Monday, December 31, 2012

Best of the Small Press 2012: Vanessa Veselka

1. Goodbye to the Nervous Apprehension by Michael Heald (Perfect Day Publishing, 2012)

 2. Dora: A Headcase by Lidia Yuknavitch (Hawthorne Books, 2012)

--Picks by Vanessa Veselka, author of Zazen (Red Lemonade, 2011)

Friday, December 28, 2012

Best of the Small Press 2012: Andrew Cotto

1. Ghosting by Kirby Gann (Ig Publishing, 2012)

2. Jonah Man by Chris Narozny (Ig Publishing, 2012)

3. Minotaur by Benjamin Tammuz (Europa Editions, 2012)

--Picks by Andrew Cotto, author of Outerborough Blues: A Brooklyn Mystery (Ig Publishing, 2012) and The Domino Effect (Brownstone Editions, 2011)

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Best of the Small Press 2012: Jennifer Hayden

1. The Infinite Wait and Other Stories by Julia Wertz (Koyama Press, 2012)

2. The Lovely Horrible Stuff by Eddie Campbell (Top Shelf, 2012)

3. The Voyeurs by Gabrielle Bell (Uncivilized Books, 2012)

4. The Underwater Welder by Jeff Lemire (Top Shelf, 2012)

5. Glitz-2-Go, Collected Comics by Diane Noomin (Fantagraphics, 2012)

--Picks from graphic novelist Jennifer Hayden, author of Underwire (Top Shelf, 2011) and the forthcoming Story of My Tits about surviving breast cancer (Top Shelf, 2014)
Find new work from Jennifer posted regularly here:
and here:

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Guest Review: Matt Dojny Reviewed by Jennifer Spiegel

Matt Dojny, The Festival of Earthly Delights. Westland, Mich.: Dzanc Books, 2012. Fiction. 400 pages. Illustrated by the author. ISBN: 978-1-936873-692.

A Book Review of Matt Dojny’s The Festival of Earthly Delights:
Who Can Take Him Seriously?

I don’t really know how to do a book review, though I like very much to “review” books. And since it’s that time of year when the literati and pretenders like me make lists about the best books of the year, I promised to abandon my Christmas plans if Karen Lillis included my book review of Matt Dojny’s book on her site, which is—let’s be honest—nicer than my site.

I only need to figure out how to really review a book. Well, then: form. The Festival of Earthly Delights is, eh hem, an epistolary novel (look it up) written by the protagonist, one Boyd Darrow, to the enigmatic Hap, whose identity you’ll eventually figure out. Boyd and his girlfriend-who-is-pretending-to-be-his-wife, Ulla, are young American expats in the imaginary Asian country of Puchai, where they both hold jobs in education, just as good Americans abroad often do, though Ulla is on the professional side of things.

What I really hate about writing book reviews is plot summary, so I’m going to skip it. The novel is a comedic novel. Epistolary and comedic. You’d be right if you guessed that there’s going to be all kinds of trouble, ranging from whacky food-tasting rituals to toilet humor (in one episode, I almost thought to myself, Enough, Matt! But, then, with further consideration, I thought, Well done, Matt! Well done!), from language mishaps to your usual foreign escapades involving drugs and whorehouses. Drugs and whorehouses are common, right? Boyd Darrow is utterly likeable, and we go wherever he goes willingly. He’s not an idiot. He’s not annoying. He’s just a young American abroad. Who lives with a girl named Ulla. In my opinion, one should always beware of women with names like Ulla. Generally speaking, women with the following names should be avoided: Ulla, Pippa, and Joss. Use your own discretion with Zoey.

In the short time I’ve got here, I’m going to focus on two aspects of this book: its comedic status and its rendering of the American expat abroad (Lordy, I love talking about that one).

It’s a comedic novel! Which means, in brief, it’s funny! You know, we’ve got to be serious for a second, and think about what this means. The comedic thing can be problematic. A bit of a stigma. I can’t remember where it is exactly, but I know that somewhere my own Love Slave is labeled comedic.

I don’t know about Matt Dojny’s response, but my response involved some disgruntled balking. Somehow, my writerly credentials were called into question. My legitimacy was at stake. Yeah, yeah, I read Catch-22. Yeah, yeah: Catcher in the Rye. In one of my non-review reviews, I grappled with the issue. The book was Tina Fey’s Bossypants, and I asked—with all sincerity—“Am I a humorist?” (The review can be found here: That Joke Isn't Funny Anymore.) Because maybe being a humorist isn’t such a good thing.

(Someone, incidentally, publically responded to my review by writing, “In answer to your question, No, you are not. ” I’m still suffering from that one.)

I’ve come to terms with the comedic thing. Dojny probably already has. There’s smart funny (which is marked by smarmy, sexy, true moments that contain beauty and sorrow and wit) and there’s dumb funny (sitcom TV with titles like “My Four Dads’ Sisters and Their Gay Neighbor” or “My Gay Neighbor’s Dad and His Four Sisters”). Funny, when funny is good, is smart. And Dojny’s prose is smart. Humor may be the best way at getting at this human thing, the core of what it means to be human. It seems like it’s the funny people who often see things more clearly. It’s not that they take life less seriously or that their light-heartedness is superficiality; rather, funny people are—dare I say it?—pretty damn perceptive, able to see nuances in behavior and thinking that other people miss. Fools!

If you can’t laugh at a good joke about excrement, something might actually be wrong with you.

Yeah, this book is funny. I’m thinking that the trick to humor is honesty—about everything. This is one super simple example. Ulla wakes up and says to Boyd, “I was just having a horrible nightmare. I was in a super-dirty bathroom, and my bare butt accidentally touched the wall.” I’ve had this dream! But here’s the important thing: though you’ve probably had this dream too, you may not know what to do with it. Dojny turns it into a comic moment, an honest moment. The gifted writer takes the common (like the bare-butt-on-dirty-surfaces nightmare) and renders them uncommon (magical moments abroad). That’s a real festival of earthly delights. Djony, gifted writer, does orchestrate a festival.

Let’s move on. Americans abroad! First, they are so freakin’ funny! Second, my first book—which is not comedic so don’t expect to laugh—is about expats (Shameless Plug: it’s called The Freak Chronicles). Third, I thought Dojny’s rendering of the American abroad was great. There are too many fine passages to quote from; I’m just going to pick a few. Though it’s common to draw upon the strangeness of food, Dojny does so with just the right tone. He’s gentle, without arrogance. He writes about Ulla’s fondness for this one dessert that’s like a “hot-dog bun filled with soybean ice cream, then smothered in creamed corn.” Sounds gross, but you’d probably like it too. I know I ate worse in Africa. There are bowls that emit the smell of “a hot burp, with a hint of black licorice.”

