Tuesday 28 December 2010

The Emperor has no clothes

A generous retelling ...

Arts progress somewhat like fashion. There are eternal verities around which variations develop. Some changes are introduced by new technology, affecting content (Science Fiction) or means (oil paints). Others are inspired by rediscoveries or by observations from other cultures. Yet others are brought about by anticipation, extrapolating from "interesting" contemporary work, fumbling ahead in the dark. A sequence of small steps may lead to a conscious break with the past, producing a trend, a school, or even an Age.

Trends come around again, lapping those slower to change. Problems can arise when the two camps can compare their works. If there's little difference what was the point of all that effort? Does the artistic journey (which is exterior to the work) matter? Clearly it does to many - people care about the authenticity of the work, and a painting made using the artist's blood will be viewed differently to one using brown paint. Borges' "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote" describes another example.

If the new work resembles the old but in some way seems less good (realistic but less detailed; formalist poetry but fewer sound effects, etc), the comparisons are more awkward still. Even in evolution there's no pressure towards complexity - changes can as often simplify: features atrophying, development arrested (a sketch accepted as a finished work). Is the new art older but wiser in some way? Maybe it is more sophisticated. A work of art requires an audience which the journey can create. The sum of a sequence of tweaks and reactions to previous works might not just make a new work of art possible but may make a pre-existing item into art.

The Emperor's parade was a mistake though, forcing the premature collision of two viewpoints - a Turner Prize without a PR machine. The masses may at first respect authority, but eventually they'll resent seeing their money spent in ways they don't understand. In such situations the artists' peers may offer no support, seizing an opportunity for selfish advancement.

The fable fits most closely with Minimalism. Yury Lotman wrote that "Artistic simplicity is more complex than artistic complexity for it arises via the simplification of the latter and against its backdrop or system". Poetry's gone through phases of selective minimalism, being shorn of various poeticisms and conspicuous craftsmanship. Random and procedural works (N+7 etc) in particular are met with responses like "I could have done that" (and if it's Found Poetry maybe they have indeed "done that"). Unless observers have been on the journey they won't understand - the Emperor should have educated his public.

The tailors who stitched the Emperor up were good at filling in grant forms; they were the performance artists of their time, creating a situationist stunt. But the Emperor wasn't merely a fashion victim - he thought he'd spent his money "quite well"; he was hoping to use the material to produce performance metrics to discern who was ignorant and incompetent. Only the failures would see him naked - he was prepared to accept that minor humiliation for a higher cause. The public were in fear of losing if not their heads then at least face, but at least they showed an interest in the arts. A child with nothing to lose, who could only see things as they are, symbolised another type of artist.

Those who come off worst out of the story are the administrators, the fawning staff who feared losing their jobs. No doubt they had wives and children to support. A more cunning advisor might have taken the Emperor to one side saying - "You and I can see the the fine cloth of course, but how will we know if others are just pretending that they can see? Let's devise a test, and try it out on those tailors first". A blind test perhaps. A contest with anonymous entries. Can real art survive such a trial? If people produce variations on a Mondrian piece (swapping colours around, say) they might be accused of lacking originality, but are the variations any more worthy of respect if Mondrian produces them? In the rarified world of high art, or Oxbridge entrance interviews, discussing marginal/charlatan works is one of the best ways to identify talent. That boy in the street deserves one of the Emperor's finest ice-creams.

Thursday 23 December 2010

The Sound of Poetry and the Poetry of Sound

With the rise of isms (deconstructionism, eco-feminism, post-colonialism) in recent years, literary theorists have rather neglected sound effects, often quoting Saussure's view that the sounds of words are arbitrary.

But they're not. Of course we've always known that chickens cluck and cows moo, but the influence of sound goes wider and deeper than that. We 'chip little bits' but 'chop logs'. Twigs are small; trunks are big. There are exceptions (big should refer to little things, and bugs should be big) but words derive from many sources and we should expect some exceptions.

The more that these trends are studied the more universal they seem - petit, piccolo and klein contrast with grand, grande and gross. And the trends go beyond simple concepts like size. With some poets it's possible to guess the theme of the work without understanding a word of it by calculating the relative proportion of sounds - the guess isn't always correct but I'm amazed that it's possible at all. People have tried to create dictionaries of sound meanings. Here's an extract about the L sound from Galt's book - Positive skews in love poems and narratives: strong positive skews in "tender" and "musical" poems. Negative skews in poems of family and home, nostalgia, and humor, with a negative skew for "non-musical" poems which is just below the level of significance. This phoneme certainly distinguishes, in Storm's verse, between "musicality" and its opposite, and its presence can evidently also contribute to a feeling of "tenderness"

If isolated sounds aren't arbitrary, still less are the sounds of sentences and poetry whose patterns produce effects that isolated words can't. In Violi's book Haj Ross spends 40 pages on the sounds in "The Tyger" pointing out dozens of features such as

  • The sound F only occurs on even-numbered lines, and gangs with R.
  • while all the words in the Tyger line except one are bisyllables, this line being the most polysyllabic of the whole poem, all of the words in the Lamb line are monosyllabic

These effects are in addition to the regular patterns of stress, rhyme, etc. However, with free verse these dispersive patterns are beginning to dominate. We lack the vocabulary to describe them well, and I suspect they often go unnoticed (at least consciously) by readers. Here's an extract by Ruth Padel where she describes an easily missed pattern in Michael Longley's Ceasefire

Achilles, the key name, appears in every stanza. Its central syllable is repeated in the first stanza ("until", "filled", "building", with a sideways echo in "curled" ...), reappears in the second, resonates in the third with "built" and "still" (plus an echo in "full"). and reaches a climax in "killer": bringing out the fact that "Achilles" has the sound of that word "kill" in his name

Interest in sound effects has revived because 1) computers can now analyse a lifetime's work in minutes; 2) brain-scanning has enhanced our understanding of music's effects; 3) the study of pragmatics has attracted attention to the non-semantic effects of words. If music can be profound, why not the sound of words? It too uses repetition combined with variation. It too has incantatory power. The semantics can modulate sound's meaning much as the choice of instrument can affect music's meaning. A violin's C isn't the same as a trumpet's, just as oo is recognisable but differently received in moon and spoon.

Though we may never return to the clogged tongue-twisting of William Barnes'
       With fruit for me
       The apple tree
       Do lean down low in Linden lea.
we might hope for more tolerance of poets like Dylan Thomas and Wallace Stevens. When they stop making sense perhaps they're not lapsing into non-sense but instead bringing out the tonality of words, an alternative mode of meaning making sense an echo to the sound.


  • "Sound and Sense in the Poetry of Theodor Storm", Alan B. Galt, Herbert Lang, 1973
  • "52 Ways of Looking at a Poem", Ruth Padel, Chatto & Windus, 2002
  • "The Sounds of Poetry", Robert Pinsky, Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1998
  • "Phonosymbolism and Poetic Language", Patrizia Violi (ed), Brepols Publishers, 2000

(published in Acumen)

Saturday 4 December 2010

"The Method" by Tom Vowler

Sometimes I read more as a budding writer than a reader, seeing (or imagining) the churning mechanisms - Chekhov's guns and nails hanging from every wall. My writerly reaction to this book might have been because

  • The author and I try for the same outlets - he's winner of Salt's Scott competition (which I entered); there are stories from Brand, Riptide, etc (which I've never been in, though I've tried).
  • I use the same rather scientific analogies that he uses, and I often write about raids on the past.
  • Though I empathize with the downbeat mood, it's hard for me to continually empathize with the relentlessly embittered characters
  • Once I realised that hints of terror in an initial paragraph were never in anticipation of a visit to the dentist or being dragged by mum around clothes shops but were more likely to involve murder, I was less immersed in guessing the ending.

PoV is 1st or 3rd person. Both male or female voices are represented, usually aged 25-40 and street-wise, WASP, in a generic England during the noughties. A few non-linear forms keep readers on their toes. The language is lively and entertaining. The mood is sustained using a catalog of woes. Halfway through the book (after stories about death of parents, child abduction, wife-swapping, visiting an ex) I tried to guess what further common themes would be used (a partner leaving with a same-sex lover; upstanding parents embarrassed by relatives; waiting for results of (partner's?) medical tests; how to cope with a young daughter's pregnancy and unsuitable boyfriend; pretending that you've not lost your job; a relationship crisis on a family holiday). In the end there were none of those, though we had an e-mail epistolary piece.

In the title story an author lives out his draft character's life. A nice idea, well executed. The 2nd piece, "Seeing Anyone", stays just about on the approved side of the contrived/controlled border. A man's visiting his re-partnered ex. Here are the images and turning points that struck me as I read

  • p.11 It starts with "The day stretched out before him like some vast desert he didn't want to cross"
  • p.12 The long initial build-up of tension continues after he's arrived, then suddenly she says "She's in the garden, under the tree". Who? Ah, their dying dog - apparently the reason for the couple communicating after a gap of months. What does it symbolise - their love hanging on for dear life? (the woman says "I have to decide when enough's enough for her, really. Not be selfish about it") Or the child they never had? (the bitch's stomach - ironically? - is bloated) Or her image of him?
  • p.12 We learn that her current partner's away on a golf weekend. Aha.
  • p.13 "'I didn't know whether to tell you [about the dog]. I thought about it for days'. A warm breeze weaved between them carrying a small flower from the cherry blossom in the far corner. It caught in the strands of her hair". More objects fill the gap left by their silence about their feelings for each other
  • p.13 "He remembered looking hard at her that day, trying to see if all her love for him had left, like a distant star that's seen but is no longer there". Neat though not original
  • p.14 "the Doppler effect of love, where sound and language differ so much depending on whether it's arriving or departing". Neat. New to me.
  • p.14 At the start we're told that he'd bought some photographs. Now they appear - "She took the envelope and started to look through photographs of the first four years of the dog's life. 'I don't remember any of these'". There's ambivalence in her eyes, then she recovers. He offers to copy any that she wants.
  • p.15 "The homemade soup was like visiting his childhood home" - his memories are being pushed further back, looking for roots to re-grow from.
  • p.16 "He pictured himself in an upstairs window, watching as she tended the garden" - his imagination is building a new life based around domesticity
  • p.16 "They didn't wave. He looked at her in the mirror watching to see if his brake lights came on". Up to now, the story's all from his PoV, so how are we to interpret this final phrase of the story? Apart from a timely glance and prolonged goodbye hug (both of which are given alternative explanations in the story), the only come-on is the timing of the weekend, but that's accounted for by the dog having only days to live. One imagines the dog might be taken to the vet on Monday.

