JZ: To inform people who might be interested in reading the book that it exists, and to offer an imaginatively and intellectually engaged appreciation of it.
LH: If you write reviews, how would you describe your approach, or method?
JZ: I do review, but not frequently because I do a lot of editing; and the work in the two cases is very similar. That work is founded in an attempt to listen — to make myself available to the voice, to pick up on its gestures of address. Sometimes this is extremely difficult, sometimes it is breathtakingly easy; sometimes it involves a mix of work and recognition. One aspect of listening is trying to remain alert to the tastes and preferences I bring to the situation, and this is particularly important if I find myself distanced from the book for some reason.
Here, I should make a distinction between two types of books that I review and edit: philosophical books and books of poetry. Nearly all philosophical books are arguments of some kind: I try to expound the argument as clearly as I can, and then to engage with it critically. (That’s critique in Kant’s sense, which does not mean throwing rocks, but unfolding the argument’s fundamental, nearly always unvoiced, assumptions.) It is my hope that by doing this, if I’ve got the argument wrong, the author, at least, will be able to see this and then inform readers. If I think an argument is not compelling, I say so; I try to do this without rancor and, of course, to give a thorough account of my reasons.
Poetry, on the other hand, is rarely structured as an argument. The lyric poetry that I most frequently review and edit is resonant in form, and needs to be approached as one would approach music. (I take this resonant form, rather than the presence of some introspective “I”, to be defining of lyric thought in any medium.) I still attempt to provide readers with information about the book — its preoccupations, its tone, its style, the tradition in which it might be located — but I try to do this much as one might attempt to describe one friend to another. If I can’t make friends with a book of poetry — if I feel there’s too much static for me to appreciate the project — I recuse myself. If I don’t ‘get’ a work of art, I believe the most helpful thing I can do is to step out of the way and let someone who does get it show me and others how to attend to it.
That, I believe, is the secondary function of reviews of lyric art: to assist others in attending to that art. If one can’t attend well oneself, it is unlikely one will be able to assist others. Making a display of one’s insensitivity is graceless — irritating to most readers and ultimately embarrassing to oneself. There are exceptions to this general observation, of course. A truly great reviewer can write a review of a book she doesn’t like and still assist readers in appreciating it. But this requires deeply focussed attention, extensive quotation, and a lot of self-knowledge on the part of the reviewer.
LH: What do you think makes for a successful review? Is there an aspect, a stylistic choice, or perspective that necessarily produces a more significant document?
JZ: In my experience as a reader — which is broader than my experience as a writer — there is no recipe for a successful review. But there are two ingredients that have been present in every good review I have read: a wide-ranging articulate intelligence and respect. The latter is not equivalent to agreement with the author’s views — indeed, in philosophical and political contexts, a review can, often must, express deep and trenchant opposition. But a good review will always convey respect for the process of discussion; it will be clear that its own standpoint is particular. (Here I think of some fine reviews I have read by Gary Wills.) In the case of art, a good review always conveys respect for the attempt to make art. If forced to address work by which it finds itself repelled, it proceeds with the awareness — which it communicates — that its voice is one of many, that there is room for disagreement, that it may be missing something. (There are tyrants of the mind as well as of the body politic. Behind most trashy reviews is someone who wants to run the world.) Darren Bifford has expanded on this, writing, “Critical attention is characterized by respect in at least two ways: we acknowledge that the poem’s existence has inherent worth; and we acknowledge, in its existence, a mystery, which entails a mind that climbs toward that which it attends. The result is a criticism that seeks illumination rather than the priority of its own attitudes over all materials. The latter, even when it’s negative, involves a kind of consumption for pleasure or entertainment — it uses a work.” This is a striking way of putting the point — it sees the respect that characterizes a good review as analogous to respect for persons.
But — someone might say — doesn’t respect require honesty? Doesn’t honesty demand plain speaking? If somebody has exhibited a urinal in a public gallery and you find the gesture offensive, shouldn’t you scream your outrage from the rooftops? Take aim in every public organ available to you? Confront the so-called artist in person and call them a sniveling idiot to their face? —I’ll wager that at least some of these suggestions strike most of us as excessive. Why? Perhaps because plain speaking, despite its reputation, is a nuanced business.
