Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Art of the Book Review: Barrett Warner

Today I’m talking about book reviews with poet and reviewer, Barrett Warner. This is the second in an interview series about the art, craft, and challenge of writing book reviews in today’s lit world, and you can read my earlier interview with fiction author and critic, Spencer Dew, here: The Art of the Book Review: Spencer Dew.

Barrett Warner is a writer I had the great pleasure to read with (at the Last Sunday, Last Rites series) when I traveled through Baltimore in late April. I loved what he and poet Jessica Dotson did to tweak the usual line-up of readers. Simply by reading their poems one at a time, alternating (an opaque call and response), they raised the energy level in the room to heights that the normal everyone’s-turn-at-bat would have missed.

Barrett wears a number of hats like most of us: he's a poet who leaves an impression wherever he goes (winner of the 2011 Princemere Poetry Prize and finalist for the 2012 Washington Writers' Publishing House book contest); author of the chapbook Til I’m Blue in the Face (Tropos Press); a horse breeder; and co-publisher with his wife, poet Julia Wendell, of the small press, Galileo Books. As a critic, he’s reviewed books for such publications as jmww, Loch Raven Review, and Rattle; and he has reviews forthcoming at Otis Nebula, Cerise Press, Shenandoah, Fiddleback, and Chattahoochee Review. He lives on a farm in Maryland's Gunpowder Watershed. Without further ado:

Karen: What do you see as the challenges particular to reviewing poetry?

Barrett: The word poetry feels so general. Not all language is verbal. My chargers know six words and a jockey chirp, but lordy, the stories they tell, the poems they sing.

Digging into a book of poems I wanted to be swept away. Falling in love is the easy part. Now it’s more about, OK, where are we going now? Will I need a toothbrush? Most poets are writing from experience rather than particular lyric traditions or “schools” (the Black Mountain School today sounds like the name of a fiddle band). How do you critique someone’s experience?

The biggest challenge is to know who you’re writing to. In the newspaper age you had an idea where the roll-ups were being tossed—houses, newsstands, etc. Online reviews reach an unfixed readership. I’ve got three lines to grab someone I’ve never met and could never describe; three lines to win them over into clicking the “see more” button.

For me, reading poetry is the same great sport it ever was. But talking about it, reviewing it, which is very old school, can be awkward. Having ideas—judging the art of a poem—feels so selfish. My main point in writing a review is that as I get older it’s harder for me to be moved but when I am moved I definitely want the whole world to know about it.

One problem I have—editors want you to discover Mozart’s next Requiem, and to write about it in 500 words. This is Mozart we’re talking about! Try 10,000 words. I mean, it’s online so we’re not offing trees. The cost of paper is not an issue. I need 1,100 to 1,400 words to make a review.

In terms of the poems themselves, I’m troubled by line edits. It’s so much easier and cheaper to lay-out and print a book since it doesn’t have to be off-set anymore. Editors used to do a much better job combing manuscripts, fussing over text. I’ve seen a lot of great poems which still would have benefited from a better word here or there but no one seems to know whose department that is.

Personally, I’m someone who needs aggressive editing. I was forty-eight by the time I learned how to spell bougainvillea, not to mention my affection for confusing rhetoric. Often I’ll write a review and forget to say whether or not I liked a book. I rely strongly on editors who are probably very busy to help me nevertheless, to remind me of the basics. Many of my first drafts of a review need a twenty minute shower. So I couldn’t really work without lots of editing and I sort of wish more poets felt the same way.

Karen: What is it you DO when you review a book?

Barrett: In 1988 my buddy Josh, Christ how he got pissed at me—we were always playing 500 miles. He made up the game or it was in one of his short stories. You know, “500 miles to Georgia tell me what you see.” It was an imaginary contest for who could see the most. We played it out loud, probably to impress someone named Alison. Boys, she’d smirk. She wore contempt like an orchid.

Every book feels like that 500 mile trip only now it’s real. I read a book of poetry as if I’m on a train. That cattle catcher on the engine car is getting bruises. I keep a lively pace when I read so I can hang out on something stirring and still maintain a flow. Michael Collier, let me tell you what I see. Timothy Liu, let me tell you. Kevin Higgins…I’m seeing the country, the stops, the bartender who’s made these rails one too many times.

