Daniel E. Pritchard on The Open Letters Anthology

This is Not a Book Review

by Daniel E. Pritchard

Through the tumultuous first decade of the new millennium there has flowed an ever more articulate stream of eulogies for the book review in print. Lamentations for the death of print,
and for book reviews in print, have emanated from every corner of the bibliophilic compass, from publishers, newspapers, and writers alike. But these obituaries have also been found mostly in print, in newspapers and glossy magazines, not to mention mugs, pens, stickers, pins, tee shirts, etc. Several commentators have made light of this little paradox, which is itself not without precedent: each encounter with “the death of print” in print recalls René Magritte’s painting of a pipe beneath which was written, “Ceci n’est pas un pipe.” Print is dead! the newspapers read —
and as long as the death of print remains news, print is not dead.

It is still beyond any reasonable doubt that the age of the newspaper, at the very least, is over. Requiescat in pace, but do not weep. Wasteful, relatively expensive, and ultimately ephemeral, there is nothing that a newspaper provides in print that cannot be provided exactly as well online. (Except perhaps the deplorable registration of their high-speed print processes.) And those at the helm are not ignorant of this. Some new business paradigm will be required to successfully meet the demands of a generation that scoffs at now-quaint constraints of old print media: word count, production costs, and distribution.

These are not just the practical problems that once needed to be solved for a newspaper to thrive; they are the essential framing concepts of print media and the boundaries of that worldview. Within these boundaries, business operated on a set of fairly predictable natural laws. Erasing them does not resolve the problems of length, production, and circulation — it eliminates the paradigm itself.

The vacuum that is left will be filled, either by existing media entities or by new ones. No one can say yet what the delineations of the new paradigm will be. There is too much ground left to cover. The change has already come to news reporting and op/ed pieces, where the Huffington Post stands equal to at least the New York Post and the Boston Globe, if not yet to the Washington Post or The New York Times.

A similar shift is certainly being made in the vaunted book review. Long embattled and belittled, shortened and short-changed, book reviews find new devotees online who, for reasons maybe of tone or content, would not and did not read reviews in print. Online book reviews are plentiful and expanding. It is still under debate, however, whether these online reviews meet the standard of quality of their ink-and-paper ancestors. Those who have made their living and their name in print will argue not, if they even acknowledge the importance of online reviews at all.

In his introduction to “The Book” in January 2010, Isaac Chotiner of The New Republic wrote, “The slow and steady transfer of people’s attention to the web is a fact of our culture. And the absence of any site for the serious consideration of serious books is also a fact of the web.” This is a dismaying realization for the young editor of an online book review journal. I had set out to write a serious review of a serious book — but no, Ceci n’est pas un review: my readers consume this at desktop monitors, on web phones and iPads, with laptops perched on their couches. They read this essay, indeed this entire journal, online. And according to Mr. Chotiner, we are all made comical and cursory — or worse, nonexistent — by the apparatus of the internet. We have not even achieved the dignity of failure.

One takes such declarations with a grain of salt. Lambasting the quality of online book reviews is nearly as common, though never as articulate, as mourning the death of print. The most prevalent criticisms — that they lack the depth of research, the rhetorical polish, and the measured tone of traditional reviews — are fair, if overstated.

The internet is a landscape of dilettantes and amateurs, those for whom this literary pursuit is not a career but an avocation. Their opinions may well be unsophisticated, but they are also largely unpretentious, honest, and conversational. They are able to build a trust with their readers that print reviewers somehow lost. And there does exist, beneath the blemishes, some recognizable measure of critical acumen. As Pope wrote, “Most have the seeds of judgment in their mind; / Nature affords at least a glimmering light.”

Online book reviewers are the common readers of our age, and, despite their common flaws, they deserve better than widespread derision — particularly from those whose livelihood depends upon them.

However, just as The New York Review of Books is not judged by the essays of college students, online reviews cannot be judged by the simple majority of blogging bibliophiles. Not every online review is brief, cursory, and superficial. Some glimmering lights burn brighter than others, outshining Chotiner’s extinguishing dictum. Certainly, they are not in the majority — but in what age was the most quality ever found most commonly? Never before in print, and not online today.

Open Letters Monthly, the online journal of criticism and poetry that recently published a selected anthology (in print), is among that shining minority. Founded in 2006 to expand the critical conversation beyond the existing circles, its editors state their mission plainly: “Here you’ll find engaged, enthusiastic criticism and commentary displaying our passion for art across a broad spectrum of forms. Here you’ll find opinions based on our belief that there’s no room in the world for either pretension or pandering, and that the lions of art can fall flat just as great works can emerge from previously unknown corners.”

This anthology presents a primer on some of the best internet reviews and criticism available. Included are, among others, essays on the Marxist implications of a video game narrative; classic authors such as Norman Mailer, George Eliot, Dorothy Sayers, and Anthony Burgess; three contemporary Chinese novels in translation; Munich, 1938, and the meaning of appeasement; the conspiracies surrounding President Kennedy’s assassination; and the virulence of the constitutional debate.

Despite its outsider posture, Open Letters is not “alternative” in the modern sense of being cultish and exclusive. They do not go out of their way to focus solely on books that have been overlooked elsewhere or that satisfy some niche audience, although these are not ignored either. Breadth of scope and fineness of taste are their true aims. The topics and authors under review are only as eclectic as our contemporary culture, from historical and political debates at the heart of our national government to dialectical criticism of mass-media entertainment. In a recent article at The Nation, “The Death and Life of the Book Review,” John Palattella makes a distinction between base “reviewery” and “scrutiny, the deliberate, measured analysis of literary and intellectual questions without obvious or easy answers.” The latter, he argues, is the true measure of a book review. By this test, The Open Letters Anthology introduces a book review journal that has, the last four years, outpaced its counterparts in print twice over.

