By Kate Eichhorn
Four years ago this September, my second collection of poetry, Fieldnotes, a forensic, was published. Like most collections of poetry, it was published by a small literary press in a modest print run of 500 copies. It was not insignificant, then, that eight months later, I received an invitation to speak at an international conference.
Writing on behalf of the conference organizing committee, the email from Ms. Emma (yes, “Ms. Emma”) simply read, “Dear Dr. Kate Eichhorn, I am in charge of the organization of the World Congress of Forensics 2011, to be held in Chongqing, China, and I am contacting you because we know your great contributions to the field of forensics. You are welcome to give a speech at Track 2-3: Forensic Anthropology.”
If I was working with the budget of a forensic expert rather than poet, I would have happily accepted Ms. Emma’s invitation. After all, the World Congress of Forensics could have provided my book with the audience it was missing. For a book partially comprised of textual fragments culled from forensic anthropology textbooks and forensic investigations, the WCF’s delegates presumably would have been an astute and engaged audience. And even if only a fraction of delegates chose to attend my “speech,” with thousands expected, the audience would have exceeded that of any poetry reading. What more could I ask for as a writer of allegedly obscure, difficult and obfuscating poetry?
Of course, I hadn’t made “great contributions to the field of forensics.” And despite Ms. Emma’s invitation, all signs indicated that her invitation was anything but evidence that she, or anyone at the WCF, had read my book. To confirm, I emailed Ms. Emma back, outing myself as a poet—as expected, there was no further correspondence. But the invitation did raise a critical question: If an invitation to speak elicited by the publication of a book can stand as evidence that a book has not been read, what counts as evidence that a book has been read?
In the case of Fieldnotes, a forensic, the search for such evidence proved challenging. A year after the book’s publication not a single print review had appeared. My Amazon “in books” ranking was infinitesimally low. More depressing, despite offering to give away copies of my book to friends and colleagues across North America (yes, I sent out a mass email inviting people to simply ask for a copy—no strings attached, no expectations that they would ever review or teach the book), I received only a few responses. A year after my two-minute launch at the Casa del Popolo in Montreal, I was coming to terms with the fact that I had possibly written and published a book that may be read by less than a half dozen readers. But this is where the story of Fieldnotes, a forensic took a surprising turn.
With no indication that the book had been read by anyone (other than my publisher, editor and blurber), one October morning while waiting in line at a Brooklyn coffee shop, I received a call from the Canada Council. The publicist asked, “Do you know your book has been shortlisted for the GG?” Shocked, I simply said, “No, and who finally read the book?” The publicist appeared confused by my response but politely rummaged through a pile of papers to find the names of the jurors. Now I knew that at least six people had read my latest book, but if previous indicators from Ms. Emma’s misfired invitation to my dismal “in books” standing on Amazon were evidence that my book had not been read, what did the book’s new status as a finalist for a national literary award imply, if anything?
Given the current and constantly expanding literary prize culture in Canada, there are evidently at least some people invested in the idea that literary awards are indeed good for literature. Of course, this is not necessary the case. Every year there are a tremendous number of truly awful works nominated for GGs and other literary awards and a tremendous number of groundbreaking works of literature overlooked. Depending on where one stands on the literary spectrum, opinions about what has been unfairly included and excluded vary from year to year, but the fact that literary awards are not necessarily an arbiter of a book’s “excellence” or any indication at all of a book’s literary merit is a position I presumably share with writers and publishers across the literary terrain. Prior to my own experience of having a book nominated for a major literary award, however, I admittedly assumed that such “book events” at least have some impact on whether or not a book will be reviewed or sell more than a half dozen copies. On this account, I was sorely mistaken.
In my case, the nomination had virtually no impact on book reviews or sales. In the end, the book received only two dedicated reviews in Canada (yes, one was written by Rob McLennan who reviews, or so it seems, every poetry book published in Canada and the other was written by a former student who was still waiting for her final grade when the review was written). Later, two additional reviews appeared, both omnibus style (the prerequisite post GG nomination review in the Globe & Mail and eventually, another in Canadian Literature). As for the one hundred or so books ordered by book stores following the nomination, most copies were eventually returned to the publisher, which means that I now receive yearly royalty statements in the negative (indeed, on paper, I apparently owe my publisher $50).
