Recently, Andrew Feld posted the following comment on Joan Houlihan’s review of Christian Wiman’s latest book of poems:
Without addressing the substance of this review, it does seem problematic to me that it is written by a poet whose most recent book was given a hugely unfavorable review in the journal edited by Christian Wiman. Whatever you might want to say about her claims and criticisms, Jean Houlihan can hardly be regarded as impartial on this subject. The supposed objectivity of her critique is completely negated by her personal investment in rejecting Wiman’s poetry and poetic standards. Would she have written the same review if her book had been praised in Wiman’s journal? Probably not. The mystery is not why this review was written, but why it was published. Who wouldn’t want to slam the work of an editor who has publicly dismissed their work, in “the country’s most important poetry journal”? I know that under the same impetus I’d like to say a few nasty things about Wiman and his journal, and I have no doubt that there are no shortage of writers who would like to say the same things about me and my journal–but professionalism, a sense of how journals work, and the vital necessity of editorial subjectivity (Wiman was put in charge of Poetry not because he’s “impartial,” but because he stands for something the board of the journal consider important) make such statements self-evidently childish. This journal needs to give some serious thought to the necessity of at least gesturing towards impartiality in the assigning of reviews.
Joan Houlihan responds:
Mr. Feld, in the matter of a possible tit-for-tat review of Wiman’s book, I take your point even though Wiman is one (or more) “tats” removed since he himself did not review my book, only published, in your words, a “hugely unfavorable” review of my book. It could be argued that perhaps I shouldn’t have chosen to review his book because of the mere appearance of partiality (even though, a book review, being one person’s opinion, is anything but impartial). Yet consider: who, out of the thousands of poets who are desperate for publication in Poetry, would dare to review his book (that is, to review it honestly, if not impartially)? In that sense, who better to review it than someone who has had it both ways with Poetry: hugely favorable and hugely unfavorable? A review that is completely impartial is one that is also completely useless. I think you are objecting not to partiality but to the kind of partiality. It may not be a hugely favorable review; however, I have tried to be thoughtful and it is well-considered.
Meanwhile, your complaint against CPR, that we should at least “gesture toward impartiality” is what you here extol in Poetry—a lack of impartiality in editorial decision-making! So, which is it? Impartiality or “the vital necessity of editorial subjectivity?” I happen to agree with the idea of a vital editorial subjectivity, and that a journal should have a discernible viewpoint—it should “stand for something.” But who can discern the editorial viewpoint of Poetry? It seems to be, to put it kindly, eclectic. To put it less kindly, a grab bag. Meanwhile, it is CPR that has a discernible editorial stance, one that values intelligence, integrity, outspokenness, and a dislike of favor-trading—and that’s exactly why I edit and write for it.
What’s next? Comments on comments on comments? How many reviewers can stand on the head of pin? Let’s see some content!
In the spirit of the meta-comment:
” As writers of books and as reviewers ourselves, what do we expect from a book review? In the case of a movie review we’re usually content with learning what it’s about and deciding whether to see it. Because books are literature we hold book reviewing to a higher standard. We expect much more than plot summary or summary judgment. We expect it to be really written, to rise to the level of its subject, to display an understanding of the medium, a personal point of view. We would be outraged if new novels were rated with a certain number of stars, as movies commonly are. We demand incisive judgment, not mere consumer guidance. Book reviews should be a province of writing, not of marketing – or polling. Criticism is a refined art, not a popularity contest. We expect it to be done with style and intelligence.”
But the best part is this: “The democratization of reviewing is synonymous with the decay of reviewing.”
Maybe we just need more people who read poetry who do not write it. Poetry Magazine got a lot of money and seemed to cash out of real involvement with poetry years ago. Wiman’s preference for religious poetry has made the magazine almost a New Age Christian publication. I was a lifetime reader until a few years ago. It is sad what happened to Poetry Magazine.
A High-Toned Old Christian Wiman
Poetry is the supreme magazine, sir.
Take the inheritance law and make a knave from it
And let the knave rent high-rise offices. Thus,
Fortune is converted into poems,
In a windy city hankering after honor.
We agree in principle. That’s clear. But take
Up quantum physics and make a partial style,
And from the partial style project a mask
Of uncertainty. Thus, postmodernism,
Purged of essence, indulged at last,
Is equally converted into poems,
Loitering like limousines. And poem for poem,
Sir, we are where we began. Allow,
Therefore, that in the quantum physics scene
Your most affected flagellants, well-stuffed,
Snacking hors d’oeuvres at conference and retreat,
Proud of such novelties of the sublime,
Such drink and drank and drunk-a-drunk-drunk,
May, merely may, sir, flip for themselves
In jovial hullabaloo among their peers.
This will make people wince. But foundations
Wink as they will. Wink most when people wince.
Hi guys. I commented on the other thread. I agree with Richard, “Wiman’s preference for religious poetry has made the magazine almost a New Age Christian publication. I was a lifetime reader until a few years ago. It is sad what happened to Poetry Magazine.”
Given its history — founded by a secular, brilliant editor, woman poet — this is pretty tragic.
Wow, I had no idea that my comment to Ms. Houlihan’s review would spark not only a reply, but two additional pieces in the CPR. I feel flattered.
I’d also like to apologize for a bit of unnecessary confusion in my initial comment: by “subjectivity” I meant aesthetics, the basis upon which poets are hired for the extremely lucrative and prestigious position of Editor-in-Chief. By impartiality, an idea which seems to be generating a certain amount of ridicule here, I simply meant professionalism. No matter what the terms of Ms. Houlihan’s review of Wiman’s book, the fact that her book was slammed in his journal will always taint her review with the suspicion of tit-for-tat, that she read his book with the predetermined objective of tearing it apart, and that her hostility towards the editor of a journal that published such a hostile review to her own poetry had to have biased her reading of his work. I’d love to read a neutral slam of Every Riven Thing (surely one of the worst book titles in recent memory), and I’m sure there are lots of poets who could and should write one.
No one with half a brain would ever ask for or want an aesthetically “objective” reviewer or review–aesthetics are religion, as Stevens implied–but every poet, and every reader is entitled to ask for a professionally subjective reviewer. Otherwise “po-biz” (to use the worst phrase in the English language) feels even smaller than it is.
Well I do the comment of the comment in answer to the first comment. 😉
Joan Houlihan’s answer is deafening and I like his remark ” that is, to review it honestly, yew not impartially “, it’s so true.