NaBlogWriMo 19: Writing about book reviews is so much more important than writing book reviews

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so a few posts ago, i wrote this:

“it’s interesting that the whining bitching and moaning all started with some ‘white’ poet named jason guriel reviewing 3 other white poets and then another ‘white’ poet, kent johnson, responding and asking many other ‘white’ poets to respond. ok ok, i dont mean to flatten all their responses or racialized experiences, but seriously none of these people really explore why the majority of reviews written are reviews of ‘white’ poets! why is that? Unlike most journals, Galatea & Latino Poetry Review provide ample reviews of ‘ethnic’ poets.”

at the poetry foundation harriet blog, don share wrote a great post titled “i hate poetry reviews”.
there was something about a dead horse and he quoted a bunch of ‘white’ people talking about reviews and i think the horse lived in the end. who knows, but no one quoted discussed race & book reviews–or did i miss it? anyhoo, share quoted the passage i wrote above in the comments in relation to francisco aragon’s sharp comment:

“The only two cents I would add to this topic, which is often overlooked, is the phenomena whereby—by design or otherwise—books of poetry from a particular community are met with silence: that is: no review at all. If we think of the book review sections of journals as time capsules of sorts, I think the least we could aspire to is to present an accurate snapshot of the kinds of poetry being written in any particular period—both the good and less good. Who decides to take on the various roles this task requires is another story. Bottom line, in my view: the more various the landscape the better.”

one of my favorite people in the world, kent johnson, commented on my comment:

“Craig,

Just noticing this. It’s not true that the list of responders is completely “white.” Granted, only three “non-white” poets out of 32 is not exactly diverse. And the gender mix could also have been a lot stronger.

But for what it’s worth, the list of poets I initially queried was much more diverse than how things ended up. I was operating under a deadline and without much time. For whatever reason, most of the “No thank you’s” or no-responses were from women (a good dozen), and at least three of them were from Latino poets.”

kent is quite right, i wrote “many” and not “completely.” and, of course, it’s not the editor/curator’s fault that people decide not to respond. i was just commenting on the end-product and a glaring absence in the dialogue.

Q: so why is there such a scarcity of reviews of poetry books by writers of color?

are presses that publish ethnic writers sending review copies?
are writers of color sending review copies?
are editors assigning reviews of books by ethnic writers?
are freelance reviewers actively following new books by ethnic writers?

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22 thoughts on “NaBlogWriMo 19: Writing about book reviews is so much more important than writing book reviews

  1. Hi Craig, I appreciate this post and especially the four questions you pose at the end. That is, you are looking at many of the parties responsible for getting book reviews written.

    There are a few things: some presses are so small and overstretched that they can't get to sending out review copies to potential reviewers (freelancers or the review publications editors). Another thing: if these presses are so small that they do not have buy online capabilities, I know some book review venues won't review the book. At least, that was what I'd been told when trying to get the word out about my first book. Then, book review venues don't print all reviews submitted to them ("ethnic" review venues included here), but have to choose the ones they predict will generate the most interest, so more high profile authors' works get prioritized. There are indeed authors of color whose works generate a lot of buzz. Then again, there is work that's "edgy" or "difficult" politically, socially, formalistically, that a lot of reviewers won't touch, or would prefer not to.

    So that's a lot of it right there: authors whom editors of book review venues foresee as generating buzz get priority. Whether or not authors of color get buried here is not something I'm so sure of: folks like Li-Young Lee, for example (and I am not trying to hate on his) will invariably find his books reviewed in many many places. Certainly his publishers can be said to have the means, i.e. can afford to part with how many review copies.

    Also, and this is just a fact, many reviewers who are writers and authors themselves will review and promote the work of people they know, or people with whom they are loosely affiliated, however discouraged this practice may be. So that would mean more writers of color need to step up and write these reviews.

    And last thing – geez this is long, sorry – writers of color who are reticent need to stop being reticent and falsely humble and ask for reviews from the writers (and academics) they know.

  2. White reviewers have been attacked for writing less than stellar reviews of Latino writers. They have been told that only Latinos should review Latino poetry. See Selinger, et al.

  3. hey barbara,

    is there any cake left? it haunts my every waking moment!

    def agree with your statements here–seems to be a confluence of situations that has caused such scarcity. there's an independent press (i wont name names) that sent out 200 copies of a book for review! how cool is that.

    i didnt realize that books not being available online prevent them from getting reviewed!

    def true about certain authors being easily reviewed thru name recognition.

    and i def agree more writers of color need to step up. i find it annoying that many people who kent solicited refused to participate–if you're privileged enough to be asked (i wasnt) then there should be some feeling of responsibility.

    how many ethnic reviewers do you know that publish regularly in high distribution print/online journals?

    rigoberto, for sure. ken chen i think reviews pretty regularly for pleiades. um. who else? and i am here thinking outside of galatea & LPR.

    yeah, your last point is something i need to take to heart as well, as i havent been very proactive in sending out my book or querying reviewers.