He captures the fear, the trepidation, the goofy white-kid-among-non-white people thinking which is heightened in extreme [foreign] situations. When a bunch of teenage malchaks (the politically-oppressed group, because there always is one) do potentially dangerous teenage stuff when Boyd walks in their part of the imaginary exotic locale, Boyd’s thinking goes like this: “I tried to compose my features into an expression that said: I’m just a gareng [foreigner] on my way home, minding my own business. I don’t think what you’re doing is cool, but I’m not judging you, either. It’s not really a big deal. Just don’t get anybody killed. I’m a visitor from New York City, the ‘Big Apple,’ so, believe me, I’ve seen much worse. . . I don’t view you as ‘the other.’ I know that the same blood runs through all of our veins. You may not have realized this before, but I know that you realize it now, as you look into my eyes: I am not afraid.” Boyd tries hard to communicate all of this in one facial expression, and this sums up what Dojny does in his rendering of the gareng experience: he captures a vast and complex collection of wild, important experiences in a series of quick, often funny, moments.

Well, he’s funny, but can he write? I like this line: “I woke up this morning with a mouthful of rubies.” Isn’t that what a good comedic novel is like? A mouthful of rubies? Think about it, reader.

I wrote my own little list of the Best Books of 2012, which was really the best books I read in 2012. However, my first choice was actually written in 2011, and The Festival of Earthly Delights was my second favorite read of the year. But since it was, in fact, written in 2012, it’s fair to say it was my pick for the Best Book of 2012! Yikes, that felt a little like a mouthful of rubies too. Don’t try to read this final paragraph aloud.

Summary: this is a really good book.

Guest Review by Jennifer Spiegel
Author of Love Slave (September 2012, Unbridled Books)
and The Freak Chronicles (June 2012, Dzanc Books)

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Best of the Small Press 2012: Bart Plantenga

1. The Revolution of Everyday Life by Raoul Vaneighem (Reissue on PM Press/Autonomedia, 2012)

2. On Bolus Head by Michael Carter with etchings by Brian Gormley (En Garde Books, 2012)

3. Tsunami of Love by Eddie Woods (Barncott Press, 2012)

4. The Banjo Clock by Karen Garthe (University of California Press, 2012)

5. Backwards the Drowned Go Dreaming by Carl Watson (Sensitive Skin Press, 2012)

6. To Cook A Continent: Destructive Extraction and Climate Change in Africa by Nnimmo Bassey (Pambazuka Press, 2012)

--Picks by bart plantenga, author of Yodel in Hi-Fi (University of Wisconsin Press, 2012) and the two urban-mirror, zen-street books Paris Scratch and NY Sin Phoney in Face Flat Minor (both on Barncott Press, 2012).


Please see a late addition to Ron Kolm's 2012 picks. As always, I hope you'll browse the numerous posts for the Best of The Small Press 2012.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Best of the Small Press 2012: Ron Kolm

1. Love Does Not Make me Gentle or Kind by Chavisa Woods (Unbearable Books/Autonomedia, 2012)

2. Backwards the Drowned Go Dreaming by Carl Watson (Sensitive Skin Press, 2012)

3. The Deceptive Smiles of Bredmeyer Deed by Susan Scutti (Ravenrock Publishing, 2012)

4. Trust Fund Babies by Steve Dalachinsky (Unlikely Books, 2012)

 --Picks by Ron Kolm, author of The Plastic Factory (Autonomedia, 2010) and longtime bookseller and small press "pusher"
--Read an interview with Ron at Literary Kicks


Since December 7th, I've been blogging the small press picks of terrific writers and editors in the small press scene, and I'll go through the end of the year. Keep up with them at: Best of the Small Press 2012.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Best of the Small Press 2012: Lori Jakiela

1. Dog Unleashed by Jimmy Cvetic (Awesome Books/Lascaux Editions, 2012)

2. Other Kinds by Dylan Nice (Short Flight/Long Drive at Hobart Press, 2012)

3. Watch the Doors as They Close by Karen Lillis (Sputen Duyvil, 2012)

4. Secret Systems of Hideouts by Heather McNaugher (Main Street Rag, 2012)

5. The Trolleyman by Bob Pajich (Low Ghost Press)

--Picks by Lori Jakiela, author of SPOT THE TERRORIST, MISS NEW YORK HAS EVERYTHING, and more.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Best of the Small Press 2012: Rami Shamir

TRAIN TO POKIPSE by Rami Shamir. Cover art by Adam Void.

1. Let One Hundred Flower Pots Bloom, anthology zine covering the recent controversy over the Chris Hedges essay, “The Cancer in Occupy." (AFFECT/New York Year Zero, 2012)

2. The Debt Resistor's Operations Manual by anonymous "well-qualified" contributors from a new Occupy Wall Street group, Strike Debt. (Strike Debt!, 2012)

3. Snowball's Chance by John Reed. (Melville House, 2012)

4. The Narrows by M. Craig. (Papercut Press, 2012) 

5. Watch the Doors as They Close by Karen Lillis. (Spuyten Duyvil, 2012)

6. Meme Wars: The Creative Destruction of Neoclassical Economics by Kalle Lasn and Adbusters. (Seven Stories Press, 2012) 

--Picks by Rami Shamir, author of TRAIN TO POKIPSE (Underground Editions, 2012)

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

New Bookstore Memoir Chapter

"The Secret Life of Magazine Covers" is the latest installment of my Bookstore Memoir-in-progress. While reminiscing on a poetry reading from 2002, the essay includes some thoughts on the small press and hype:
"It reminded me that the small press seemed to exist in this funny place. You could get a small group of your friends together, start a magazine or a publishing house, and it could add up to the most basic version of that: a good time, a cordial salon, a fertile exchange of ideas, a record of a cluster of talent. Or, it could go national, global. A hot title, a cool look, a dynamite new writer, a necessary conversation, a new energy, a zeitgeist, a legacy. You never knew whether you’d be overlooked as More of the Same, or become the next One to Watch. Stakes were small and huge at the same time, consequences could be negligible or cosmic. Ever since HOWL in 1955 was the 18-minute poetry reading heard round the world, hype was a part of the equation, something to be embraced or ignored by poets and publishers, but always a choice to be made."

Read the full essay in Issue No. 10 of Composite Arts Magazine, a smart and gorgeously-produced digital quarterly.


Check the Composite website for the calls for proposals for upcoming theme issues:

View the Composite archives here, or find Composite on Facebook or Twitter.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Best of the Small Press 2012: Dave Newman

Pittsburgh writer Dave Newman shared two Best of 2012 lists:

Awesome Small Press Books

1. The Collected Works Vol. 1 by Scott McClanahan (Lazy Fascists Press, 2012)

2. Fast Machine by Elizabeth Ellen (Hobart, 2012)

3. Imagining Paradise: New and Selected Poems by Barry Gifford (Seven Stories Press, 2012)

4. Jimmy and Rita by Kim Addonizio (Stephen F. Austin University Press, re-issued 2012)

5. Code for Failure: A Gas Station Novel by Ryan W. Bradley (Black Coffee Press, 2012)

Awesome Small Press Books from Pittsburgh Writers

1. The Trolleyman by Bob Pajich (Low Ghost, 2012)

2. Watch the Doors as They Close by Karen Lillis (Spuyten Duyvil, 2012)

3. Dog Unleashed by Jimmy Cvetic (Awesome Books/Lascaux Editions, 2012)

--Picks by Dave Newman, author of Raymond Carver Will Not Raise Our Children (Writers Tribe Books, 2012) and Please Don't Shoot Anyone Tonight (World Parade Books, 2012).