In "Busy. Come. Wait" a son meets his sister at the house where they grew up. Despite the initial hints I was doubting at first whether their father was dead. He was though. She blames her unfaithful mother for their unhappy childhood and her unhappy life. He doesn't tell her that their father was no angel either.

"They may not mean to but they do" intersplices narratives from 2 eras. Dating turns to the real thing. Then there's a plot turn that's not new, but it caught me by surprize in the context - he finds a soul-mate, she wants to find her natural parents, and there's a clash. The story does a lot in a short space.

"Staring at the Sun" is nearly in real-time, the protagonist waiting 10 minutes in a pub for a blind-date to appear. His previous partner had died of lung cancer. He runs through various metaphors of time and grief. "My father would have understood. 'Just look at the stars,' he once told me. I'd opened the telescope that was a badly-kept secret one birthday. 'That's looking back in time.'". It ends with "I observe the moment as if from above, for the first time glimpsing a time ahead of this one. I once read that if you forced yourself to stare at the sun for eight seconds, you'd go blind. I stand, wave to the woman and smile"

Welcomingly McEwanesque is "The Last Supper" where the death of a child leads to the parents' suicide pact, dying by starvation. But before they board themselves in they cook themselves a final meal. "Hare's Running" concerns skullduggery in betting shops, "Breathe" is only a page - macabre. "Offline" is set in the future, satire coming thick and fast - "As he lay dying in the transition ward". "One Story" is about writers block where a drunk, separated writer chats to his idealistic son - 'The icecaps safe tonight, then, Jack?' I ask.
'Can't stop. Got to be somewhere.'
'Let me guess: knitting bongos outside some landfill?'
'I see you're drunk for a change.'
'When you've lived with your mother a few more years, you'll see it's a perfectly desirable state. Care to join me for one?'

Several of the pieces involve private/secret missions to re-live, commemorate (or avenge for) a significant event. Retribution can easily go as far as murder. The indirection of these stories' first paragraphs (mysteries about the age, gender, status, motivation, etc of main character) could have been extended to generate tension, but issues are usually resolved on the first page. As an example of how info-dumps are avoided, take "Homecoming" which begins with

Shop façades offered different wares but it was the buildings themselves, the roads and trees, that resonated so profusely with a childhood echoing through the decades. And the bridge, of course. He'd crossed it that day, just ahead of the others - breathless, still convinced that some game had gone wrong.

It's a teasing start. We know that the character is decades from childhood, that he probably hasn't been to his hometown for years, that something momentous (and bad?) had happened. In paragraph 2 we learn that the event erased his previous childhood. By paragraph 3 we're pretty sure that he's alone. In paragraph 4 we're told that he's called Michael. After the initial inevitable bridge a gate leads towards the place; a gap in a hedge leads him further. Paragraph 8 mentions that he's been in "a unit" for a few years. In paragraph 10 there's

Didn't cells constantly die, being replaced by new ones? Aren't we, literally speaking, recycled every couple of years or so? And without a soul, wasn't it the case that he was no more connected to the boy he was that day than to the ground he now stood on? Only history linked him. Just a narrative, that's all.

The location helps him recall the event, even some new details as he traces his steps. By the end of the story we know with forensic precision what happened.

"The Arrival" and "Team Building" were the only disappointments, though by the time I'd reached "The Little Man" I'd met enough bitter murderers. That, I suppose, is my main criticism - en masse the stories dilute each other. In "Reload" the main character says "I wonder if I'll be regarded a serial killer and how they decide. I think it's something to do with the gap between the first and the last" (the gap's about a 100 pages in this book). I've tried writing about happy people (most successfully I think in an unpublished piece called "Good Losers"). Life's not a bowl of cherries, but well, you have to try. The author/narrator/language/reality constellation remains pretty stable too.

Diction tottered in places - "parochial denizens" (p.88) and "aired reluctance" (p.143) for example seem misplaced. I noticed 2 typos: "ringing water from a sponge" (p.106 - or is that deliberate?) and "she call my a" (p.136).

Other reviews include

Wednesday 1 December 2010

Time and Narration

A 10 minute story rarely covers 10 minutes of events from beginning to end - some parts are compressed and others expanded. Not only that, but flashbacks and other effects are used to jump backwards and forwards in time. I think some short-story writers under-use these effects, so I'd like to talk about them now


Changes of speed are so common in all forms of storytelling that we hardly notice them. Here are some examples

  • compression: "So we lived in Texas for five years, and then we moved to California."
  • expansion: "All of the sudden it occurred to me in a flash of insight that she never really loved me and had only been using me to make her husband jealous and to ensure that one way or another she could get her green card. How could I have been so stupid, how could I have courted such a disaster?"

Thriller writer Lee Child said "write the fast slow and the slow fast" (i.e. write the fast-action scenes in slow motion and gloss over the long, boring journeys, etc). Passages of dialogue bring us back to real time.


Our thoughts are rarely satisfied to stay settled in the present moment; instead, they tend to wander nostalgically into replays of past scenes, or to fantasize about the future. So it's natural that authors go back and forwards in time. The flashback [analepsis] is quite common. Flashbacks

  • help give short stories the illusion of depth
  • help to "show, not tell" - rather than mention that someone used to be a soldier, flash them back to a battlefield
  • can be used at the start of a story to capture the reader's interest.

but they have disadvantages too

  • they interrupt the momentum of the story
  • overused, they can disorganise the story, especially if there's no "present" to contrast them with. It helps to use them right at the start or to fully establish the characters first
  • the choice of tense to use can be tricky. Authors usually begin a flashback in the past (or pluperfect) tense then drop it once the flashback is established

Flashbacks are typically provoked by

  • going through an old photo-album or diary - see "Krapp's Last Tape" (Beckett)
  • finding an object you haven't seen for years
  • revisiting a place where you used to live
  • a taste or smell - Proust's madelaine

and ended by an interruption from the present. Flashbacks can be extensive. Sometimes the first chapter of a novel is a flashback, but you don't find that out until later. Sometimes most of a story is a flashback framed by the words of the narrator or author. Sometimes the flashbacks and the present alternate through the piece.

A special case of the flashback is the story-within-a-story [or intercalated story]. Detective stories use this idea quite a lot - each witness giving their version of the events.

Less common than flashbacks are glimpses into the future. These might seem to spoil the surprise, but often it increases anticipation

  • foreshadowing [or premonition, prefiguration]: short hints about the future - "grey shadows portending deeper shadows to come.", "little did they know, as they kissed on the platform, that they'd never meet again". These are sometimes used at the ends of sections to encourage the reader to continue. Sometimes however, it takes a second reading to discover them.
  • flashforward [or prolepsis]: "Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice." (opening line of Garcia Marquez' One Hundred Years of Solitude)
  • adumbration - in older works, chapters often had titles or summaries. For example Galsworthy uses chapter titles like "Soames Breaks the News".

Finally there's repetition - a word, gesture or memory used as a leitmotif having the effect of making time cyclical.

The Short Story

Opinions differ on whether flashbacks work in short stories

  • "Flashback is almost always necessary at some stage in the writing of a short story" - "Practical Short Story Writing", John Paxton Sheriff, p.83
  • "In writing a short story, the flashback should probably not be used", "Guide to Fiction Writing", Phyllis Whitney, p.113
  • "Confession stories nearly always need a flashback", "How to Write Stories for Magazines", Donna Baker, p.45

It's easier to use direction-changing in novels where there's more room to explain what's going on and chapters provide handy dividing lines. In the short story rapid jumps might confuse the reader. On the page, italics and roman text could be used to show the transitions, but it's not common. Breaking the story into short sections with subtitles can help too.

One tip from Sol Stein ("Stein on Writing", p.144) is that the first sentence of a flashback needs to be arresting to jolt the reader from what went before.

Foreshadowing is sometimes added (especially in later drafts) to give the work more unity (see the Old Testament rewrites, for example). In "The Great Gatsby" the foreshadowing is unlikely to be noticed on a first reading but they add to the sense of inevitability.


I've already quoted a few examples. Here are some more

  • "Time's Arrow" - Martin Amis. In this book time goes backwards. Food is taken out of the mouth, put on the plate and eventually taken to the shops in return for money. In Vonnegut's "Slaughterhouse Five" and Dick's "Counterclock World" the device is used to a lesser extent.
  • In Alexander Masters' "Stuart: A life backwards" the chapters are in reverse chronological order - an idea by the biography's main character
    • "'Do it the other way round. Make it more like a murder mystery. What murdered the boy I was? See? Write it backwards.'" (p.6)
    • "Stuart's backwards inspiration has turned out to be excellent. At a swoop, it has solved the major problem of writing biography of a man who is not famous ... introduce Stuart to readers as he is now, a fully-fledged gawd-help-us, and he may just grab their interest straight away" (p.11)
  • Steven Maxwell's short story "The Fade" in "Staple" (issue 73) begins "At seven in the morning, as the sun was setting, his wife's expansions began". Later in the Departure Room something is pushed into the wife - "'The placenta', said the midwife, ... 'Just making the bed, so to speak.'". They go home, dashing through red lights. The story ends with "But for now they are content just to be doing their best for the baby, whoever it was, and making its fade as painless as possible. And in nine months time, when his wife has ejaculated her seed into him, all will be forgotten, the fade will be complete."
  • "Otto Grows Down" by Michael Sussman is a children's picture book where the child, Otto, experiences time in reverse after his baby sister is born
  • "A Rational Man" (Teresa Benison) uses various tricks.
  • "Wuthering Heights" (Emily Bronte) uses flashback.
  • "Beloved" (Toni Morrison) uses flashback.
  • "Nostromo" (Conrad) and "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" (Spark) uses flashforward.
  • "Turn of the Screw" (Henry James) is a framed story.
  • "The Sound and the Fury" uses various narrators describing the same events.
  • "The Time Traveler's Wife" has a man who travels backwards and forwards in time. The reader's given chronological information - a sample section heading is Friday, June 5, 1987 (Clare is 16, Henry is 32)

Next time you read a story, look out for the changes in narrative speed and direction. It's quite common for narration speed to match chronological speed at the climax of the story.

Also look at how films use the same tricks. Several films I've recently seen ("Saving Private Ryan", "Cinema Paradiso", "La Vita e Bella", "Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind") use flashbacks extensively. "Memento" intersplices 2 story-lines, one going backwards and the other forwards. Directors can switch between colour and monochrome to show the transitions. Compression is harder though, requiring voice-overs or a caption saying something like "5 years later".