  4. maigret,

    that is a very good point! i wonder, do other reviewers out there feel this same fear when reviewing outside their ethnic community?

    i think it's dumb that only latinos should review latino poetry–and dumb that latinos should only review latino poetry.

    but i do think this fear is real–and with blogs & listserves, etc, there can be real, public consequences for those who offend (i think it's more about offensiveness than stellarness).

    i wonder too, are editors only willing to assign a–let's say–latino reviewer to a latino text? is this a consideration? will some editors out there let us know.

    c

  5. Hey Craig, we killed the cake last nite!

    Anyway, you are totally right about Rigoberto. More of us need to be more like him (but God I value my sleep). So that's on us, the many of us. I console myself in knowing that I have written > 0 reviews, but I also know I can be writing more.

    I want to give props to Bay Area based Allen Gaborro, who reviews mostly Filipino (and Fil Am) authored books for Philippine News and other similar publications.

    Anyway, I had an editor at an Asian American review venue who actually strongly discouraged me from reviewing two Filipino American authored books, stating that he was concerned about my bias.

    I am trying to blog about this as well.

  6. Craig said:

    >and i def agree more writers of color need to step up. i find it annoying that many people who kent solicited refused to participate–if you're privileged enough to be asked (i wasnt) then there should be some feeling of responsibility.
    ***

    Some of the Latino writers I asked who declined I had met and read with recently at the Chicago Cultural Center, in a fabulous reading sponsored by Mandorla magazine. At least they were courteous enough to write back, thank me for the invite, and explain they had pressing commitments that made the short deadline unmanageable. That's better than the two or three Anglo avant poetry stars who didn't even bother to respond! Pregnant silences that provide their own little measures of frisson, really! :~)

    Sorry I didn't query you, Craig. I certainly committed some oversights in putting the list together. These reflections on the general topic are good and productive.

    Kent

  7. b, love the shout out! those who dont sleep because they're doing good work deserve attention.

    yeah, i think editors have a bias against bias. honestly, i dont mind if an editor turns down my pitch to review of book because maybe i met the writer once, or corresponded with them once, but if you're going to turn down a pitch because of that, at least guarantee that you (the editor) will find someone else to review the book!

  8. k,

    i love mandorla magazine!

    well, that was nice of them. one cant be too mad if there was a short deadline–you know, i was wondering why some of the responses in MayDay felt like they were written in 10 minutes. seriously.

    "anglo avant poetry stars"–that's hilarious! you should edit an anthology called "the new anglo avant poetry stars" 😉

    it's ok that you didnt query me–it's not like i've ever written a review in my life! so kiss my…only kidding. it's probably good that you didnt because i wouldve probably wasted my (and your) time writing about blurbs instead!

    only kidding!
    c

  9. Just a quick note to respond to Maigret.

    "Maigret, don't use me as an excuse.

    Go read Javier Huerta's response to my piece. Sure, he didn't like the tone of it–but what he went after me for was being lazy in my scansion, my refusal to do the task I'd set myself (aesthetic criticism) as well as I claimed.

    I was NEVER told, by Huerta or Perez or anyone else, that "only Latinos should review Latino poetry." I was told that my smartass comment about a particular poet's lack of artistry showed that I hadn't read him closely. And guess what? I hadn't. I'd substituted a flip, offhand remark for actual thinking, and got caught.

    I don't call that an "attack." I call it "peer-review." In academic journals, it happens before a piece is published. In book reviewing, it happens afterwards, in public. It's not fun, but it's awfully educational.

    My next two pieces, due out later this summer, are about Lawrence Joseph, an Arab American poet, and (in Parnassus) about Mahmoud Darwish, Samih al-Qasim, and Taha Muhammad Ali, three famous Palestinian poets.

    Did I praise all of them equally? Nope. Did I do my homework, and try not to make a fool of myself? Yup.

    Was I worried that a white, suburban American Jew would be attacked for reviewing Lebanese-American and Palestinian poets? Er…no. Not really.

    You want to "see Selinger"? See that.

  10. Craig,

    Yes, one of the great things about Mandorla is that it's a true meeting place for writers from the U.S. and Latin America. Numerous cross-cultural projects of translation and collaboration have been fostered by the magazine. It's very much El Corno Emplumado of "our moment," and it's amazing to me that the journal is not more widely known. Roberto Tejada and Kristin Dykstra deserve about seventeen editing awards and four major fat grants.