That stinker Robert Pinsky says good poetry is always going someplace. So maybe reviewers, we’re the travel agents. All aboard still means what it did a hundred years ago. By the way, if you want Slate to continue the Pinsky column you gotta go there and like it or say “Amen.” Slate is always asking the mirror, who’s the fairest of them all?

Karen: How would you describe the art of the book review?

Barrett: Poetry is an art. Book reviewing is a skill. Some of us are just a little more compulsive about it. As a racer and a gambler I was into yearling sales, trying to find a young horse that would grow up and win the Derby. Even today if I drive past a horse auction my foot pumps the brake and I fight the steering wheel to keep moving past.

As a reviewer I’d love to find a snappy sharp young writer, sure, but there are better folks than I doing a great job of that: Alice James Books, Anhinga Press, Lost Horse Press, Autumn House Press, and my favorite, the Pitt Poetry Series. My point is this: let the press find the poet, let the poet find the poem, stay out of the way of this important process. Afterwards, I might tease a little of the art out of the collection. I want to help others connect and maybe give up some coin for the book.

Most of my literary influences are drawn from the Daily Racing Form which has been my Bible for thirty years. When I review a book I’m handicapping a race—where’s the early speed, the power, the late kick, the reach and grab, the pain killers and bandages, the odds, the weather conditions—and I’m partly a tout, but most of all I want to win my bets and witness a kind of enthralling beauty that could never be anticipated.

Karen: Do you approach a review as an encounter with a book you love, or an offering of context for a book that is difficult but deserves a wider audience?

Barrett: Every book deserves a wider audience. Poetry is concerned with what Millay called “that purple edge outside most people’s lives.” So reviewing might be about bringing readers and the poet closer together, close to that edge which for most readers is only a distant horizon. That means connecting a few dots, and sometimes you’re dead wrong on the connection or you find a connection the writer didn’t intend. The night sky is real big. You can see Orion any place you look.

Karen: What do you enjoy or loathe when you read other writers’ reviews of literature?

Barrett: Give me some sugar. Show me something. Make it hurt. Let me laugh. It’s easy for poets to get lost in their own beautiful woods, but readers are blind, trying to find a black hat in a dark room. A reviewer that lets me know when I’m getting warmer, who knows where the hat is but still lets me find it on my own (with some minor coaching), well that’s a review for me.

I don’t mind reviews that give a little more background on the author, reviews by people who personally know the author. I find this helpful at times as long as the reviewer is still making tough demands of the book. The only reviews I don’t like are the short ones. Putting feelings in there is all right too, but it must be clear how those feelings were transformed by the experience of reading.

Karen: Do you see current reviewing tendencies that are pernicious, lazy, exciting, or helpful?

Barrett: Blog posts are everyone’s way of having a Taxi-cab confession. Those reviews should be pernicious, lazy, and exciting all at once. I mean hey, some of us take the bus to work. Others ride a skateboard. It’s important for reviewers to know their poetry, but it’s also important for reviewers to come from whichever culture they’re writing for.

The printing press democratized literacy, but the Internet democratizes art. We reviewers are the clowns at this rodeo. The clowns perform a minor but essential task, distracting the angry bull. What am I going to say? That someone is a bad clown? There’s no such thing as a bad clown because what do you expect, he’s a clown after all.

Karen: Keith Taylor has written a thoughtful, nuanced essay on reviewing poetry in today's media environment, and talks about (among other things) the narrowed audience for poetry reviews because of the downsizing of newspaper reviews, saying: “[T]he chance to review a new collection of poems in a place where several thousand people might read it, and to actually be paid something for our labors, has almost disappeared….In the fairly recent past many people still considered a knowledge of the poetry of the moment—even if that knowledge came only from reviews or the occasional poem appearing in a high brow magazine–as an essential element of the life of the mind, or at least as an important ingredient of contemporary culture. If there ever was a consensus about that, it has been forgotten.” Can you talk a little bit about poetry reviews as potentially adding to "the life of the mind"?

