Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Poe on Poe - profound and searching analysis

This is Poe's December 1844 note on novelist William Gilmore Simms:

"Mr. Simms has abundant faults—or had;—among which inaccurate English, a proneness to revolting images, and pet phrases, are the most noticeable. Nevertheless, leaving out of question Brockden Brown and Hawthorne (who are each a genus), he is immeasurably the best writer of fiction in America. He has more vigor, more imagination, more movement and more general capacity than all our novelists (save Cooper), combined." (p. 1342)

Poe's commendations have a touch of the back of the hand, don't they? (For another example, regarding Cooper, see here). That aside, notice the accuracy of Poe's judgment. Hawthorne, Cooper, Brockden Brown - that's our early American canon of fiction writers, almost. Just replace Simms - poor Simms, not quite good enough! - with Edgar Allan Poe.

Book reviews in Poe's time were anonymous, mostly. This led to no end of abuse, as can be seen in Lost Illusions, when talented, trivial Lucien writes a vicious attack on a novel, then returns to the good graces of the author by writing a postive review that attacks his own attack, in neither case having read the actual book.*

By 1845, Poe had become a famous writer, for "The Raven" and for a number of his stories, the same ones that are well-known now. He took the opportunity to review his own new volume of Tales. Let's see what he thinks of himself.

- "he has perfectly succeeded in his perfect aim" (869)

- "The style, we think, is good. Its philosophy is damnable; but this does not appear to have been a point with the author" (871)

- The detective stories are "inductive" "of profound and searching analysis" (872), although "The Purloined Letter" does not have the "continuous and absorbing interest" of the other two (872)

- Mr. Poe possesses the "power of simulation... in its full perfection" (873)

"The Mystery of Marie Roget", we are told, should help solve an actual crime in New York City. And that as good as Tales is, it does not even contain much of Poe's best work.

Is this all an elaborate joke - I mean, were readers in on it? I have no idea. There's a digressive paragraph atacking the editor who rejected "The Tell-Tale Heart" - is this a wink at readers, or genuine revenge?

* Anonymous reviews can be highly professional - see Virginia Woolf's critical essays, for example.


  1. I think anonymous reviews are a great idea. Because Canada has a piddly little literary pool, hardly any harsh verdicts are delivered...everyone knows everyone else and wants to be treated well...

    There was a column in the Ottawa Citizen written by an anonymous civil servant...may still be running...anyway it was full of interesting straight talk about all the follies of government...something that couldn't have been written with a byline...

    on the other hand, one thing I find despicable is the internet commenters and bloggers who don't have the balls to put their name to their cheap shots and name calling...
    Anonymity is ok I'd say so long as what's said is civil and constructive, negative or positive.

  2. Anonymous reviewing risks corruption - logrolling and puffery - although its hard to see how things could be much worse than they are now.

    And at its best, like you said, anonymity gives freedom.

  3. quite torn about the idea of anonymous reviews...I see the freedom implied when the current system is all about back-patting or rivalry (I don't think this is the case, however, just a potential problem) but at the same time I'm wary of handing the lowest common denominator (mass culture) a podium and a megaphone just to correct the opposite extreme.

  4. Virginia Woolf is my positive model for the anonymous reviewer. I like to think that I would have eventually known her voice well enough that I could have picked her reviews out of the TLS.

    Come to think of it, that's the real reason I want non-anonymous reviews - to help me find my favorite reviewers.

  5. Part of the issue stems from the point of reviewing. I don't read "serious" reviews, but read reviews in the Sunday paper and listen to NPR. Like many others, read professional reviews for recommendations. If most writers are writing to promote the act of reading in general, and one has a choice of what to review, why wouldn't you spend your time and column space writing about something you think others should read? My blogging friends have the space to write about many books, so I much appreciate them telling me what not to read, or why something didn't work.

    I understand how lack of negative reviews is bad for literature overall, but I also understand how many reviewers view the act of encouraging reading overall to be an essential part of their job.

  6. Now this, as Old Briest says, is too big a subject. I'll just say that the idea of a reviewer who wants to promote reading in general worries me - how could this be anything but a dereliction of responsibility?

    Saying nice things about a bad book does not encourage reading. It discourages, at least, my ever reading another word of that hack reviewer.

  7. "Reading in general" I suppose is a bad phrase, and I hope that I did not imply a good review of a bad book was a good thing.

    If I only had one column a month to share vegetable recipes, it would be a long time before I chose to write about a recipe I didn't like. The point would be to lead people to good vegetable recipes.

    I believe some book reviewers view their job as leading others to good books. Many readers such as myself don't read reviews for serious criticism but rather to find out what to read. Just as my vegetable readers would assume that there were bad recipes out there, but that I was telling them about the good ones, I assume that there are bad books out there but that the readers are telling me about the good ones.

    Of course, if I had space to write about every vegetable recipe I tried it would be a very different thing, and in any case I would have an obligation to describe the dish well enough so that others could decide if they wanted to try it.
    Actually, I'm suprised that I am taking this position since I am enthusiastically for the publishing of more negative results in science. Still, I think that there are places for both book guides and literary critics and it is not a real fault of the book guides if they are not literary critics (If any of these statements suggest that writing a good review about a bad book is good, I've entirely missed my point. If I tell people to try a vegetable recipe, it better well be good or no one will believe me again).

  8. Basically, I agree with you. The issue Poe faced, all too familiar today, is what to do about the bad books that everyone else is saying are good. Someone has to fight back.