Friday 19 November 2010

The Poetry Circus

In a secondhand bookshop I found "The Poetry Circus", by Stanton A. Coblentz, (Hawthorn: New York, 1967). It is "a frontal attack on the sloppiness, pretence, and just plain sensationalism that prevails in much of contemporary poetry". In one section ("How to write a Modern Poem") he shows how an embarrassingly bland text (e.g. "Every nation, isolated in its own house, seeks to wall out all other nations") might be modernised by substitutions leading to something that "may be a little vague and somewhat hard to figure out, perhaps even contradictory, but no one will say it is trite" (e.g. "Every nation/in the isolation of its own libido/seeks to cro-Magnonize all others with the psychology of the alter ego"). Of course no-one consciously proceeds through these stages, but poem explanations sometimes perform the reverse process. Are they attempts to normalize, to remove from the work all that's odd to us, all that's novel? Do they dumb down? Whatever the explanations do, they don't always explain what's lost in this process. The paraphrase may even be an improvement on a confusing draft.

Coblenz's battle against the Emperors' New Clothes failed to change the course of US poetry, but I share some of his doubts about the purposes of difficulty. There are several reasons why a vague or difficult poem might be more effective than a direct one -

  • In "Nature", 17th Mar 2005 they reported that blurry images can have more emotional impact than clear ones - the emotion-modules in the brain don't need detail; the detail activates other activity that might distract.
  • A "Rorschach" poem can give a reader more scope for imagination.
  • Exploring a difficult poem can be a reward in itself.

- but vagueness and difficulty can of course be evasion, bluffing, or a sign of more general communication difficulties.

I read the "Tears in the Fence" magazine to encounter types of work I don't often read, work that challenges and stretches me. Both poets and critics are given space to make their case. Even so, I sometimes feel that I'm encountering crop circles rather than new life-forms. Here's the start of "Love Poem 2" by Lisa Mansell

slick in the lactic stale of sextet
                                        they crabform in their calculus
        and listen to the music that kilts and sucks their scarab-wracked skin
               tantric and crystal                a tryst
                                               rustic and cusp

oceans slip by denizens of noose
       and coil unctuous          vultured in love-letter-scrawl
                       as laval scions the deserting vulva
         aztec and volatile                        liquid

It's rich in sound effects - "slick in the lactic stale of sextet" has many 'S' and 'K' sounds that are repeated through the piece. Later, 'L' and 'V' sounds begin to dominate. Sound has its own meaning-making mechanisms. The dadaists wrote "sound poetry". Less extremely, Mallarmé and Basil Bunting foregrounded sound. I side with Eliot when he said "the music of poetry is not something which exists apart from its meaning". The balance between sound and "sense" can vary in poetry. In this piece several word-choices look strange if one merely considers their sense. Why "slick in the lactic stale of sextet" rather than "slick in the lactic staleness of sex"? What does line 2 mean? "calculus" might be something to do with bones or with calculation. What sort of "music" is being referred to? What is "kilts ... their skin?" (by the way, "unctuous" means oily or smarmy; "scions" means offspring). What does "deserting vulva" mean - that it's going dry? that it's making something else dry? that it's leaving? How do any of those interpretations connect with the rest of the line (presumably they do in some way, otherwise there'd be a line-break). The poem's grammatically parsable, but commas have been replaced by line-breaks. That doesn't fully explain the splattered layout though - why the inline spaces?

I like the sound of it - I can imagine people being seduced by the sonic constellations alone - but it might as well be in a foreign language for all the "sense" I can make of it. When writing a Rorschach poem it helps to retain some referential clues - partly to tantalize. But readers aren't to know whether there's a riddle to be solved, or how much work is expected. Here for instance "kilts" could suggest the swaying of seaweed, or maybe it's something to do with "kilter" (as in "out of kilter"). The lovers could be whales, "slick" could allude to "oil-slick". Perhaps vultures and scarabs are Aztec symbols (there must be some reason why "aztec" is there). There are other symbolic links too - crab, ocean, liquid; sex(tet), tantric, vulva; desert and ocean. The rest of the poem doesn't help me, though there is "their unbelief in binary rubs at the solent-soft of her love" which reminds me of the concocted examples of modernized poetry that Coblentz developed from a simple statement.

Formalist poems are sometimes accused of being rhyme-driven, with artificial inversions introduced merely to regularise the rhythm. Mainstream poems often have mundane settings into which some mystery is embedded (a "lift" in the final line, for example) with sound having a minor role. There are sonic forces driving this poem like an ambulance siren pushing mainstream meaning aside. Or alternatively one could say that the setting is sonic, generating effects (a field, if you wish) that isolated referential meanings expand into and modulate.

Rather than send in the clowns perhaps it's time to start dismantling the Big Top. Whose fun would it spoil? Would it throw the baby out with the bathwater? Does it risk the accusation of being right-wing, reactionary, nostalgic for "The Movement"? Even suggesting that one create a table of pros and cons for the special effects displayed in such poems risks being accused of over-rationalism, of workshoppery taken over by accountancy. The poet has a Ph.D and lectures in Creative Writing so I presume all my points have been taken into account. In the end all one can say is that the proportions of the ingredients don't suit me. Maybe there are also some ingredients that I'm oblivious to. It takes all sort to make a world and I'm sure this poem has its share of fans.

Saturday 13 November 2010

Book Launches

I've been reading some articles about book launches - How to have a book launch in London when you don't even live there by Elizabeth Baines in particular but also how to throw awesome book launch, what I learned from my first book launch, etc. Here are some points

  • Venue - Consider a big city (e.g. London) rather than your home town. Decide whether to use a bookshop.
  • Tone - Treat it as a party/celebration, but don't forget to circulate.
  • Selling - Make it someone's job to take the money. Don't just sign copies, ask people what they want you to write on their copies.
  • Sharing - Invite other poets with books to launch? Have a musical interlude?
  • Expectations - Don't expect to cover costs. Invite everyone you can (family, friends, maybe a few more famous people) - invitations double as advertisements for the book. Use Facebook (maybe set up a Facebook event), writers groups, etc. Don't expect many people to turn up.
  • Review copies - Many publishers think that review copies don't even lead to reviews let alone extra sales, but a poetry collection that has poems from many magazines might be dealt with more generously?

You can have more than one "launch" of course. You can also arrange a virtual book tour, use open-mike sessions, etc.

Tuesday 2 November 2010

From Dickens to Chaucer

Few Dickens scholars know that he was born just round the corner from my birthplace in Portsmouth. Here's the room where he was born. It's not the original bed but a similar style (I was born in a bedsit in a terrace house). I didn't visit his house for over 40 years. He visited Cambridge a few times, staying at The Eagle in 1859. He visited Italy in 1844.

Now I live in Trumpington, allegedly named after a tribe called the Trumps. Chaucer's The Reeve's Tale is set there.

At Trumpyngtoun, nat fer fro Cantebrigge,
Ther gooth a brook, and over that a brigge,
Upon the whiche brook ther stant a melle;

The location of the mill is in doubt. It's unlikely to be at Byron's Pool. In 1380-2 Chaucer's wife and Lady Blanche de Trumpington were in the service of the Duchess of Lancaster, so maybe Chaucer visited Trumpington even if he didn't visit Cambridge. He visited Lombardy on business.

With Italian relatives we went to Stratford. Here's Shakespeare's house. Shakespeare may have performed at The Eagle as part of a group of actors but there's no proof. His use of Cambridge jargon has led some people to suggest that he was a student there. There's no proof that he visited Italy either, though his plays contain so many references to Italy that some strange theories have been suggested.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle lived for quite a while in Portsmouth. However, little is known about the education of Sherlock Holmes. It's assumed from references to "the university" in "The Gloria Scott", "The Musgrave Ritual", and to some extent "The Adventure of the Three Students", that he attended Oxford or Cambridge. Baring-Gould believed textual evidence indicated that Holmes attended both, though Dorothy L. Sayers thought he was a chemistry student at Sidney Sussex, Cambridge, which would fit in with his evident knowledge of forensics. He was born on January 6, 1854, which would put his student years in the 1870s, but there's no evidence of a Sherlock Holmes at the college then, though a photograph from 1878 (one of the earliest college photos ever taken) has several blanks amongst the captions, and several faces smeared by the long exposure, one of them suspiciously Holmesian. Mycroft's clearly well acquainted with Cambridge, so perhaps Sherlock just visited his older brother. During his detective career he visited Cambridge several times, taking the train from King's Cross. In "The Adventure of the Missing Three-Quarter" he uses a tracker dog in Cambridge "In half an hour, we were clear of the town and hastening down a country road. The road took a sweep to the south of the town, and continued in the opposite direction to that in which we started. ... This should be the village of Trumpington to the right of us."

Florence is the only Italian city definitely visited by Holmes, though he may have visited Milan

Last weekend we stumbled upon Bunyan's Chimney during a walk. It's all that's left of a cottage where Bunyan preached and maybe stayed. "Pilgrim's Progress" isn't my favourite book, but it was popular I suppose, and may indeed have helped the novel genre develop. It was started in Bedford which I've visited several times without realising its significance. John Bunyan used Stourbridge Fair (near Cambridge) as the inspiration for the Vanity Fair in Pilgrim's Progress. He probably passed through Cambridge. I don't think he could have visited Lombardy.

Monday 25 October 2010

A Theory of Line-breaks

2 line stanzas7
3 line stanzas14
4 line stanzas4
5 line stanzas5
6 line stanzas2
7 line stanzas2
8 line stanzas1
Misc stanzas8
Deviations from norms will be noticed. In most prose, line-breaks are deviations. The norms for poetry seem to be changing. Here are the statistics of Jane Holland's "The Brief History of a Disreputable Woman" (Bloodaxe 1997). Note the high percentage of poems with regular 2 or 3 lined stanzas. For regularity, the "Brighton Pilgrimage" poem takes the prize - 18 7-lined stanzas where the longest line is about 1cm longer than the shortest.

In the last decade or so, line-breaks seem often used to produce equally shaped stanzas in this way. Like any pattern it offers the writer chances to thwart expectation - units can be end-stopped or enjambed, for example. The requirements of form also give the writer an answer to people asking why the poet broke a line. Stanza lengths can (indeed, should) be varied from poem to poem. The important thing is not to let any line stick out more than 2cm from a neighbour. Once the poem's been shaped, minor tweaks can be made to exploit a line- or stanza-break, but these shouldn't be too obvious - such effects are often pretty cheap, and they might draw attention to the other, form-driven line-breaks. For added variety regular indenting can be used too. The final stanza is allowed to be a line shorter or longer than all the rest. It can even be a single-line.