Barrett: Hearts have a beat. Brains don’t. So “life of the mind” has a funny chime to it. The artist and sportsman Frank Stella—he had some great racehorses over the years, I’m thinking Brown Arc for one—in 1982 Frank gave six lectures at Cambridge which dealt with issues like the role of the critic in defining contemporary art. This was a time when almost everyone would hear about a work before they saw that piece. Well it’s a different can of soup today. Now we often see the works, read samples, get some news footage before we’ve gotten the accompanying critical narrative. So it’s an exciting time to be an adorer of fine art and a lover of words.

I’m not sure I buy that we’re worse off than the glory days. When literature used to be a club maybe we needed highbrow reviews to find our way onto the scene. But I believe there’s no such thing as a good club. It’s like saying so and so was a well-meaning and kind dictator. There’s no such thing as a good dictator. Literature isn’t just for angels that haven’t fallen, it’s for the rest of us too.

My advice to Taylor is that he tighten his gauchos and accept that we’re not operating in a bricks and mortar world with bricks and mortar reviews. I mean, if no one is coming to your church on Sunday then take your church to the streets. Stand on a box in the Town Square. One of my deceased pals David Franks used to shout into a megaphone “Poetry!… Swim a river of shit if it’s on the other side!

I’m one of the lucky ones so in love with poetry I don’t care about the conditions. I don’t need the perfect bed to make poetry love, the perfect light, the perfect sentimental view. What I got right now has problems, but it’s action and it’s fantastic. Taylor’s right, but he should drive his idea to the cemetery. There are a lot of folks lying there with dirt on their faces who’d give anything for the chance to come back, even if it meant a life of fewer paying gigs and fewer newspapers and only online opportunities.

Karen: How do writing and reviewing coexist in your writing life--do they complement each other in some way?

Barrett: There are two parts to your question. The harder one is how do I incorporate writing into my life? A hard knocker like me is going to take his poetry where he can get it. I sleep like a dragon with one eye open. I listen to the wind.

I work with my hands about sixty hours a week in the growing season so I have to compose most of my poems on the jog. I say the poem over and over out loud until it’s burned into me but not so deep I can’t revise it. When the tractor’s home and the loader down, or the horse is put away dry, then I write down the poem singing in my head.

Reviewing is different. There’s referencing involved. Dog eared pages. Underlinings. Long-handed rants on legal pads. But I’m also thinking about the poems in someone’s collection all the time and somehow from all of this a review emerges. I send my notes via postal to my typist who emails the goods back to me and then I send it out.

Sometimes I’m talking with a literary journal. I’ll say whom I’m reading lately or I’ll mention a book and suggest they assign it to someone and maybe I’ll make some kind of arrangement for a title down the road. Often my review just shows up in an editor’s box. I read six books a month and I’ll review two or three of these. So the writing life gets crowded.

One of the reasons I started reviewing this year after a thirty year break was that I didn’t want to be another poet without a book on his shelf. The idea that you can learn to write without learning to read amazes me. You want to learn how to write a novel? The best writing workshop in the world is in the library, in alphabetical order.

Karen: Is that where you get your books (libraries) or do they come to you directly from presses?

Barrett: I don’t like receiving books from publishers. Advance copies? No, thank you. It puts too much pressure on me and I’m a coward about pressure. Same with dogging the cat. Kissing in the bedroom with nightgowns and candles? Forget it. I need to start my kissing in the kitchen where there isn’t any pressure at all, just a few dishes, some with spaghetti stains.

The kitchen I go back to time and again for authors are the literary reviews. I’ll see a poem I like, scavenge the contributor notes. If the poet has a recent book I put a check in the mail. Sometimes they don’t have a book and I wring my hands. I noticed the author Bethany Schultz Hurst had poems in Gargoyle and Rattle and maybe Cimarron Review. My notes say, Great poems, but still no collection. So I’m keeping my eye on her. She’s one to watch.

I like to review books that have been out at least a year, and at least four times I’ve gone back six years. Adam Robinson of Publishing Genius Press calls what I do “keeping the conversation going.” I also like pairing my reviews. In September Loch Raven Review will publish my review of Jessica Fenlon’s Spiritual Side Effects alongside Nikia Leopold’s Simple Pleasures (the 2012 Blue Lights Press winner). Both poets are also well known as artists and both designed their own covers. The hint of a controlling nature in this behavior is contradicted by how each author is so willing to lose herself in a poem without losing control of her lines.

