Recently, I was given the advice—by an established poet whom I deeply admire and respect— that I would know my own book was done when it became something that made me so happy I would “just want to roll around in it.” I stared at the mess of papers on my floor and knew exactly what she meant. I had felt that way about my book before and, eventually, I would again. And I knew, too, what it meant to feel that way about the works of others. Because this is what a book review means to me: the chance to roll around in a work like it’s mud, to immerse yourself in it, to thrash around on your back like a puppy, to let it squelch up to your ears like a spring piglet. Whether I am reviewing a book myself or accepting a review written by another critic, this is always the sensation I’m looking for—the drive to engage deeply with a work, to wallow in and wrestle with the ways in which it causes pleasure or unease, the ways in which it haunts you and finds its way into your dreams at night or your thoughts as you stand at the sink washing dishes.
My August wrap-up for Connotation Press marks my first year as Book Review Editor, a position that has given me some absolutely amazing opportunities to engage deeply with books in just such a manner, as well as the chance to watch and guide others as they do the same. It has been a terrific, fun-filled, mud-squelching ride! But it has also opened my eyes to the ongoing (and often cyclical) conversations that take place around the criticism of literature. And so, as I mention some of my favorite columns of the year, I’d also like to spend a few moments explaining my take on three unresolved debates that seem to surface and re-surface among authors and critics alike:
1) Should reviews be primarily positive or negative?
The policy at Connotation Press, as it is at many journals, is not to print solely negative reviews. For starters, writing a quality book review—a review that truly explores and engages a book from a number of different angles—is no small task. When done well, it’s a huge expenditure of energy. As a reviewer, if I hate a book, I’m not going to review it because it’s simply not worth that energy. I engage with books that engage with me first. I save my breath for what matters to me, and what I hope will matter to others. However, this doesn’t mean I won’t discuss any challenges or concerns I have with a book. It doesn’t mean I won’t be balanced in my analysis. It just means that if I reviewed a book, it’s because I found something in it that is great and worth exploring in more depth—even those aspects that gave me pause.
Frequently, it is the search to find the positive in what initially seems negative that shows you a book’s real greatness. In the February issue, for example, I reviewed Rachel Zucker’s MOTHERs, an experimental memoir that I originally struggled with due to its insular, rather narcissistic tone. Although the book was not immediately likeable to me, I sensed that it was a deeply necessary book. Thus I pushed myself to engage and converse with the project, discovering in the process that the qualities that made it harder for me to like the book as a person were at the same time qualities that I most respected in it as a critic and author, because they were organic devices, literary manifestations of the book’s subject. Similarly, Robert Clark Young felt spurred review to Tim Parrish’s Fear and What Follows (published in the December issue) in order to explore and reconcile the fact that this memoir “of violent racism” was both “the most disturbing book I have ever read” and, simultaneously, “one of the most, honest, compassionate, and revelatory books I have ever read.”
2) Should authors also be critics?
I already established that I am an author in this column opening lines, so it should not come as any surprise that I’m going to go with a “yes” on this one. To be perfectly honest, I was actually rather surprised the first time I saw this question heatedly discussed on a Facebook post. My surprise may have been because I’m a poet and not a novelist, and most poets don’t really expect anyone except other poets to read their work anyway. But it is also because, as a writer, writing is the language I speak intimately, and about which I feel I am most qualified to speak. It is true that I cannot separate my experience as a reader from my experience as a writer. But is this a bad thing? My writing—as for all writers—is informed by my reading, and my reading is informed by writing. In a world that often seems far too small, filled with politics and inner circles, and favoritisms, I do think it essential to evaluate one’s reasons for reviewing a particular title, but at the same time I cannot dismiss the fact that some books simply seem to speak to us a little more loudly than others, and that our biases and tics as writers do legitimately inform our choices as readers—that this intersection can be a wonderful source of inspiration.
Thus there are times when I find myself reviewing a particular book because it has opened up new paths for me in my writing. One recent example is Julie Doxsee’s The Next Monsters, reviewed in the March issue. These prose poems opened up new landscapes for me in my own work as they pulled me into their startlingly visual and sometimes ghoulish details and their coiling, serpentine structure—their attention to the process of creation and recreation. When I found myself writing my own prose poems, inspired by Doxsee’s, I realized that I owed the book (and myself) the opportunity for further exploration that only a review affords.
3) To what degree should reviews incorporate the personal?
A book review is inherently a subjective exercise. From the choice of which book to review to one’s interpretation and reaction, a review is all about one’s personal interaction with the text at hand. Because this runs counter to much of the critical writing we come across in academic settings, where we are to taught create a greater sense of authority by omitting our own voices, there are differing opinions on how much personal information a reviewer ought to relay. While I believe in a varied and organic approach to each review, there are times when it is crucial to understand a reviewer’s context and motivations for exploring a work. For example, when a reviewer’s specific knowledge creates a unique and powerful conversation with a book, or when an intimate and personal lens can actually create the broadest sense of connection.
Many of the reviews that appear in Connotation Press tend to have a somewhat personal bent for just these reasons. Cindy Zelman’s review of Faye Rapoport DesPres’s memoir in essays, Message from a Blue Jay (reviewed in the July issue), employs both her experience as writer and teacher of creative nonfiction, as well as her experience seeing Rapoport DesPres read from her work in person. Thus she is able to speak to the reader with the hard-earned knowledge of someone who has toiled at the same trade as the author, who has hoisted and swung the same tools. And she is able to bring the reader into the same room as DesPres to be part of the audience as they listen to her, “rapt…under a spell of the beauty of her prose, the accessibility of her emotions, and to her struggles.” Likewise, when I sat down to review Rebecca Gayle Howell’s “brutally gorgeous” collection of poems, Render / An Apocalypse, for the September issue, I found that my own experience as a rural homesteader could not be truly extricated from my reading of her knife-sharp poems about hog-farming and the life of the subsistence farmer—that my own knowledge brought me unique challenges as a reader, and that these challenges created a conversation with the text that was both personal and expansive.
These are only a small handful of the many considerations that rise to the surface when one considers the art of book review through the lens of exploration and immersion. And they’re just my take, of course. But I hope that you can find some relief from the August heat by wallowing in these thoughts, if only for a few minutes—by jumping into the lake and dredging the thick, cool mud of the last year through your toes as you peruse all the books and reviews of Connotation Press’s fifth year. I hope that you will find something you truly love and that, when you find it, you will strip off your clothes and roll around in it and relish it for all it is worth.
Julia Bouwsma’s poems and reviews have appeared (or are forthcoming) in journals such as Cimarron Review, Colorado Review, Cutthroat, Natural Bridge, The Progressive, Puerto del Sol, RHINO, Sugar House Review, and Wisconsin Review. Bouwsma is Book Review Editor for Connotation Press: An Online Artifact, Coeditor of Shape&Nature Press, and Poetry Editor for New Plains Press. She lives in the mountains of western Maine.