Understanding Ourselves

December 2011

The Caribbean Review of Books began and continues with this main purpose: to attempt an ongoing critical survey of contemporary Caribbean literature. We publish essays on writing and interviews with writers. Occasionally we publish new poems and fiction. In the seven and a half years since the CRB was revived,1 we’ve sought gradually to expand the field of our attention to include contemporary Caribbean art, film, and music: literature is never insulated from other creative forms. But, as the name of the magazine suggests, at the heart of the CRB’s matter are book reviews.

Why? I assume most readers of sx salon will agree that book reviewing is a useful and helpful activity. In the most practical and immediate way, book reviews are a key component of the economy of literature: reviews spread knowledge of new books to their potential readers. Yet, even for the most avid readers among us, there are limits to money and time. Books are relatively expensive; we live only so long. So reviews can and ought to help us decide which books to spend our dollars and our hours on.

As the editor of the CRB, my day-to-day concerns are similarly practical and immediate, concerned with schedules, deadlines, and word counts. It’s worth keeping this in mind, as one considers the ethos, value, and cultural impact of any kind of journal: editorial decisions are influenced not only by ideals and ideologies, but also, and often more pressingly, by pragmatics of time and money. (Will publisher A send a review copy of title B? Reviewers X, Y, and Z are similarly informed and insightful, but X always misses deadlines, Y is bad-tempered, and Z complained last time about the small fee. Who gets the commission?)

And in the pit of my stomach I know that literary criticism, as practiced in the pages of a magazine like the CRB, is first of all a matter of a reviewer trying to produce a mandated number of words by a mandated deadline, demonstrating familiarity with and comprehension of a book he or she has perhaps read too quickly (and in fact might not have read at all, had it not been for this reviewing assignment). But a thoughtful reviewer—and a half-thoughtful editor—always has at the back of his or her mind a sense of a wider and deeper purpose. At the back of my own mind is the idea that any form of literary criticism—whether an eight-hundred-page scholarly magnum opus or an eight-hundred-word review in the popular press—should at least consider, if not attempt to answer, fundamental questions such as, What is literature? What is it good for? and What is the good of asking?

These are immense and complicated questions, but not unanswerable, since scores of generations of writers and scholars have come up with thousands of different and contradictory answers. They are also permanently urgent questions, in no danger of becoming outdated, as the number of literary texts in the world proliferates—as the forms available for literary creativity and the media available for publication evolve.  As a reader and as a writer, I have my own answers to these questions, even if my answers are tentative working drafts. As an editor—specifically, as the editor of the CRB—I believe it’s part of my job to keep an open mind, to try to accommodate a range of views on the nature and purpose of literature, and in fact whenever possible to provoke discussion and debate.

The first issue of the CRB, dated May 2004, opened with a note to the reader:


Literature is a conversation—sometimes oral, sometimes written; vast, discontinuous, never-ending, self-perpetuating—between writers and other writers, between writers and their readers, between readers and other readers, in numerous permutations.

The idea is obviously not new or original. For example, in his essay published in this issue of sx salon, Raphael Dalleo uses similar language: “Literary and cultural criticism is written as part of a conversation: when we research and write, we build on prior arguments, anticipate objections, align ourselves with certain predecessors, quarrel with one another.” And in a 2008 profile of Robert Silvers, the editor of the New York Review of Books—one of the models for a magazine like the CRB—the journalist Heidi Benson writes,


Today, the idea . . . that a thoughtful, vigorous survey of the books of the day is more than the sum of its parts—couldn’t be more bracing or more relevant. At a time when newspapers and publishers are confronting transformational changes, it is good to remember that books are still the starting point for our national conversation.2

Now, the nation Benson refers to is the United States. Pleased as I am by wonderfully civilized notion that “books are still the starting point for our national conversation,” I doubt if that has been true of the United States for at least the past few decades. It may never have been true of the Caribbean, where relatively low levels of literacy (often fudged in official statistics) and high levels of social inequality long restricted the accessibility of books. (How accessible books are to today’s Caribbean citizens is a question no one can answer with certainty, in the absence of hard data on book sales and distribution via libraries and schools.)

Nonetheless, and I hope self-evidently, it is a founding principle of the CRB that books, literature more widely, and other creative forms are essential for understanding our past, defining our present, and imagining our possible futures. Here again I am stating the obvious, and assuming few sx salon or CRB readers will disagree that literature has a social function beyond offering entertainment and pleasure. Writers, readers, publishers, and scholars may debate exactly what that function is (or should be). We may debate techniques of reading and interpretation, ideologies, approaches, positions, or the relative values of specific books, writers, schools, and modes of publication. But the CRB takes as a given starting point that literature is a means for investigating and comprehending the individual self, a society’s collective self, and the natural and human world, and for expanding the reader’s moral and emotional imagination. Ideally, this is the greater context for every piece we commission and publish. So what I hope and expect from CRB reviewers is not merely that they offer an opinion on the book at hand, however well argued or elegantly composed, but that they contribute to a continuing conversation about our history, culture, politics, and philosophy—a broad conversation full of questions about who and what and why we are.

“Breadth” is another deliberate principle, in several senses. It applies to our working definition of the Caribbean, as a region of historical and imaginative space impossible to map precisely onto physical geography, more various than most of us can comfortably grasp. It applies also to the genres of books the CRB tries to cover: not only fiction and poems but also books of history, biography, and current affairs, books on visual art, music, and other art forms, with frequent forays into more specialized fields: literary and cultural studies, anthropology, political science, and so on.

