that flame wars are both valuably illustrative of the most positive attributes of digital consciousness and valuable as incidents that demonstrate their own kind of heterogeneous logic. A new context for encountering the Other creates a new Self; a new Self necessitates the creation of novel textual forms. A flame war shows us this process in action, and is, thus, viable as an autonomous form in its own right.
Stuart Evers on the abundance of precocious child geniuses in contemporary fiction
It could be that the gifted child is the true outsider of our times. Caught between the physical world of their peers and the intellectual realm of adulthood, they mirror the feelings of not quite belonging one can experience as one gets older. As such, readers can empathise with the conundrums and pitfalls that befall the prodigy. After all, it’s probably Salinger -– who always had a gimlet eye for an outsider -– who practically invented the whole genre with his monumentally fucked up family of geniuses, the Glasses.
There is another argument that suggests that childhood is so complex now that the only convincing first-person way to write about it is by allowing an adult sensibility — and intelligence -– to comment upon it. I mentioned this to an editor recently and he nodded, then said “Well perhaps, but I think mainly it’s because it’s easier.” He was being mischievous, but he had a point. So long as your narrative has an internal logic, and the voice is consistent, the reader can have no real complaints about the veracity of the character. If it doesn’t sound like one of the kids you see on the bus every day, well it’s not supposed to, is it?
John Sutherland annotates Bono’s poem on Elvis
William Logan on the savage art of criticism
Coleridge claimed, according to John Payne Collier, that “reviewers are usually people who would have been poets . . . , if they could: they have tried their talents . . . and have failed; therefore they turn critics, and, like the Roman emperor, a critic most hates those who excel in the particular department in which he, the critic, has notoriously been defeated.” Words like that are painted on the wall over every poet’s desk, to console him. Things have changed since Coleridge’s day, however, because the twentieth century offered one long string of poets who turned their hands brilliantly to criticism: Eliot, Pound, Empson, Auden, Blackmur, Jarrell, Berryman, and Lowell. For these poets, who had not been defeated (except for Blackmur, who, though a brilliant critic, was a dreadful poet), criticism was high-minded, an attempt to explain the art to itself. It might seem wise to make a distinction between those who practice criticism in its drier and more erudite forms and those who take off their gloves for a bare-knuckle brawl. Yet most of these critics were bare-knucklers, some of the time.
Kent Johnson elaborates on his proposal for poetry reviews
So here’s a vote for Guriel’s call that the “negative” spirit continue– only that it continue with a much more forceful satiric push. There’s never been a great age of poetry, after all, where poets weren’t taunting and lampooning one another [...] What I’m suggesting, and for reasons stated above, is that poetry publications begin to reserve a space for some percentage of “unsigned” reviews and essays. These could appear anonymously, pseudonymously, heteronymously (wonderful to think of a Pessoa-like critic figure tearing up the scene), or under collective banner (wonderful, likewise, to think of sub-rosa MFA-student collectives submitting their jaundiced-eyed considerations).
… and some interesting responses to Johnson’s proposal
V Joshua Adams: Where I disagree with Johnson is in the apparent exclusivity of his commitment to satire as a form of criticism. There is no necessary connection between the satirical impulse and good criticism; the latter can be satirical, but it doesn’t need to be, and in the hands of the unskilled it can go badly wrong. Therefore I would suggest an amendment to what Johnson proposes. We don’t necessarily need more satire or crankiness in poetry reviewing: we need more intelligence.
Robert Archambeau: Right now, the incentive for reviewers is to over-praise. But what would the incentive be for reviewers if their work went unsigned? For many, there’d be none at all. While some journals pay reviewers in cash, it’s rarely enough to justify the investment of time by itself. Worked out as an hourly rate, the majority of paying journals aren’t really offering much more than one could earn at, say, Chick-fil-A Most journals offer considerably less, although the work is marginally more congenial. Reviewers are really paid by seeing their names in print, and by being allowed to feel (with some degree of justification) that they’re becoming part of a conversation, and getting recognition from a literary community.
Robert Baird: Is it too glib to say that what I look for in a good review is what I look for in a lover: that it be smart, witty, and pretty (and in that order)?
Then how’s this, from Martin Amis: “The adversaries of good book-reviewing are many and various, but the chief one is seldom mentioned—perhaps because of its ubiquity…The crucial defect is really no different from that of any other kind of writing: it is dullness.”
Dullness and its opposite make a better axis than positive and negative to talk about reviewing because, pace Jason Guriel, there is no dearth of negative criticism, at least once you get outside the hothouse world of lit magazines [...]
