NaBlogWriMo 20: Writing about book reviews is so much more important than writing book reviews PART 2

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wow, the amazing don share responds to the questions i posed in the post below at the poetry foundation blog.

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here were my q’s:

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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here’s what share shares:

These are great questions. I can only speak from my own experience, but for what it’s worth:

Re the big Q… let’s say who comes to mind here… Re the others –

1.) Some presses that publish ethnic writers send review copies. In fact, a few are very good at this. However, most small presses simply cannot afford to send out books. And so…. 2.) It really may be up to writers sending review copies out themselves; again, some do, but most don’t; the return on their investment could be very small. 3.) We try to. But…. 4.) Reviewers like the rest of us have their own interests, specialties, connections and predilections: they tend to accept assignments that they’re comfortable with, and want to review books about which they can say things authoritatively. Moreover, as a practical matter, people write less well about things they can’t comprehend or have no real interest in. So what we need are reviewers who take in all kinds of writing – who want to draw people in, and not narrow things down. I keep advocating a sort of dreamy ecclecticism, but in reality it’s not what most reviewers are into…

I’m generalizing, and none of this is expressed to exculpate editors. There’s work to be done on all sides, that’s for sure.

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how cool is it when someone as important as don share is willing to share about his experiences! i dig his ‘dreamy ecclecticism’ and def agree with what he says.

francisco aragon, another very important editor, asks:

Hi Don:
How about sharing with Harriet readers what you shared with me re: your ernest efforts to get The Wind Shifts reviewed for P and HR and how the reaction (among some) to the Paranass piece by Selinger hindered your efforts. The subject is on the table. Let’s air it, with as much specificity as we can, and with YOUR take on it, etc. I know for myself that sharing it with me helped me better understand and appreciate the challenges book review editors face—including those who want to enlarge the tent.

Share responds:

It wouldn’t be right to air laundry, so to speak, or to betray confidences of the writers with whom we work and communicate. But I made some inquiries among a number of potential reviewers, Latino and other, concerning our coverage of Latino work. Of these, some never turned in anything; some submitted pieces that were not usable for one reason or another; and yes, several were intimidated by the response to Eric Selinger’s piece. About the latter, it’s best to let those directly involved comment, should they choose to (and Eric has on CSP’s blog). Craig Santos Perez has asked some very good questions; at the same time, there are the issues Michael has raised. We’re all engaging, though – here… in events and face-to-face discussions… and by backchannel. As recent discussions prove, there are many questions indeed about the nature and practice of book reviewing.

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kudos to both francisco & don for being so open. i think more transparency like this only helps the po-biz. any other editors want to jump in and share their experiences, feel free to comment. at least for me, i often don’t support litmags if i feel they don’t support ethnic writers–and at least knowing editors are trying makes me more willing to purchase, read, and promote their efforts (even if they never achieve that dreamy ecclecticism.

now, the micheal that don mentions is michael robbins, who also left a comment over at Harriet. you may know robbins from this blog, when ‘craigadamus’ predicted a while back that he would win the ‘most annoying commenter’ prize on the harriet blog. craigadamus, as usual, was quite wrong, as robbins’ comments of late have been much more pointed and interesting. UPDATE: craigadamus just tweeted and he now predicts that MARTIN EARL will win the ‘most annoying blogger’ at harriet! congrats to mr. earl!

anyhoo, robbins writes:

Well, now, come on. There are other questions to be asked. What, exactly, is the form of the problem to be redressed? If it is simply a dearth of reviewers “of color” (somehow thought to be synonymous with “ethnic”), we should explore why that is a problem. Is it because “ethnic” reviewers would have a special insight into the work of “ethnic” poets that the rest of us lack? So that, for instance, I am less “qualified” to review Half of the World in Light than someone with a background similar to Herrera’s? If so, is the argument that “ethnic” reviewers should only review “ethnic” poets, or that they are unqualified to review “white” poets? If so, I take it we need pay no more attention to the argument & can turn to serious questions. If not, then we are asked to believe in a special relationship of one kind of reviewer to one kind of poet whose inverse does not hold, but from which other reviewers are excluded. At which point I return to my initial question: what exactly is the form of this alleged problem?