Why do poets use the form? After all, the line-break's potential in this context is limited. I guess the form's purpose is partly to please the eye and partly to get people in the poetry mood, to get them to "read into" the work. As Culler wrote in "Structuralist Poetics", this will make readers see extra meanings (the word "red" will burst with connotations), and affect their interpretation of style (reportage will become "restrained writing"). There'll also be a tendency to read a fragment as the tip-of-an-iceberg.

Note the key-role played by line-breaks. Not only do they indicate that the text is a poem (giving it a charge, an aura), but by encouraging minor closures they help readers to focus on (and magnify) particular phrases as well as generating extra interpretations - e.g. "I am good/for nothing".

Given the charitable status granted to poetry by readers, any text is likely to seem more significant when read as a poem, so I think that it's only fair to raise the bar for text with poetic pretensions. In "A Lope of Time" Ruth O'Callaghan writes "smoking at an open window, the man notes the abandoned boat. Come spring he will replace it". I misquote; actually she wrote

smoking at an open window
                      the man
                the abandoned boat

come spring 
        he will replace it

I don't think this earns the right to be read too generously.

Rather than use the shape of the text to indicate that the work should be read poetically, writers can use the context. It's common nowadays for poetry books to include at least one poem that has no line-breaks. Lachlan Mackinnon's "Small Hours" takes this approach further. On the flap it says that the book ends with "a long poem ... written mostly in prose". The piece in question ("The Book of Emma") takes up 63 pages. Here are some extracts

  • "The only television I watched as an undergraduate was the separate inaugural speech President Carter had recorded for Europe on the subject of nuclear weapons. We just didn't. Nowadays people have sets in their rooms. And mobiles. They stay in touch with home friends in a way impossible and unimaginable for us. They text and email. This may be an epistemic shift but they feel terror loneliness and grief no less than we did" (from section XL).
  • "Of course in making this thing about you or around you I am talking about my youth and homesick for it. But that is not the point. The point is that at one time in one place I met someone who became to me a living conscience" (from section XLVIII)

It's interesting to note the reception to this piece

  • Boyd Tonkin (The Independent) - It is a poet's prose: thrifty, rhythmic, specific, given to darting shifts in pace and focus.
  • Carrie Etter (The Guardian) - "The Book of Emma" creates much of its poetry through command of sentence rhythms, repetitions of sound, and epic movement between individual experience and historical perspective.
  • David Morley (blog) - "The Book of Emma", which is neither prose poetry nor poetic prose but a vivid series of elliptical, connected flash-backs that have the quality of flash fiction - except we are clearly hearing a poem... - it is a highly successful experiment in form.

I'd call it prose written in prose. Yes, it has shifts of time and subject, but thankfully so does prose. It has a consistent voice. Its imagery and analogies are developed at a leisurely pace. There are leit-motifs and unspoken interconnections. It doesn't exploit sound effects. But if it doesn't need line-breaks why does an earlier poem, "Midlands", need so many? It has these passages:

  • "TB and rickets/ are back in cities, but these towns/ are too small to support/ such destitution"
  • "Canals hidden/ like avenues by trees// until the bank-holiday/holiday-makers come/ in narrow-boats dolled up/ like gypsy caravans/ with new gloss/ blue, orange, red"

It's commonly said that some poems are "just prose chopped up", but even if a text is "poetry chopped up" it's faulty. In Ruth O'Callaghan's piece what are line-breaks for? I'm not the only person puzzled by latterday line-breaks

  • "the free verse, now dominant not only in the US but around the world, has become, with notable exceptions, little more than linear prose, arbitrarily divided into line-lengths", Marjorie Perloff, "The Oulipo Factor", Jacket 23
  • "The poetic line seems highly problematic nowadays and it sometimes seems better to avoid it altogether", Frances Presley, "Poetry Review", V98.4, 2008
  • "Not only hapless adolescents, but many gifted and justly esteemed poets writing in contemporary nonmetrical forms, have only the vaguest concept, and the most haphazard use, of the line", Denise Levertov", On the Function of the Line", 1979

2 line stanzas4
3 line stanzas3
14 line stanzas1
Nathan Hamilton's selection of recent poetry in Rialto 70 (2010) has these statistics. It's unfair to compare this multi-author sample with single-author books, but maybe it's a sign that line-breaks are regaining their power. In Mackinnon's "Midlands" the line-breaks are for making each stanza 9 lines long, which is currently considered a worthwhile aim, but perhaps "The Book of Emma" signals a further drift of norms. There's no need to add line-breaks to a text if Faber label it as poetry. If Faber accept this piece as poetry, what prose would they turn down? Anything with sections longer than 2 pages?

Friday 8 October 2010

Giving up the day job

lift You've reached a mid-life crisis - you've been dabbling with writing (perhaps with some success) for years and want to go to the next level. Maybe your kids have grown and left, you've come into some money, you've a long-term illness, or you've unexpectedly become unemployed. What are the options?

It's a question that prose writers more so than poets ask. Prose needs more of a full time commitment than poetry does, and some people who already earn money writing prose (journalists, technical writers, translators, etc) can carry on doing part-time work. Also I think women more so than men follow this delayed career path, their lives disrupted more by parenthood.

You could take early retirement, buy a cottage in the South of France, Walden, or even move to Tahiti, but most of us have to compromise a little.

A Masters Degree (MFA, MLit, MA)

Creative Writing's a competitive hobby nowadays, verging on a profession. Young budding writers who want to work within academia have to be prepared to move often, and go on short-term contracts. You probably don't want to compete on that level. Look upon your age as an advantage. There's more to writing success than merely writing - you'll have to fill in forms, jump through hoops, meet deadlines, balance competing needs, thoroughly research the market, have the money to buy the right books, be self-critical, etc. Perhaps you won't have as much spare time as some of your class-mates, but you'll have more life-experiences and perhaps you'll be better able to exploit your opportunities.

If you missed the chance to do a full time Masters the first time round, don't worry - it's never too late. In "The Guardian" (8 May 2009) Professor Russell Celyn Jones said that "The MA programme I run at Birkbeck, University of London, attracts people of all ages from around the world and with a wide range of life experience. These doctors, journalists, police, actors and lawyers are clear-eyed about their expectations: they want to pursue a private passion communally for a year."

It's not so much the academic surroundings that attract late-comers -

  • You may appreciate the discipline, the lack of distraction, the easy availability of help.
  • Unless you show you're serious about writing, your family won't take you seriously and won't give you space.
  • A Masters is a way to validate your skills - even if it doesn't help you write better, the certificate at the end will open doors.
  • It will show the grandchildren that you're not over the hill yet.

You might be able to take a year off work (a BBC TV reporter did this so that he could do a Masters in creative writing) but of course, you needn't go full time - nowadays many Masters courses welcome mature students, waiving qualification requirements, and offering low-residency, 2 year part-time options with distance learning components, variable speeds, and a choice of terms when you can start. Courses nowadays include sessions on market awareness and the Publishing trade, and assessed material is likely to include a dissertation folio (aka "creative thesis") which may be in poetry or prose, so you needn't take a break from your usual writing and submitting. But do these courses work?

  • Venessa Gebbie was accepted to do an MPhil in Writing, but changed her mind after finding out more about the course (having already paid a deposit).
  • Tania Hershman spent ten years working as a science and technology journalist before enrolling on the MA at Bath Spa, UK. Her project went on to be published.

So yes, it can work, but it's risky. See the Poets & Writers page for more US information. The UK is catching up fast with the USA. Suddenly it's become normal for 30% of the bios in a magazine like Rialto to mention Creative Writing degrees. England's UEA isn't quite the Iowa workshop, but it's been around since 1970 - see their Autumn syllabus. It's produced several "mature" writers.

One-off Help

Rather than commit to a long course which may include lots of material you're not interested in, you can pay for specific help
  • Literary Consultants - Publishers' in-house editors rarely have time nowadays to discover and nurture talent. Meanwhile, thanks to Creative Writing courses, more and more authors are producing near-publishable books. How can they be helped? Agents are more publisher-orientated, and in any case won't deal with stories and poems, which is why "literary consultants" (aka "manuscript assessment services") are on the increase. Depending on the quality of the work they may recommend it to an agent or publisher, suggest a few tweaks, or splatter the first page or 2 with comments and have a long, frank discussion with the author. Even if you find a reputable company, you won't know beforehand how useful their comments will be, but even their help with the all-important first few paragraphs may make all the difference.
  • Mentoring - The UK's Faber and Faber is the latest organisation to nurture individual talent. It's a growth area. The New Writing Partnership's Escalator scheme also works that way. Writers value such attention albeit briefly at residential courses and on Masters courses. Being under someone's wing for several months is what most budding writers want, especially if there's guaranteed publication at the end.

The common factor here is the 1-on-1 contact, something lost during the rise of big business and workshops. Another is the expense. Consultancy and mentoring don't come cheap - mentoring is about $40/hour, and 1,000 words cost at least $10 to be evaluated. Regional Arts Boards can sometimes help with funding or at least offer recommendations.

Roll your own

If you have the self-discipline you could plan a year-long programme tailored to your own needs. Creative writing syllabuses are online to give you ideas. Festivals, readings, short residential workshops, private study, and competition deadlines can be time-tabled into a year of activity. Holidays can be integrated into the scheme too.

In the UK, Arvon weeks are frequently mentioned as a life-changing experience. Immersion for a week in a writing environment helps people to start thinking of themselves as "writers".

Poets & Writers have a Literary Events Calendar (a nationwide calendar of readings, workshops, and other literary events) and a page about Writers Conferences, Colonies, and Workshops page showing some US options.

Online groups can help. Venessa Gebbie is one of many writers who had a post-50 surge. She said "I spent eighteen months on and off working in an online writing group ... That was akin to an apprenticeship." But you need your wits about you if you're going to benefit from such locations. Older people might have an advantage in this respect.

Alternative Approaches

  • At the age of 92 Toyo Shibatashe gave up dancing because of a bad back, and started writing poetry. Now 98, her latest poetry book has sold 40,000 copies in Japan.
  • Become a celeb first, then publish later - see Viggo Mortenson
  • Become a writer of any kind first - see Prue Leith (first novel at 55)
  • Make explicit use of your profession - either for content or as a PR opportunity
  • Some competitions have a lower-age limit of 50 or so. Make the most of them. Grey Hen is one of a number of organisations for older writers.
  • See Career in poetry (from TextEtc)

Thursday 30 September 2010

Tim Cumming

Going through my shelves I found "the miniature estate" (Smith/Doorstep, 1991) and "Apocalypso" (Scratch, 1992), both by Tim Cumming. I like them. I realise I'm trying to write more like that nowadays. Shades of Luke Kennard but more gritty, more overtly political, less meta-poetic. Here are a few quotes.