Raphael Dalleo, again in his contribution to this sx salon discussion, outlines the usefulness of the book review as a medium for exchange within the academy, “crucial to ensuring that new scholarly work does not just proceed, unread and undiscussed, into the library stacks of a few dozen research universities.” I would add that the book review is also a crucial channel for conveying knowledge out of the academy and into wider circulation. Many of the books the CRB reviews are not intended for a wide or nonspecialist audience. Academic titles are frequently expensive, printed in short runs. Their texts may be composed in technical language off-putting to readers outside a particular field, or they may require relatively obscure contextual knowledge for full comprehension. At the same time, books like these often contain research and ideas that could and ought to be disseminated and debated outside the confines of a specialized discipline. A patient and thoughtful reviewer can serve as the necessary conduit, and give knowledge produced within the academy a healthy currency among a broader readership.

Because breadth is also our ideal for the CRB’s audience, which I optimistically imagine as made up of intelligent, curious, avid readers from a range of backgrounds, not all of them literary or scholarly—broad of interests and broad of mind, engaged with if not rooted in the Caribbean world, and actively participating in a broad conversation about Caribbean realities, anxieties, and hopes. In a previous sx salon discussion, I wrote, “That wish to engage with a wide audience is almost an ideology.” I might as well drop “almost.” I don’t have any illusions about the size of the CRB’s actual audience, which is realistically counted in hundreds, not thousands. But we’re committed to publishing a magazine that’s as accessible as possible to the widest potential readership. In a recent essay, Kenneth Ramchand put it concisely: “Helping to make literature matter to people is the oldest and newest goal of the critic.”3 We ask our writers to keep that in mind. Writing accessibly doesn’t mean giving up intelligence or complexity. It does require elegance and wit, and a sense that true critical authority derives not from the appreciation of a coterie, but from a wide circulation of ideas.

And the imperative to engage broadly has a specially keen edge in the Caribbean context, where—as I mentioned above—access to resources of knowledge has historically been rationed, often as a deliberate policy of social control, and not only by colonial powers. The circumstances of our history, I believe, demand a particular awareness and responsibility of anyone doing intellectual work in—or, for that matter, on—the Caribbean. Self-determination is one term that summarizes that responsibility. Another, which I borrow from the late Lloyd Best, is epistemic sovereignty: defining and understanding ourselves and our world, in and on our own terms. That involves asking many questions, especially of our most cherished assumptions. One of which, certainly, is what (where? who?) we mean by Caribbean in the first place: what realities or unrealities the name encompasses, what does or does not make the Caribbean different to other historical and social spaces.

Perhaps by now the reader wonders if I’m seriously suggesting that every book review appearing in the CRB—to take us back to where the ladder of this discussion starts—bears the burden of these ontological and epistemological imperatives. Well, yes, however implicitly—or that is our hope and our ideal. At the same time, I’m painfully aware this is an ideal the CRB doesn’t always fulfill. The magazine is a small enterprise with small resources. At the best of times we don’t always manage to meet our practical obligations: we miss deadlines; we don’t raise adequate budgets or reply promptly enough to correspondence from reviewers X, Y, and Z; we overlook books we ought to pay attention to; clumsy sentences and half-baked ideas get into print.

This kind of intellectual work—commissioning, editing, and publishing pieces of text—has its frustrations, but also its own satisfactions. But the final motivation for grappling with the mundane mechanics of this process is a mindfulness that even the most modest or imperfect book review published in the CRB, read by however few people, must contribute to a far larger effort—which will never be complete—toward Caribbean self-understanding and self-determination. It is a bold claim, a bold privilege, and a bold responsibility.


Nicholas Laughlin is a Trinidadian writer and the editor of The Caribbean Review of Books. He is also a co-director of Alice Yard, an experimental creative space and network in Port of Spain, and program director for the Bocas Lit Fest, a literary festival based in Trinidad and Tobago, and the accompanying annual OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature. Many of his reviews and essays on Caribbean literature and art, published in various journals and books, are available online at his website (nicholaslaughlin.net/choosing-my-confessions.html). He edited a volume of C. L. R. James’s early essays, Letters from London (2003, Prospect Press), and a revised and expanded edition of V. S. Naipaul’s family correspondence, Letters between a Father and Son (2009, Picador).


1 The original Caribbean Review of Books was published from 1991 to 1994 by the University of the West Indies Publishers’ Association in Mona, Jamaica. It was edited by the librarian Samuel B. Bandara, together with managing editor Annie Paul. Ten years later, the CRB was revived by Media and Editorial Projects, a small publishing house in Port of Spain, Trinidad—with the blessing of and an intent similar to the original editors, but with its own editorial structure and on its own editorial lines. In 2007, the CRB was incorporated as an independent not-for-profit.

2 Heidi Benson, “New York Review of Books’ Robert Silvers,” San Francisco Chronicle, 9 November 2008, www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2008/11/09/RVQH13TQT0.DTL.

3 Kenneth Ramchand, “Canons, Curriculums and Critics,” in Michael A. Bucknor and Alison Donnell, eds., The Routledge Companion to Anglophone Caribbean Literature (London: Routledge, 2011), 363.


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