Prussic Acid–diluted

So, I’m reading about Poe’s caustic reviews of other authors’ writings while he worked as an editor.  These reviews were so harsh (a friend said something like ‘Poe uses prussic acid instead of ink to write his reviews’), and were such a departure from the typical “puff” editorial pieces of the day that he made even many of his fans mad, almost got into a duel, alienated the cliques of New York publishing, and perhaps even caused the rejection of his own manuscripts as publishers did not want to associate with the man who cost them the reputation and possible sales of their clients.

According to Sidney Moss in his excellent history of these conflicts (Poe’s Literary Battles), Poe thought he had good reason to be so harsh—American literature was weakening as a cost of the consistent “puffing” in supposedly critical magazines of whatever swill publishers decided to put out there.  Basically, editors were scratching the backs of publishers, in hopes that publishers would do likewise. As a result, serious criticism was getting sloppy and it became a fairly normal practice for editors to endorse a book without even reading it!

So Poe didn’t go easy on other author’s works, calling out both them and the editors who reviewed them for their sloppy work, in very specific critical terms.  (…And this lead to the “Longfellow war” which I’ll detail in a future post.)

But anyway, I couldn’t help thinking—is this sort of fluffy, puffy criticism around today?  I think human nature often veers towards the “saying something nice or nothing at all” ethic particularly when it comes to literature, and particularly confusing or difficult literature, and/or the review has no critical content.  On Goodreads, the popular book review app that is located as a plug-in to the right on my blog, if you look up Hamlet, many of the reviews are simply plot summaries, creative re-imaginings or stream-of-consciousness retellings (one involving ABBA?), or personal narratives (I was reading this on a plane, my teacher made me read this…), or inane details (my book has a fuzzy cover).  Perhaps I’m expecting too much from Goodreads—the rating system encourages subjective reading in that one star is “didn’t like it”, two is “it was ok”, three is “liked it”, four is “really liked it,” and five is “it was amazing!”  I am being ridiculously nit-picky, I know, but I find it difficult to work within this system as one, three, and four are ratings that indicate personal preference, and two and five indicate general quality.  My students never know the difference between these concepts either (Example student: “How can my essay be bad when me and my roommate both liked it so much?!?!”) .

So, we have a system with non-existent, sloppy, or ill-defined standards that is probably more accessible and more popular than any scholarly article—much the same situation as in Poe’s day; but while this situation in Poe’s time was brought on because a small group was in tight control of the literary reviewing and publishing process, the extreme opposite is the case here: everyone and their grandmother can (and do) review a book on Goodreads, Amazon, or other apps, and publishing is so prevalent that even a poor grad student with no time to edit her work can do it.  So, to be melodramatic (Poe would like this) we are bombarded with mediocrity.   Poe could take it upon himself to fix the problem by being the “Bulldog” of literature, as he sometimes called himself; he was one guy stirring up the pot, and he could do that because the pot was small.  Now, the pot is an Olympic-sized swimming pool, and even if Poe was around today, all he would still have is his pen.

I tested this theory the other day.  As you know, I HATED Wilde’s De Profundis; however, I am in the minority—it has a very good rating on Goodreads, higher, in fact, than Wilde’s plays.  It’s fair to say Wilde-lovers and Wilde-toleraters alike generally “really like” De Profundis or they aren’t rating it.  So, I wrote an unequivocally poor review of the work.  I tried to emulate Poe’s review style here in being specific, snarky, and generally outraged.  (If I were really writing a Poe-style review accurately, it would have been longer and include more quotations, but my aim was to try to provoke through accurate, fair, but inflammatory reviewing.)   So, I posted it and, of course…crickets.   Nope, no response, and there probably won’t be one.

What’s the solution?  beats me.



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