The American Dissident: Literature, Democracy & Dissidence

Small Press Review

Proposal for a Guest Editorial… and Act of Literary Protest
Let the MFA and writing workshop mobs be informed that criticism does not necessarily imply positivist reflection! Since the guest editorial in Small Press Review (November/December 2001) by Samantha Rush is entirely of that sort, let the following proposed guest editorial, which I had no intention of even writing until becoming thoroughly riled, counterbalance hers by being entirely negative! First, Small Press Review, sent to me as an “exchange copy,” confirms my recent thoughts that perhaps it is high time to get out of the poetry business altogether, for the more poetry I read, the more readings I attend, and the more reviews I read only serve to make me more negative on the poets.

The fact that the small press is small does not necessarily make it less establishment. On the contrary, it would be safe to assume that the large majority of small presses and magazines are establishment. SPR is certainly establishment. It is not, after all, Alternative Press Review, which is certainly less establishment. In any case, the particular issue of SPR examined begins with a more or less surprisingly acceptable piece of writing. Indeed, the front-page review, though predictably praising the chapbook reviewed, nailed City Lights Press, Black Sparrow Press, and the other establishment presses quite appropriately. But then it is downhill from there. For example, the next page contains a review of Randall Jarrell’s selected essays, which, if published by a small press, must have been a big small press, but most likely a large press; why therefore publish the review in Small Press Review?

What really soured me, though, was Rush’s two-page guest editorial, which served no other purpose than to praise SPR. Why an editor needs to publish such blatant praise of his own review is beyond me. Yet many if not most reviews seem to do this in their letters to the editor sections. On the other hand, bravo to APR for publishing my highly critical piece of one of its reviewers this past Fall. Rush’s piece was also disturbing because of its embarrassingly infantile hyper-verbose, hyper-cutesy writing style often in need of a good translation into clear, comprehensible prose… or was I missing something? Perhaps this style might be considered “experimental,” thus on the “cutting edge,” and thus a place where the writing mob is currently feeding.

Christopher Chambers, editor of New Orleans Review, authored a second two-page guest editorial equally embarrassing as Rush’s, though for different reasons. First, it offends by its overly pompous tone and message of old-boy-academic-network-backslapping support of one university review for another, in this case, Kenyon Review. Chambers expresses anger because a previous guest editorial apparently had the “effrontery” to criticize academic journals. How disturbing that Chambers, an academic, would himself have the “effrontery” to label valid critique as “to demonize editors and literary magazines.” Such comment is pitifully ridiculous and probably widespread in academe—I’ve been a professor for 15 years. What is pathetic is that this attitude is being taught to students in colleges and universities around the nation. How dare ye criticize the professors and their writing programs! In the editorial, Chambers seeks in vain to diffuse the notion of a “conspiracy” of academic editors. Such a conspiracy does exist, though probably on an unconscious level, and constitutes a collective will not to publish harsh criticism of academic reviews, academic favorite poets, and academic literary prizes. “The truth is,” as Chambers likes to repeat throughout his guest editorial, that Chambers himself is too damn tired and insecure to deal with the truth. To shrug off hardcore criticism as “effrontery” is nothing short of arrogance. “The truth is” that Chambers and others like him are pushing “graceful” poetry over poetry that needs to be written, that is, poetry that has something to say about the often sad hard truth. “The truth is” that MFA programs and their academic literary journals have been pushing a lot of baloney into and through the skulls of a lot of naïve students. “The truth is” that MFA programs are flooding America with “graceful” though often quite hollow writing. To label these observations “effrontery” is to accept corruption in academe, government and elsewhere. It is to banish writing to the exclusive domain of style without substance and to banish writers into being mere performers of that style. To deem uncomfortable criticism “effrontery” is to show ones true colors as contrary to Emerson’s “stand upright and speak the rude truth in all its ways” and Thoreau’s “let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine.” It is also to deny Hemingway’s keen observation that “writers are forged in injustice as a sword is forged” and to proclaim bliss and business as usual in the academic writing factory. Is it not time to break the troubling trend of writing for the sake of writing? From time to time, wouldn’t it be nice to see writing that risks something? This very proposal, for example, risks provoking Editor Len Fulton’s ire and consequent “unlisting” from the Directory of Poetry Publishers of the literary journal that I publish.

Well, I forced myself to read on because I am, after all, a critic of literature. In the book review section, triteness and drivel also reign. “This is how a poetry journal should look… substantial. On the front cover there is a picture of a handsome wolf howling…” But why a wolf, one must ask the reviewer, when most poets today are anything but solitary? A much more appropriate cover photo would have been one of pigs grovelling to get published and subsidized. Another reviewer lays on hyper-praise for another magazine without even attempting to illustrate it with convincing examples: “The Iconoclast continues to set itself apart from the crowd with its focus on literary merit, artistic value and the sensibilities of its readership.” On another note, a certain number of items or ads in the issue seem to underscore that the questionable practice of charging reading fees (even P&W Inc. called it questionable) has not only been spreading like the plague, which would lead a freethinking individual to conclude that this must be a great scheme for a publisher to make money, but has also become more and more acceptable. ‘Blurbing’ has also grown to be a widespread, grotesque practice emphasizing the evident dumbing down of writers and readers in America.

Finally, what is sad today more than anything else is the seeming inability of the large number of writers to question the obvious and challenge it. Surely, it does not take genius to analyze and underscore the platitude and inanity that have been proliferating like wildfire in the world of literature today. In this sense SPR seems to have illustrated the last phrase on that interesting front-page review: “our declining literary world.” One of my pipedreams is that MFA programs and writers workshops teach students to question and challenge everything that has to do with literature including the programs and workshops themselves. The pipedream entails that the latter not only permit but also encourage such criticism. Let truth and the First Amendment prevail over writers’ programs and workshops. [Printed in Small Press Review as a guest editorial, 2/02.]