To my mind the most underrated way to avoid dullness is to make intelligent, instructive arguments: about goodness, yes, but also about how poems work and why they are (or are not) important. People often marvel at The New Yorker’s willingness to run 10,000 word articles on Bolivian water projects, but I pin it on their figuring out that—shhh!—some people like to learn.
Bill Freind: [...] these days, almost none of the reviews I read are in actual dead-tree magazines. Instead, I look on blogs, listservs, and online journals. I’m not sure if my tendencies are typical, but it’s clear that online sources have fundamentally improved the genre of the poetry review. This entire exchange is an example of that: Guriel’s review appeared on The Poetry Foundation’s website; Kent’s essay was originally a posting in the comment section of that article. And from my perspective, the discussion in the comment section is even better than Guriel’s article.
Daisy Fried: When a certain film critic for a Philadelphia publication says a movie isn’t funny, I know I will find it hilarious. When she finds a movie poignant, I know I will find it revolting. If she and her fellow reviewers for this publication wrote anonymously, I could no longer rely on her unreliability.
Critics who are consistently wrong are the most useful critics
Johannes Göransson: I’m also not sure why you are so attached to the crotchety review. You say that William Logan has been writing the “most entertaining poetry criticism for years.” If by “entertaining” you mean “pointless” and “reactionary” you have a point. If you mean “tired policing of poetry” you have another point. If you also mean “cranky ideas that never led to an interesting discussion” you have bingo [...] If contemporary poetry does not harass us, make us uncomfortable, pushes us to new views and vision, it’s just a useless armchair game for the well-to-do, a means of feeling sophisticated. Ugh.
Ange Mlinko: even though Kent Johnson isn’t exactly wrong about the social forces at work keeping poets from criticizing each other, there seems to me an intransigent philosophical issue underpinning them. As poets, we’ve set up the whole shebang to be either/or, black-or-white, love-it-or-leave-it by emphasizing “very interesting language” — poetry dialect. You either fall in love with the poet and their dialect or you don’t. You either get the top of your head taken off or you don’t. Or — my favorite — it “heals” you or it doesn’t. It’s subjective and irrational, post-avant and third-way, hybrid and legitimate.
Murat Nemet-Nejat: In Kent’s work, nothing is exactly what it seems; that is why the perception of a modest proposal is very apt. For instance, one reading his dolorous lament that in the present state of affairs “the ‘review’ and the ‘blurb’ begin to blur in purpose and effect” will be tickled to remember that about 20 percent of his fascinating book The Miseries of Poetry consists of blurbs for the book—myself providing one of them. They are part of its internal structure [...] I propose three simple rules — three thou-shalt-nots — for the rejuvenation of the art of reviewing poetry [...] 1) I forbid the use of phrases “non-linear” and “non-narrative,” or any expression saying the same thing [....] 2) I forbid all textual analyses of a poem, based on sound or rhythm echoes among words. This is a hybrid of New Criticism (oh, Language School, how far hast thou fallen!) and Ron Silliman’s theory of “torque” in his New Sentence [...] 3) The third proposal is my own drollery, a dreamer-despite-yourself ideal. I forbid each reviewer from reading Ron’s blog.
A disclaimer: I’ve been doing these “Of interest” pieces for a while and I like the format. JM told me he liked the way excerpts are offered without commentary, so you can arrive at your own opinion. Admittedly, I have thrown in commentary at times. I mean, I couldn’t really resist that snigger now, could I? But, overall, I wonder if it’s understood that I don’t necessarily agree with all of the people I quote in here. I often do, but today’s collection is fairly polemical (the poetry-side of it, anyway; and I mean polemical for my blog and not in general) and also contradictory. I hope it has and will continue to be obvious that I do not necessarily endorse what everyone is saying. What do you think? Should I add a disclaimer to this series in future?
I should add, however, that I strongly agree with Anindita when she says that feminists cannot concern themselves with problems only in rural spaces, or in places where things are “worse off”, if at all we can decide for certain who is “worse off”. — A
To end, two more examples of sexy cover art
I’ve been wanting to blog this for a while — the problem of offering a negative review without (a) appearing like a jackass and (b) making enemies.
If (a) and (b) aren’t a problem, then I suppose you can do what you like. But most of us don’t want to be William Logan, known as “the most hated man in American poetry”, do we? So how do you balance being critical and being mean?
I’ve read some very interesting arguments about this problem off late.
Nic Sebastien borrows from Victoria Chang‘s idea that “what we need in poetry are more people who don’t have a stake in it, more people who don’t know the people, the real people behind the words to care about poetry enough to write about it” to suggest a body of independent critics for poetry.
