On Reviewing: Meeting Our Reviews Editor Randon Billings Noble

Molly: This issue is packed with some amazing work, and I’m, as always, so pleased to share it with our readers! I’m also thrilled to introduce our reviews editor, Randon Billings Noble, to Tinderbox Poetry Journal. I first met Randon when I started writing reviews for PANK, and when the journal shifted in leadership, we were lucky to have her join our team!

Randon is an essayist and her work has appeared in the Modern Love column of The New York Times; The Massachusetts Review; Passages North; Emrys Journal (where she won their 2009 Nonfiction Award); The Millions; Brain, Child; The Virginia Quarterly Review online; Sweet: A Literary Confection; Rain Taxi Review of Books; PANK; The Georgia Review; Shenandoah; The Rumpus; Brevity; Fourth Genre; The Los Angeles Review of Books and elsewhere. She’s at work on a collection of essays that explore the different ways of being haunted, and I cannot wait to read it. You can find more at her webpage. Welcome, Randon! What brought you to reviewing?

Randon: Thanks, Molly! I’m thrilled to be editing reviews for Tinderbox!

I’ve always been an avid and omnivorous reader. When I started writing essays I naturally incorporated things that I was reading into them — using Wuthering Heights to explore a haunting relationship, or The Hours to think about motherhood, or Refuge to consider both health and family.

When I started reviewing I kind of reversed the percentage of book and story — instead of an essay being, say, 10% book and 90% story, a review was 90% book and 10% story. The first “official” review I wrote happened because two books I was reading seemed to speak to each other: the fictitious World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War and the nonfiction book Scatter, Adapt and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction. I sent it to Rain Taxi because I had heard their editors present at AWP and they were very encouraging about new reviewers submitting. They took it, and my reviewing career began.

M: Oh, I love Rain Taxi. They’re so good and generous and local to me–just up the river! Can you tell me what you mean about book versus story?

R: By book I mean some kind of text — an actual book (novel, etc.) or a short story, essay or poem. By story I mean a story of experience, usually something I’ve experienced, that I use to explore an idea or illustrate a theory of sorts. For example, in my essay “War Weary from a Dangerous Liaison,” I use Dangerous Liaisons to try to explain a toxic — and intoxicating — relationship I had: he and I acted like high school versions of the Vicomte de Valmont and the Marquise de Merteuil. But then I tell the story of how difficult it was to break that relationship, to, in fact, tell him, years later, that I had married someone else.

M: This reminds me a bit of Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story–not entirely, of course, since this little book examines the raw material of the story and holds it up against a persona that holds authority to create an argument.

So many of us remember, from our long-ago high school days, the instructors who would really hammer into us not to use the “I” in the essay–it has no place! So I would differentiate: there was memoir, and there were essays, and the “I” only belonged in one camp. (It’s fair to point out that I am a bit I-obsessed, or I-distracted.) I suppose what I’m driving at here is a curiosity: how much does that “I” belong in the review?

R: Other editors will disagree with this but I like a bit of “I” in a review. One of my favorite reviews when I was at PANK was Sara Lippmann’s review of Dylan Landis’s Rainey Royal. Lippmann starts out with a story of her own experience — which makes her experience of reading the book all the more resonant and powerful. A recent essay in The Walrus defends the use of the personal in critical writing, advocating the value of “a thinking, breathing self whose experiences have real bearing on his view of the world.” I love a review by a thinking, breathing self.

M: Are there any pitfalls you see in review-writing? Anything you’d want to warn a potential reviewer away from?

R: The first thing that comes to mind is please follow the guidelines! Pay attention to word length and formatting requests; follow those guidelines so your editor can focus on your smart and luscious content.

The other pitfall to avoid is going overly negative. Being critical is one thing — it’s necessary for a review. But don’t trash a book, and don’t feel like you need to highlight every example of weakness a book might have. I want readers to come away interested in the book you’ve reviewed — and, in the vast majority of cases, excited to track it down and read it. If you ever find that you just can’t review a book — it’s too bad, too dull, too not-your-thing — talk to your editor. Many of us would rather you pass on a title than raze it.

M: I always see the work of reviews as a form of good literary citizenship–when my book Nestuary came out, I tried really hard to write as many reviews as I was getting to balance it out in a kind of pay-it-forward system. I’ve started writing reviews again now that I’m publishing books and asking others to write reviews of them. But this is really one side of my selfish intentions as a writer-of-reviews; I also have developed a much keener eye as both a reader and an editor when I write a review. I enjoy deeper. I will never forget my first review–Skirt Full of Black by Sun Yung Shin for CutBank–and how surprised I was at the use of space and punctuation and the jagged edges of the poems and how I might not have felt it as deeply if I hadn’t spent serious time writing a thoughtful review. But I fell deeply, deeply in love with the book as I read it and re-read it and now Sun Yung Shin’s work is in our issue before this one, and I love her second book and anticipate more great work from her. What are some of the other benefits you’ve had from writing and reading reviews? I ask both to encourage others to get involved in the process of reviewing but also to celebrate the review in and of itself–what feels to me to be a kind of hybrid critical-personal essay beast.

R: As a reviewer I feel much more connected to the literary scene. And if you’re outside the academy or if it’s been years since you did an MFA (both are the case with me), reading and writing can feel a bit isolated. As both a reviewer and an editor I’ve discovered new writers that I now deeply admire, new presses that I want to support — and submit to. I feel part of a larger conversation about words and ideas. And that’s what an essayist strives to be — part of a larger conversation that spans both the globe and time itself; an essay — or a review — can talk back to writers of our deep and deeper past (Montaigne, Sei Shonagon, Seneca) and connect their work with something published just yesterday. That’s exciting!

M: Oh, I love that sentiment–the idea of expansion of community and the conversations that we have. Randon, we’re so happy you’ve joined us here at Tinderbox Poetry Journal; we’re incredibly lucky to have you on board, and I’m looking forward to reading more and more reviews coming from your crew!

Randon Billings Noble is an essayist. Her collection Be with Me Always is forthcoming from the University of Nebraska Press in March 2019 and her lyric essay chapbook Devotional was published by Red Bird Chapbooks. Other work has appeared in the Modern Love column of The New York Times, Creative Nonfiction, Brevity, and elsewhere. She is currently the founding editor of After the Art and you can read more at www.randonbillingsnoble.com.
Molly Sutton Kiefer is one of the editors for Tinderbox Poetry Journal and she's also the publisher of the sister-press Tinderbox Editions. She is the author of the full-length lyric essay Nestuary (Ricochet Editions 2014) as well as three poetry chapbooks, including Thimbleweed, which will come out in 2016 from dancing girl press. You can find out more about her at www.mollysuttonkiefer.com