Sunday, March 1, 2009

Keep on Neggin' in the Free World

Harking back to the debate about negative reviewing that started on Squandermania and spilled on to other blogs, the full text of Jason Guriel's review (the opening of which sparked the discussion) is now up at Poetry. Really not all that controversial, but some interesting discussion follows it. I particularly like the point made by one commenter about short reviews vs. long reviews. As someone who has written, and continues to write, both, I know exactly what he's talking about. You really have to boil things down in a short review; there's no space for nuanced contemplation and not much potential for bona fide literary criticism. The short form has its satisfactions, but often frustrates me, particularly when it comes to books about which I feel ambivalent. A longer review gives me the chance to work out and explain (to myself, as well as to readers of the review) my mixed feelings, whereas a short review of the same book can come off sounding equivocally tepid or, worse I think, can lean more in one direction than the reviewer actually wants it to.* Some books I just like so much that I want to quote more and really get into what makes them hum. Canadian Notes & Queries continues to be a haven for the 2000+ word review. I have no interest in publishing brief reviews and am usually disappointed if a reviewer hands in a perfunctory 7 or 800 words. Even in 2000 worders, I find I'm often prompting the reviewer to expand on one point or another. But, given that we have a payment ceiling, I can't really blame reviewers for not wanting to go deep. Vita brevis and all that.

*An illuminating contrast from my own work is my 350 word review of Peter Sanger's Aiken Drum vs. the 9000 word essay I wrote on his work. The former was written in the midst of the latter, and was I think unduly influenced by it. At any rate, I think the short review dwelt more on the faults of the book than it should have, given the scope of the review. Not that I disagree with what I said, just that I didn't adequately represent the range of what I thought of the book, which made the praise at the end seem perfunctory.

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