I also look for authors at poetry readings. I read two months ago in the West Village with Becca J. R. Lachman. No way I was letting her get in a cab without palming her The Apple Speaks. The nice thing about hearing an author read is that you get a sense of which poems are favorites. I love finding new favorites in the same book. But it’s nice to make a personal connection with an author. I’m reading Kevin Young’s Ardency right now with the aim of reviewing it but the book is so strong and woven and deep I’m anxious to talk with him about it but I don’t really know him except that he teaches outside of Atlanta. I may just have to take Josh’s train to Georgia after all.


The next interview in this series is expected to appear next week.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Interview with a Micro-Press: Tiny TOE Press

Today I’m interviewing Michael Davidson about his very small press, Tiny TOE Press. Davidson is a writer, a blogger, and a publisher. He is the author (under the nom de plume, herocious) of the novel Austin Nights (2011), the debut title on Tiny TOE. This micro press has a short but intriguing (and growing) list of titles, which you can find here:

I have a special affection for Tiny TOE, as they handpress their books in a similar way to how I self-published/self-produced my first novel which started my own micro press, Words Like Kudzu. When I finished writing my novel, I wanted to put it out in the world immediately, so I took my bookmaking skills and my love of the Xerox machine and made my own books. Tiny TOE does this, only better. They use rulers, box cutters, and a homemade book-pressing machine they call a jig. Me, I just used my hands and my back and a stapler, and frankly, my back is still paying for it 12 years later.

Karen: How did Tiny TOE get started as a press? 

Michael: Tiny TOE Press got started because of [TOE]. After ~2 years of building content for TOE, commenting on blogs, and emailing with like-minded people, I managed to meet some publishers/writers who were putting together some good books, but none of them, at least none that I knew, even considered the idea of handpressing their own paperbacks. Tiny TOE Press realized the modest potential of this niche market and made it an option.

Once I made the first copy of my book I felt like this was what I was supposed to be doing: making and writing books. But for this adventure in self-publishing to turn into an adventure in publishing it took the jig. That's really what started Tiny TOE, the jig that was built in a shed.

The jig is made out of wood and bolts. It functions as both a square and a clamp. The jig is crucial for making the spines of our books. We started out with a jig that presses one book at a time. Now we've progressed to a jig that presses four at a time. 

Karen: What place do you think the micro press holds in the publishing world? In the literature world? 

Michael: To use metaphor, the publishing world is a vast bucket with micro presses being occasional droplets into this bucket. Micro presses can and do ripple and splash with some of their titles, but it's rarely anything tidal.

Now in the literature world micro presses are vital because they democratize the written word. So many people can't escape the draw of writing literature, but it is a meteoric event indeed for this breed of writing to break out into the publishing world. I think it's because most of the publishing world can only take so many risks each year, and this number is less than the number of manuscripts in the literature world worth taking a risk on. Micro presses noticed this imbalance and made it their mission to discover these manuscripts that deserved a readership and turn them into consumable books.

Karen: How are you finding authors--do you seek them or do they find you? 

Michael: From the start our jig has been responsible for getting submissions from some talented writers. Our jig put us on the map. It made us discoverable, and writers love discovering new independent presses.

ML Kennedy, the author of The Mosquito Song, is one of the first contributors to TheOpenEnd. After he bought and read our first book, and after he read the post roughly going over how this book was made, he emailed me about the possibility of Tiny TOE Press representing his novella, which TheOpenEnd had published in serial format the year before. We were very proud to collaborate on this sardonic vampire narrative. It's New Pulp.

Mitchell Hagerstrom, the author of Miss Gone-overseas, is a similar kind of story. She contributed some of her prose to TheOpenEnd before the existence of Tiny TOE Press. Once she learned of my book she emailed me a manuscript she had worked on over the span of several years. Her novella read then as it reads now, like a timeless piece of prose from the viewpoint of a nearly unrepresented voice in WWII history.

Joseph Avski and Mark McGraw, author and translator (respectively) of Heart of Scorpio, had no affiliation with TheOpenEnd. They got in touch with me after they watched the time-lapse video of me handpressing a book. I read their multi-voiced novella about a famous Colombian boxer and immediately saw how the story of this boxer mirrors the history of his country. Being Colombian, I knew this would be our next book. It was written in the stars.