I'm blogging Best of lists through the end of December, please browse them at Best of Small Press 2012.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Best of the Small Press 2012: Laura E. Davis

1. Sink Your Teeth into the Light by Joshua Michael Stewart (Finishing Line Press, 2012)

2. Good Grief by Stevie Edwards (Write Bloody Publishing, 2012)

3. System of Hideouts by Heather McNaugher (Main Street Rag, 2012)

4. Ophelia Unraveling by Carol Berg (dancing girl press, 2012)

5. Women Who Pawn Their Jewelry by Sheila Squillante (Finishing Line Press, 2012)

--picks by Laura E. Davis, author of Braiding the Storm (Finishing Line Press 2012) and founding editor of Weave Magazine.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Best of the Small Press: CAConrad

1. MUSIC FOR PORN by Rob Halpern (Nightboat Books, 2012)

2. SNOWFLAKE / DIFFERENT STREETS by Eileen Myles (Wave Books, 2012)

3. EVERYTHING published in 2012 by TROLL THREAD Press 
    (Free PDF’s of all books) see:

4. BRINK by Shanna Compton (Bloof Books, 2012)

5. AS LONG AS TREES LAST by Hoa Nguyen (Wave Books, 2012)

6. THE EMILY DICKINSON READER by Paul Legault (McSweeney’s, 2012)

7. THE BOOK OF MONELLE by Marcel Schwob, translated by Kit Schluter (Wakefield Press, 2012)

8. THUNDERBIRD by Dorothea Lasky (Wave Books, 2012)

9. AUSTERITY MEASURES by Stacy Szymaszek (Fewer & Further Press, 2012)

-- Picks by CAConrad, author of A BEAUTIFUL MARSUPIAL AFTERNOON (Wave Books, 2012)


Click here for more of our Best of the Small Press 2012 from small press authors, editors, booksellers.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Best of the Small Press 2012: Kari Larsen

1. Darling Beastlettes by Gina Abelkop (Apostrophe Books, 2012)

2. Domestication Handbook by Kristen Stone (Rogue Factorial, 2012)

3. Heroines by Kate Zambreno (Semiotext(e), 2012)

4. My Life is a Movie by Carina Finn (Birds of Lace, 2012)

5. Kept Women by Kate Durbin (Insert Blanc Press, 2012)

--Picks by Kari Larsen, web editor of Anobium and author of Say you're a fiction (Dancing Girl Press, 2012), the Black Telephone (Unthinkable Creatures, 2012), and Come as Your Madness (Birds of Lace, forthcoming 2013).


I'm blogging Best of 2012 lists (from small press authors, editors, and booksellers) all month long. Click here for more: Best of the Small Press 2012

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Best of the Small Press 2012: Charles Rammelkamp

1. Autumn's Only Blood, Willie James King (Tebot Bach, 2012)

2. Watch the Doors as They CloseKaren Lillis (Spuyten Duyvil, 2012)

3. Cannoli GangsterJoey Nicoletti (WordTech Communications, 2012)

4. The Freak ChroniclesJennifer Spiegel (Dzanc Books, 2012)

5. The Tall Tale of Tommy Twice, Nathan Leslie (Atticus Books, 2012)

~~Picks by Charles Rammelkamp, author of Fusen Bakudan (Time Being Books, 2012)

Friday, December 7, 2012

Best of the Small Press 2012: Nate McDonough

It's that time again, when I ask small press authors and editors to contribute lists of their favorite small press books of the year. Without further ado:

1. Extravagant Traveler by Jeremy Baum (Self Published, 2012)

2. White Clay by Thomas Herpich (Adhouse Books, 2012)

3. Wizzywig by Ed Piskor (Top Shelf, 2012)

4. Afterschool Special by Dave Kiersh (Self Published, 2012)

5. Wild Child by M Young (Smoke Persian Press, 2012)

~~Small Press Picks by Nate McDonough, editor of GRIXLY comics anthology and author of graphic novel DON’T COME BACK (self published, 2012)

Please DO come back. There will be many more Best of Small Press 2012 lists now through Dec 31.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Bookstore Briefs: Hurricane Sandy, Pop Ups, and Expats

[New update below]

Since 1976, Printed Matter has been an organization that fosters, exhibits, and sells books and publications created by artists. Sadly, they lost many unique and limited edition books to basement flooding after Hurricane Sandy. Donate to help the store--or browse their exciting and extensive online catalog--here:

Primary Information, a press influenced by Printed Matter (and co-founded by former Printed Matter employee, James Hoff, along with Miriam Katzeff), also lost much of their inventory in a Manhattan Mini Storage unit that flooded during Sandy. They are taking donations here. Read more about the press, which is interested in 60s conceptual practices and reviving out of print artists' books and artists' writings, while creating a conversation with contemporary artists:

Tomorrow, Saturday, November 17th, publisher and bookstore powerHouse Books will hold a book fair and reading (Noon to 9pm) to recoup some of the $50,000 of losses they incurred when Hurricane Sandy waters entered their DUMBO, Brooklyn space. Details and lineup:

Word Up Books is currently without a brick and mortar space, and is fundraising in order to resume their wildly popular community bookstore (originally conceived to be a one-week pop up) in Washington Heights, Manhattan. Their promotional video featuring bookstore volunteers and neighborhood readers will warm any bookstore lover’s heart, and you can find the video and the Indiegogo fundraising campaign here:

Pittsburgh’s East End Book Exchange started in the summer of 2011 as a pop up bookstore at events, moved on to a three-day-a-week book stall at a gourmet farmers market, and tonight (Friday November 16) holds its grand opening in a brick and mortar space in the Italian neighborhood of Bloomfield. They feature gently used books and the output of local small press writers. Read the article in Pop City.


I forgot when I was blogging on the fly this morning to add another important item of bookstore news:

Under the Volcano Books, an English language bookstore in Mexico City, has moved to a new location, one that sounds very promising for a store still cultivating its audience. Owner Grant Cogswell says the new store is situated in "the upstairs of the American Legion, with full access to their magnificent bar and lounge with stage, and the best burgers in the city. Meeting and event space, and cineclub schedule forthcoming." Their grand re-opening in Condesa is scheduled for November 24. Facebook event page is here: 


Word Up Community Bookshop to Grace Upper Manhattan for One Month

Under the Volcano Books Opens October 15, Mexico City

Bookseller of the Month: Grant Cogswell

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

POSTPONED: Indie Publishing Panel in Brooklyn

Don't miss this panel discussion on indie publishing to be held Thursday, November 1, 2012 at 7.30 PM at Spoonbill & Sugartown in Brooklyn.

