I read an article online recently about impostor syndrome — that creeping feeling that whatever success you’ve experienced isn’t deserved, coupled with the fear that at any moment, the fools who believe in your capabilities will wise up to how utterly incompetent you really are. I didn’t know this phenomenon had a name; I mostly take it for granted as “what it sounds like inside my brain most of the time.” It feels natural for me to sit around waiting for one of my graduate professors to show up at my door asking for my MFA back: “Ms. Grise, I’m afraid your post-grad career fails to live up to our standards, and we’ll need you to return that diploma now. In no way will this affect your massive student debt.”
Lately, I’ve noticed that impostor syndrome really goes for my throat when I’m sitting down to review a poetry collection for DIALOGIST — an online journal whose masthead I’ve been privileged to join this past year. It’s a great publication, and I’m so appreciative of the opportunity to write reviews for its readership — so appreciative, in fact, that I assume the opportunity has to be a fluke. What on earth do you have to say about someone else’s work that’s of any value? says my brain. What qualifies you to evaluate poetry, and why should anyone put any stock in that evaluation when you don’t even have a published book of poetry yourself? Shouldn’t you quit before you’re laughed out of here?
Hmmm. Valid points, I reply, and then I eat too many jelly beans and obsessively refresh Buzzfeed for the next hour or so.
Impostor syndrome is part of the problem behind that kind of thinking, but so, I’ve come to realize, is a false assumption about what it means to review a book.
If you see reviewing a book as an act of evaluation, then it’s fair to ask of any reviewer what qualifies them to evaluate: what do they know, and how well do they know it? Do we trust both their criteria and their tastes? That’s a smart way to assess an opinion, and people do it all the time; when my hair stylist quit the biz a few months ago, I asked my friend Sara for a recommendation because Sara always has an awesome haircut, so I trust that she knows what I mean when I say “hey, I need a good haircut — know where I could get one?” (She gave me a great recommendation.) Or if I happen to read an argument re: What’s Wrong with Women These Days on returnofkings.com, I remember that I’m reading the opinions of a niche population of mostly misogynist weirdos, and I don’t put much stock in it. So if someone else is looking for a good book of poetry to read and stumbles upon a review of mine, it’s fair for them to ask why they should trust my evaluation. (Why should they trust that I’m qualified to make an assessment about a book beyond how shiny the cover is?)
But I’m not so sure that reviewing a book is an evaluation. Or at least, it doesn’t have to be.
Maybe a book review is something more in the spirit of DIALOGIST’s name — an act of conversation. Maybe the task of the reviewer is not to deem a book worthy or unworthy, but simply to bring that book to the greater, ongoing dialogue surrounding poetry. After all, I won’t review a book if it doesn’t tickle my guts in some way; that seems like a wasted opportunity, when there are so many other books that deserve a spot at the table. So the act of choosing a book to review is really the key act of evaluation. Beyond that, a review can do more than say good-or-bad-and-here’s-why. It can share with its readers some part of the experience of reading that book. It can humbly offer a subjective analysis of what that book wants to say and how it says it. It can celebrate the moments where magic happens on the page, and it can lament where things fell short. It can offer that book some visibility, and hopefully introduce it to others.
So if that’s what a book review is all about, maybe I can worry less about my credentials (and, because this is a two-way street, maybe I can worry less about the credentials of others who bring books to my life). I’m not saying “this book does or does not have value;” I’m saying “hey, I read this, and maybe you ought to, too.” If book reviews are a way for folks to contribute to the dialogue on poetry, I can feel okay about speaking up.