I’d like to offer two true stories as illustrations of this point. A family I know tells with great relish an anecdote about one of its least-liked members, a self-righteous and manipulative woman who always needed to be the centre of attention. This woman, herself overweight, apparently went up to a well-liked woman at a church supper once and said loudly, so as to be overheard, “Carol, as your friend, it’s my duty to tell you you’re fat.” Why do we laugh? Isn’t this a perfect illustration of virtuous plain speaking, founded in a wholly laudable commitment to public health?
My second story: I was teaching Plato’s Republic and, hoping to shake students out of their unreflective hero-worship of Socrates, had asked them to reflect on his teaching methods. In Book I, Socrates matches wits with a brilliant adolescent male, a self-styled ethical nihilist who isn’t afraid to speak (what he thinks is) the truth about morality: it amounts to nothing more than the ability to enforce your will, might makes right. Socrates (of course) doesn’t agree, and seeing the boy as an example of the rot that has infected imperial Athens, fences with him verbally in front of a crowd of other young men, adroitly cornering him and forcing him to drop his rhetorical sword. The kid is deeply ashamed, blushes furiously — a fact to which Socrates calls attention — and stops arguing. From that point on in the dialogue, whenever Socrates attempts to solicit his opinion, he says, “Oh, of course, Socrates, whatever you want me to say, Socrates”, in sneering imitation of Socrates’ acolytes. I asked the students if they thought Socrates had achieved anything by taking the kid down in public. To my astonishment, roughly half the class said they thought being publicly shamed was an effective way of learning; a couple of students even volunteered that it had happened to them, and that it had been a salutary experience. The other half of the class was appalled, claiming that it was a terrible way to teach, amounted to bullying, and served only to entrench bad feeling. And now, what seemed to me at the time to be the kicker: the split in the class was cleanly, and without exception, on gendered lines. The gals thought public shaming was pointless and destructive, the guys thought it had merit and was potentially effective.
Of course it was just one class, on one day. The gender split could have been a simple coincidence, or it could have been the superficial manifestation of a deeper non-gendered phenomenon (maybe all the women had been abused in some way, and none of the men had). But even if it wasn’t coincidence, even if it reflects something profound about how a majority of young adult women and a majority of young adult men think, the deeper issue transcends this distinction. For I know men who loathe public displays of the sort Socrates stages, and know of women who enjoy them. Although the gender split in my story must give us pause, serious pause, the deep lesson that we, as a reviewing community, must draw is that people have different reactions to being humiliated in public. In a different dialogue, Plato argues the most general version of this point: if you are really concerned to effect moral improvement, he says, you have to cut the speech to fit the soul. And what I think my second story ultimately underlines is that a passionate commitment to the health and beauty of literary art entails almost nothing about how to bring it about in a particular case.
If, then, we regard reviewing as, in some manner, a moral calling — the duty of respect entailing honesty entailing plain speaking, and all this in aid of reforming backsliders and encouraging paragons so that the art we love and honour may remain undefiled — we need minimally to be aware that the culture in which we practise this calling is no simple thing. If we are serious about improving matters, we need to do more than bang pots or hurl insults. Moral reform is a subtle business because people are subtle beings; their situations are subtle, and our interactions with them are more complex than our interactions with toasters. Further, we must be wary of the presumption that we ourselves are somehow especially fit to accost the alleged poetasters of the world. As Sophocles says: May no one arrive at my fireside who will not wonder what he is and does. In evincing respect, a good review conveys its susceptibility to this doubt.
Complementing respect are two other ingredients I’ve noticed in good reviews. One that seems always to be present (where word limits allow) is extensive and careful exegesis and quotation. And a fourth ingredient that is common, though not ubiquitous, is generosity. A failure of generosity is often ugly; but even a failure of insight need not sink a review if the reviewer is generous. Here, I think of a review of Franz Wright’s God’s Silence by Helen Vendler. Vendler herself, it seemed to me, did not understand Wright’s project. But I was able to discern this — and immediately bought the book — because of her generosity. The seriousness of her attempt to understand revealed things about the book that she herself apparently did not see.