As framed, the question says there are not enough people “of color” reviewing poetry books. But the reason this is a bad thing cannot simply be that it is a good thing to have people “of color” reviewing poetry books. The reason must be that this “problem” is held to be an expression of a further systemic discrimination that hold within the circulation & distribution channels of poetic production. If this is true, why not examine the question instead of carping about how many people from Mexico review books? And part of the reason for remaining on the surface of the “problem” is, I take it, that at its base this is not a question of race or ethnicity at all — but a question of class. Which is to say that it is a question of race insofar as race is one of the categories in which class oppression gets expressed. There are plenty of Latino, black, Indian, etc., poets. But reviewers tend to be people from backgrounds privileged enough to have afforded them the opportunities for quality education — training, that is, in composition & rhetoric, with a concomitant mastery of standard English (some, needless to say, more masterful than others). And these people tend, because the institutional hierarchies of education reflect those of society itself, not to be “of color.” But the relationship of race to class is, I think, one that is usually stood on its head. We should try to see the ways in which “race” or “ethnicity” function in the ideology of superstructural relations, rather than assuming their ultimate determining power.

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as you can see, this comment is both interesting and annoying. and perhaps (one of) the problems with robbins’ comment is that he misunderstands the main problem (which could perhaps be due to my bad grammar). here’s the problem: poetry books written by u.s. based ethnic writers are hardly reviewed in u.s. based lit magazines.

robbins, instead, takes up the question of why there are not that many ethnic reviewers. which is a problem, too, be not to me the main one. but as i said in the comments field in the previous post, it’s dumb to think that a latino poet, e.g., should only review latino poets…there’s no essential insight–sure there may be shared experiences, but the lack of shared experience should not preclude a reviewer from reviewing any book.

in terms of robbins’ second paragraph, i’ll let others rip it apart–yikes! and i’ll join the fun in the comment box. see you there!

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4 thoughts on “NaBlogWriMo 20: Writing about book reviews is so much more important than writing book reviews PART 2

  1. Hi Craig:

    This was my response to Don's response to me. That is, we're having a dialogue! Actually, we've been dialoguing about this for well over a year.

    I wrote:

    Thanks for contributing this.

    I didn’t mean to suggest that names should be revealed. I’m sorry if that was implied. I’m just generally interested in discussing the phenomena or thinking that leads a reviewer to decline to take on a book review assignment because it's by members of a group whose ethnicity is not his/her own.

    The majority of the contributors in The Wind Shift are American-born poets who write in English, so I’m interested in better understanding the thinking that arrives at this decision regardless. What informs it? Did some [reviwers] perhaps think that “Latino” meant “it must in Spanish”? Did they decline before even cracking the book? Or after cracking the book?

    What allows Eric Selinger, who’s been a long-time reviewer for Parnassus Poetry in Review, an esteemed journal, to not shy away from such an assignment, and who continues to write reviews by other minority poets?

    I’m not interested in naming names, I’m interested in exploring the thinking that arrives at these decisions so that perhaps, with some respectful dialogue, and education, some of these reviewers might take tentative steps to venture beyond their comfort zones as critics in the future.

    Could you envision a situation and circumstance where this thinking could be discussed and explored, safely?

    FA

  2. See Craig, it's a CLASS question!
    You're actually studying, and writing about, CLASS my friend. Anyway, according to Wtfopedia, race and class became porously conflatable some time in the 1990s (perhaps concomitant with MC Hammer) . . .

    (And I'm so sorry man, I am still reviewing your book. My God, it's been so long. The PhD beats me every day).

  3. hey francisco, thanks for pointing out that it's an ongoing dialogue!

    i'm interested in your questions also…looking forward to future responses on this.

    c

  4. nicholas is alive!!! missed you–hope the diss is going well. no need to be sorry–i hear those euro dissertations are beasts!

    ah yes, Wtfopedia–that must be where robbins gets all his info!

    so does this mean that MC Hammer's pants, like race, is simply an epiphenomenon of class?

    c

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