Tuesday, January 18, 2005

No Strong Criticism

I'm in a critically sharp mood, so look out blogosphere! :) Seriously, one of my original goals for this blog was to provide sharp, thought-provoking, critical reviews of individual books of Asian-American poetry. At least some of them weren't necessarily going to be positive. But I've reconsidered -- this entry attempts to trace my reconsideration.

I find it interesting that I have NEVER read a negative review of ANY book of poems by an Asian-American author. I've read many positive reviews, interesting analyses, and a couple mixed reviews. But never any negative ones. Why is there a lack of strong criticism of such books? True, good critique may be positive, but it is the complete lack of negative critique that I've found a bit overwhelming at times. So I'd like to compare film criticism, where there is often passionate debate and critical thinking, with poetry criticism.

Well, one reason may be that it can take years of hard work to publish a book and people just want to be nice. (But it can also take years of hard work to make a movie, and film reviewers aren't nice.) Another, related reason may be that poets and reviewers of poetry fraternize with each other too closely to be straight with one another. (But movie reviewers, e.g., Roger Ebert, often fraternize with actors, actresses, directors, etc. as well, and that doesn't stop them from giving thumbs down to flicks.) Another reason may be that poets are just too sensitive to take criticism. (I don't buy this one, because almost all poets who have a book published must have, at some time or another, been in poetry workshops and/or other settings where their poems have been subjected to detailed, meticilous, perhaps merciless criticism, though one may argue that the stakes are higher with a book. But poets are not infants -- like film producers and directors, they know that their product will be subjected to the tastes of a wider audience.) Another reason, for non-Asian-American reviewers and perhaps for Asian-American reviewers, may be that they don't want to appear to racist.

At this point, my answer is thus that the poetry business is NOT show business. In other words, because the possibility of fame and fortune is far less likely in poetry, people feel less of a subconscious urgency for critical engagement with the books of poetry themselves. In fact, no poet makes a living through book sales alone. Why give a negative review when you're probably only going to be hurting the feelings of the poet and not affecting the reading/viewing habits of a wider audience? There aren't that many fans of particular Asian-American poets to begin with. (Ebert touched upon this phenomenon when he deemed "Troy" and "Alexander" the worst films of the year but acknowledged that there were probably even worse films, e.g. "The Thunderbirds," that didn't make his list, because no one had gone to see them anyway and it wouldn't be nice to slam smaller independent films.)

But IMHO, most Asian-American poetry anthologies, and poetry anthologies in general, are fair game, because the editors have decided to include and exclude poets and, in doing so, have defined entire fields of poetry. Much more is at stake here. Not only have poets and poems been excluded, but the whole future of particular fields is called into question.

I won't tackle individual Asian-American books of poetry at this point, because I'm not sure what good it would do, or rather, I'm not sure if the costs would outweigh the benefits. There is a reason why there is no strong, powerful critic of Asian-American books in Asian-American poetry: it is possible that the field is not strong enough yet to take it. Of course, one solution for this blog would be just to say that I "love" Poet X, but I "love, love, love" Poet Y and "love, love" Poet Z. But I don't want to turn this blog into a sheer infomercial for Asian-American poets/poetry, especially when it wouldn't necessarily be honest. My dad has often told me that if you don't be honest and straightforward with people, pretty soon they won't trust you anymore. And I do want to be trusted.


Blogger barbara jane said...

hey roger, so i find this post esp. relevant right now since i've been asked to write a couple of poetry book reviews for poets who i consider my friends, in addition to the fact that i am a longtime admirer of their works.

the editor of this review publication has said s/he'd be interested in my reviews only if i am confident i can write good, critical, and "objective" reviews. otherwise, in so many words, i just shdn't write them at all. i agree with this and am thinking about whether or not i can really do it.

it's tough esp. because as you say, we writers/poets know one another and this can "taint" the critical quality of a review. also, as pilipino or asian american writers publishing on for the most part small presses, we write reviews of books - no pretense here - in order to call attention to, to generate interest in what we consider otherwise overlooked or neglected poetry.

i guess then, my question is: how do we call critical, "unbiased" attention, generate interest in asian am poetry in a community filled with nepotism? how in the world do i write these reviews? ack, barbara

11:32 AM  
Blogger Roger Pao said...

Hey Barbara, thanks a lot for the fascinating remarks!

Well, I should start off by emphasizing that if you did enjoy the books, then by all means, you should write "positive" reviews. I was just calling attention to the virtually total lack of "negative" reviews in Asian-American poetry, which can make a person wonder...

I think you're definitely right in calling attention to the fact that these books are put out by small presses, whose publishers are often poets themselves and have put a lot of their personal/time money into them. That was the analogy I was going for with my quoting Ebert's not wanting to put independent films on his top ten worst films of the year list, and that was why I raised the question of whether it is even "ethical" to write a "negative" review given that the publisher/author may arguably be negatively affected.

Personally, I don't think that a negative review will hurt sales. That is, if it is an interesting, thought-provoking one. For example, sometimes, I'm most intersted by the movies that Ebert slams.

Two things come to mind for why I feel this way: 1) it could be that I'm thinking that it's so bad, it's good, or 2) it could be that I'm wondering what all the fuss is about. I mean, the debate over Houlihan's negative review of The Best American Poets anthology actually helped persuade me to go out and buy the book, and I'm reading it right now. But I realize others may feel differently.

11:03 PM  
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