Forms of Enthusiasm: On Poetry Criticism, Book Reviews, and (yes, again) Blurbs

Jake Adam York
August 31, 2012
Comments 1

You may have heard something over the last week or two about William Giraldi’s review of two Alix Ohlin books in The New York Times. It’s a wildly negative review that’s spawned a great deal of commentary that’s more interesting than the actual review.

Several writers take issue with Giraldi’s execution. J. Robert Lennon, on Salon, uses the Giraldi piece as a fulcrum in a piece entitled “How To Write A Bad Review.” And Andrew Scott describes the Giraldi review as an example of “writer-on-writer crime.” Scott, who offers a brief overview of some other recent controversies and mention of a few constructively negative reviews, includes a 10-point description of the failures of Giraldi’s review; this is Scott’s seventh point:

The stories that are “faintly fabulist” or present a kind of “Borgesian fever dream” in Signs and Wonders are predictably praised. Division and classification can be useful. It sounds like a diverse collection, but Giraldi only likes the ones that cross into his preferred territory. Charles Baxter calls this “owl criticism” in an essay available online. It means, basically, that a reviewer who doesn’t like owls shouldn’t use that fact as the core response to a book about owls.

This is one way of saying that the failures of the review (which include, according to Scott, a good deal of cherry-picking and critical cliché) are tied to the reviewer’s own prejudices or slants. Or it may be another way of saying what Lennon says brilliantly in discussing the usefulness of reviews that don’t praise their subjects, specifically Lennon’s own review of Paul Auster’s Winter Journal:

I disliked the book intensely, and thought it was very bad, both by the standards of other memoirs and by the standards of Auster’s own career. And I expended considerable effort explaining my reasons for feeling this way about it. [emphasis added]

I’d like to make two points here.

The first is that Lennon’s expense of effort could be a feature of any useful book review. Indeed, this point echoes a sharp essay by Matthew Zapruder, now several years old, on the task of the reviewer:

Critics can do one of at least two things. The first is simply to insist that something is good, or bad, and rely on the force of personality or reputation to convince people. The second is to write, with focus and clarity, about how the piece of art works, what choices the artist has made, and how that might affect a reader. Only then can the reader grow to meet work that is unfamiliar, that he or she does not yet have the capacity to love.

Or, as the title of Zapruder’s essay puts it, “Show Your Work!”

Negative insistence may be exemplified by William Logan’s 2006 review, “God’s chatter” in which Natasha Trethewey and A. R. Ammons are skewered while Mark Strand and Louise Glück are beaten about the spine. But compare Logan’s tone and level of detail with this and this and this and you get Zapruder’s point: one can read and describe a book and give the reader enough information to conduce his or her reading, instead of just telling someone that you read (and liked or disliked) a book.

Positive insistence, by contrast, may be best exemplified by the blurb, which may be read as gush. I had begun, I thought, in my putative selection of blurb taxonomies, “from A Field Guide To North American Blurbs,” to make a case for the blurb as a coded communication, though I did not convince at least one reader who seemed to feel that I was giving away the farm.

I kept waiting to read that a blurb is too often an embarrassing excrescence that overrates its subject, that blurbs should be abandoned, that Mr. York was, after all, writing a send-up, but apparently he and KR are committed to the blurb as a validation of the creative-writing industry.

This commenter may be giving too much credit or power to the blurb even as it misunderstands the function of the blurb or, at least, my argument about its function and its functioning.

In my sympathy, I might read here a hunger for a criticism that offers clear judgments—a hunger expressed recently by Dwight Garner in The New York Times and, in a way, by Jacob Silverman in Slate—a hunger I feel too. But I think this hunger will not be satisfied by any blurbs, because—as I had hoped the tone if not the argumentation of the Field Guide to North American Blurbs would have argued—blurbs are not forms of judgment but, instead, forms of enthusiasm.

This is the second argument I hope to make here, that while we need more detail in our judgments—more accountability—we also need a place in our critical language for forms of enthusiasm, where “enthusiasm” or “joy” or “enjoyment” are not antithetical to observation, detail, or criticism and where “criticism” need not be predicated on antagonism or antipathy. The word enthusiasm is etymologically synonymous with inspiration. To be enthusiastic is to know, to be possessed by and in turn to possess the spirit of a thing. And to communicate one’s enthusiasm is to offer someone else that possession, which may in turn lead to knowledge.

This, I think, is what a blurb is trying to do, what it is meant to do. The blurb can say a great deal about a work by highlighting a feature or technique, but the blurb is effective precisely to the degree that it is unreserved: it is ultimately a breath, a gesture.

But the blurb is not the only form of enthusiasm we know. There has been in the last few years a new flowering for the interview, which is often occasioned by the interviewer’s enthusiasm as much as by his or her curiosity. The interview poses questions, but what may seem to be an examination is often a forensic act, a laying bare, a freeing of the winds that may then lead to another’s enthusiasm. This is the flame within Kate Greenstreet’s and then Keith Montesano’s first book interviews or Brian Brodeur’s How a Poem Happens Interviews. These interviews teach us a great deal about a book or a poem or a poet, and in some ways these interviews are filling the space left as many journals have reduced the space given to reviews.

There are also more straightforward forms of enthusiasm, such as Memorious’s Big Loves series, which presents writers gushing over other writers, key books—more lengthy, more informative, more articulate than a blurb, but the spirit is the same—the spirit, the breath, the warmth, the interest, the fellow-feeling or –concern that we all, as book readers and lovers, are always passing between one another.

Just as we need the hard, judgmental review, we need these forms of and places for enthusiasm.

___

BNB: In the coming weeks, I’m going to look in greater depth at interviews and other forms of enthusiasm, such as the blog and even the publisher. Stay tuned…

 

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