That’s not to say poets shouldn’t review, but that if we have a set of people who aren’t poets, who aren’t worried about offending anyone, and who enjoy and engage with poetry, then maybe it would be easier for us all to lose our nervousness about saying, “Well, I don’t like this.”
As for offending people, it does happen. When you say “the poetry community” it actually is small enough to be called a community, especially within countries, if such borders still matter. Poets tend to read each other’s blogs; many Facebook with each other; it’s all quite out there.
I don’t know how to review poetry collections, frankly. I tried once and it ended up being a really awful undergrad essay. Most of the time, I just say what I like/love and ignore what I think is really bad.
For that matter, I don’t review fiction or movies well either. It’s a talent I don’t have, although, if forced to, I can manage to write something in “review language”. The key difference, however, is that I’m more than ready to criticise a novel or film if it’s badly made or if I have strong reasons for disliking it. I’m as ready to criticise Arundhati Roy or Madhur Bhandarkar as I am to praise Kazuo Ishiguro or Anurag Kashyap (provided they’re doing bad/good things respectively, of course). It’s extremely unlikely that they’ll read what I write about them, and even if they do, what are they going to do? What does it matter? They’re up there, doing their thing, and I’m just a blogger.
I wonder if poets rely on blog reviews more than novelists do. They probably do, and so it matters what people say if what they say is googleable. Maybe it doesn’t even matter who the reviewer is.
I’m painting a dark, dark picture.
According to Jason Guriel,
…when a book of poetry receives a tough verdict we often label the review “negative” and speculate about the reviewer’s motives, the agenda behind the takedown. Indeed, behind words like “negative” and “agenda” and “takedown” lurks the sense that the reviewer is the one making the trouble, and the book of poetry — whether it deserved a kicking or not — is being bullied. We’re far less paranoid about motives when, say, a movie receives a tough review in the New Yorker or Slate or Rolling Stone, even when we disagree with the verdict-even when we’re so outraged we fire off an e-mail to some editor’s in-box. This is because negative reviews of movies (and LPs and TV shows, etc.) represent the norm, and aren’t usually labeled “negative.” Movie critics with whom we disagree are merely wrong; poetry critics (and politicians) go negative.
[...] But negativity, I’m starting to think, needs to be the poetry reviewer’s natural posture, the default position she assumes before scanning a single line. Because really, approaching every new book with an open mind is as well-meaning but ultimately exhausting as approaching every stranger on the street with open arms; you’ll meet some nice people, sure, but your charming generosity won’t be reciprocated most of the time. What’s worse, a tack-sharp taste, dinged by so much sheer dullness, will in time become blunted (into blurb-writing, no doubt). When braving any new book of poems — particularly by an author you’re not too familiar with — it’s best to brace yourself and expect the worst. This needn’t involve cynicism. Indeed, you probably shouldn’t be opening the book in the first place if you aren’t, on some deep level, already hoping for the best — that is, the discovery of a great poem. But hope should remain on that deep level, well-protected, until the shell that shields it is genuinely jarred.
This was in Poetry‘s March issue and unsurprisingly got a lot of attention at the electronic version. I only just bothered reading some of the comments posted, and the first (by Kent Johnson), which says pretty much what Nic and Victoria Chang said (albeit much later), is well thought-out:
I do think there’s a fundamental reason why timidity and obsequiousness tend to dominate poetry criticism these days, and it’s a pretty uncomplicated one: Reviewing tends to be done by *poets,* and poets use the mode of criticism more often than not as a form of ingratiation with other poets. As U.S. poetry (mainstream and post-avant) has become more tightly tethered to academic careerism, a sycophantic tendency naturally becomes the ubiquitous norm, to the point where the “review” and the “blurb” begin to overlap in purpose and effect.
An answer to my title-question is one of Johnson’s parenthetical statements:
(Interestingly, by the way, it’s in top-tier journals where negative reviews are most likely to appear, since the capital accruing to the poet-reviewer compensates for the risk.)
And he also suggests a way to skirt the problem:
Given this, maybe it’s time that magazines, large and small, go back to the venerable practice of having (at least some) reviewers write anonymously or pseudonymously. This would no doubt free things up a bit and generate a bit more critical candor and healthy challenge — bringing forth not just a smattering of “negative” takes on mid-level poets, such as we’re beginning to see in Poetry, but all-out, room-clearing broadsides on the hallowed, smugly repetitive, big-award-winning figures in the board room that almost no one dares touch.
Overall there are several points to think on. If we are to get non-poets to review poetry books, where will we find them? Are there enough non-poets interested in poetry to do the job? Is being critical the appropriate stance to take before reading a book — any book? Will anonymous reviews lead to unruliness and unnecessary speculation? Should poets just forget about making Facebook friends and say what they think?