Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Poetry Reviews - should they be nice or nasty?

Via Bill Herbert, a very interesting post on the Magma Poetry Blog about the question of whether poetry reviews are becoming too positive.

Kent Johnson, an American writer, suggests that one thing restricting the publication of negative reviews is the fact that writing them 'constitutes a potential hazard to the position and advancement of the poet-reviewer.' Which sort of relates to what I said below in the Ruth Padel post : any poet wanting to promote their work may well have to do a range of distasteful things to advance their career, one of which may well be writing, in Johnson's words, 'fawning, toadyish criticism' of more established poets in order to get them to champion your work. Private Eye's cantankerous literary column, Books and Bookmen, is pretty good at spotting this when more well-known literary figures do it, and labels the practice logrolling .

Stephen Burt proposes a different reason for the dearth of negative reviews of poetry: 'it's not worth writing a negative review of a book which will sink without trace, as most poetry books do.' And he has a point. Most poetry books don't cause a huge ripple in the pond of literature. The only way for most of us to make even a modest impact is to act collectively - to network, to publicise each other, to advocate for poetry in general, to big each other up, etc etc. I don't consider this all that distasteful: questions of ethics tend to go out of the window when you and your colleagues are desperately hauling each other up onto a sinking raft, after all.

However, I think negative reviewing is justified in some circumstances, and once again Burt puts his finger on it perfectly:

'Negative reviews in poetry these days only seem worthwhile when they attack (a) examples of bad trends or (b) people who are very famous and don't deserve it.'

This is why negative reviews are sometimes necessary and justified, not just within poetry but beyond: we live in a world that is rapidly turning into a populist monoculture. Cultural product is more and more in the hands of massive, profit-seeking corporations ran by the kind of people who don't shiver when they yoke together the words 'cultural' and 'product'.

Publishers used to get by on profits of two or three per cent. To a corporate monolith like Bertelsmann, the company which owns Random House, that's not acceptable. Ten per cent profits and then, maybe we're in business. But once you have to make that kind of profit minimum, you can't spare the time or resources to service smaller niche markets like literary fiction, serious non-fiction, or poetry. So what do you do? You chase the lowest common denominator. That's why, in the last few years, we've witnessed an explosion of misery memoirs, celebrity chef books, TV tie-ins, and ghostwritten celebrity autobiographies and fiction.

Why is this important to poetry? After all, the major British poetry companies, Carcanet , Bloodaxe and Faber are independents, untainted by all this nonsense. Well, here's Adam's nightmare scenario. Those gigantic corporations I talked about are aggressive. They're always seeking out new markets. Sooner or later, they're going to start publishing poetry. But not the kind of poetry we've got used to. Not the kind of stuff that would pass muster at even the smallest of small presses. It'll be trite. It'll be sentimental. It will rhyme - obviously. It'll use simplistic language and structures without any of the linguistic and formal joie de vivre which more sophisticated poetry contains. It will actually be worse than Pam Ayres, and it will probably claim to have been written by Katie Price.

And it will sell bucketloads. You won't be able to get away from it. It'll be in supermarkets, it'll be advertised on television and massive posters on the underground, books of it with giant 'HALF PRICE!' stickers plastered over their covers will practically mug you as you come into your local chain bookstore. And I will sell it to you, because for all my pretension, when I'm at work I have the moral and aesthetic scruples of a ten-quid rentboy. But inside, I'll hate myself for it, and I'll have to watch as the big three indies and the smaller regional presses in the poetry section get forced out and it turns into just another colony of the empire of CelebLit (TM).

And I'd really rather not do that, thank you - which is where negative reviewing comes in. Because if we're going to resist the Mcdonaldisation of poetry, we're not just going to have to fight off the intrusion of the multinationals, we're also going to have to police ourselves. We're going to have to hold each other to the highest standards and ensure that we can justify any move we make artistically, rather than just on grounds of profit.

And yes, I know this means that I'm going to have to be held to the same kind of account. I accept that. And if you don't think I've made the right decision somewhere in my work? Fair enough. Say so. And if I think you've got a point, then I'll think about it and I'll try to change and hopefully I'll get better. And if I don't think you've got a point, I'll think about how I can prove it with my work and hopefully I'll get better. And if we all think about this, then maybe we'll all get better, and we can create a poetry scene strong enough and vibrant enough that it can either effectively see off the challenge of the multinationals, or at least create a good enough alternative space in which to survive when they do come.

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