Monday, 7 March 2011

Litref Reviews - a rationale

The style of the reviews on Litrefs Reviews doesn't appeal to everyone, not even to all of those who read theory, so I thought I'd better offer this rationale

On his blog Rob MacKenzie asked "What the best approach for a reviewer? Is it best to be tentative and say you're not certain about various things?". Sheenaugh Pugh replied "If I don't get what is going on, I will say so. Folk can think me incompetent if they like --- What people think of the reviewer is not in the end the point". I tend to follow the Pugh approach. I know that some people feel that poetry's under threat and that poets should stick together. I also know people who think that the world of reviews is ridden with mutual back-slapping, with inhibition, and that only 20 or so poetry books per year are worth publishing. I think I'm somewhere in between.

I used to keep these notes to myself, but a decade or so ago I decided that given it's just as easy to put the stuff online as on paper, I might as well do so. Of course I could play safe. In a few months even I might not agree with what I've written. I note that Rob's most recent blog entry begins "I've badly misjudged WS Merwin. I'd read only a few poems by him, mainly written in the last decade or so, and these hadn't done anything for me". Yep. I know the feeling. I sometimes go back and change write-ups.

For self-education and calibration I allot a proportion of my reading time to authors I've not heard of before, or whose work I haven't previously liked. There are famous, highly regarded writers whose work I just don't get. I have blindspots both known to me and unknown. I'm not the only one ("You know I can't stand Shakespeare's plays, but yours are even worse" - Tolstoy to Chekhov; "Larkin had no literary talent ... Larkin never managed to write a good poem" - Andrew Duncan). It's not unusual, finishing a write-up, for me to have wanted it to come out differently, but there we are. If I read that Prynne's the most important living British Poet it doesn't make me like his work any more (though I might be encouraged to read his work again, and expose my incomprehension again).

As I read, I jot notes on a bookmark. I'm not trying to follow standard templates for reviews, or guidelines like "mention 2 things you like for each thing you don't"; "if you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all"; "write it as if it were a Reference for someone who might be shown the Reference, encoding all adverse comment"; "end with a judgment and an incitement to buy". I'm not even trying to be balanced - I link to other reviews whenever I can. If I gain an impression that's falsifiable (say, that an anthology has more male poets than female ones) I tend to do a count rather than trust myself. Once I go to the bother of doing a count I feel I might as well add it to the write-up. I don't think authors should have anything to fear from stats.

It's not a style that I'd recommend everyone to follow (especially in paper publications - my suggestions for those who want to be published are on Writing Book Reviews). My stuff's a side-show, a marginal voice - or at least it should be. What I would like is for many more people to write up their impressions - not just of the books by friends or by their favourite authors, but all the poetry books they read.


  1. That is an interesting perspective on reviewing. I have often shied away from writing reviews for fear of appearing ignorant, but I think you are right we all need to be a bit more pro-active about sharing our opinions.

  2. I am very guilty of not reviewing poetry even though I like to think of myself as predominately a poet, certainly a port first and everything else last. My excuse (because it’s not a reason) is that I hardly get sent any poetry books to review but all those I have I’d done to the best of my ability. This is not a situation I’ve made any great efforts to rectify (like asking people for copies) mainly because I find reviewing poetry difficult. Prose is a breeze and I’ve been sent a steady stream of books for the last three years and when I occasionally run short I’ve always got something lying around needing reading or rereading … but not so much poetry.

    As for how I write reviews, basically I write from the heart. I try and not give a bad review and if I think I’m going to have little constructive to say I prefer to pass on the book and I’m sure the author would rather I do that. I know I’m doing something right because one of my early reviews got passed round by the member of the publisher who had sent me the book’s staff saying, "This is how a book review should be written." It was pure fluke I assure you but I’ve always tried to keep that review in mind when starting off a new one. The bottom line is that few books get published that don’t have a demographic. I may not be a part of that (and often am not) but that’s no reason to tear a book down. The next one I’m due to review is about allotments – seriously – and I can tell you that the book will sell.

    What I never want to get to is the stage where I think my opinion matters. I think reviewers – film, food, book, whatever – who start to enjoy the sound of their own voice have done a lot of harm. That said I can’t pretend that it wouldn’t please me if someone said, "Well if Jim recommends it then it’s got to be a good book.

  3. I guess it’s like poetry in that there isn’t really one ‘right’ way to review. My feeling is that if a reviewer writes well, is entertaining to read, and justifies their opinions by offering evidence from the text, he/she can’t do much more than that. I saw someone on Facebook saying that “perception and generosity of spirit” (which doesn’t mean being uncritical) were also vital, and I’d agree with that too. I’ve written a fair number of reviews now – from very positive ones to quite negative – but I try always to write with what I’ve written above in mind. I’m sure I don’t always succeed, but reviewers are allowed to fail as much as anyone else.

  4. Whenever I read a book I make notes on the bookmark as I go along - things I like or don't understand, things that might be useful in an article later. I also note things that I think will be useful to me as a developing writer. These items aren't the ideal building blocks for a trad review. Reading with my writer's hat on can lead to difficulties, especially if a writer uses tricks I've recently discarded because of over-use.
    2 points: 1) I'm not keen on reviews that encourage readers to buy under false pretences - Joyce's Ulysses may indeed be a comic novel but it's unfair to the public to describe it thus. I think too many poetry book reviews advertise the theme/genre at the expense of warning readers about the degree-of-difficulty. 2) The most recent "Dark Horse" magazine has a letter from a reviewed poet pointing out supposed errors in a review. It's a tough life being a reviewer. No wonder they play safe.