From the Facebook event page:

To initiate an ongoing debate on the state of independent publishing, Spoonbill & Sugartown Booksellers is bringing together local indie authors who have chosen to forgoe traditional publishing and forge their own paths to authorship. Through consistantly selling out at indie bookstores around the nation and garnering accliam for their work, these wordsmiths are proving to be the vanguard of a new model for publishing. The night features m. craig (The Narrows), Susan Kirschbaum (Who Town), Nathaniel Kressen (Concrete Fever), and Rami Shamir (Train to Pokipse) -- who will talk about the struggles and joys of independent publishing. Specific issues of finance, book-production, editing, and promotion will also be addressed. The authors will share the various approaches they've taken in dealing with these issues, while being questioned by the evening's moderator and Spoonbill's book buyer, Jamie Johnston. The event will take place on Nov 01, 2012 at 7.30 PM at Spoonbill & Sugartown in Williamsburg. 
Post script: There is a chance that Anonymous. author of The Oxygen Thief, will also participate in the panel.

This event has been POSTPONED due to Hurricane Sandy. As of now, there is no new date. Stay tuned to Spoonbill & Sugartown's events page to find out about the new date.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Guest Interview: Christen Clifford Interviews Vanessa Veselka

Christen Clifford writes:

Vanessa Veselka is the author of Zazen--by far my favorite book of the year. I tend to read a ton in the summers because I don't have time to write then and this past summer I decided to read only novels by women. I loved Gone Girl--I thought it was fresh and the structure was great, I love an unreliable narrator, and I thought it offered some deeper messages about partnership. I've had times in my life when the most intimate thing in my relationship with my partner was the hatred between us. (Luckily that didn't last.) and Shelia Heti's How Should A Person Be was a good read, though I was surprised at the reaction to the sex scene, so many people wrote about that when I thought the novel was more about the small moments and decisions in a young woman's life. Anyways I read a lot and then Vanessa's book was recommended to me by the fabulous Lauren Cerand, and then I read it and I fucking loved it. I sent her a fan email the night I finished the novel with the subject line, "Holy Fuck." I was just, and still am, blown away by the main character Della, by the world Veselka created, the sentences she constructed. The setting is almost now, but there just happens to be a war waging on US soil. A 27-year-old woman is living her life in this world. Everything is off kilter, but familiar and intimately recognizable.

I am totally psyched that Veselka is reading at Experiments and Disorders, the literary series I co-curate with Tom Cole at Dixon Place in New York, on October 16th at 7:30 PM. Happily, she agreed to answer a few questions via email.


Christen Clifford: What was your life like during the four years you worked on Zazen? When did you write? Was it a schedule or in fits and starts? How would you characterize that period of time, especially now, looking back with a prize winning novel?

Vanessa Veselka: Zazen took over my life during the time I was writing it. I went deeply into debt (I was already there; I made it worse) and made many disastrous decisions. Some of the time I was finishing an undergrad degree, at other times I was waiting tables or driving cab. There's nothing romantic about being broke, especially when you're almost 40 (I'm 43 now). I also have a daughter and that makes it even more intense. When I take another lousy job because I want the freedom it provides, what does she lose?--You think about all these things. So my life always felt emotionally brittle and strained.

I'm also a slow writer so I have to work longer hours and get up early to work. Now, going back into this new novel I will probably get up at 5:30 am 5 days a week for the next two years and work. I always schedule whatever money work I'm doing around my writing time. Sometimes that's not possible, of course. Looking back, I just feel lucky. It all sounds fine in retrospect, but could just have easily gone another way. And that's why I really believe in living around and with other artists. An artistic community will save you. You have to be around people who understand why you would do something so apparently hopeless--writing, painting, whatever-- with such blind commitment. No one else will (unless you get famous).

In November, I plan to go back into my cave and cut my internet. I'll restrict 85% of all conversations to close friends and that will be my world. Three times a week I'll go to a coffee shop to get online, but mostly everything that seems near and real now will be far away. I will go back to my artist friends / community. It has taken me years to figure any of this out--how to work really hard, how to do things for no reason at all, how to live with failure and invisibility--and these are the things I now rely on.

Christen Clifford: Do you mind me asking you about your daughter? How old is she? Do you live with a partner? I understand if you prefer not to answer questions that are personal. I have two kids and a partner and I feel their influence. What writers have influenced you the most and why? Who were your favorite writers as a child? More specifically--who do you remember being your first "favorite writer"?

Vanessa Veselka: Forgive me, but I'm going to pass on talking about my daughter because the GQ piece that's coming out has some very creepy personal info that may make me a freak magnet for a bit and I don't want my personal life out there too much.

To answer your other questions: As a kid I wanted to be an archaeologist and was obsessed with Heinrich Schliemann so biographers of amateur archaeologists who inappropriately draped their wives in the treasures of antiquity figured highly. I read a lot of British classic kids lit, too. Then sci-fi/fantasy like a crack addict in my tweens--Heinlein, Asimov, Herbert, Tolkien, and a whole bunch of trashy serials that elucidated the difficulties with becoming an incredibly powerful wizard. After that I mostly did drugs for while. Then, in my later teens, I discovered Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, Hesse and Hugo and read almost nothing written originally in English. In my twenties, thirties I moved into Joseph Conrad and Buddhism and read people like Paul Bowles and Cormac McCarthy.

As far as influence, I feel the influence of all of them on my internal world. What shows, I cannot say. I don't think I ever went through a period where I wrote like a specific person but I know I have gone through periods where my work was in conversations with various mentors, living or dead.

Christen Clifford: What recent works of art made you laugh? And what made you cry?

Vanessa Veselka: Danielle Henderson's book "Feminist Ryan Gosling" for both. She's a genius. Feminist Ryan Gosling has been radically underestimated. A black woman hijacking the white, male, celebrity-status and privilege of Gosling to spout feminist theory in a somewhat endearing (though brilliantly paternalizing way) forces people to question their relationship to all those things. And this is why I laughed and cried. It's obviously funny to 'hear' Simon De Beauvoir come out of Gosling's mouth, but beyond that I experienced such comfort from the memes that I had to face my own embarrassing desire to get that comfort from a cute, white, heterosexual male. Is it because I long for a deep understanding of feminism that extends beyond women? Or is it because I have patriarchal DNA that cannot be dissolved and Ryan Gosling has now given me permission to self-liberate? And that's when I cried, for the longing and for an inherited culture I cannot fully shake. I am very curious about what it evokes in male readers because I think everyone who encounters the book or the multiple memes online has to look in the mirror some. Brilliant. Brilliant. It's like a goddamned critical theory cat toy.

Christen Clifford: What do you eat in the morning? What kind of clothes do you wear? Do either of these things have an effect on your writing?

Vanessa Veselka: I eat like a hippy for the most part--green juice, oatmeal with nutritional yeast, nuts, salmon...but when I come to NYC I go to Rocco's near where I grew up for cannoli. Pistachio--no chocolate chips. I love espresso and that helps me write. Until I drink too much, cry and fall into despair.

