Reviewing a Book
For someone who has never reviewed before, should you begin by finding a venue for a review or producing a review? Why?
I’d recommend finding an interested review venue before actually drafting the book review. I say this because review markets often have very different preferences regarding wordcounts for the reviews that they publish. These can range from three hundred words (for publications like Boston Review) to one thousand words (for journals like The Drunken Boat and Colorado Review). It’s best to find an interested market beforehand so that you know how long the review should be.
What sort of qualities do you look for in a book you would like to review?
I love reviewing books that are very different from my own. Since my writing usually takes the form of prose poetry, I enjoy reviewing lyric verse, formal poetry, and fiction. I find that I learn a great deal that I can apply to my own craft by doing this. If I read only books that were stylistically similar to my own poetry, I’d never experiment. Reviewing work that’s different from my own often shows me what’s possible within my own poetry.
What are the characteristics of a book that you would have a hard time reviewing?
I have a hard time reviewing genres, styles, or modes of writing that I don’t know anything about. And in my case, there are many books that fall into this category. Just last week, someone once sent me a book of didactic political poetry, which is something I don’t really have the background to appreciate. I usually turn down assignments if I feel I can’t do justice to that particular writer’s voice.
Why do you find reviews important?
First, reviews are a great source of visibility for the poet. If there’s a great book you’ve read that no one knows about, a review is a great way to give that writer some exposure. Reviews also foster dialogue among readers. And they’re a great way for writers to think through changes in the literary landscape. Some of my favorite reviews and review-essays that I’ve encountered in magazines address not only a particular book, but also broader trends within publishing and the poetry community. The Gettysburg Review, for example, publishes review-essays that address such topics as historicity and contemporary poetry, women’s poetry and the re-emergence of the pastoral, etc.
How do you feel about negative reviews? Do you think these are an important part of the reviewing community?
The poetry community is so small that it’s just not productive for someone to make enemies. If you don’t like it, don’t review it. That’s my opinion. Most journals that I’ve worked for will give you the option not to review a book if the piece will be mostly negative. I’ve had editors tell me that if I can’t write a predominantly positive review, they’ll simply send me another book. Since writers and reviewers often rely on their peers for support, I find that negative reviews only hurt the reviewer.