    I wonder if the case of Mandorla and its trans-border poetics might have some potential relation to a few of your questions above. That is, when thinking about reviews of ethnic writers in the U.S., should one think only of reviews in U.S. venues? Not that your questions aren't important and relevant to reviewing practices here (!), but what untapped ways might there be, I wonder, to encourage translation and international "reviewing exchanges," for example, between Latino and Filipino writers in the U.S., say, and writers in Mexico, Puerto Rico, The Philippines? I know this is taking place at certain levels already, but might there be ways of expanding and diversifying such natural connections?

    It's a pretty broad question, I realize, but I know from my own experience in traveling a bit the past few years that there is a deep and generous desire on the part of poets in other countries to connect in collaborative ways with poets in the United States, to translate, to interview, to review, and so on.

    Kent

  11. Glad to see this dialogue unfolding.

    I'm also pleased to read here and elsewhere that it's a silly notion (silly is my word) that only ethnic writers should review ethnic writers.

    As far book review editors sharing their experiences: There are two fairly well known book review editors who have shared with me andecdotes about what sounded like heroic efforts to get _The Wind Shifts: New Latino Poetry_ reviewed for their respective publications, well-known ones.

    I don't want to paraphrase their andecdotes, but it might be interesting to hear, firsthand, from them. How about DS, EL?

    I also think it would be interesting (though less likely) to hear from a few members of the parade of reviewers who refused to review The Wind Shifts—not to criticize them, but to better understand their thought process,
    so that we might better understand it. I would venture to say that the one next step in this dialogue is, in fact, to provide a safe space (at a roundtable perhaps) where these non-ethnic writers can come of of the
    "I-don't-want-to-review-ethnic-writers -for-fear-of-being-attacked closet.

    [it reminds me of a sad but true story: a literature teacher at a small liberal arts college in Indiana who taught an "ethnic literature" class
    and did not include a single Latino/a author on the syllabus. Why? Are you ready for this: because there were two Latino students in the class and she was afraid of saying the wrong thing since she wasn't well versed in Latino culture….Yes, it can get THAT ridiculous!]

    In this sense, I deeply appreciate Eric Selinger for continuing to step forth and share his thoughts.
    Now….if only I can gently nudge Eric and Craig to start their joint "diologue review" of Juan Felipe Herrera for a future issue of LPR:)

  12. eric,

    you are such a badass! i love it and look forward to your new pieces–i dont know very much about palestinian poets so please let me know when your essays are published.

    c

  13. kent,

    yes, mandorla is fab and deserving of grants & more well knownness.

    indeed, the transnational opens many possibilities–newspapers in the philippines reviewing fil-am writers, for example. journals in the pacific reviewing books by PI writers thruout the diaspora, as another.

    but you're right, while this opens many possibilities, it does sidestep the issue at hand.

    and the transnational turn is not without its own problems. and since you are so well-traveled, maybe you can enlighten us on these questions:

    how many u.s. minority writers get translated in other countries? let's say, how many asian american writers are translated into spanish in Mexico? how many chicano poets are translated into French? how many african american poets are translated into italian?

    so answer these questions if you like, but let's not become too enticed to look elsewhere before we really interrogate what's happening here.

    c

  14. francisco,

    i'd like to hear those anecdotes too! and the parade of reviewers! online roundtable is the new twitter!

    that is RIDICULOUS! and sad.

    subtle nudge there francisco 😉

    c

  15. Hi again, so the transnational thing is interesting. Indeed, there are a few writers at Philippines-based papers who review Fil Am books, but do know that unlike the other countries mentioned here, the Philippines has a highly English literate population thanks to American colonialism, which enables that connection. So Craig, it's appropriate to bring up translation.

    I also agree that we are focused on lit HERE, and the problems of many American writers of color not seeing their work reviewed more, especially in high profile review venues.

    Why is it when writers of color are the center of discussion, folks must veer right out of the USA, as if we are all not American? And perhaps this is the answer to your question, Craig.

  16. Barbara Jane Reyes, asked:

    >Why is it when writers of color are the center of discussion, folks must veer right out of the USA, as if we are all not American?

    Barbara, it wasn't my intention to "veer right out of the USA," and I really don't think (goodness!) there was anything in my comment that in any way suggested we aren't all "American"! (I prefaced the comment on "trans-border" reviewing, actually, by stating that CSP's questions were obviously important ones on a strictly national level– my modest point was to propose an additional tributary for readership/reviewing expansion.)

    But I think it's true, too, that the kinds of cross-border links and exchanges pushed by magazines like Mandorla, or Tinfish, or like El Corno Emplumado before them, open up, in various ways, new spaces WITHIN the poetry of the USA… To seek means of expanding readerships in other languages of overly neglected U.S. writers (through translation and reviews abroad enabled by such transnational gestures) is hardly to "veer away" from the larger problems under discussion. Active national readerships for writers (there are some famous cases of this) sometimes get kick-started by readers and critics in other countries!