I'm ritualistic in my writing but not about clothes. I'm a morning writer so it depends on whether I have to get my kid to school or not. I suppose in a perfect world... I like to write on caffeine and an empty stomach in my underwear after fifteen minutes of yoga. I talk to myself incessantly as I write because I'm a little Socratic in my process.


Vanessa Veselka has been at various times a teenage runaway, a sex-worker, a union organizer, a student of paleontology, and a mother. Her work appears in The Atlantic, Tin House, The FSG anthology Bitch: Feminist Response to Pop Culture, and Maximum Rock ’n’ Roll with work forthcoming in GQ and Zyzzva. Her debut novel, Zazen, recently won the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize "for an exceptionally talented fiction writer whose debut work—a first novel or collection of short stories was published in 2011" and is a 2011 finalist for the Ken Kesey Prize in fiction.

Zazen was published by Red Lemonade in 2011. Read more about the book here:

Find Vanessa Veselka's writing and events here:

Christen Clifford is a writer and performer in New York who curates the literary series Experiments and Disorders at Dixon Place. Her performance Abreactions: Our Feminist Performance Art is currently being presented by Dixon Place and Charles Bank Gallery. Keep up with Christen here:

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Book Reviews Debate Rages On

Have you been reading the critics' debate between negative book reviews and positive book reviews? A few weeks after this blog's interview series on The Art of the Book Review began, a fervent and fertile discussion of the ethics, the art, and the state of book reviews started raging through online journals and across the blogosphere. (And they say nothing happens in the publishing world in August.)

Because my blog is currently focusing on book reviews, I thought I'd offer an annotated timeline of the highlights:

July 16, 2012 on the blog, Jacob Silverman:
Jacob Silverman, "Some Notes Against Enthusiasm"
A pre-cursor to THE essay heard round the lit world. "Somehow criticism has become synonymous with offense; everything is personal—one’s affection for a book is interchangeable with one’s feelings about its author as a person. Critics gush in anticipation for books they haven’t yet read,...they exhaust themselves with outbursts of praise, because that’s how you boost your follower count and affirm your place in the back-slapping community that is the literary twitter-sphere....Some of these people have backgrounds in book-selling, publicity, or marketing, so their enthusiasms are understandable. But I’d rather have a culture in which people can establish distinct critical personas."

August 4, 2012 in SLATE:
Jacob Silverman, "Against Enthusiasm"
This is THE editorial that sparked a month of debate. Silverman writes, "…if you spend time in the literary Twitter- or blogospheres, you'll be positively besieged by amiability, by a relentless enthusiasm that might have you believing that all new books are wonderful and that every writer is every other writer's biggest fan. It's not only shallow, it's untrue, and it's having a chilling effect on literary culture, creating an environment where writers are vaunted for their personal biographies or their online followings rather than for their work on the page."

August 3 [sic], 2012 at Emma Straub's Life in Pictures:
Emma Straub, "In Celebration of Enthusiasm"
"I am not a critic. I am a fiction writer, and a bookseller. It is not my job to point out the flaws in other writers’ work. It is my job to help draw attention to writers whose work I adore."

August 4, 2012 in The Washington Post:
Ron Charles, "Has Twitter Made Book Reviewers Too Nice?"
Charles warns about the slippery slope of criticism as publicity: "…[A]t many publications, only the most oblivious — or principled — freelance critics could fail to notice the relative popularity of their own positive reviews. When you really, really like a book, your review appears on the front of the Arts section and high on the Arts homepage, and a link to it gets tweeted around the world, and people 'like' it — in every sense of the word.... And a few weeks later, you see your name appearing in blurbs in [The New York Times], and a few months after that, there’s your name on the back of the new paperback edition….
     "But try telling the truth. . . . You cannot fathom the silence that greets an unenthusiastic review of a mid-list literary novel."

Ron Charles wrote an earlier post, "Arthur Krystal: The Excuses of a Mean Book Critic," on March 23, 2012 at the same WaPo blog. He writes, "As a reader of many, many reviews, I have to admit I’m more alarmed by the number of dull ones than the number of unkind ones."
And, “I can’t quite accept [Arthur] Krystal’s complaint about negative book reviews, but I’m all in favor of his concluding advice to writers: ‘Make noise. Call attention to the offending review. In fact, write that letter to the editor that everyone enjoins you not to write and in a few deft strokes outline the reviewer’s bias and how he or she misread, obfuscated, and distorted your work.’"

August 6, 2012 in SALON:
Roxanne Gay, "Twitter Isn't Killing Books"

Gay writes an astute rebuttal to Silverman, with too many strong points for me to digest in a short space. She writes, "If literary culture is a school, serious criticism can be found in the classroom. Social networks are the cafeteria — what you find there will be loud and gossipy, amusing but not very satisfying." 
     She adds, "I’d also suggest, and I don’t want to belabor this point, that only a white man would believe that the online literary culture — or anything on the Internet — suffers from too much niceness. If you’re a woman, person of color, or member of the LGBT community, the online literary culture is, more often than not, far less hospitable and criticism is directed to the person rather than the person’s ideas."

August 15, 2012 in The New York Times:
Dwight Gardner, "A Critic's Case for Critics Who Are Actually Critical"

"[Karl] Marx understood that criticism doesn’t mean delivering petty, ill-tempered Simon Cowell-like put-downs. It doesn’t necessarily mean heaping scorn. It means making fine distinctions. It means talking about ideas, aesthetics and morality as if these things matter (and they do). It’s at base an act of love. Our critical faculties are what make us human."

August 15, 2012 in SALON:
Laura Miller, "The Case for Positive Book Reviews"

"Today, the average work of literary fiction appears and vanishes from the scene largely unnoticed and unremarked. Even the novelists you may think of as 'hyped' are in fact relatively obscure....The idea that more negative reviews of such books...will somehow benefit readers in general and 'make for a vibrant, useful literary culture' strikes me as misguided."

August 21, 2012 in HTML Giant:
Johannes Lichtman, "William Giraldi's Review of Alix Ohlin: A Failure in Four Parts"

"An Honest Review," writes Lichtman, "basically aims to tell the reader three or four things:
1.) What the book is about, 2.) What the author is trying to do, 3.) How well the author succeeds in doing what s/he is trying to do, and 4.) What the book’s place in the larger conversation of literature is (part 4 is often omitted in shorter reviews)."

August 22, 2012 in The New Yorker:
Richard Brody, "How To Be a Critic"

"Enthusiasm should be more or less the only thing that gets a critic out of bed in the morning, except in the case of ghouls who are aroused by the taste of blood....Certainly, in the online discussions about movies, invective, endorsement, (often superbly trenchant) analysis, and personal discussion all blend together into a remarkably vigorous and enlightening virtual conversation. Are things really that different in the world of books?"

August 25, 2012 in The New York Times:
David Streitfeld, "The Best Book Reviews Money Can Buy"
This was an article, rather than an essay, which reported on a man who runs a service for authors to buy positive book reviews--and makes $28,000 a month.