LH: When you review, do you focus on a particular text (poem, story), the book at hand, the author’s body of work? Do you think this choice of focus influences criticism, or your own criticism, and if so, how?
JZ: Where there is context for an individual work, describing this context nearly always broadens understanding. It is hard to imagine how it could be irrelevant. But the way in which context is provided can be quite various, just as treatment of background in painting and photography can be various while remaining, in every case, a fundamental aspect of the work.
LH: How different is the way you approach reviewing or critical writing to the way you approach your own “creative” writing?
JZ: Because I am not aware of an ‘approach’ I bring to my creative work, at first I did not know how to respond to this question. But on reflection, I think the answer is probably straightforward: there’s not much difference. In both cases, what I’m trying to do is to listen with as much imaginative reach as I can muster. In one case, I’m trying to attend to the world, in the other to a piece of writing.
LH: Have you been in a position where you have had to write about a book that you don’t care for, or a book that is coming out of a tradition that you are perhaps opposed to, or resistant to on some level? How do you handle such events?
JZ: Yes, this has happened to me as a philosophical reviewer. Not often, but it’s happened.
First, I take a big breath — I try to set down my resistances, and to ask whether this book might open to me a perspective that has previously been closed. Once or twice this has worked, but by no means always. If it doesn’t, step two involves trying to be honest about my bristly-ness, and laying it out for readers in a way that invites them to think through the issues themselves. But I certainly don’t always succeed here either. Step three is thus crucial: I ask at least a couple of friends, who share my sense of the importance of respect, to read a draft and to tell me where I’m not being fair. (Or where an attempt at wit has turned flippant.) I’m sure even this hasn’t always worked, but it’s saved me from at least some lapses into ham-fistedness.
With poetry, so far, I’ve been able to say no to review requests when I’ve been unsympathetic to the project. In editing situations and workshops, though, I haven’t always been able to avoid speaking to manuscripts I don’t like. But I’ve been astoundingly lucky. So far, I’ve found in every case — every case! — that if I ask the person whose work I’m resisting to explain their goals, to help me understand what they’re trying to do, the door has opened. I’ve discovered common ground; it has turned out that we share some significant commitment. That commitment has led the author in one direction, and me in another; but we’ve been able to map this out, and speak across the distances. I have no idea how to explain this, unless it’s that the decision to engage with poetry selects for people who are in tune on fundamental matters.
Or maybe it is just luck. If so, I hope it holds.
LH: What is the last piece of writing that a/ convinced you to reconsider an author or book you thought you had figured out, or had a final opinion on or b/ made you want to buy the book under review immediately?
JZ: I’ve mentioned the review by Helen Vendler that made me go out and buy God’s Silence; it’s not the most recent example, but it’s one of the most memorable. The other day, I ordered Gjertrud Schnackenberg’s The Lamplit Answer on the basis of a review by Doug Beardsley. In general, Tim Lilburn, Sue Sinclair, M. Travis Lane and Warren Heiti are writers who frequently manage to stimulate me to buy a book, or to pick up a classic that’s already on my shelves. As for reconsiderations, Northrop Frye recently convinced me to have another go at Wallace Stevens. Stevens still eludes me; but this is not Frye’s fault. He really made me want to try, and helped me make a serious attempt. (I remain hopeful that enlightenment will strike some day.)
LH: Is there a quality you are looking for in a review that you haven’t found?
LH: Critical work is increasingly unpaid work; will you continue to do this work despite the trend?
JZ: Since writing poetry and philosophy are also unpaid work, and since editing them is, at best, grossly underpaid, my time is limited. But if I’m flush, and have the time, yes, certainly I’ll continue. I have no principled objection to unpaid work. Quite the opposite.
LH: What do you hope to achieve by writing about writing?
JZ: To promote clarity of thought about fundamental philosophical and political issues, in the hope that increased clarity might lead to beneficial change. And to convey my love or enthusiasm for a work of art that’s changed my life.
LH: Do you believe that reviews can actually bring new readers to texts?
JZ: Yes. They’ve done this for me.