Monday, April 02, 2007

How to Write a Negative Review

I love reading negative reviews but I have a hard time writing them. And I wonder about their usefulness, too. A book’s author is often the most attentive reader and I always think of her--of Virginia Woolf’s eloquent and pained responses to reviews, of the reviews I hope and fear to read of my own work one day. (One does exist, by the way, in the new issue of Woolf Studies Annual, but I haven’t seen it yet.) It seems churlish, knowing how hard it is to write a book, to be mean about someone else’s.

But not all books are good, and every book, even a great one, has limitations.

It seems to me that Emily Nussbaum’s review of Deborah Garrison’s new collection of poems in Sunday’s NYTBR offers a great model of a kind of negative review. This is a second collection, a follow-up to a popular and successful first. Nussbaum establishes that with generosity and this pads us against feeling too bad for Garrison (after all, the implication is, she is going to be just fine--as the picture of her, smart, good-looking, and, apparently thriving in a backyard in New Jersey, seems to attest). Nussbaum is careful, too, to note that Garrison’s “Sex in the City”-type poems appealed to her; she found them light but pleasant; she likes “Sex in the City.”

Then, in the last three paragraphs of the review, she zooms out to take a look at the bigger picture.

Garrison is writing about motherhood now. Of poets on that topic, how does her work stack up?

Well, not as well as one might hope. Nussbaum puts Garrison in a large constellation dominated by the stars of late-twentieth century women’s poetry: Anne Sexton, Sharon Olds, and, finally, Sylvia Plath:
But is it wrong to want more? Since …midcentury, … there has been a flood of smart, morbid, searching, sometimes outrageous writing on maternity. The best such poems burn off the pink sentimentality of motherhood in favor of something wilder and more surprising. …
This, “is it wrong to want more?” is, I think, a key question of reviewing. I’ve just finished a book that didn’t do it for me and that wanting more was the whole problem: the author built a world for me and then didn’t really do much with his creations. All the lovely sentences built towards predictability, beauty without momentum, cruelty. I wanted more.

Nussbaum continues, comparing Garrison to Sylvia Plath. It’s an unfair fight--and Nussbaum acknowledges that--but the point here is to remind ourselves as readers what it feels like not to want more, to read poems about something common--being a mother--and be left feeling stunned, amazed, transported.
To my mind, the great unsung poet of motherhood is Sylvia Plath. She may have a reputation as the ultimate misery chick, but in fact, her writing overflows with talk of birth, of breastfeeding and motherhood, much of it, despite sad undercurrents, loving and celebratory. In the gorgeous “Nick and the Candlestick,” for instance, Plath writes “O love, how did you get here? / O embryo / Remembering, even in sleep, / Your crossed position. / The blood blooms clean / In you, ruby.” The poem ends with one of her most moving images: “You are the one / Solid the spaces lean on, envious. / You are the baby in the barn.” In poems like this, and in her finest descriptions (as when a newborn’s “clear vowels rise like balloons”), Plath makes strange what should be familiar — which is, after all, a central task of poetry.

It’s unfair, of course, to expect Garrison to be like Plath. She has her own gifts and an audience sure to appreciate them. In real life, I’d rather have a likable next-door neighbor than a bipolar goddess as a confidante. But in writing? Give me the strange mother over the sweet one any day.


Rebecca H. said...

I liked that review too -- it made me want to go read some Sylvia Plath.

genevieve said...

A very good example of allowing context to provide the criticism, isn't it. It doesn't stop one from wanting to read Garrison, either, which is important.
Lovely post, Anne, as always :)