Writers have been finding us, and new ones are finding us always, but now that we've been around a little longer and have a better idea of the small press world, we have our eyes on a few writers that we'd love to work with.

Karen: I love the particular variety of formats you are offering--you sell each title as both handmade book and e-book. How did you arrive at that model and how is it working for you? 

Michael: While writers care a lot about distribution and reach when it comes to their work, and this requires a more industrial approach to bookmaking, they also value the way their book is produced.

Handpressing their book gives each copy an energy that the industrial approach--with its offset or POD printers--cannot imitate. When handpressed, their book is not only a work of literature, but also a piece of craftsmanship.

The ebook does what the handpressed book cannot, namely, reach thousands of people wanting to read good books on their ereader in an instant.

I like the model. It has gotten our books some interesting press and their share of readerly activity.

Karen: What other micro presses do you admire and why? 

Michael: Several come to mind immediately. In no specific order, Publishing Genius and Mudluscious Press. They put together clever bundle packages and experiment with marketing strategies to move their stock. Lazy Fascist Press has released some notable titles and seems to leave a lot of control in the writer's hands re: overall design. Calamari Press and Dzanc Books for their painstaking care in designing book objects. O/R Books for their incredible website and progressive ebook business model. Featherproof for their Free Mini-Books. Tyrant Books for their hype. Civil Coping Mechanism for their roster. Melville House and Spuyten Duyvil for their novella series.


You can find interviews with Michael Davidson on further topics here and here.

Don't miss recent interviews with Spencer Dew, on book reviewing, and Mike DeCapite, on writing. And stay tuned for more interviews about The Art of the Book Review.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Art of the Book Review: Spencer Dew

Today I'm posting the first in a series of interviews with small press writers and reviewers about the art of book reviewing, and the state of book reviews. In the process of getting reviews for my own books and for books I published by other writers, I've been paying closer attention than ever to reviews. I have noticed a wide range of quality: There is quite a wide variety of writings that call themselves reviews in this new media world. But the word "quality" doesn't even get at the variety I'm talking about--that sounds like I like one person's writing better than another's. But there is the quality of the writing, the quality of the critical thought, the quality of the reviewer's idea of what a book review should be, and more. Has new media itself degraded (or evolved) the idea of a book review? To some writers, the blog format seems like a good excuse to write a casual review that may be even less thoughtful than a blurb. To other writers, a Goodreads account is a fine platform to write intelligent responses to steady reading. And there are plenty of writers, young and old, who are writing well-considered book reviews and getting paid much less than they were a decade ago, or not getting paid at all.

Today I'm interviewing Spencer Dew, who writes fiction short and long, teaches Religious Studies, and is the author of a critical study of Kathy Acker. Spencer is a staff reviewer at the online litmag decomP magazinE and a regular reviewer at the long-running small press review, Rain Taxi Review of Books. You can find his reviews at those respective sites, and his writings and interviews here:

Karen: Paul Theroux has said (in an introduction to his book, Sunrise with Seamonsters) that writing book reviews is a "much greater necessity for a writer than teaching how to write at a university, or leading seminars on literary culture." What do you think?

Spencer: What a strange quote!  Collecting marbles is a greater necessity for a writer than hoarding scraps of yarn, but, of course, neither of those things is actually necessary.

Now, since “writing book reviews” requires reading, and, ideally, requires critical reading, reading that attempts to analyze the technique employed, to figure out the mechanics of how the text works, how it was put together, and since it’s an act not just of engagement or experience or feeling but also concerted second-order stuff, contemplation and then the articulation of the results of that contemplation, “writing book reviews” is one practice that hones skills necessary for a writer, to be sure.  But that doesn’t mean a writer needs to write book reviews, per se.

Karen: What do you believe a book review should DO? What's its job? Is it an opinion piece, an educated bit of contextualizing, an encounter between one peculiar reader and one particular book, or is the reviewer supposed to take the book on its own terms—after determining and naming those terms? Is it the book's job to reach the reviewer or is it the reviewer's job to find the pulse of the book?

Spencer: I think the job of the review—and the reviewer—depends on the publication, but I can give you a handful of examples from my work for Rain Taxi.

