The fraught business of reviewing

I have a confession to make.

I’m a coward.

I’ve been browsing through some other peoples’ blogs – specifically, the blogs of some other NZ poets –and getting quite twitchy. You see, I have no litcrit. I can’t talk the talk, let alone walk the walk. And, to be honest, the only time I wish I did is when I’m reading other peoples’ comments or analyses and feeling more insecure with each paragraph. I feel like a kid who’s snuck in to stay up with the grownups, and is getting more and more panic-stricken about the immanent likelihood of being unmasked.
Pathetic, isn’t it?
It’s come to boiling point recently because of the reviews I’ve been writing for the New Zealand Poetry Society. I passionately believe in reviewing. In being honest, and balanced, and fearless. There are way too many reviews written in NZ that are either sycophantic drivel or self-aggrandising hatchet-jobs. Or they speak in so much jargon that you feel like you need to know the secret handshake to be able to read them. Who are they being written for? The poets? The publishers? To promote the writer? What about the readers, the people who are trying to work out what poetry is all about these days and have no desire to become part of an argument? Who are still trying to come to terms with the near-total abandonment of formal verse here (warning: hobbyhorse), and don’t give a flying fart for “movements” or “schools” or “cliques”, but just want good poetry?
  • I believe that the reviewer must be honest. Say “this is good” and why; say “this is bad” and why.
  • I believe that the reviewer has to be fair. So no reviews of friends’ books, and no reviewing of books that you hate before you even open them (unless you become converted; in which case I want to know how and why).
  • I believe that the reviewer’s loyalty is to the amorphous mass know as “the audience”, and that the only requirement for membership of this group is a willingness to sit down and read a poem.
It takes courage to put your work out there, whether you are the poet or the reviewer. But at least the poet can pretend that the work was “in persona” (which it usually is, to some extent).
A recent review I did for the NZPS was of a book that I thought had some major problems. I liked it overall, but when I sat down to read it critically I kept finding myself jotting down things that jarred or frustrated me. But the book wasn’t bad – certainly it was no worse than a lot of other recent NZ poetry collections (hobby horse alert). I wrote what I thought was a balanced review. I tried to use examples to illustrate my criticisms as well as my praise. Then I had to edit it back down to the 500 word limit. (I’m not very good at writing to length.) Which meant that some things had to be cut out. So I tried to keep the balance of the review the same, while still giving what I believe/d to be an accurate discussion of the book’s merits and flaws. And I’m willing to stand by every comment.
So I was shocked and surprised when a good friend comment on how unfavorable a review it was. All the more because the next review I’d written really was unfavorable (justified too, although 500 words is a small space to do a decent job of criticising. Praise is much easier).
And I’d just submitted yet another review …
I’m still waiting to see what if any fallout there will be. Any? None? (Lady, you ain’t that important!) Argh.

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