For all these reasons, four years after the publication of my second book of poetry, based on the evidence, I can infer that books may elicit attention without ever being read (see, for example, Ms. Emma’s email) and that there is no definitive correlation between “book events” (e.g., award nominations) and book reviews or sales. Based on the evidence, the only thing I can say with reasonable certainty is that over the past four years ten people have read my last book of poetry: my publisher, my editor, my blurber, the three members of the 2011 GG poetry jury, Rob McLennan, my former student and two other reviewers.
At the risk of casting my own experience as universal, as this year’s CWILA numbers reveal, the experience I had with my last book of poetry, while dismal, may not be unique. Beyond the gender question, reviews vary greatly by genre. While some review venues, like the Literary Review of Canada, publish occasional poems but have a policy to not publish poetry reviews (I once asked the LRC’s publisher about this policy, and he simply explained that most people aren’t interested in reading poetry so they don’t review it), most newspaper book review sections dedicate only 1% to 3% of their space to reviews of poetry books. In fact, only two print review venues included in this year’s CWILA survey (Arc and Matrix) dedicated more than 50% of their review space to poetry books. Combined with the prevailing disparity across genders, one might conclude that due to a combination of gender and genre, women poets may be especially unlikely to receive dedicated reviews of their books, especially in established print review venues.
Admittedly, my search for evidence of reading and readers has not only increased my cynicism about the circulation of literary works, especially poetry books, but also led me to begin exploring “alternative formats.” As my future collection begins to take shape, I’ve even wondered if I should eschew the book form altogether. What if the “pages” of my next poetry collection appeared instead in the window of my office—a 8 x 8 foot sheet of glass on a high traffic stretch of West 11th Street in New York’s West Village? Perhaps, through the glass, I would find more evidence of reading and readers? Or perhaps, I should simply aim to achieve a readership no larger than the readership of the average samizdat typescript? After all, such a decision would at least enable me to avoid royalty statements in the red. But this raises another question: Why does evidence of reading matter at all?
Evidence that a book has been read matters because it’s important to writers (even the most modest writers need to know that a book they’ve worked on for three years or ten years has been read). This evidence is also important for publishers who partially rely on such evidence to receive sustained funding for their presses. It’s precisely this search for evidence that is also at the center of the CWILA’s mandate. But can anything be done to make this evidence less elusive?
I would like to suggest that what is really at stake here is a series of broader questions about the status of the critical apparatus that helps texts circulate. As the former review editor of a scholarly journal in Canada, I know firsthand how difficult it is to solicit reviews from critics for any type of publication. For academics, book reviews don’t count as refereed publications nor as service to the profession and as a result, beyond those engaged scholars who write and publish out of intellectual rather than simply professional interest, most academics produce few book reviews. Edited collections and other non-refereed publications fall into the same category (indeed, when I was an English professor at a Canadian university, I was discouraged from pursuing the production of two edited works related to contemporary women’s writing for this very reason—I was explicitly and repeatedly warned by my colleagues that this would not help my career). For poets, the challenges are even more dire. Since poetry is primarily read by other poets and because few publications publish poetry reviews and even fewer compensate writers for such reviews, who does this leave to produce reviews or literary criticism of poetry books? A few renegade academics who are willing to produce work that their colleagues will discredit? A few professional writers willing to write reviews of other poets’ books for little or no compensation? If the currency of poetry books is questionable (as my colleague at the LRC explained, few people actually read poetry books), the currency of the poetry review is even more precarious. Does this mean that the very attempt to generate more reviews of such books is a call for writers to engage in a form of critical labor that is bound to be overlooked? If so, what are the implications—and perhaps more importantly, the ethics—of calling on each other to do such work?
Until I can answer these questions, I will continue to contemplate future poetries in windows and typescripts.
 An earlier version of this article was written in Fall 2011 and pitched to the book editors at two national newspapers (one editor claimed to have no space to run a version of the article and the other said it would not be of interest to the newspaper’s readership).
Kate Eichhorn is a poet and book and media historian. She is the author of two collections of poetry, Fieldnotes, a forensic (BookThug, 2010) and Fond (BookThug, 2008) and co-editor of Prismatic Publics (Coach House, 2009). She has also published widely on the subject of late twentieth-century print cultures. Among other publications, she is the author of The Archival Turn in Feminism: Outrage in Order (Temple UP, 2013) and Adjusted Margin: The Copy Machine and the Making of Public Cultures (forthcoming from The MIT Press).