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. 

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Ten Reasons Why We Should Help St. Mark’s Bookshop Survive

Image from Project Neon

May 15, 2014 update: St Mark's Bookshop has signed a new lease on East 3rd Street, is contemplating non-profit status, and is less than $8,000 away from their moving money goal on Indiegogo:

Original post, August 2012:

You may or may not have heard that indie St. Mark's Bookshop in New York is trying to raise funds to move to a cheaper space in their longtime neighborhood, the East Village. Currently, their landlord, Cooper Union, has given them a temporary (and slight) discount in their rent, but when it goes back up to the "normal" astronomical $20,000/month at the end of the year, the store fears they will be forced to close. Their campaign at Lucky Ant has been going strong but still needs your help with less than a week left to reach their all-or-nothing goal of $23,000. Specifically, they need to raise $7,000 in four days. Please consider donating.

Here's why I think it matters:

1. St. Mark's is a terrific bookstore with top-notch book buyers.

It’s hard for me to describe in a short space how much I admire this bookstore and its place in American letters, so I’m writing a whole book about it. I had the pleasure of working at St Mark’s Bookshop from 1997 to 2005, and I'm currently writing a memoir about my years there. You can find eleven installments of this book at Undie Press including my observations on which types of people shopped there (from book critics to New York poets to indie rock stars to out-of-town intellectuals to architects to DJs to academics to performance artists to filmmakers to expats to internationals) for what books (design, poetry, photography, cutting-edge fiction, cultural criticism, art porn, zines, queer theory, the latest lit or lifestyle magazines); which celebrities browsed there (like Susan Sontag, Thurston Moore, Richard Howard, DJ Spooky, Diamanda Galas, Harmony Korine, Jim Jarmusch); and what books meant to the people who worked at the shop. My opening chapter gives an overview of why I think St Mark's Bookshop deserves a permanent place in literary history.

2. St. Mark's Bookshop is not just a place that sells (and curates) culture and history. St. Mark's Bookshop IS living history.

As a bookstore, St. Mark's holds an institutional memory of major moments in alternative publishing history. The owners (and some longtime employees) both worked at 8th Street Books, which was the New York bookstore the Beats frequented and the New York bookstore that embraced the "paperback revolution." Both owners worked also at East Side Books, an East Village bookstore which was known as a place to find underground comics, mimeographed novels, and local political pamphlets—at a time when these were a major currency of the cultural revolutions and the avant garde. St. Mark's opened in the late '70s, making a place for artistic expressions to live and breathe alongside new areas of inquiry we take for granted today, such as sections with labels like "Vietnam Studies" or "Lesbian and Gay Studies."

Located in the center of the vibrant and bohemian East Village, the bookstore has long been a place that sells today's forefront thinkers (or poets, or photographers) to tomorrow's celebrated writers (artists, musicians, academics, etc). Writer/editor and former employee Ron Kolm has said, "I took a pay cut to work at St Mark’s Bookshop [in 1985] because I knew that the art scene in the East Village was in full bloom, and I knew that the fiction scene was about to explode, and I wanted to be a part of it." In my time, St. Mark's was known as the store in New York with the widest selection of zines, poetry, and literary magazines, not to mention all the anti-war underground newspapers that showed up circa early 2002. Now it’s the Occupied Wall Street Journal they're distributing, and their newish reading series has hosted such literary lights as Sarah Schulman, Kate Zambreno, Michael Moore, Eileen Myles, Laurie Weeks, Tao Lin, Marie Calloway, Giancarlo DiTrapano, Samuel R. Delaney, and Gary Indiana. Ever since its opening in 1977, the authors, customers, and clerks of St. Mark's have been involved in an easy and fertile conversation hosted by the bookstore. In every era of its existence, St. Mark's has had a keen eye for offering (and a knack for attracting) the cutting edge literature, art, and thought of its time—and the privilege of introducing such books to many of those very creators. To my eye, this store is a living legacy worth helping to survive another 35 years.

3. Give the store a level playing field: help St Mark's Bookshop move to a smaller space with reasonable rent.

People read about failing bookstores and they think the era of the bookstore is simply over. Progress has happened, the ebook has won. Not true. Many bookstores all over the country and all over the world are still thriving. The brick and mortar bookstore isn’t over—but the ones that survive this change in publishing (and this devastating recession) have to get smart, slim down. This campaign IS St. Mark’s getting smart. The fundraising campaign represents a series of business decisions—to use 21st century tools, starting with Lucky Ant (the Kickstarter-like platform hosting the fundraiser), proceeding to a re-vamp of their online presence (bookstores that survive often claim about 25% of sales online), and slimming down by seeking a smaller store with more reasonable rent. Soon their rent will go back up from (current "rent-reduction") $17,500 a month to $20K. Think YOU can move that much merchandise and still support several employees? When St. Mark's opened in 1977, their rent was $375 a month. Today's rent, as they say, is too damned high.