  • A black girl gave out pamphlets in the library,
    you could win a free pizza.
    Two girls in a phone box made random calls
    from a diary found outside The Admiral Nelson

    (from "Living by numbers")

  • The housemaid's dead and I've got to run.
    There's a factory fire, tailback
    from Cheyne Walk to Rotherhithe, a number
    of casualties and still no ambulance.
    I'm reading the Ladybird History of Thatcherism,
    it's well illustrated with fine river views
    and commercial breaks everywhere in Tuscany.

    (from "UK Roadmap")

  • Coming quietly through two way mirrors
    with blackmail angles and fingerprint dust.
    Do not move without a punchline
    that is not an ad lib
    and where were you last night?

    (from "Official Secrets")

Sometimes a striking start isn't sustained. Usually though he manages to develop the original premise, or braid the multiple themes he introduces early on. "UK Roadmap" is my favorite poem ("The empire's shrunk to a charity ball,/ to a welder's spark, to the presence/ of royalty and now I'm getting emotional") and "Speed Chess in Zero Gravity" is my favorite title.

Sunday 26 September 2010

Poesia 253 - Don Paterson, Indian poetry

Some poets travel better than others, but quite a few of them have made the journey to Italy this month. Issue 153 of the Italian periodical Poesia has 14 pages about Don Paterson and 15 pages of poems in English by Indian writers (Dom Moraes, A.K.Ramanujan, Ezekiel). In the introduction to Paterson, Massimiliano Morini emphasises that Paterson is hard to categorise - MacNiece or Muldoon? In his variety he's compared to Edwin Morgan, who gets a half-page obituary later in the magazine.

Thursday 23 September 2010

Literature and boredom

If I think a swimming pool's going to be cold I sometimes splash cold water on myself first, trying to induce shivering. After that the water feels ok.

In his "Structuralist Poetics" book, Culler mentions that "Criticism usually ignores boredom". It's potentially a useful device - if you bore the reader before giving them a flash of lyricism it'll have a greater effect. You have to hope that they'll not give up reading the book during the boring passage. Having a reputation helps (maybe Beckett knew that).

I remember years ago hearing a review on the radio of a Beuys performance - he was picking little bits of jelly off a ceiling. One critic said she was bored at first but then she became fascinated by the details of the action. Another said that after the fascination phase there's a final phase when you realise that actually it's just boring. I think it's short-sighted to give up when faced with superficial boredom, but there are limits beyond which the artist risks accusations of pretension at the very least.

One option is to use selective deprivation rather than blanket boredom - e.g. keep the narrative going while withdrawing the lyrical descriptions (or dialog, or short paragraphs) for a while.

Jim Murdoch covers this issue much more thoroughly on his blog.

Wednesday 15 September 2010

Aging poets

Some reviews of Heaney's recent book have revisited the theme of poets and aging - e.g. "[Heaney] has for some time been recycling the same tropes ... It isn't just mainstream poets who do this; John Ashbery has been writing the same book for years now. I guess there comes a point when a poet runs out of things to write about, or simply no longer has the need to try anything new", Alan Baker, 2010

Of course, many poets do change. In "Identity Parade" Roddy Lumsden wrote "like many poets, [Gwyneth Lewis'] work has loosened and opened into a less implicit and more self-aware, narrative-driven style". I think that trend is fairly common - Lowell and Rich opened up, I guess, though perhaps they were only following the zeitgeist that prevailed as they reached maturity. The output of some poets (Geoffrey Hill for example) changes thanks to a new drug regime. But I think poets often keep to the styles that first gained them a readership. New experiences will come along - new places, people, technology, arts - but the reaction to these can end up as obituaries or nostalgia.

I suspect that some types of writers cope better than others with aging. Rather than write less or write worse, some try to adapt, finding new sources of inspiration, or less wasteful techniques. But it's not all good news

  • "After working on one's poetry for several years, it is normal for the primitive autobiographical drive to come to an end. At this point, you have the time to devise new ways of working; a new generator of the unpredictable is needed, and this is supplied by chance or indeterminate procedures, combined with rules chosen to generate new decisions. Of course, if you believe only in autobiographical poetry, this temporary pause is not liberation, but a source of depression, neurosis, and eclipse", Andrew Duncan, "The Failure of Conservatism in Modern British Poetry", 2003, p.39
  • "It's strange, being old. One thing that's clear: inspiration becomes rarer, and imagination less intense and spontaneous", Donald Hall, APR, Mar/Apr 2005
  • "The aging process almost always brings to the poet the secret conviction that he has settled for far too little ... All his lifelong struggle with 'craft' seems a tragic and ludicrous waste of time", Dickey, "The Young American Poets" (ed Carroll), 1968.

When a new generation emerges (maybe it's happening now in the UK), older poets may need to re-position themselves or even stand aside. Andrew Duncan wrote that "With the exception of Eric Mottran, I have not found a single [UK post 1950] critic who has a distinguished record of writing about the poets younger than them".

Many of the factors that encourage the creation of a generation are present currently

  • Mass - UK creative writing courses are now producing that
  • Means of communication - the younger generations have the WWW (used in a "web 2" way it's a YoungGen thing)
  • Critical Support - People like Ben Wilkinson write about contemporaries and older poets. Roddy Lumsden supports younger poets via various initiatives.
  • Separation - an exaggeration of the difference between the old and the new helps initially
  • Crisis - Even established poets are finding it harder to get published nowadays. Young poets are finding new ways (performance, new tech, etc)

I'm not very autobiographical and have never depended on intense inspiration or imagination. I think I've become more efficient at finding and exploiting material. Who knows, I might even be improving with age ...

Friday 3 September 2010

The poetry mainstream

This note was triggered by some recent comments (noted below) about the alleged mainstream/non-mainstream rift and how to deal with such perceptions. It's an issue that frequently arises in discussions. Even if one doesn't believe that there's a rift, it's advantageous to appreciate the viewpoint of people who do, especially if you're running workshops.


Using the term "mainstream" is asking for trouble. Some people think it's not useful, challenging with borderline cases - "Is X mainstream? Is Y mainstream?". Others think that the term's used by people who like pigeon-holing, marginalising or labelling in an anal-retentive, simplistic way.

I think it's a convenient short-hand that even the detractors end up using. It may be less helpful in the USA than the UK because in the USA mainstream poetry is a smaller proportion of serious poetry than it is in the UK. It doesn't have a firm definition (nor does "raw/cooked", "hard-edged/soft-edged", "poetry/prose", etc). Some poems are clearly mainstream, some are clearly non-mainstream, and few people argue when extreme examples are categorised.

Mainstream poems tend to have certain characteristics, some of which non-mainstream poems lack, and vice versa. An alternative formulation is that a mainstream poem is one that benefits from a set of skills similar to that used with non-literary texts.


Words summon contexts which in turn affect interpretation of the words. Hearing "bishop" I might load in the context of Chess or of Religion. But also I load in a set of interpretative tools appropriate to the task. We become used to employing different sets of skills for different types of text. Poetry and prose typically use different (though overlapping) skill sets. So do different types of poetry.

Carrie Etter wrote
Describing and classifying poetry I've noticed that a couple commentators on "The Tethers", knowing of my "experimental work," seem to struggle with TT's "mainstream" qualities, but where they see a vast difference between the two areas, I see continuities, a spectrum
. As far as the arrangement of skills is concerned I think a spectrum isn't the best analogy. Mainstream and non-mainstream works share some effects (alliteration, for example) more than others (e.g. fragmentation). The effects tend to cluster, so meter is likely to be associated with rhyme and paraphrasable meaning (because these features are often found together in people's experience of poems). I think the struggle that Etter's readers mention might be because the skills required don't all come from a standard skill set.

On Etter's blog Christodoulos Makris wrote
"There's comfort in labelling. It's also easier to "sell" or "understand" a writer or artist if s/he can be bundled into a category". I agree, but I don't see a problem with that; it's how perception works. If one needs to use a collection of reading strategies that you've not used together before it's like tackling a multi-disciplinary work.

Steve Waling wrote
"I wonder what it is, though, that sees some people reading nonmainstream poetry and seeing only confusion, while others 'get it' (whatever 'it' is) almost immediately". Some factors are

  • Innate predispositions - Numerous perception and processing problems that are masked during normal reading may become exposed when reading poetry. As analogies, consider some visual disorders - "Simultanagnosia" (Seeing only one object at a time); "Integrative agnosia" (Inability to recognise whole objects, tending to focus instead on individual features of an object); "Pure alexia" (Inability to identify individual characters or read text); "Colour agnosia" (Ability to perceive colours without being able to identify, name or group them according to similarity).
  • Beliefs and Interests - How much can an atheist appreciate religious poetry? Survivor poetry, Gay poetry, Football poetry, etc are not to everybody's taste, especially if the reader seeks identification with the persona.
  • Education and expectation - Readers might have expectations regarding "understanding" that aren't appropriate to all poems. If they expect poems to communicate a message strongly and clearly, they might well be disappointed, especially if the message isn't spelt out for them in the final line or couplet.

The rest of this note suggests ways to reduce the differences between the two types of readers.

How the two sides view each other

When meeting those from other arts are you ever embarrassed by poetry's mainstream - its readers and writers? Do these quotes sound fair?

  • "The fact is that the British poetry scene is reactionary, nostalgic and prejudiced. The reputations of many of its star turns depend on an exclusivity that maintains an embargo on true diversity. Experimentalism is beyond the pale, as is pretty much anything that amounts to a conviction", Gregory Woods, Magma, Autumn 2003
  • "Those who are not very concerned with art want poems or pictures to record for them something they already know - as one might want a picture of a place he loves", George Oppen, "An Adequate Vision: A George Oppen Daybook", ed Davidson, IR 26:5-31, p.29.
  • "Poems very seldom consist of poetry and nothing else; and pleasure can be derived also from their other ingredients. I am convinced that most readers, when they think they are admiring poetry, are deceived by inability to analyse their sensations, and that they are really admiring, not the poetry of the passage before them, but something else in it, which they like better than poetry", A.E. Housman, "The Name and Nature of Poetry" (lecture), 1933.
  • "The public, as a whole, does not demand or appreciate the pure expression of beauty. Its cultured members expect to find in poetry, if anything, repose from material and nervous anxiety; an apt or chiselled phrase strokes the appetites and tickles the imagination. The more general public merely enjoys its platitudes and truisms jerked on to the understanding in line and rhyme; truth put into metre sounds overwhelmingly true", Harold Monro, "The Future of Poetry", Poetry Review, January 1912
  • Steve Waling suggested that "[the non-mainstreamer] says ... "I'm better than you," at the unsophisticated reader of mainstream poetry, who is presumed to be less intelligent, lazy or, even worse, terribly bourgeois and accepting of the comfortable status quo. Instead of being made to think viz a viz language and meaning creation, instead of seeing how meaning is a social product etc etc... they prefer a slice of 'social realism lite', the comforting feeling of being given an insight into the human condition that isn't too different from other very similar insights, an over-described slice of life etc etc..."