August 28, 2012 in The New Yorker:
Daniel Mendelsohn, "A Critic's Manifesto"

"I thought of these [critics] above all as teachers, and like all good teachers they taught by example; the example that they set, week after week, was to recreate on the page the drama of how they had arrived at their judgments....More largely, and ultimately more importantly, the glimpses these writers gave you of their tastes and passions revealed what art and culture are supposed to do for a person."

August 28, 2012 in The New Inquiry:
Subashini Navaratnam, "Nice Book Reviews"

"Let’s acknowledge that this discussion about book reviewing/criticism that’s taking place on the world wide web is largely among North American reviewers and critics. (Stuff First World People Like: Talking to Each Other & Assuming It Speaks to a Global Audience.)... The discussion around enthusiasm or positive reviews, whether for or against, seems to assume that all this takes place, in the words of Michelle Dean, 'on a level playing field.' "

August 30, 2012 in The New York Times
Margalit Fox, "Shulamith Firestone, Feminist Writer, Dies at 67"

In an obituary for this celebrated then reclusive writer/artist, Fox wrote, "The crush of attention, positive and negative, that [Firestone's] book engendered soon proved unbearable, her sister said. In the years that followed, Ms. Firestone retreated into a quiet, largely solitary life of painting and writing, though she published little."

August 31, 2012 at Frances Farmer is My Sister:
Kate Zambreno, "One Can Be Dumb and Sad at Exactly the Same Time"
Author Zambreno publicly rebutted (on her blog) a negative review (in a high-profile journal) of her forthcoming non-fiction book, HEROINES. She writes, "There has become such a taboo in our literary culture about writing or venting when we receive a bad review. But the thing is, and I've spent some time thinking about whether I should write about it, this wasn't just a bad review, it was a dangerous, mean-spirited, intellectually dishonest review, and the irony is, it was a review that was not aware of itself as committing the same sort of critical crimes against a woman writer, the same sort of shaming and silencing and disciplining, that is itself the subject of the book."

September 4, 2012 in The Paris Review:
Caleb Crain, “How Is the Critic Free?”

"Is it possible to shift the question [of rudeness in book reviews] toward ethics? What if we ask: How free should a critic be? An idealist might wish to answer that the critic should be completely free in the exercise of his essential function, but what is the critic’s essential function?"

September 11, 2012 at The Millions:
Darryl Campbell, “Is This Book Bad, or Is It Just Me? The Anatomy of Book Reviews”

Recapping some of the above debate, Campbell writes, “I enjoyed all of these essays, but the one thing that struck me was that they were all essentially negative, in the sense that they set out to describe how things were going wrong or why things ought not to be the way that they are. What they didn’t do a very good job of was describing what criticism or book reviewing is, or what it should be.” Campbell proceeds to dissect what a book review is made of.


Did I miss any interesting essays in this thread? Feel free to let me know in the comments.

Monday, September 10, 2012

The Art of the Book Review: Djelloul Marbrook

Today's book reviews discussion features New York writer Djelloul Marbrook, a poet and prose author who can also claim a long past in journalism (The Providence Journal, The Baltimore Sun, and The Washington Star, among others). I was first introduced to Djelloul when Atticus Books published his wonderful nonfiction story, "Sing to Me of Gangsters." Since then I've been impressed also with his running media critique on Facebook. Relentlessly and in real time, he shows how the stories we're fed are skewed by omission or distortion. Having him in my news feed has been an education even to someone who thinks she's hip to all that.

When the New York Times story about book reviews for sale came out recently ("The Best Book Reviews Money Can Buy," August 25, 2012), Djelloul's comments led me to contact him for this interview series, The Art of the Book Review. He said in response to the article: "David Streitfeld [author of the Times story] knows perfectly well that money has always bought book reviews. What has changed is that the web has broadened the field and enabled us to challenge the gatekeepers, like himself. I don't challenge his essential premises, but what the story lacks is an admission that in one way or another, money has always called the shots. The Times, for example, is much more inclined to review a Big Six book than a small press book. The Times would say that a Big Six book has been vetted by a well-established gatekeeping process and therefore is more deserving of attention. But The Times knows damned well that if the small presses spent as much advertising money promoting and marketing books as the Big Six spends, The Times would not be able to ignore them. Money talks. And unless this kind of essay at least makes a passing reference to this truth it proves itself disingenuous, rather like the critic who decades ago avowed that all the books that deserve to be published are eventually published. The story would have served us all better if it had explored the ramifications of the web's challenge to the usual cultural gatekeepers, but gatekeepers never like to talk about the nature of their power. I argued for years as a newspaper editor that the best-seller lists belonged on business pages and not book review sections. It was always a humorous argument, because I knew and the publishers knew that the list is a business gauge, not a measure of merit. I suppose it doesn't much matter anymore, because there are fewer and fewer book review sections, and that is one of the writer's points. But there was and is a measure of dishonesty in presenting it as a measure of merit. The press has many arguments for copping out of this conclusion, but I think none of them hold much water."

Karen: Tell us a bit about your involvement in print newspapers. How closely involved in book/review sections were you and in what role?

Djelloul: I was Sunday editor of the Winston-Salem Journal and Sentinel from 1965 to 1969, which included assigning book reviews, editing them, and laying out the book review page. That is the only newspaper where I handled book reviews. And since starting my blog some years ago I've reviewed a number of books, mostly poetry. They're at under BOOK REVIEWS BY MARBROOK. I just added an appreciation of J.P. Dancing Bear's Family of Marsupial Centaurs.

Karen: Newspapers continue to downsize their book review sections. What do you consider is lost when this happens? What will you/do you not miss?

Djelloul: To address both questions, it's a tragedy of shrinking daily newspaper ad revenue and consequent cutbacks of news space and news staff. Newspaper book reviews continue to shrink and drop by the wayside. Responsible newspapers should review local authors at the very least, but local coverage of everything is getting more and more spotty. Newspapers could well do book reviewing online, but little of it is taking place as a result of falling ad revenue. I hope online groups like Salon and Slate, New York Review of Books and Rain Taxi continue to proliferate and take up the slack. But it isn't just shrinkage and the migration of media into cyberspace, there is also a heightened anti-intellectualism at work. We should not look back on the days of healthy book review sections as halcyon. They weren't. They involved a considerable degree of cynicism. They never reflected anything like the full spectrum of our intellectual and cultural life. They always reflected and were governed in their editorial decisions by the amount of advertising revenues made available to them by the major publishers. For that reason they marginalized the vital small press community, paying only occasional lip service. That is still true of what is left of the review community. I argued, albeit humorously, with my publisher in Winston-Salem that the best-seller lists rightly belonged in business sections, because they gauge the commercial life of a book and a publisher's hope for it and not a book's literary merit. Yet, deceitfully I think, review sections continue to present the list as a gauge of merit. I regard this as an ethical breach of faith, but I'm not naive enough after a career spent in the newspaper industry to think that ethics and ideals are paramount in the Fourth Estate. (Nor, for that matter, am I naive enough to think we still have much of a Fourth Estate.) So I think we shouldn't dwell on the loss of what was always imperfect but should rather inquire into how we might address these imperfections in the more hospitable arena of cyberspace.

