Sunday, May 07, 2006

On Having Taken the "I" Out of Book Reviews

You know what I don't really understand? I don't really understand why reviewers of books of poetry have taken the "I" completely out of their blurbs and reviews. This problem has reached epidemic proportions. Almost all reviews are framed as questions of "What is this book of poems about?" and "Why do poems in this book work or not work?," rather than "What do I think this book of poems is about?" and "Why do I think poems in this book work or not work?"

It seems to me that there is something snobbish, insincere, and overwrought about taking the I completely out of book reviews. No book review exists outside the frame of reference of the individual reviewer, and to speak of "readers' perceptions of the author's work" is merely to say that "I, the reviewer, feel this way about this book." It strikes me as especially strange when a reviewer speaks of "what the poet is doing in particular poems," as if she or he could not only inhabit the mind of the person but somehow utterly transpose his or her entire personage into that of the poet. An individual book reviewer should not behave as if his or her opinion was representative of that of every single past, present, and future reader of the book, because no human being can achieve that level of ubiquity -- sadly, not even the most pompous of us are that amazing.

I am not saying that I am immune to this problem myself. I am not even saying that the third person has no place in a particular book review. But I am speaking of the problem as a matter of degree -- it becomes problematic when the pronouns "I" and/or "you" are totally or mostly absent from a book review.

If we only had a problem with poetry book blurbs/reviews, then that would not be extremely problematic. Who reads book reviews of poetry at any rate? I'm sure that the audience for book review of poetry even magnifies the audience for poetry by comparison. (As a side note, I imagine that if reviewers worked harder to make at least some of their reviews more entertaining, warm-hearted, amusing, personal, vital, or evocative -- see, e.g., how some movie reviewers have succeeded in these aspects with their movie reviews -- then the audience for poetry reviews would be larger than a pre-2005 Los Angeles Clippers home game, this coming from a Clippers fan who stuck it out all through the 1990s and not some fairweather playoff harpie.)

But unfortunately, the problem has reached our readings of individual poems as well. At least sometimes. Just colloquially, we say things like "this poem is great," "this poem uses language well," or "this poem stands as a metaphor for two Japanese penguins on a flotilla of ice," as opposed to "I really like this poem," "I like this poem's use of language," or "I think that this poem stands as a metaphor for two Japanese penguins on a flotilla of ice, but I could be wrong, because I'm just random dude in San Jose who majored in cultural antropology and what do I know about penguin metaphors?"

In short, I encourage moving towards a greater recognition of the notion that to say "what a poem/book of poems is" is merely to say what the person who makes this particular claim thinks it is.


Blogger David E. Patton said...

I hope that you will take a look at my chapbook and let me know what you think.

1:54 PM  
Blogger Bryan Thao Worra said...

Well, as I've argued elsewhere, on the one hand, most of us have little use for critic/reviewers and at the same time, if we had better critics/reviewers perhaps our view would be different.

We need to create a climate where people can feel free to say:

"You know, Kip's poem about the Young Warthog isn't very good at all because he just took the words from the Titanic Song and switched the best nouns with his girlfriend's name..."

I look at this all with a certain je-ne sais-quoi, because I'm actually, deep down, afraid of the psychology of some person who says:

"I wanna be at the top of the heap of people who make it their professional life's mission to critique only Asian American poetry..."

At the present rate, that seems like you're clamoring to shove, what, 5 or 10 people out of the way and surround yourself with Asian American poetry books like ol' Don Quixote?

Hrmm. Ok, Howard Hughes...

On the other hand, we can certainly hope that one day people realize the following about Asian American poets:

1) They're better looking, per capita, than other poets out there.

2) Their work is smarter, more informed, or at least more interesting than ANYTHING that's going outside of Asian American Poetics.

3) It's more entertaining to go to an Asian American poetry reading than a "regular one" if you bring in just about any Asian American poet. (There are 2 exceptions.)

This sounds like a pretty big bit of hubris to be showing off right now, but you know what, I'll take the Pepsi Challenge on these. :)

See if I'm not right.

9:12 PM  
Blogger Roger Pao said...

Thanks for the post, David. If you'd like, or if anyone would like, they can e-mail me poetry. But being quite busy these days, I'm sorry that I can't promise a response, though I'll try.

9:11 AM  
Blogger Roger Pao said...

Hey Bryan, yes, I should add that I think that the vast majority of book reviewers who give positive reviews are sincere about what they're feeling, if only because they tend to gravitate already to books that they think would enjoy.

And as longtime readers of this blog know, I agree with you that reviewers should read outside their particular "area of interest," or "school" or "time period." It definitely opens up different worlds.

9:18 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home