Mainstreamers criticise non-mainstreamers.

  • In Staple 63, C.J.Allen points out that when mainstream readers read Ashbery, they find that "everything they're used to in a poem is left out - the meaning, the music, the sense of resolution and so on. But, for [Ashbery's] admirers, what he'd left out were the tired poetic conventions, the dull patter, the stale, confessional voice full of highfalutin metaphor".
  • Mainstream readers when faced with non-mainstream work often mention the emporer's new clothes. Look long enough at anything and you'll eventually see something of interest (after all, it's hard to admit to yourself that you've wasted so much time). The poets are autistic, over-intellectual, lacking in empathy.
  • Steve Waling suggested that "the non-mainstreamer tells us things about language that we already know, doesn't he/she? Don't we all know about the way language is manipulated by adevertising/capitalism/etc etc and isn't it just a bit boring? And why don't they make some concession to ordinary readers, instead of using all these jump-cuts and juxtapositions etc etc?"

Widening the mainstream

How does one offer new directions to mainstream reader? Giving them theory (even in watered down forms) is unlikely to get them moving. Is there a gentle path to enlightenment or is shock therapy the only way? Whatever the pros/cons of non-mainstream poetry I think mainstream readers can benefit from questioning their tastes, which may initially require a devaluing of what they like before they can acquire new tastes. So I'd say start with the stick - it's more likely to provoke action - then thump them with some carrots.

Sticks for mainstreamers

If they like rhyme, or confessional poetry, encourage them to say why, then challenge them, using quotes from famous (preferably ancient) people. Or one can query more generally the source of their tastes, and how conditioned they are. Non-victimising ways of doing this involve

  • Relativism - if we're not conditioned then how come tastes in other times/places are often different?
  • Analysis of environment - "There's no such thing as society" said Thatcher, but what about the Poetry World? What's it made of? Who decides what "Poetry" and "Good Poetry" are? What influences our tastes?
  • Other arts - The changes in visual arts over the years might provide useful analogies. If fidelity is the reader's touchstone then presumably they dislike Constable and prefer the hyper-realists. If they say they like van Gogh, try to transfer that aesthetic approach into literature.

If people can handle a discussion about "What is Beauty" so much the better. Is beauty "Eternal"? What are the differences between Beauty Competitions and Poetry Competitions?

Common conceptual stumbling blocks include

  • Subject Matter - Avant-garde poems are less likely to be anecdotal, about people, or about one thing. They may try to shock or borrow material from non-art contexts.
  • Unity/Completion - Avant-garde poems have more gaps, and changes in style. They may have several "centres". The beginning or the end might be missing. The piece might not be held together by a voice. It might look more like a draft/sketch than the finished article
  • Language - One's more likely to notice the words in avant-garde poems, and they won't necessarily be in sentences
  • Narrative - With Avant-garde poems readers may not be able to accumulate meaning sequentially, clause by clause. "modern poetry asks its readers to suspend the process of individual reference temporarily until the entire pattern of internal references can be apprehended as a unity", J. Frank,"Spatial Form in Narrative"

You need to have at your disposal some arguments (devil's advocate or otherwise) against some traditional poetry assumptions

  • Beautiful art needn't depict beautiful people, happy events or even possible events
  • Beautiful things needn't have beautiful components - medieval religious art used gold-leaf, some poems use "rainbow" and "gossamer"
  • Poetry doesn't have to rhyme - see "this poem doesn't rhyme", G. Benson (ed), Viking, 1990. (a collection for children)
  • Poetry can be about things and ideas, not just about people falling in love and dying.
  • Beautiful things need not be hard to produce

If they're still resisting, look at corruption or back-scratching within the Poetry Establishment. Look at who puts anthologies together and who's left out. Look at the work of those who claim to write Real Poetry. Somehow try to unsettle them.

Carrots for mainstreamers

Once you've chipped away at preconceptions it would be useful to be able to suggest transitional poets; poets whose work has widened out from the mainstream. In the UK, candidates are hard to come by. Perhaps Don Patterson's work will appeal to them. He's not avant-garde, but he strays far enough from the mainstream to offer a challenge. Perhaps with some people it's easier to refer to Picasso.

It's worth pointing out that non-mainstream poetry may have the same features as mainstream poetry, but the proportions are different. In extreme cases some prided features of mainstream poems may be absent altogether. Sometimes one feature (e.g. sound effects, fragmentation, repetition) is taken to the extreme, no longer masked by meaning or narrative - nothing's in the way. When mainstream poetry uses these features, readers (even avant-garde readers) might not see them, being blinded by the glare of other, more obvious features.

Then offer them a non-mainstream poem. The chances are that if you succeed in getting them to like it, they'll say it's not really avant-garde at all. I'm not sure what to offer though! "The Wasteland" is old, but it's probably avant-garde enough and it's widely available - see Exploring The Wasteland.

You could introduce them to Hybrid poetry, which supposedly combines the best of both worlds. I'm not convinced, but it might be worth a try. A description sounds promising -
"Today's hybrid poem might engage such conventional approaches as narrative that presumes a stable first-person, yet complicate it by disrupting the linear temporal path or by scrambling the normal syntactical sequence. Or it might foreground recognizably experimental modes such as illogicality or fragmentation, yet follow the strict formal rules of a sonnet or a villanelle. Or it might be composed entirely of neologisms but based in ancient traditions. Considering the traits associated with "conventional" work, such as coherence, linearity, formal clarity, narrative, firm closure, symbolic resonance, and stable voice, and those generally assumed of "experimental" work, such as non-linearity, juxtaposition, rupture, fragmentation, immanence, multiple perspective, open form, and resistance to closure, hybrid poets access a wealth of tools".
So what does the resulting poetry look like? There's much variety. Here's part of a sonnet by Karen Volkman (from "American Poets in the 21st Century")

    Lifting whither, cycle of the sift
    annuls the future, zero that you zoom
    beautiful suitor of the lucent room
    evacuating auras, stratal shift

    leaping in its alabaster rift.
    Lend the daylight crescent, circle, spume,
    ether from your eye, appalled perfume,
    ash incense to boundary when you drift

There are many books explaining A level and GCSE poems line by line, but fewer that tackle modern poetry in the same way. 3 options are

  • "Nearly Too Much: The Poetry of J.H. Prynne" by N.H.Reeve and Richard Kerridge attempts to help readers appreciate some notoriously difficult poems. It's helpful, but for me it too often fails to identify what I find difficult, nor does it try to justify why the poetry is preferable to a more comprehensible paraphrase.
  • "The Poem and the Journey", by Ruth Padel, tries to explain some poems, including one by Prynne. I'd recommend the book to most people who are interested in poetry. Her explanations of impenetrable poems usually helps me understand what the poet's trying to do, though doesn't explain why the poet had chosen to be unhelpful.
  • "how to write a poem", John Redmond, Blackwell, 2006 is an introductory text that aims to train readers for Jori Graham poems rather than the old poems that most introductory books tackle.

Mainstreamer ab-reactions

Even after all this, mainstreamers may remain unconvinced. Typical responses include

  • It doesn't mean anything - if you've done your groundwork and have picked the sample poem carefully, you should be able to cope with this. Challenge their notions of meaning. If they appreciate music or abstract art, exploit that information. And do they really understand the meaning of poems they've long cherished?
  • It's too intellectual. It doesn't relate to real people. Why should I need an English degree to understand a poem? - people who depend on old-fashioned aesthetic theories often think that they are theory-free, that they use innate, instinctive sensibility, that meaning should be paraphrasable. Challenging their assumptions can bring their theories into the open, but you may have to articulate their theories on their behalf. Of course it's also worth pointing out that there are many types of poem (just as there are many types of music, maths, etc) some of which are aimed at those who know their subject inside-out and enjoy theory.
  • Why does it have to be so obscure? - there isn't always a good answer to this. I don't think that avant-garde poetry is any more allusive than mainstream, but I think it's fair to admit that nowadays allusions are harder to detect than they used to be
  • If it's so good why isn't it popular? Does anyone actually read Finnegan's Wake? - I agree with Keston Sutherland that textual experiments seem cut off from language in general - they're not usually precursors even if written by famous people. They don't "take" in the way that new Art fads do. I think "The Wasteland" and "Ulysses" are enjoyable, important works, but I don't like "Finnegan's Wake". Though even if experimental works don't open up further possibilities they at least give the mainstream some elbow room.

Widening the non-mainstream

Sticks for non-mainstreamers

This isn't easy. One could point out that many of their tricks aren't new, but they know that already. Some brain-scan research is coming up with interesting findings about pre-disposition to appreciation of types of art, but it's early days.

Carrots for non-mainstreamers

One could encourage them to assist readers who aren't familiar with non-mainstream poetry. Options include

  • Adding notes (I think mainstream poets do this more often that non-mainstreamers)
  • Ordering the poems in a collection so that the less aesthetically challenging pieces come first
  • Explaining their writing processes. When Carrie Etter wrote that "Just as a poet may choose among such forms as the sestina, the sonnet, etc. in composing a poem, I think about modes of expression, degrees of tension or fragmentation, lines versus prose, etc" I suggested that she might take a poem of hers and list the tensions she's thought about (what's being withheld, why the reader should be motivated to feel, or even resolve, the tension). Do the details of the fragmentation matter, or could the piece be fragmented in many other ways to the same effect? Why is each line-break and indent positioned the way it is? What mind-states might an idealized reader pass through?
  • Adding narrational or conceptual sugar, the type of meaning Eliot had in mind when he wrote "The chief use of the 'meaning' of a poem, in the ordinary sense, may be ... to satisfy one habit of the reader, to keep his mind diverted and quiet, while the poem does its work upon him."

