How many poems in a collection need to be excellent to receive a favorable review?
Three? Seven? Four excellent, the rest between good and middling? Six very good, one excellent, the rest irrelevant? One that looks like it could be near perfect (with some specific revisions), the rest irrelevant? Or just some proof, no matter how meager, of potential to create a perfect verbal object?
And what about a first book? Should the criterion be different? Could it be for a debut that all you need is three that look like they could be excellent (with some revisions), the rest irrelevant?
In high school, some kids wanted to be actors or doctors or policemen. I wanted to be a critic for Consumer Reports: the idea of testing all the incarnations of a Something was irresistible. It was as if you had the chance to complete that divine task: finding the Platonic Ideal of Something.
I can still remember the day my partner and I both had different reactions to the movie Happiness. It was when we had a long-distance relationship and we both saw the movie in our respective homes. I had finished first, and told him it was a masterpiece—a word I think anyone uses with embarrassment. He was just finishing the film, and told me to hang on. He put the phone down and I could hear the dialogue to the closing scenes—I imagined him experiencing the ending for the first time, and I became incredibly jealous. “So what’d you think,” I said eagerly, to which he replied, “I hated it.” Usually we agreed, and when we didn’t, we could certainly understand why. I said, “Let’s play a game.” Scene by scene, we went through the movie, each of us watching the film from the beginning, stopping and starting, citing what we liked and what was an imperfection. It turned out we agreed about everything. Everything he didn’t like, I didn’t like. Everything I liked, he liked. For me, the sublime moments eclipsed anything weak; for him, the weaknesses deflated the sublime moments. For me, both reactions seemed eerily sensible.
In high school and college, I competed in speech team—you wrote an eight to ten minute composition and performed it in front of a judge who ranked you. Three different times you did this, each for a different judge, and if your scores were high enough, you went onto a semifinalist round. Of course, you wanted to do a good enough job to make it to the finals where you were judged simultaneously by three different judges you never had before. Once I won. I was so proud. My coach looked at my scores and said, “That’s remarkable”—I figured that she meant that all the final round judges had ranked me highest. That wasn’t the case. “You won without anyone thinking you were the best,” she said, “You won because you had the highest average of all the competitors. Everyone else was voted the best and the worst by at least one judge.” On the way home, I threw my trophy in a dumpster across from the school.
My favorite movie reviews are by Pauline Kael, who was once the film critic for The New Yorker. In three different reviews, she uses the word “blobby” to describe a character, and once to illustrate the walk of a dog. That’s become my test for a great critic: can you use the word “blobby” and make it seem like the most accurate, necessary word?