4. A level playing field means the bookstore can become self-sustaining doing what they do best: selling books.

You've heard about how well Strand and Book Court are doing? They own their own buildings. This is relatively rare among bookstores. When the great bookstores of 4th Avenue [once known as Book Row] started to close or move en masse in the 1960s, some booksellers lamented that they wished they had bought their building when given the chance. Translation: All bookstores, even the best ones, need an affordable situation to ride out times of change.

5. Even though Brooklyn is the hottest thing since sliced (artisanal, five-grain) bread, downtown Manhattan, home of St Mark's Bookshop, is still the place where people meet in the middle of surrounding locales (from Hoboken to the Upper West Side to Brooklyn and Queens)—as it has been since the Native Americans used it as a busy trading post.

6. This retail bookstore in the heart of the publishing capitol has done so much for the small presses.

I used to encourage editors of fledgling lit mags—"In the absence of getting a distributor, just get your magazine at St Mark’s Bookshop. If your magazine is quality, it will sell like hotcakes." To name just a few of the small presses and magazines I watched transition from "new and fragile" to "known and thriving" in part due to hefty sales at St Mark’s: Soft Skull Press, Melville House, Ugly Duckling Presse, McSweeney's, Ig Publishing, Akashic Press, and Archipelago Books. Other well-sold presses at the store included Semiotexte and Autonomedia, AK Press, Sun & Moon Press, Alice James Books, Exact Change Press, Wave Books, Calamari Press, Green Integer, Hanuman Press, Hanging Loose Press, Soho Press, Thunder's Mouth, New Directions, Shambala Press, City Lights, Dalkey Archive, Spuyten Duyvil, Seven Stories, Four Walls Eight Windows, Serpent's Tail, Coffeehouse Press, Seal Press, and so many more. Support the bookstore that supports the small press.

7. Don’t lament the passing of a great bookstore when you have a chance to help.

I have heard people "mourn" the bookstore already in that laziest of ways: "Another great New York institution is on its way out." Or, "Another great bookstore that can't stand up to Amazon." Curb the instinct, folks. The bookstore is not gone, it's not over, and there is still time to do something. Put your money behind your hope, not your dread. Donate here, in exchange for gift certificates, discounts, and tickets to the grand re-opening:

8. St. Mark’s Bookshop is neighborhood bookstore to the world.

I mean this in two directions: One, the world comes through New York and many stop into the store when they're in town, adding to the terrific mix of customers. And two, the East Village is "home" to every artist and bohemian who wants to claim it: The East Village is not just a place but a state of mind. To me, the East Village will always stand for art that takes exciting risks both in form and content; street-smart, nuance-wise, aesthetic-minded intellectualism; and a politics of the people. For 35 years, St Mark's Bookshop has curated a selection of books and materials that is aware of these three components of the neighborhood's proud output and hungry reading and culture needs. Think of them as an import/export service to and from an ever-replenishing source of the avant-garde. Thank them by donating here:

9. Be (part of) the subsidy that small businesses don't have.

Small businesses like St. Mark's Bookshop are thrown to the sharks of the "free market" while corporations like Amazon and Barnes & Noble receive tax breaks and strong-arm publishers into (unsustainable) massive discounts. "Non-profits" like Cooper Union also get tax breaks and other subsidies. Yet small businesses are the ones who hear, "Well, if you can't sell enough books to survive, then I guess the free market has spoken." Why doesn't anyone say to Amazon, "Awww, poor baby, can't survive selling books at retail price? Can't hack it asking people to work at a human pace and temperature? Can't make enough to pay your taxes? Boo hoo!" Amazon is a market bully. While brick and mortar bookstores gladly coexist with each other (St. Mark's has survived the arrival of indie McNally Jackson, and even two nearby Barnes & Nobles), Amazon is a predatory capitalist who needs its teeth removed before there's a fair fight to be found. As Sherman Alexie puts it, "Amazon is in the 1% and independent bookstores are in the 99%. So who are you going to fight for?” Fight for St Mark's now:

10. Aren't you sick of eulogies?

I’m still mourning the passing of the great literary humanists George Whitman (Shakespeare and Company, Paris) and Barney Rosset (Grove Press and Evergreen Review). Please don’t let St Mark’s Bookshop die, too. A girl can only take so much crushing news in one year.


Please consider donating to help St Mark's Bookshop HERE [Updated May 15, 2014]:

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