Tuesday, May 14, 2013


The semester is over, the dust has finally settled. Earlier today I sent off a short book review of a very long book of poems—a review I enjoyed writing very much indeed. (Bonus: the magazine style sheet taught me how—finally—to make a proper em-dash!) The recipe for a review, so far as I know it, is pretty simple: find the passages of the book you like, or find telling, & mark them; then figure out your overall impression of the book (which can include things like repeated motifs & themes, overall atmosphere, interesting writerly techniques); then try to put it all down in as lively writing as you can manage. It's a recipe rather like that for an omelette, and about as hard to go wrong with.

Longer pieces, like the big Black Mountain thing that should be seeing the light of day any moment now, are rather more complicated, and involve all sorts of architectural decisions, which are always made more complicated by the constant imperative to keep the prose, if not lively, than at least readable. (But of course I'm always shooting for the lively.) Over the past few years I've found it easier to write conference papers than things meant to be published, because when I'm writing a conference paper I'm always thinking about its delivery, about how to pace my arguments, my funny bits, my decisive pauses, etc.

I've had the opportunity lately to go back over pretty much everything I've published over the past 15 years, outside of books. I'm not unhappy with what's there. I do notice, however, that there's a pretty radical difference between what I've written for a "general" audience—essays for Parnassus, reviews for Chicago Review and Talisman, literary-historical pieces for various Oxford & Cambridge volumes—and the reviews of academic books I've done for more academically "reputable" venues. The latter are deathly dull, for the most part. Why is that? They do what academic reviews are supposed to do: that is, they summarize the main points of the book(s) at hand, and pronounce some sort of summary judgment. Do I feel constrained by the more rigid, tweedy atmosphere of the academic journal? Or am I simply less than interested in what I'm writing about?

My god—have I become a belletrist?

1 comment:

Dan Green said...

Worse things could happen.