"Chicano writers from El Paso are the most progressive, open-minded, far-reaching, and inclusive writers of them all."

Octavio Romano

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Is it time for Chicana(o) book reviewers to get tougher?

If I remember correctly, it was about 1997 when I published my first book review on a Chicano title. It was a very basic book review on Charlie Trujillo’s Soldados: Chicanos in Vietnam. Actually, Dr. Dennis Bixler-Marquez asked if I could write it for the El Paso Times. He had been asked to do it originally, but I guess thinking I would also be a good candidate to write it so he asked me to do it. Both Bixler and I had previously presented at a conference on the Vietnam War.

So began my busting out of reviews of Chicano(a) titles. I was not the first to contribute to the paper, but it was about that time that Ramon Reteria took over the book review page at the El Paso Times and he was looking for books that an El Paso audience would like. Since then, reviews have come from Carlos Ortega, Bixler-Márquez, Rigoberto González, Sergio Troncoso, Daniel Olivas among others. I think I remember some from Dagoberto Gilb, Ray González, and Christine Granados, but correct me if I’m wrong. For sure, I know González and Granados have contributed essays.

I grew tired of Chicano(a) Literature

I tend to like reviewing books by El Paso authors, but as the list of El Paso’s Chicano writers grew, it became harder and harder for me to keep up. Law school loomed and though I was able to keep reviewing books, by 2004, I grew somewhat tired of Chicano Literature because that’s all I was reading.

I missed books in other genres of literature. I had strayed from many non-fiction titles I once devoured. In 2006, I intended to read only academic non-fiction works on Chicano(a)s. Though here and there, I threw in some creative literature, I mostly stayed the course. The books would come in the mail and still do, and I am hung, drawn, and quartered by the need to give these new writers exposure and my need to read works outside of our genre.

In 2007, we are seeing more and more reviews by Chicano(a) on Chicano(a) literature. Back in the late 1990s, there were some here and there, but nothing on the level that the El Paso Times provides. I began looking for other venues. I found some, but most have been low-key. Other writers have found better venues. The Los Angeles Times is one to mention.

Nevertheless, I cannot stop from feeling our books are still not making it into major newspapers. One here and there will pop up, especially if the review is on a book by a big-name Chicano(a) writers, however, with Latinos now being the largest “minority” group in the U.S., book reviews are not matching our output.

Do our books see the trash or moved to the back of the book reviewer’s closet. Are our books seen as too ethnic, something regular White readers will not like? Then again, there are those who say White readers are Chicano(a) Literature’s biggest reader base. I don’t think editors of book review pages have caught on to that though.

Still, university presses publish much of our literature. Second would be by middle presses. Third, the major presses. Fourth, the small presses. Then there are those that bypass all of them and go directly to the Internet or self publish. The major papers will look less at the small press and not at all at anything self published.

Many book review editors rely on the wire services that put out books reviews like Publisher Weekly. I still have an email from John Mark Eberhart of the Kansas City Star boasting that he would only publish reviews that made it into those publications. That reminds me, I need to dig that email up and comment and the various interesting comments Eberhart had on literature.

Writers reviewing writers/Non-writers reviewing Writers

On another note, most of the Chicano(a) reviewers are also fellow writers. Of course that brings up the old conspiracy theory that the reviews come as favors to other writers/friends. Just the same as some writers’ anthologies contain the same “friends” as the last anthology they edited. This brings up some of the allegations that foetry.com has brought up. Don’t get me started. That’s not the point I’m trying to make.

Writers’ reviewing other writers is a double-edged sword. It is basically a review from the inside. Someone who is not a writer also has a double-edged sword. She gives us a view from the outside. Unlke the writers, she is not meant to create, but to destroy, a real critic. Well, maybe not a real critic, but one you'd enjoy drinking Tecates with. However, unlike the writer, her literary knowledge may not be as keen as a writer. Transversely, some writers write more outside the mode. I can definitely see a difference in the MFA/English Major reviewers and those who are not MFA/English department trained.

On the other hand, that leaves a hole. I for example am not a good reviewer. I’ve found my literary knowledge quite low in how to really read novel, a short story, and fuck poetry. Especially in the poetry realm, I find my carnales(as) who have studied literature, are keener than I am in reviewing poetry.

My explanation follows. I entered reviewing to give light to struggling writers. That’s basically been my main mission with Pluma Fronteriza, Libros, Libros, and the Pluma Fronteriza blog. But since then, I think others have taken the rein, others who are much better reviewers than I. I mostly gave a short summary of the book, made few comments, made some comparisons, and that’s about it. Not great reviews, maybe a few unpolished gems here and there.

I never thought I really review(ed) books critically. I think other writers did it better. Furthermore, it was hard for me to write a bad reviews -- still is. I have a host of bad reviews of book in the crevices of my computer files, which I never sent out. I felt guilty for the writers. I feel sorry for the writers. Months later I’m screaming, “That book got an award.” Then I’m thinking, am I insane? Was it only me? Was the selection committee insane?

I think other writers have this feeling as I have observed in the comments that other reviewers put in their emails when they send me a review.

So who knows? I’m just asking questions. Is the review better from the outside or inside?

Our need for courageous critics

What it gets down to is that Chicano(a) Literature needs critics. You see really good critics in the literary criticism area of our literature. However, their reviews have slowed down increasingly since the 1970s. These guys and gals, didn’t hold anything back. They were not there to create, but to destroy the lifelong dreams and works of writers.

Will our literature improve if we were more critical? Maybe. I have to admit, I saw some zanty titles in the last two years, some of which I started to read but never finished knowing I would write a bad review. I get that guilty feeling again like squirming because you have to take a piss but you are listening to someone speak to you and can’t leave the room.

Reviews on the internet

Most of my thoughts above regard reviews in newspapers. Though our reviews have increased, we are still getting a blind eye.

However, I think the real future of reviews of Chicano(a) Literature is on the Internet. No editors. No word limits (I frequently get the scream of an editor who can’t get his university-trained writer to write a review in 400 words). You can say anything you want on the Internet, especially on blogs.

No editor and no publisher to mettle in your thoughts. The rise of blogs like La Bloga and ours have expanded the criticism of literature and I think that is where the future of book reviews lie as newspapers slowly start their death rattle.

That book that took you 20 years to write, a reviewer can destroy or save in 400 words.

I take the middle ground. Sometimes we need favors. We still need to help our struggling writers.

Nevertheless, I am still waiting for the reviewers who will be a critic and nothing else. Won’t pull punches. Won’t do favors. Like the caveman in Mel Brooks History of the World, Part I, who critically looks at the cave art in Lascaux caves in southwestern France and pisses on it. So easy, a caveman can do it.

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