The best of these essay-reviews, in their ambition and tone, are written in a mode of criticism that resembles Edmund White or Yvor Winters more than it does Sam Tanenhaus or Michael Dirda. Eschewing the well-trodden path — the hook, the book, the author and themes, the pithy conclusion — the superior essays lead readers wherever interest and curiosity dictate. Adam Golaski’s essay on the poet Paul Hannigan, for example, is conversational and lyric. It is an essay with a neighborhood story at its heart that still manages to engage critically with Hannigan’s otherwise forgotten verse:

A cruel joke, the cruel joke, cruel jokes — sometimes something simply impossible, sometimes more malevolent than that — are regular features in Hannigan’s poetry, often perpetrated through persistent dumbness, as in “A Theory of Learning,” the title poem in a chapbook from 1966: “The tenth parachute jump and / The fourth abortion are just / Preludes to a wide middle-age / for the slow learner.” Read the line break after “just,” transforming just from merely to judgment. From the dunce cap to the knee scrape to “we learn from our mistakes”: learning is cruel, especially when we remain so dumb in spite of so many harsh lessons. Perhaps we learn best when what we learn is coupled with pain.

This is more than a book review, biography, or authorial reclamation, although it is all three at turns. Golaski’s essay, at its finest points, is also ruminative and deeply personal.

Similar in tone and intent, Jared White was among the first to celebrate the poetry of Jack Spicer with his lengthy review of My Vocabulary Did This to Me. Less immediately personal than Golaski’s essay by far, White focuses his conversational review on the poems and their poetics. He perfectly describes Spicer’s “desire to blur the boundaries between poetics and poetry, between a transcendental discourse of the spirit and a colloquial admission of the cost of living,” and his “willingness to follow the impulse where it leads, to be embarrassing and maudlin and dark and ornery and hopeless and jaundiced.” Losing himself in the collection at hand, giving the essay over to Spicer, White offers the most incisive criticism in this anthology.

Not every piece is defined by a lyric sensibility, though. There is no a priori mode in which Open Letters writers operate. Lianne Habinek, for example, offers an insightful, old-fashioned close reading of Donne’s “The Flea,” describing the rete mirabile, the mythical knot of nerves connecting the soul to the body — “the subtle knot, woven by spirits, hidden beneath the brain, the work of metaphor upon anatomical imagination” — and its importance to the poet’s metaphysics. In “He Went Thataway,” Bartolomeo Piccolomini reviews The Tropics of Empire, a scholarly volume regarding the philosophical foundations of Columbus’ American voyage. Concerned with clarity of expression and doing justice to the ideas, readers are introduced to a heated scholarly debate from square one.

“The dominant vision of the world,” Piccolomini writes, “was one of five zones, only the ‘middle’ two of which were habitable. These zones encompassed the known world and had Jerusalem as their center. [. . .] the further you got from these central zones, the further you got not only from civilization [. . .] but from grace.” With Columbus’ voyage, the very idea of a terrestrial center — and, almost as quickly, a theological center — was upended. There are echoes of contemporary America, realizing the shifting center of its world-view, in this discussion of geo-metaphysics; there are also, Piccolomini explains, echoes of this ancient view in contemporary geopolitics:

Columbus didn’t just sail west to reach east, Way Gómez wants to point out and stress; he sailed south in order to sail west to reach the east. It wasn’t just a direction, it was a philosophical — even a religious — choice, and it reflected a cultural mindframe of the northern hemisphere toward the southern that Way Gómez believes sent deep pylons into the cultural consciousness.

Certain essays are less successful than others, of course. Sam Sacks’ overview of three contemporary Chinese novels is what John Palattella might deem “reviewery.” Daniel Green’s review of James Woods’ How Fiction Works is a piece of critical assassination, willfully misreading and misconstruing a critic whose flaws could be well considered without such games. Still, even these essays offer some insight into the work and the topics at hand, and all of them, more importantly, raise and remit questions. It is the truest sign of an excellent review: that a reader feels compelled to continue the discussion.

No one can argue that online journals like Open Letters Monthly are superior to traditional powerhouses such as The New York Review of Books, London Review of Books, or Bookforum. Nor can it be said that the crème of print coverage is set to spoil any time soon: the best print journals have the infrastructure, reputation, and money necessary to produce consistently strong issues with frequent essays by big-name writers. But the finest online reviews are at least comparable to those in print, and this anthology reveals that — it represents a notch in the door-frame as internet review journals mature and grow, and rise to prominence in the republic of letters.

The Open Letters Anthology may also represent the quintessential death-of-print in print: a series of essays and poems harvested from an online-only journal and presented, as the editors put it in their introduction, “in an actual printed book, that object so central to all our lives.” There is actually a remarkable absence of anxiety about the death of print here. It is replaced by a simple, sure-minded belief in the practicality of the object: “Write in our margins. Throw us across the room if you like — books welcome this kind of treatment, computers less so.” An online review of the printed anthology of an online journal may well present one boundary of the new internet paradigm.

Daniel E. Pritchard is the founder and managing editor of The Critical Flame

in this article

Open Letters Monthly:
an Anthology 2007–2010
edited by John Cotter
Softcover, $12.00
Open Letters Monthly Books