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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