Friday, 22 June 2012

Poetry reviewing

It's not often I find my way over to Facebook these days, but I have been following an interesting discussion on Rob Mackenzie's wall this week, about the way that poetry is reviewed in this country.

It's a complex subject, and to a large extent I find myself agreeing with the thrust of Jon Stone's argument (why can't poetry be reviewed in the same way that, say, film and music are?), as well as feeling a good deal of sympathy for Rob's starting-point.

I suppose one of the angles that hasn't been explored fully is where the reviews are appearing. I've no idea what The Guardian (or any of the other broadsheets) pay their reviewers, but I'd assume they do, and that would inevitably create a different situation to that of reviewers writing for a small press mag for no financial reward. While it might on the one hand make it easier for the reviewer to be critical (not having to worry about offending a potentially large proportion of the magazine's subscribers), it might also work the other way - the paper would be reluctant to consistently be too lukewarm towards the books of a regular advertiser.

In poetry mags and webzines themselves, it's a bit different. The reviewer is often writing for no reward other than a free copy of the book (although some, such as Magma, certainly pay). From personal experience, that's fine - it's a chance to read more poetry than I could otherwise afford, and especially to take a chance on books that I'd otherwise have thought looked interesting but didn't feel like shelling out for. It does mean, though, that the reviewer is often predisposed to like what they're reading - you're unlikely to take the time and effort to read the book carefully, make notes, then write the review, if it's something you just don't like.

The same's true on blogs, and that's certainly unashamedly the case here at Polyolbion. I don't get the time or the money to read anything like all the poetry I'd like to, so I'm not going to waste precious time writing a negative blog review when I could be just getting on with finding something I do like. I don't get enough time to be positive about all the things I do like, for that matter, so a great many good books go unheralded.

Finally, someone in the discussion brought up the subject of what a review is actually for. I haven't ever, I don't think, bought a book of poetry purely on the strength of a review, but a good review (as in a well written one) is often enough to spark my interest in a book that might otherwise have passed me by - again, it might well encourage me to take a few chances.

So what is a good review? Well, as Rob originally suggested, I want to see some suggestion of weak points, as well as strengths (and I can't think of a single collection I own that doesn't have at least some negatives), and I want to see both highlighted with plenty of reference to the actual text. In that, at least, I suppose it's always going to be different to any print review of film or music, where examples can only be described.


Tim Love said...

People say that reviews don't sell books, but they sell a few, and with poetry even a few matter. But because the reviews might be printed in mags many months after the launch (and paper mags are still where most of the reviews are), poetry books are always going to be slow burners to some extent, so poets should try to capitalise on each review.

My only suggestion is that people shouldn't feel that a write-up on their blog needs to be of the same depth as a commissioned print review. Even a paragraph or 2 would be useful. 10 people's paragraphs would add up to quite a lot.

p.s. I like your reviews Matt. You seem to tackle a wide range of works, which gives me confidence in your comments.

Matt Merritt said...

Thanks very much, Tim. I think that's probably the thing I enjoy most about reviewing - that it gives me the chance to try stuff that I'd otherwise probably never get round to reading.

I think you're dead right in what you say - even mini-reviews can make a big difference, and there's also the way that one blogger reviewing a book sometimes seems to spark off a flurry of other reviews of it.

I like the reviews you post on your blog (although I know you've described them as being more like notes for reviews in the past). What's important is that they always give a good idea of the actual content, rather than dealing in too many abstractions. They work well too as little companions to longer print reviews.

Emma Lee said...

My only request of a review is that at the end of it I'd like to know whether I want to buy the book or not.

When I review I aim to give a flavour of the book, mention good points, weaknesses with references or quotes from the text. I take the same approach whether reviewing on my blog or for an editor. Although one editor I review for does prefer reviewers to focus on the positive (but not completely at the expense of the negative).

One of the problems with poetry reviewing is that it's such a small field and no one wants to inadvertently close a potential door by giving a bad review to a publisher or editor the reviewer might want to work with at a later date.

Matt Merritt said...

Yes, you're right Emma, it is a small field, and inevitably punches do get pulled because of the fear of offending someone influential. I'm not sure there's any way round that, really.

I think, though, that the sort of reviews you talk about here (and that you write) are what I'd like to see more of - plenty of reference to the text, some weaknesses as well as strengths highlighted, and enough of the flavour of the book in general to allow the reader to decide whether they'd like to buy it.

One thing that I touched on but probably didn't emphasise enough in the original post was that all the outlets in which poetry reviews appear (including national newspapers) run so few reviews in relative terms that there must be a temptation to only point readers towards the positive. The same certainly happens in commercial magazines - if you have no chance of giving a comprehensive survey of all the new releases (whatever they may be - in the case of the magazine I work at, it's optical equipment), then the tendency is to just highlight the best.