I write about contemporary poetry that I like to help redress not only the general marginalization of poetry but also the hyper-commercialization of our attitude towards reviewing it. I'm not alone in this project. I tell poetry audiences that poetry says more about the real news in our society than what we call the news and what I call the Theater of News. This is most dramatically true of rappers and hip-hoppers, but it's also broadly true of that body of contemporary poetry, which is not about shuffling of anecdotal material into the semblance of poetry. The poets and artists and musicians are telling it like it is. That can't be said of the Fourth Estate, which tells it like the politicians, oligarchs and pundits say it is.

Karen: In some recent comments on Facebook, you address a sort of opaque hierarchy that you see in the publishing world, which is being carried over (in many cases) as we migrate from print to digital media. You say, “What bothers me most is the hypocrisy of repeatedly glossing over a cultural problem that we should be using our technology to redress. This is an exciting time, and instead of fighting a rearguard action to rationalize a dying model we should be exploring our new opportunities.” Can you tell us what excites you (especially in relation to publishing/the small press) about the digital age?

Djelloul: Instead of defending the traditional models, which often leave many books to languish and be remaindered in three months, the big six publishers should be turning their best minds to promoting all their books more cleverly and making them widely available in digital form to students at discount prices. Speaking of students, one of the best applications for e-books is textbooks, which cost entirely too much. Textbook publishers are ripping off students who are already being exploited by exorbitant tuition and student loans. Other exciting applications include shop manuals, computer hardware and software documentation, language instruction, art history instruction--the opportunities are limited only by imagination.

Ten years ago the most authoritative-sounding pundits were saying the e-book is passing fad and won't catch on. Today they sound like a former head of IBM who famously asked who would ever want a personal computer. They also sound to me like like a well known critic who once averred that all the books that deserve to be published are eventually published. That disingenuous defense of the dead-tree industry's way of doing things can't bear the scrutiny to which it has now been exposed in cyberspace. One problem is that people like this critic have gotten their piece of the pie from the old model, the old industry and its critical establishment, so they're naturally inclined to defend it. That's how they became gate-keepers, so they're defending their turf. I'm not, by the way, implying that the dead-tree industry is finished. I just like the implications of the term. I think we'll go on printing books, but we'll do it differently and what we print will change.

Karen: Can you tell us what new opportunities you would like to see in terms of online book reviews?

Djelloul: I'd like to see more book-reviewing bloggers offering their reviews to online publications and more online publications open to over-the-transom reviews. I wish I could propose business models. I'm sure they'll evolve. The cost of doing online business is operatically lower than the cost of the print industry. There is very little real estate involved, for one thing. And the cost of cyber-technology doesn't begin to compare to the astronomical costs of huge printing presses and their attendant labor. But a rear-guard action is being waged by the existing critical establishment, and some of it is justified. Not all bloggers, like myself, write in a manner and with sufficient intellectual cogency to warrant being published in The Paris Review or New York Review of Books, for example. But some of us do, and it's difficult to earn mass attention when the impression pervades our cultural thinking that only the only the old-line reviews are trustworthy guarantors of qualitative essay and review. This will change. It is changing; Rattle and Rain Taxi, to name only two online reviews, have considerable and well earned reputations. But in the meantime the new cyber writers are suffering a pooh-factor at the hands of the old guard, even though the old guard is itself migrating into cyberspace. In cyberspace the old guard must depend on the reputations their publishers enjoyed in print. That is as it should be, but they're now confronting a new generation of upstarts who understand cyberspace better than they do.

Karen: As an author, what is your own philosophy about reading reviews of your work?

Djelloul: I read all reviews of my work—a division of Marines couldn't stop me. Anyone who has taken the time to read my book deserves my attention. But I have a thin skin. Fortunately for me I have earned the attention of some reviewers—I'm thinking of Susanna Roxman in particular—who have opened my eyes to a great deal in my own work. I myself do not write negative reviews. I'm too old to bother with them. I've seen too much exhibitionism in negative reviews to have much tolerance for them. I write about poets I admire. I try to point out aspects of their work that might be overlooked, particularly in short reviews. I'm a celebrant. I couldn't write a Randall Jarrell-style review if I tried, not because I haven't the scholarship, but because I haven't the stomach for it. I don't like talking about what I don't like. But I' not trying to make a living from my opinions. And I have no desire to assert myself in a world I'm soon to leave.

Karen: Do we all need to develop “a thick skin” and then move on?

Djelloul: A thick skin? A reviewer who has obviously read only a few pages and then makes some snippy comments showing no feeling for language--I still remember that reviewer, and not fondly. But she showed her lack of professionalism. And I moved on, as we all must.

Karen: Is reading reviews of our own books an activity that is necessary, irrelevant, dangerous, or potentially helpful to a writer?

Djelloul: Reading our reviews is necessary and potentially helpful. It's always interesting and often surprising and gratifying to me to see what a fresh eye has made of my work. As a reviewer and editor, I have no use for negative reviews. People want to see recommendations of what to read. I'd be happy to lend my wife to cheer up any writer who is despondent about a bad review. She says if they don't get you, to hell with them, they're not worth any of your energy.

Karen: Where do you think reviews live in the psychology of an author and where should they live?

Djelloul: I can only speak for myself as to where reviews live in the psychology of a writer. I don't dwell much on reviews because I'm always moving on to write new things, which I recommend to everyone.

I do think some writers probably shouldn't read reviews of their own work if it knocks the wind out of them. I'd rather see them write their next poem or story. I admire such writers. I remember reading Nabokov's letters and laughing at his contempt for both critics and editors. But I'm not Nabokov. I reserve my contempt solely for meanness, of which there's plenty.


 I want to thank Djelloul for participating in the series. Don't miss previous interviews about book reviews/reviewing with:

*Lynn Alexander (August 20, 2012)
*Barrett Warner (July 25, 2012)
*Spencer Dew (July 18, 2012)

Monday, August 20, 2012

Art of the Book Review: Lynn Alexander

Full of Crow illustration by Kristin Fouquet

This is the third in a new interview series, The Art of the Book Review, about writing book reviews in today's literature world. I'm taking on reviewers of the small press, many of whom are also writers in the small press. Previous interviews have been with fiction author Spencer Dew and poet Barrett Warner.

Today I'm excited to introduce Lynn Alexander, one of the hardest working women in the small press. A writer and a poet, she also co-edits Blink Ink, writes and edits at Red Fez, is involved with the Outsider Writers Collective, and is the producer and editor-in-chief of Full of Crow, a multi-faceted literary engine. Full of Crow produces quarterly reviews of fiction and poetry; publishes chapbooks, ebooks, and zines; hosts a blog, poetry podcasts, interviews, and online book reviews; distributes micro-press books and journals; and generates various other literary projects including periodic readings around the US.

