Unwriting the Review

jacob-wrestling-with-the-angel-1.jpg!Blog
Jacob Wrestling with the Angel by Odilon Redon, c. 1907

Consuming book culture by reading reviews gives me, at the very least, a sense of participation. I might not be demonstrably part of the dialogue, but I can claim to know what the dialogue is concerning itself with. I can see that the dialogue is stratified, and that the strata that appear most vital are working in spite of other risk-averse strata to reconfigure the suspect value systems that have dominated it’s contours in the past.

I can also feel a rise in the demand for heretofore peripheral authors and poets (in America this seems to mean non-english writers and anyone other than white-male-middle-class-heterosexuals), and this is absolutely something to rejoice, loudly, but I resist the implication that this requires a simultaneous disavowal of our human literary heritage. I’d really just prefer every worthy voice to have a place at the literary table, like a Camelot of books. When I read reviews, what I want is to feel the depth and breadth of literature surging just beneath its surface, totally and incredibly unencompassable. This would require some possibly uncomfortable repositioning of the reviewer.

Presumably, to review a book is first to read it, and then to look back through it in order to come to some conclusions about it. This is not unlike what a reader does. The moment the reader undertakes to write about the work the issue of motive arises, and motive is complex and slippery. All that the reader/reviewer as an individual brings to the reading performance that is review writing makes it fresh and intriguing, but it also troubles its legitimacy. This ambiguity is not necessarily negative, and might indeed be a sort of speculative and dynamic space when embraced or acknowledged.

When I approach a literary review, I have needs. It is usually clear within the first few paragraphs whether or not they will be met. The review needs to expose me to things that I had not already encountered, like another book whose content might enrich the book in review, or another author whose work keeps some company with the author in review, or an element within the author’s biography that might provide entry into the work in review, or an insight that deepens my experience of the work in review, etc. These are legitimate, readerly desires. The problem is that, after awhile, the phrase “in review” starts to invoke the same things the antiquated surgical phrase “in theater” used to invoke. Is this the way to treat the offering a writer makes of a work?

What I do not need from a review are terminal value pronouncements or the sense that the reviewer is jockeying for some kind of dominion over the work. The problem may be that these two things are intrinsic to the review form. A review is already juridical. It keeps authority to itself in its act of “speaking over” a text. It seeks a kind of closure. Is this closure necessary? If our consumption of a text means that it becomes, for good or ill, part of us, do we need to package it tidily, or can we let it stew?

Readers ought to reserve the right to exercise their critical faculties and wrestle with a work accordingly. There is so much pleasure in that wrestling! And there is pleasure in witnessing the wrestling of others. The essay form offers a rich if unoriginal alternative to the review form. An essay is an attempt, a striving, a weighing, an examination. An essay can move within a text tenderly or violently, because it has a responsibility to its search. The essay offers an alternative, yes, but what more could be done in the way of readerly response? What if we approach each work individually, seeking the response-form proper to the work? What might this look like? Like bodies repositioning in order to optimize contact? Like wrestling? Like embrace?

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