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Not Reviewing Daphne Gottlieb & Ned Stuckey-French

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Daphne Gottlieb’s 15 Ways to Stay Alive (Manic D Press, April 2011, $14.95 paperback, 128 pages)/Ned Stuckey French’s The American Essay in the American Century (University of Missouri, May 2011, $60 hardcover, 272 pages)

Aside from a few reviews in my brief time as a journalist for the University of Washington Daily, and an occasional screed on Amazon, I didn’t write literary criticism until about two years ago. My first review was published in December of 2009 at the Texas Review, and since then I have written slightly over a dozen. This small sample allows me to appreciate greatly the time and involvement for the craft of reviewing. No matter what you think of Michiko Kakatuni or James Woods or Michael Dirda, they have put in the hours.

At first I enjoyed the process immensely, I requested books, and sometimes was asked (see recent solicitation on my About Page).  But I’m done. What happened? As I tried to review the two subject books of this post I considered how, since summer I have taken quotes, looked into the histories of each individual author, and done requisite background reading. Whenever I started to churn out a draft, though, I questioned my desire, not to mention qualifications. It’s not that I dislike writing reviews or taking part in the process, I think any aspiring writer can benefit from writing literary criticism, but I have to choose how to spend my writing time.

Therefore, I would like to offer condensed reviews to finish what I started. I hope Ned and Daphne and the kind people at U. of Missouri and Manic D can forgive me for not doing justice to their books.

The foremost problem I had with Daphne Gottlieb’s 15 Ways to Stay Alive (Manic D Press, April 2011, $14.95 paperback, 128 pages), is that it’s poetry. I spend little time reading and writing poems, and cannot recognize quality. Daphne Gottlieb, the author of Fucking Daphne, exists outside conventional poetry, and images of her body adorned with tattoos and piercings spoke more to me than the dozen books she’s edited or authored and that I had not read. What could I possibly say about her poetry?

Yet perhaps I have undervalued. As her personality emerged I became involved with 15 Ways to Stay Alive, and found myself appreciating the way she played with form while staying on topic. She juxtaposes Bukowsky amidst New Orleans quotidiana and sadness: “and at night walking the streets for hours,/raped for hours until she was dead”, or, in “to prove that I was someone,” she alternates Tookie Wilson’s call to a White supremacist’s response: “Dare I take My tattoo the master/slave-connection my tattoo a step further is a rebel flag…”. Good stuff.

Gottleib engages in politics, and I find this attractive in a writer. One example: In “no poetry after auschwitz” she attacks the war machine in various ways. She writes, “yes, remember/Rachel Corrie/killed by a bulldozer – but she put her body/ on the line/ using her own privilege”. But just when I think Gottlieb’s views on capitalism and war will turn into a venue to launch platitudes, she writes: “End the Occupation”/becomes/”Kill the Jews”. No one is for abortion, but some people are pro-choice. No one is for war, some people are pro-choice regarding self-defense (if this seems morally ambigious and contradictory, that’s the intent).

Whether or not you agree that Israel is equally if not more culpable in the conflict, or that the Palestinian side lost moral superiority long ago, or recognize that two forces are wrong in the Israeli-Palestine conflict, or wonder if Rachel Corrie took one wrong side, you understand that Gottlieb is making a statement for peace and action. This is a difficult, very difficult subject matter, and I applaud Gottlieb’s willingness to express.

Next is Ned Stuckey French’s The American Essay in the American Century (University of Missouri, May 2011, $60 hardback, 272 pages). The book is academic, and as with poetry, not the sort I normally read. I am no academic, and my college days were ignominious. I took advantage of Cliff’s Notes more than once to churn out a paper on Charles Dickens Dombey and Son or even Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, and my grades subsequently matched my ambition.

Stuckey-French, though, makes a case that we should pay attention to the history of the essay, “…few issues are more current and controversial than that of subjectivity, yet the literary genre most explicitly focused on subjectivity – the essay – has not received much scholarly attention.” He explains further that “essays were caught between retreat and departure, between America’s past and future. That tension is the subject of this book…(with the focus being) the period 1880 to 1940.”

Stuckey-French highlights the characters of this age; we find out about unknowns such as Sara Willis: “perhaps the most popular essayist of the middle of the nineteenth century…(she) wrote on crime, poverty, corruption, prisons, and especially rights of women and children.” Willis was described in the New Yorker as a “a columnist before columnists were heard of” she went through death of a child, a horrible marriage to a jealous man whom she left after two years, and she might have remained forgotten if not for teachers such as Stuckey-French. Quotes from essayists on essays also add to the book, such as Richard Burton’s, who felt that “when the essay becomes the mere venting of a mood and is emptied of thought, the essayist is reduced to happy idiot.”

Stuckey-French writes about Mark Twain and E.B. White, along with a slew of important writers who exited the stage, and how literacy in the US rose, along with the prominence of many magazines, and writers such as W.E.B. DuBois attained fame.  The book closes by asking what might happen if essays “were released from the first-year writing anthologies and read against history?” And hey, if I were to teach a class and wanted to sound like an authority on the topic, a reading of this book would be a sufficient start.

I hope, in the future, that I may have time to solicit and write credible reviews, rather than this evasive attempt to “review” these two books. For now, though, I will take a hiatus from reviewing and will be happy, going forward, to simply read literary criticism and participate in the conversation.

DISCLOSER:  Caleb Powell has been published by Ned Stuckey-French in Fourth Genre, and was solicited for this review by Manic D Press. He has no realationship with Daphne Gottlieb.