Saturday 28 August 2010

The Dark Horse, issue 25

I look forward to the arrival of "The Dark Horse". The recent issue has some articles on poetry marketing that try to answer questions like: Why do people agree to write blurbs? Why are anthologies like "Identity Parade" published?

  • "Blurbonic Plague" by Dennis O'Driscoll - As the pseudonymous Harvey Porlock noted, 'Reading reviews of modern poetry is like attending prize-giving in a small, caring primary school: everyone has done terribly well, it's all absolutely marvellous', p.11
  • "The Anthology Business" by John Lucas - Lumsden appears to have no love for language or the possibilities of prose rhythms. Nor ... does he show much ability to get beyond cliche ... I don't want to damn Lumsden's enterprise by such means. For all I know, he undertook to write these head notes with the enthusiasm of a man condemned to the stocks. Who in his right mind would want to produce what amounts to 85 blurbs, where the adjectives are selected much as buttons are from the button box ... And, to repeat, there are good poems aplenty in the anthology, p.25

To provide some balance there's an 8 page review by Rory Waterman of William Logan's "Our Savage Art: poetry and the Civil Tongue" - too often he roots out the bad whilst neglecting the good ... Logan thinks that the majority of writers are praised too highly and expect too much, p.76

Reviews, poems and other articles complete this tasteful offering. I was glad to see that Craig Arnold's "Uncouplings" uses anagrams -

the I in relationship
is the heart I slip on
a lithe prison ...

our listening skills
are silent killings

Tuesday 10 August 2010

Comments about poetry publishing

I've recently been commenting in other blogs and on discussion boards. I thought I'd bundle my comments here in no particular order

  • The market for serious poetry may always have been vanishingly small. Perhaps poetry-reading has reached its natural level, increasing only as the number of poetry-studiers do. The role of much poetry may have been taken over by prose, pop and cinema. Why buy a 9 pound poetry book with 45 sparse pages when you could watch Inception?

  • Things aren't just bad in the UK. In Italy recently, Luigi Manzi suggested a moratorium on publishing modern poetry books. Fabrizio Dall'Aglio replied "frankly I think many publishers (me included) would be in favour"
  • the poetry book market is in recession and institutional publishers are retreating to their heartland - the stuff that only poetry can do. Comedy? Leave that to stand-ups - they do it better. Narrative? Flash writers do it better. You may not like "pure poetry", "specialist poetry" (call it what you will) but I can understand why funds concentrate on it. It's meant that the gap between "high" and "low" poetry has been emptied, so that there's less flow and intermixing between the extremes (to the detriment of both, perhaps).
  • Many publishers don't read slush piles. A row of poetry books is a slush pile one level up. Most people don't have the time to pan for gold-dust, they want help. Buying a poetry book is high-risk. At least with a ropey novel you might learn something about Tudor times, or life in Japan, or you might escape from the stresses of life for a while. A duff slim volume by a touted has-been on auto-pilot is over with in a hour. I know of prose-writers who give poetry another chance every couple of years. I know of non-poets who've tried to get their spouse a present. Choosing a book is hard for them - blurbs need de-ciphering (even those used to novel blurbs have trouble), browsing isn't easy (it's all opaque to them anyway) and reviews are too glowing. Once bitten, twice shy - for a few years anyway.
  • Poetry books seem to have become more expensive and thinner while novels have become cheaper and fatter. I can imagine a first time poetry buyer getting "Gift Horses" by Simon Rae (National Poetry Competition winner in 1999, 2nd in 1996; poems in the TLS, Poetry Review) and feeling terribly ripped-off. Too few good poems (indeed - too few poems: 45 pages for 8.95). Someone who buys Prynne because the Guardian says he's England's greatest living poet might well end up thinking this modern poetry stuff's not for them.
  • "What else can you get for 8 quid nowadays?" The poet's usual answer's a pint and a burger. But in fact you can get a few symphonies, a decent DVD or even a novel - White Noise. Possession, etc.
  • Who defines "publishable standard"? The Academics or the Public? If the public don't want the book, maybe it's not good enough for today's more exacting standards. Suppose poetry books joined in the "cuts of 25%" craze, cutting book-lengths by 25%? I'd claim it would improve many books. If authors feel that the rest merits publication they can send to Magma, Other Poetry etc. If (as I suspect) the mags don't want it, nuff said.
  • If expert poetry readers can survive without High Street bookshops or public libraries, perhaps those resources can be aimed more towards the literate poetry first-timer - the wider public "whose understanding of poets is two hundred years out of date and whose awareness of poetry is either a hundred years behind the times or else still stuck in the 1960s" (Neil Astley)
  • Loads of "modern poetry" means nothing to prose readers (there are people at the local writers group who apologize for not understanding it. My wife prefers to get angry - though in her defense she only has my stuff to go on). I see too few poetry books that offer choice (or paths from the familiar) for the uninitated. I think a Don Paterson book does. Maybe a Simon Barraclough too. I think the balance is too far towards single-author (single-aesthetic) books.
  • Perhaps the poetry market needs to go the computer programs way, sharing its expectations (both from a producer and consumer perspective). There are enough free games and operating systems to keep some people happy for life. That something's free doesn't mean that it's rubbish or that it didn't take years to write, or that the author doesn't become famous. Or maybe the market (as has been suggested here before) should go more the iTunes way, a single at a time.
  • More bottom-up evaluation mechanisms need to emerge. I use Rotten Tomatoes for films. If more of us put reviews (not just praise - though in times of shrinking sales, that's tempting) online, something similar could be done for poetry. The tendency to commit to print only positive reviews might de-value their currency and result in unbalanced coverage. Again, it's outsiders who'll have the most trouble sussing the resulting scene.
  • Every National Poetry Day we're told that poetry's never been more popular - which is probably true - "Forward Press is the largest publisher of new poetry in the world; we've published in excess of a million original poems since 1989 earning us the moniker: 'The People's Publisher'". In "The Forward book of poetry" intro for 2008 (not to be confused with Forward Press) William Sieghart wrote "The phenomenal growth of interest in poetry of all kinds since [1992] has been one of the most rewarding aspects of running the Forward Prizes". The person who runs the poetry pf site said their hit count trebles in February, on the run up to Valentine's Day. As usual it depends what you mean by poetry.
  • I think "voice" is just a more cuddly version of "style", more likely to include personality features than a style is. The word "voice" sounds more natural, more an extension of something within; it's further from technique than "style" is. You'd expect it to be used more in Confessionalism times than Mannerist eras. I'm reading an Anthony Hecht Poetry Prize winner at the moment. Wilbur's foreward plays safe - he almost alternates style and voice: "sharp intelligence"; "good heart"; "great technical gift"; "strongly personal, in the sense that its tone and vision are distinctive and recognizable"; "a first book in which the poet's voice has been fully found".
  • A new style/genre/technique can be a way to take your voice away from familiar setting and habits, into a new climate or maze. You might write something new there, you might never return, or you might bring a keepsake back to ornament your comfort zone. Or maybe nothing happens. But that's common - when scientists do blue-sky research, or songwriters dabble at a keyboard they don't know beforehand how much of their time will be "wasted"
  • When US academics came to be assessed by the number of papers they published, the idea of a "minimally publishable idea" emerged - if an idea's just about good enough to justify a paper, why put more ideas in? By spreading the ideas out, more papers can be authored, and the ideas aren't wasted. I sometimes feel (especially with themed or commissioned collections) that poets have paced themselves, making the maximum number of poems from the ideas they have. The results can look like a calmer voice, "quietly assured".
  • A book's a cumbersome unit, like 100 pound notes. Some books I've recently read ("Blind Spots", Carol Rumens; "A Fold in the Map", Isobel Dixon) are organised as 2 generous pamphlets. Several other books are in sections that could be separated. Maybe Bookshops are more baised towards books than readers and poets are. Now that Bookshops and visible spines matter less, perhaps collections will find their natural page-length. Magazines could publish work-in-progress.

Sunday 1 August 2010

Writing Book Reviews

Why review?

It's not easy being a critic - you might be the first person ever to read a work which might be a masterpiece or a mess. But someone has to do it for the sake of literary standards. The signs are that criticism isn't all it used to be.

  • In an April 2005 Guardian piece, Paul Farley said that his generation (those born in the sixties) got 'marketing not criticism'.
  • Amanda Craig (MsLexia) feels that "the popularity of weblogs and reading groups springs in part from the distrust many readers feel for literary critics".
  • Robert Fogarty in The New York Sun (June 29th 2007) wrote "The collapse of the book reviewing structure is emblematic of the technological and cultural changes that have occurred in America over the last couple of decades. These changes have led the National Book Critics Circle to launch an initiative to save book reviewing as a genre".
  • Bruce Bawer wrote "On the American poetry scene these days, the only thing rarer than a fine poem is a negative review."
  • In "Columbia Journalism Review" (Sept / Oct 2007 issue) Steve Wasserman (ex L.A. Times book review editor) wrote "Over the past year, and with alarming speed, newspapers across the country have been cutting back their book coverage and, in some instances, abandoning the beat entirely."
  • In 1999, Jay Parini in "The Chronicle of Higher Education" wrote about the state of contemporary newspaper book reviewing - "Evaluating books has fallen to ordinary, usually obscure, reviewers ... Too often, the apparent slightness of the review leads inexperienced reviewers into swamps of self-indulgence from which they rarely emerge with glory."

In this age of hype and puffs we need more quality reviews, and more people reading reviews. We also need more reviewers. Perhaps you've never thought of writing reviews, or don't know how, or don't know the markets. I think review writing is good for you. Why?

  • free books!
  • makes you read more carefully
  • helps you assess your own work more critically
  • helps you get friendly with editors so that they're more likely to accept your stories and poems.

I think reviews are an important and neglected literary genre - an art in its own right. In the States this is recognised in the form of the annual Randall Jarrell Award which gives $10,000 for poetry criticism that is "intelligent and learned, as well as lively and enjoyable to read".