When I reviewed Julia Scheeres’s book on Jonestown, A Thousand Lives, I located this book within the scholarly and popular literature on Jonestown, showed what was new and effective in this treatment, and debunked some of her inflated claims about being, as her subtitle unsubtly and incorrectly states, the “untold story.”  I assumed that readers of my review might have heard of this book and had certainly heard of Jonestown but probably hadn’t read anything on it before; I wanted to give some sense of what was out there and how this book stacked up against those other sources (including Stanley Nelson’s 2007 documentary for PBS, a source which casts a heavy shadow on Scheeres’s work).  If you’re going to read more than one book on Jonestown, Scheeres provides something useful; but if you’re only going to read one book on the topic, this isn’t the one you should read.  That is an informed opinion, drawing on the fact that I routinely teach about and teach books and articles on Peoples Temple and Jonestown, as well as the fact that I spend a great deal of time critically evaluating books.

When, to offer another valence, I wrote my review essays of the collected work of Michael Muhammad Knight for the comic book series Hellblazer, I began with the strong desire to draw attention to these pieces and, in my reviews, to analyze them in new ways.  I offered an overview of Knight’s oeuvre, some thoughts on why he is an important voice in the contemporary scene, and advances a criticism of misogynistic tendencies and the tricky way he presents such tendencies in his works.  On Hellblazer I argued for a central tension throughout the series between oppressive forms of authority and the temporary liberations provided by friendship.  Parliament versus the pub, or something like that—but, again, what I was doing was saying, look, these are neat books, rewarding in many ways, and one thing that’s going on here, that is important and fascinating, is this.  That is also a function of the review, a task of the reviewer.

Writing on Jarett Kobek’s novella Atta, a book about the 9/11 hijacker and including scenes describing the hijacking, I tried, foremost, to show what and how Kobek was doing what he was doing and raise a series of questions about both underlying claims about a certain mode of Islamic education—recitation and memorization, with its solid Quranic roots, which is played up here as central to Atta’s fanatical mindset—and about why an artist might engage in such an exercise of entering into the mind of a historical figure like this.  I hope I provide, in the end, some tools for wrestling with a book that, I believe, was designed to be wrestled with.

One final example: the linked stories in Maleficium, by Martine Desjardins, were seductively creepy, and reading them—-with, sure, the knowledge that I was going to write a review of the book—-I got lost in the decadence, the texture.  My review was largely an appreciation of what I took to be the most compelling qualities of the storyline and the prose, with ample samples of the latter for the reader to experience as a kind of preview.

This is by no means an exhaustive typology of how book reviews function, but these examples do address your question.

Karen: There's all these levels of reviews out there. It's no longer just the New York Times Book Review, literary journals, and your hometown newspaper. Now it's also blog reviews, online litmag reviews, Amazon and Goodreads reviews, and all the places that Amazon and Goodreads reviews "show up," too—like Worldcat or Google searches. Likewise, one reviewer might cross-post their reviews in several spots online—LibraryThing, Goodreads, Amazon, etc. In your view, what has this expansion done for the standards of book reviews? Do you think that today's online readers are simply "savvy enough" to process the different expectations of different venues? Or do you see more poorly-written, poorly-thought-out reviews being generated overall?

Spencer: There is a real distinction between thoughtful criticism and the simple “reviewing” that occurs when someone gives stars or thumbs or offers a few words in praise of a recent Panini on Yelp.  Putting thumbs and stars on things can be very useful in some situations—I don’t want to go to a bad dentist, for instance, and I like living in a world where feedback can be provided on such services—but this isn’t the same as the work of a critic, which needs to be broadly informed and involve serious engagement and consideration.  My experience with Amazon reviews has not found them useful; my experience with Goodreads, which is quite slight, has mainly been to offer me a list of books that folks I know have or want to read, which is like walking into someone’s house and looking at their bookshelves, which is nice.  There are some great bloggers and great online literary magazines.

This might be a tangent, but a few days ago I was meeting with a friend who brought up the fact that a major independent bookstore here in Chicago has been fighting bankruptcy for years and only continues to exist due to some rather miraculous subsidies.  My first impulse was to say, well, it would be a shame if that store closed, but when I really thought about it, what I value about the existence of that store is that I can walk in and see some well curated tables offering me a sampling of new books I wouldn’t otherwise know about.  I don’t buy books there, because books are very expensive.  I read almost entirely via the great public library system of the city of Chicago, when I’m in Chicago, and via Interlibrary Loan when I am elsewhere.  So—without delving more into this issue of bookstores and their functions, one you have written on with eloquence elsewhere—I think that lists of books, with or without stars, on Goodreads or Amazon or blogs or lit magazines can be profoundly useful for precisely this sense of discovery.  But what the bookstore has is one guy who, like an editor of a literary review, carefully curates what motley assortment of books will be on display, vetting them, vouching for them.  His is a kind of discernment that can be, as you say in your next question, “trusted.” And that is a valuable thing.