I wanted to include Lynn in this series in part because her review style is unique: It's often descriptive of what the work is doing and how it is structured, while it shies away from labeling or validating a book as "good vs bad," "a great read," "compelling," etc.

Karen: How do Crow Reviews fit in with the Full of Crow mission?

Lynn: Full Of Crow is over three years old now, and like the people involved, the direction has evolved and changed over time. The reviews section was actually a suggestion that I was resistant to and explaining why will get into some areas of the other questions.

The mission at Crow has always been to create a space for words, because of our sense that these spaces matter. I believe in and support the independent press; I also like the idea of openness and access to all without predetermined ideas about who has legitimacy as a writer and who does not. In the end, it is about the work, which must speak for itself. The idea of a reviews section came from a desire to discuss aspects of work in the independent press, but in particular--work that we enjoyed and did not see represented in well-known publications. As we all know, breaking into any circle is difficult and Crow Reviews was meant to be a place for the appreciation and exploration of what we were reading, whether known or obscure.

That said, I have mixed feelings about the idea of a “review” in the commonly held sense of the word. I acknowledge that I don’t have formal expertise and try to approach reviews from the perspective of a reader, reflective of my experience with the work. On one hand, I think that all people are “qualified” to read and develop thoughts about the work they read and intuitive perception is very valuable. On the other hand, reviews are often seen as a person’s assessment of merit and validity, a process of making a decision and subsequent case for or against work and the value brought to the table.

 So I feel that all are qualified and capable to review in some sense and many do, but ironically--I feel that it is a presumptuous undertaking to decide what has merit and what does not. In other words, we are all entitled to our opinions as readers, but I am less inclined to say that our opinions should be asserted in the sense of giving work a thumbs-up or -down, versus an impression. Review, criticism, and literary analysis involve different agendas and I was reluctant to use the term “reviews.” I don’t think it accurately reflects what I hope to accomplish, particularly now. But there are few outlets for “exploratory essays.” Looking back, maybe I would have stuck to my guns and tried to shape the space accordingly.

If there aren’t many outlets for independent or small press “reviews” there are even fewer for the directions that I like to go in.

My preference is to discuss work, write about work, analyze and dissect elements of the work--but I stop short of saying THIS IS VALID.

I have answered to some criticism about this, told that a review is supposed to rate the merit, and whether or not others should buy [the book]. That is a “review.” And I get that. But I can’t seem to see myself in that self-appointed position. Independent Press often involves the interactions of peers, and the review relationship goes against what I hope to see as the ongoing emphasis of Full Of Crow which is an approach of openness and humility and acknowledging that people have different subjective opinions. You might hate what I love, but let’s talk about what speaks to us and why, let’s talk about the work and what we find there. If doing that encourages people to read the work or have a different understanding of the writer’s execution, that is enough for me.

But in the end, I hope that people read what we have to say and then pursue their own experience with the work, whether positive or negative.

If I had to summarize, I would say it comes down to the difference between analysis and judgment. I am more comfortable with analysis and even criticism, judgment is a different beast. Criticism involves study and subsequent evaluation, judgment is the subjective act of telling the world that something sucks because you say so. I want less of that, and more reflection.

Karen. How do you think reviews complement or complicate the community aspect of the small press?

Lynn: “Community” is wonderful and necessary, but we have to be practical about the dynamics of the writer in context of a community. Some are able to support the work of others and embrace the value and need for community while others cannot. Some will look to what the community can do for them, and think little about what they can give. Motive, ego need, and agenda vary widely. Reviews can therefore be a way to encourage interest and thought about the work of others, or they can be currency. Reviews can be thoughtful, reflective experiences or they can be platitudes. Certainly, negative reviews can cause conflict in a community just as positive comments can demonstrate loyalty. All of these complicate community.

My thought is that what complements community is an effort to understand what others are doing, to read the work carefully, and offer up something that suggests sincere interest and engagement in the process and outcome. Even when we get it wrong, I think we need to also advocate for the work of independent writers and publishers by articulating WHY we find the work to be compelling. I’m amazed by what I read, and I think in our “reviews,” however approached, we need to address the criticism that independent/small press is synonymous with failure, or lack of ambition, or lack of quality, or lack of purposeful art--a default region where “anybody” can thrive without effort. If nothing else, I want to show that as a reader, I see the writer's effort and time.

I think that [approach] complements community more than anything else accomplished by a “review.” It gives proper credit to the talent around us.

Karen: Describe your method of reviewing and how you perceive this to be useful.

Lynn: In a sense, many of us “review” every day when trying to decide on content for a publication. I read hundreds of stories and poems each month between the submissions at Full Of Crow and Red Fez, and part of the editorial process at Red Fez involves providing feedback on submissions. But this involves a different mindset, as we are selecting from a pool of submissions for a limited space and we have to rationalize the decisions somehow. Many of us acknowledge that this is difficult on matters of taste and style.

When writing a review or essay on a book or collection, I often consider the pieces in aggregate and the intended recipient of my review is not necessarily the author, but other readers like myself. I am not filtering potential content, I am coming from the point of view of a reader and try to approach it accordingly. The process is necessarily intense for both cases but with a different objective.

To take an example, I recently wrote about John Swain’s chapbook “White Vases” and I read it cover to cover at least five times. I never write anything after the initial first read, even though that is truly where my emotional response takes shape. I don’t want to focus on my emotional response, so I put it away, and take it out later. I try to identify what I see as common themes and how the structure conveys them--sticking with the text. I try to point to examples and I am not above getting out a dictionary and looking a few things up. I try to answer the primary question- what I think the writer was trying to accomplish, and how they set about doing so.

I’m not sure if this process is useful, no doubt it sounds tedious, but I think my goal is to move toward more useful reviews that move beyond “this is AWESOME.” If I think a writer brings “the goods” I don’t think you should take my word for it. I think it should be evident by the examples cited, let the text speak for itself.

I don’t claim to be a good “reviewer.” I know that I have to keep working at it, but I think the best way to do that is to keep making the effort to understand why certain pieces resonate.

Karen: Where do you read reviews? What do you hope to find in a review? Do you hope for an engaging essay, or are you seeking a specific type of info or opinion on the book in question?

Lynn: I like to read reviews in independent press publications like Big Bridge and Red Fez, and in some print publications like Rain Taxi. What I hope to find is definitely an engaging essay that demonstrates some level of familiarity with the work and genre, that sense that the reviewer is open to what the writer is trying to do, whether you are partial to the structure or not .

For example, you can’t impose your expectations of traditional writing on an experimental artist, and proceed to rip the work apart as “nonsense”--that seems like a bad fit. The author's intentions might not match your expectations, and there might be reasons for particular choices that are dismissed when you take a narrow view of what they hoped to achieve.

In the end, like I said, we all have the right to our subjective experience. If something reads as nonsense to you, own that. But don’t hold it up against a rubric of elements that don’t apply.