But there are minus points too

  • "Burdensome artistically, exhausting over time ... poetry reviewing is an enterprise only a few people ever do credibly or well, and then rarely for long periods", Mary Kinzie, "Poetry", January 2004.
  • There's a view that if you can't write, you become a critic - "A critic is a man who knows the way but can't drive the car." - Ken Tynan. "The greater part of critics are parasites, who, if nothing had been written, would find nothing to write." - JB Priestley (quotes collected by stas wnukowski)
  • Authors are liable to seek revenge. Lord Archer sends reviewers letters via his lawyers. Anthony Burgess put a reviewer into his next novel on a "Wanted" poster. Chrichton in "State of Fear" put a reviewer in as a character with small genetals. Jeanette Winterson has been known phone reviewers and to turn up late at night to berate them.
  • Reviews can kill! Well, Byron thought so. He became obsessed by the idea that Keats died from a burst blood vessel after receiving a savage review in "The Quarterly". Would you want to live with Keats' death on your conscience? Even if reviews don't kill, they can hurt. Writers are sensitive people. In The Anglo-Welsh Review, Winter 1967, Roland Mathias wrote "apart from a tendency to look back in pretty general terms, and to muse on the night or the wind or lost friends, he has nothing very much to say - all is grandiose, vague and over-spoken". He says some kinder things later on, but what he said was enough to stop the poet in question (a friend of mine) writing for decades.
  • Not everyone likes reviewers.
    • Artists don't like them: "Asking a working writer what he thinks about critics is like asking a lamp-post how it feels about dogs." - Christopher Hampton. "If I had listened to the critics I'd have died drunk in the gutter." - Chekhov. "I am sitting in the smallest room of my house. I have your review before me. In a moment it will be behind me." - Max Reger
    • Some Publishers don't rate them. Some publishers say they only push hardbacks for review because they want quotes to print on the paperback cover. Steve Wasserman says that "their own marketing surveys consistently show that most people who buy books do so not on the basis of any review they read, nor ad they've seen, but upon word of mouth. What's worse is that most people who buy books, like most people who watch movies, don't read reviews at all."
    • Some Booksellers don't like them. Scott Pack (Waterstone's buying supremo) writing in "The Bookseller" thought that broadsheet book pages were dull, out of date, lacking diversity and not much good for selling books.
    • Not all Reviewers like them! Amanda Craig in a recent MsLexia wrote "When I first became a published novelist in 1990, I did not realized [sic] just how mired with politics and corruption the reviewing business was". She pointed out that peer pressure's strong - "There are only about 100 regular reviewers for the national press, and sooner or later we all meet" - and that "Men review, and are reviewed, differently ... Women only get to review books by other women - or, once in a while, gay men".

Writing reviews

But let's not dwell on the downside. Reviews can be good to write, good to read, and good for culture in general. Before we look at writing reviews, I think we should consider the readers. Do you read reviews? Why? What are reviews for?

  • so people can decide if the book's worth reading
  • to help the writer
  • to advertise books
  • to explain the book to the reader
  • to encourage people to buy books
  • to be a good read - after all, most of the audience will never read/see the reviewed item, they'll only read the review.

What should a review contain? Well, reviews can be short announcements or long analyses. Usually they contain the following information

  • publishing details
  • extracts
  • description of the plot (Some people will buy any novel set in ancient Rome, or anything involving orphans, etc)
  • description of style/genre
  • a judgement
  • description of target audience
  • background about the author and their previous works?
  • cultural context - if the book comes from Greece (say) perhaps the review should say something about the Greek literary scene?
I'd claim that a lot of this isn't difficult. Judgement may be, and it's difficult to be selective about what to say while remaining readable. What shouldn't a review do?
  • merely advertise - if a magazine is going to review a book they might contact the publisher asking if they'd like to advertise. Sometimes it's the publisher who makes first contact - "we'll give you a good review if you advertise".
  • give a false representation
  • be aimed at the wrong audience.
  • let the reviewer show off - though reviews shouldn't be boring, I don't think they should have too much fun at an author's expense.

Nasty Reviews

Savage reviews sell newspapers and make the critic (usually male) a feared - hence powerful - person. Rousseau wrote a poem called "Ode to Posterity". Voltaire said "I do not think this poem will reach its destination". Maybe Voltaire was right, but posterity sometimes has the last laugh

  • the book "appears to have been written by a perverted lunatic who has made a speciality of the literature of the latrine" (The Sporting Times, 1922 - of Ulysses)
  • "the work of a drunken savage" (Voltaire - of Hamlet)
  • "crazy, mystical metaphysics... the endless wilderness of dull, flat prosaic twaddle" (Macaulay - of Wordsworth)
  • "The phrenzy of the Poems was bad enough in its way; but it did not alarm us half so seriously as the calm, settled, imperturbable drivelling idiocy of Endymion. We hope, however, that in so young a person, and with a constitution originally so good, even now the disease is not utterly incurable." (Lockhart - of Keats (from Blackwood's))

Writing about the living takes some courage. Would you write these?

  • "The execution would embarrass a conscientious GCSE student: XXX teaches creative writing at the University of East Anglia" (Acumen May 2006, p.93)
  • "nothing could prepare us for the tendentiousness, the unjustified formlessness, the ghastliness, of Haddon's verse" (The Guardian, Nov 2005)

John Updike's first rule of reviewing was "Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt". It's not a rule that should always be followed, but ignoring it can lead to unfair criticism - a book for children should be judged as such.

Practical Problems

Given enough space, time and security, it's not so hard to write an informative, readable review. Many of the difficulties when review-writing are less to do with what to write than with personal and commercial pressures.

  • Space - Reviews must compete with other material for column inches. Often reviewers have to use shorthand ("Chandleresque", etc). It's a particular problem with poetry or short-story collections. In practise, the reviews editor is sent dozens of books. Often they'll send a bunch to a reviewer asking them to write about 3 of them in 300 words. This gives them the chance to pick a mixture of good and bad pieces, or pieces on a theme. The ability to find themes and similarities helps when trying to make a multi-work review flow. It's especially important when reviewing poetry/story collections.
  • Audience - Coupled with the space issue is that of your intended audience. As the space devoted to reviews in mainstream publications shrinks, the temptation to dumb-down and compete for attention strengthens, though can be resisted. Steve Wasserman wrote that he "wanted the Book Review to cover books the way the paper's excellent sports section covered the Dodgers and the Lakers: with a consummate respect for ordinary readers' deep knowledge and obvious passion for the games and characters who played them. ... Its editors neither condescended nor pandered to those of the paper's readers who didn't happen to love sports"
  • Balancing a personal response with an impersonal opinion
  • Spoilers - it can be hard to review whodunit plots
  • Having to review books you don't like (some major magazines don't give reviewers a choice). The writers can't defend themselves, so should you show restraint? Damn with faint praise?
  • Fear of being taken too seriously - You may think you're only giving your opinion. Others may think your views are more significant than that: "what right have you to say whether the book is good or bad?", they say. The question should be addressed to the Editor.
  • Fear of making enemies. Editors won't always check your work or back you up - they may enjoy a lively letters column. In the "London Review of Books", 22nd September 2005, Eric Griffiths (Trinity College, Cambridge) had a letter about Helen Vendler's review of his book on Dante. "Helen Vendler (LRB, 1 September) does not like the way I write; I can't blame her, there are days I don't like it myself. But there it is, we can't all have her style. I in my turn deplore the way she reads - Vendler fears that I will think her 'humourless and pedantic'. Let me assure her that nobody could accuse her of pedantry."


Who should write reviews? Usually only published poets write poetry reviews, but I don't think one needs to be a novelist to review novels - certainly one doesn't have to be a famous (or even good) novelist. Though children write reviews of children's books, parents usually do. Non-writers have some advantages when reviewing

  • They're not constrained by the genre they write in (SF authors aren't taken seriously when they review non-SF)
  • They needn't fear revenge from writer-reviewers. Herbert Leibowitz - editor of Parnassus for nearly thirty years - wrote "what I find perhaps even more distressing is the reluctance of poets to write honestly about their peers".

But it's an understandable reaction. W.G. Sebald said "I think it is totally wrong if writers review each other's books. I find that idiotic, Truly idiotic", (Pretext 7, 2003 p.22). So I think there's hope for us all. Remember, you needn't be beautiful to judge beauty competitions. Some US publications insist (contractually) that the reviewer has no strong connection with the author, but in specialist areas (and UK poetry) that distancing is hard to obtain.

But where are the outlets? Even a little literary magazine like Ambit gets over 1000 books a year to review, but very few of them get a mention. Newspapers give ever less space to poetry reviews. The situation's not so bad with novels. Options open to us include

  • Amazon (online bookseller)
  • Small magazines - editors say that good reviewers are rare, and that they burn out. "Acumen" even ran a regular reviews competition for a while (with free entry!) to find new talent. Reviews are mostly about poetry and genred prose. Note that most small mags want to encourage, so they tend not to publish slating reviews. "Staple" for example wants reviews that "focus on the work rather than an overt display of the reviewer's erudition and opinion" and are "generally positive, though absolutely not anodyne and ultimately will engage the reader enough to interest them in reading the whole book."
  • BBC Radio 5's book reviews on Monday afternoon let you give reviews live over the phone!
  • Rattle poetry magazine is prepared to send you a book if you send back a review. See their list of books available. Tarpaulin Sky do likewise

You might start with local, free publications. Note that many people offer their services as Film Reviewers. If you have a specialist subject, exploit it. As ever, one needs to study the market. Julie Eccleshare in "A Guide to the Harry Potter Novels" notes that "Reviews of children's books in the UK are rarely other than positive". Other markets may be different!

I'm told that it's common for would-be reviewers to offer their services, sending in examples of their work. Strangely, men do this much more than women do. I think editors want critics who are well read and have sound judgement. They want reviews that readers want to read even if they're not interested in buying books. And I suspect they prefer controversy to sitting on the fence. If you get poems/stories (and especially letters/articles) printed in magazines, there's a chance you'll be asked to review by the editor. If you put some reviews online you'll sometimes be offered books to review.

Note that magazines usually receive just one review copy, which the reviewer keeps, so the editor doesn't have a chance to check the reviews (in particular the accuracy of the quotes). So take care.

Gender might be an issue. David Wheatley pointed out that the Summer 2008 issue of Poetry Review contained reviews of 20 men's books and 21 by women. All 20 of the men's books were reviewed by men, and all 21 of the women's books were reviewed by women.

Responsibility and the Law

Some magazines (the TLS at times) publish anonymous reviews. This side-steps some of the problems faced by reviewers, but can also lead to irresponsible reviewing. One needs to be aware of the legal situation (e.g. the 1996 Defamation Act). Libel is the publication of a statement which exposes a person to:

  • Hatred, ridicule or contempt
  • or which causes him to be shunned or avoided
  • or which has a tendency to injure him in his office, trade or profession

in the estimation of right-thinking members of society generally. If you start writing about the author rather than their work, you may be straying into dangerous territory. Writing something that might damage the author's sales could be risky too. Authors tend not to take legal action (they know what happened to Whistler and Wilde) but there are exceptions. For example, Dan Moldea sued the New York Times for $10 million, claiming that a review damaged his reputation. He won, but the NYT successfully appealed.

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