Karen: What do you read a book review to find out? Where do you like to read book reviews? Do you trust certain journals or certain reviewers?  Do readers of book reviews think in terms of "trust"?

Spencer: I read Rain Taxi every quarter in print and follow all of their on-line updates, I read the New York Times book review section every week, I read most of the stuff that the New York Review of Books posts on-line, and I follow links from Arts and Letters Daily to assorted reviews.  I at least flip through and read around in the reviews in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion (because I’m a religion professor), and I visit sites like Spiked Review of Books, and The Guardian’s book section every few months.  When I’m at a good bookstore and feeling flush I’ll buy a Bookforum and London Review of Books.

As for “trust,” I trust the editorial staff of these places to attempt to pair talented reviewers with interesting, worthwhile books.  One of the reasons I started writing for Rain Taxi is that I read Rain Taxi and knew lots folks (first out in Boulder, the Naropa crowd, etc.; then in Chicago) who read Rain Taxi and respected what it was doing in terms of covering small presses, poetry, stuff you most folks wouldn’t otherwise know about.  So I read Rain Taxi to get a sense for new books out there in the world; I probably put in an Interlibrary Loan request for four books out of every issue, on average.

Karen: Do you think all books assigned should be reviewed, or can you imagine a situation where a reviewer just doesn't have an interesting enough engagement with the book to produce a worthwhile review essay?  Or is there, in fact, a science to reviewing which can produce (with some consistency) a thoughtful essay?

Spencer: One can produce a “thoughtful essay” on even a rancid piece of writing, but the question would be why.  If a non-fiction book makes an argument that needs to be debunked, say, or a book of poems expresses a fascist sensibility that needs to be challenged—those are solid reasons for a necessary and useful review of a “bad” book.

There’s another situation that is a more common occurrence for me:  with decomP, I try to review as many of the books that come in as possible, as a kind of service.  I feel a responsibility to seriously engage with these works, a responsibility to the authors.  So, for instance, I reviewed a few years back a book that was really quite awful—just bad writing, sloppy, boring, self-important, etc.  But I wrote a lengthy essay on it, and I gave lengthy quotes from it.  I wanted anyone reading the review to see that I was giving the book a fair shake, letting the book speak for itself, but I also wanted the author to know that I had not tossed out the book halfway through but mucked through it and given it a compassionate and critical reading, flagging what I took to be serious problems in a way that would be practically useful for the author.  Here I’m afraid I sound like a teacher, which is also what I am: you don’t just stamp a paper with a D, you have a responsibility to clearly explain why the paper earned that grade and how it could be improved, etc., etc.  For a publication like decomP, which is rooted, as I understand it, in a notion of literary community, the function of book reviews must also reflect that ideal—and there is, then, a pedagogical function; the book review isn’t just a blurb about a book worth reading, it also is a chance to talk about what makes good writing and about how writing works.

Karen: This particular blog (Karen the Small Press Librarian) has a policy of running largely positive reviews, because I don't think that small- and micro-press books should be buried before they have a chance to live. Not that I ask anyone to lie about their true feelings for a book, but I have declined to run some negative reviews. Thanks for telling us a bit about the delicate art of writing critical reviews of little-known authors.

Spencer: Thanks so much for including me in this discussion, and thanks, even more, for your support of and investment in, via things like this excellent blog, the ideal of artistic community.


I want to thank Atticus Books for their discussion series, Six Degrees Left, which was an inspiration for this forthcoming series of interviews. While Atticus publishes the interviews in panel discussion style, I enjoy their intelligent questions and relevant topics.

I'd also like to thank writer Tim Hall for pointing out that "More people are indeed reading more these days; but what they're actually reading is online product reviews." Thus, the Amazon book review may not be so easily dismissed.