    And Craig, I don't think of myself as all that "well-traveled." Not enough, anyway, to be able to give any precise answer to those interesting questions you ask. I do know quite a few African-American writers, yes, have been translated into various languages, though obviously not enough. But I'm pretty sure African-Am poets would be the most represented English-language ethnic group in translation. But here's a thought: More reviews in journals here in the short run for ethnic U.S. poets, much needed as it is to have them, is not necessarily prerequisite for more transnational collaboration and translation of U.S. ethnic writers elsewhere… And more translation and transnational collaboration elsewhere just might, in turn, have some surprising, broadening repercussions here.

    Kent

  17. barbara,

    good point about the issue of language/translation/colonialisms in terms of thinking about circulation, etc.

    perhaps indeed!

  18. kent,

    really? i think you are pretty well-traveled…but i guess it's all subjective.

    yeah, those questions were perhaps exaggerating your well-traveledness…my point was that even in transnational contexts minority u.s. writers are often ignored, thus creating a skewed transnational view of the complexities/diversities of poetry in the u.s.

    i essentially agree with what you say here:

    "More reviews in journals here in the short run for ethnic U.S. poets, much needed as it is to have them, is not necessarily prerequisite for more transnational collaboration and translation of U.S. ethnic writers elsewhere… And more translation and transnational collaboration elsewhere just might, in turn, have some surprising, broadening repercussions here."

    BUT while i share your enthusiasm for transnational possibilities and opportunities, i feel less romantic/optimistic that a review of a book by a us ethnic writer appearing in a journal in Mexico will have any effect on that book being reviewed in Poetry magazine.

    i'm def curious about the famous cases you mention (i am far less well-read (and well-traveled) than you): "Active national readerships for writers (there are some famous cases of this) sometimes get kick-started by readers and critics in other countries!"

    thanks,
    c

  19. Craig,

    Frost and Poe would be big examples. And a number of the early-century Modernists made their first reputations with a select international readership before becoming canonical. Pessoa, whose face is now on Portuguese money, was being translated before he became something like the Walt Whitman of his nation. Similarly with Vallejo.

    Along contempory lines, a writer like Eliot Weinberger has long been much more widely read in translation than in English, and the incredible international success of What I Heard about Iraq has certainly generated more attention here for his often unclassifiable work. Murat Nemet Nejat's work as translator of Turkish poetry is an interesting case: A few of the poets he includes in EDA owe an increasing prominence in Turkey to their poetry in his translation (he discusses this a bit in a recent interview I did with him, "Resisting Imperial Appropriations: on EDA, Turkish Poetry, and the Vicissitudes of Translation," at Jacket #37). Cormac McCarthy's quick and relatively recent turn to fame in U.S. was in some measure due to his previous and bigger critical reputation abroad. But lots of examples, and I'm probably not thinking right now of some of the more obvious ones… Semezdin Mehmedinovic, now probably Bosnia's most famous contemporary poet, rose to fame there in the 90s thanks in big part to the phenomenon of Sarajevo Blues, translated into numerous languages. Richard Wright's reception in France and associations with Satre, et. al. probably helped push a greater readership for his work here in various ways, decades back. Same to some extent later with Baldwin, probably. In the opposite direction, Derrida was relatively obscure in France until his translation into English and great academic celebrity here.

    Come to think of it, speaking of France, maybe Mickey Rourke is the most obvious example! :~)

    Kent

  20. Oh, nad the Latin American Boom writers in 60s would be examples of how critical reception abroad can in quick measure impact national status.

    Kent

  21. this is awesome! thanks kent! i'm going to put this info in my memory bank.

    ok, i am convinced that this kind of transnationalism CAN contribute.

    it does seems more likely that popularity in the u.s. can cause a stir in one's home country–but less likely that a contemporary u.s. based ethnic poet…if they are translated…receiving attention in another country would affect much in the u.s. tho, you've shown it's possible.

    on a side note, received word that a tinfish book has been reviewed on a blog in france: http://lombreduneville.blogspot.com/2009/06/cartes-lisa-asagi-gaye-chan.html. let's see now if this causes a stir for the book in the u.s.–

    thanks again for sharing your knowledge!
    c

  22. Sure, Craig.

    Regarding knowledge, I've gotten two emails from strangers telling me that it's "Sartre" and not "Satre."

    Just to say: I KNOW!

    glad to see that Don Share is putting the thought he is into the topics you've raised. Poetry Magazine has definitely changed for the better…

    Kent

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