Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The Bad Review Debate

Recently, I read a poetry book that was pretty bad, which, honestly, is rare for me. I'm a pretty good judge of what I will like and even when I don't like a book I often find the merit of reading it. This particular book (which I will not be naming) was very clunky, rather repetitive, and had numerous glaring grammatical errors in it. It had some potential in places and a few good poems, but as a whole it was a book I would write a fairly unfavorable review of, if I were to write one.

This got me thinking about bad reviews and the debate within the poetry community about writing such reviews. For the most part, you don't see very many negative reviews of poetry books. Why is this?

Basically, the poetry world is small and poetry isn't widely read, which means most mainstream magazines don't review poetry. The majority of poetry reviews are published in poetry magazines, on poetry websites, or on blogs like this one. What this means is that a lot of poetry reviews are written by other poets. In fact when I was in grad school, I was encouraged by faculty to write poetry reviews because they are often easier to get published and they get your name out there. They can be great for building connections. This is sound advice and the reviews I have published on this blog have gotten me some attention from various other poets and magazines. But there can be a downside.

What happens when so many reviews are written by poets is that the trend is to praise books and not overly criticize them. Why? Well, if you are a poet yourself, you are looking out for your own career. If you write a bad review of someone's book, what happens when your book comes out? Who else does this person know? Basically, who all have you pissed off? These may seem like silly questions, but in a world as small as poetry, they are vital questions to ask and sadly can't be ignored.

Does this mean that people are over praising books? Maybe, but often the case is that people only write reviews of books they like and stay silent on books they don't like. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. For many of us, it is more exciting to write about a book we love than a book we don't love. When so few read poetry, it seems more useful to spread the word about great books than to tell people what not to read (they have that covered). But the lack of strong critical reviews can cause the poetry world to think less and discuss less. It seems hard to praise something if you aren't clearly defining what is "good" and therefore what is "bad." This is why it is important to have critics who only write reviews and don't engage in writing the creative work themselves. They are more inclined to be objective (yes, of course this isn't always the case, but that's perhaps a different blog post).

I am basing this mostly on my own experiences reading reviews and more recently writing them. In the last few years, I've been busy making connections in the poetry world and in particular in the gay poetry world. I've been surprised by the connections having this blog has gotten me. For example, last April I wrote a post praising Richard Tayson and expressing how he greatly influenced my work. Three weeks later I had an email in my inbox from Richard Tayson who I had never met or spoken with before.

Another great example is Jeremy Halinen. I wrote a review of his book a few weeks ago. I knew Jeremy from him publishing a poem of mine in Knockout. He then asked me to review his book. Luckily, I genuinely enjoyed his book, but what if I hadn't? Bashing his book would probably not help me out too much. He has various connections, edits a journal that has published me, and writing negatively about his book could, in turn, hurt my own publishing chances. Thankfully, I've never been asked to write a review of something that I ended up disliking, but I'm sure it is bound to happen. I have been nothing but honest in my reviews, but I also haven't written any negative reviews.

Basically, this is all part of the "business of poetry" that nobody wants to deal with and many don't want to talk about. But let's face it, the publishing world, even a small one like the poetry one, is built on connections. Talent and skill do factor in, but connecting with the right people is vital. I've learned that over the years and was pretty naive to it when I first started writing and sending my work out to magazines, or maybe I just didn't want to believe it.

The problem is we live in a world full of sensational media and people yelling at each other on the television, which makes us forget that it is possible to have an intelligent, thoughtful, and civil discussion and critique. Sadly, I will refrain from writing that review because I know how quickly people can get labeled and for the time being I don't want to be "that poet who writes bad reviews." I'm not sure I'm proud of this decision, but it is the one I'm making today and one I will continue to think about and examine.

-Stephen (Questioning)


  1. You made many good points. One reason I dislike writing reviews is the fact I dislike reading reviews in general. Oftentimes the review is a promotion of the critic more than the book itself.

    What bothers me, the older I get the more isolated I become from the "industry" of poetry. Poets by nature are generally isolationists, but this phenomenon can turn into something deconstructive: a lack of connections and a lack of publications.

  2. Your analysis and your conclusions are spot-on, both as to the how and to the why of reviewing. I came to the same conclusions a long time ago, based on probably very similar experiences and observations. I don't think much has changed—although the level of snark overall has risen, but then that's general to online culture, not just to PoetryWorld.

    I think it's perfectly possible to be honest without being offensive; how you do it is by saying why something worked, or didn't; why it appeals, or doesn't; that sort of thing. Honest reviewing is possible, but it doesn't have to be snarky. People fear the negative review mostly because they fear the hatchet job, whereas it's possible to write constructive criticism without it being mean-spirited.

    I refer you, by example, to how criticism can be written, by poets, and can be honest, informative, elegant, and occasionally devastating. I refer you to three poet-critics who critical essays and reviews I think are exemplary. They are also stylistic masters.

    Conrad Aiken: "Collected Criticism" — one of the great poet-critics of all time, who was able to always say exactly what worked for him and what didn't, without ever being insulting.

    Hayden Carruth: "Selected Essays and Reviews" — Hayden was a great poet, who died only recently, who made most of his career from writing about poetry, and editing; he had an eye for getting at the root of a problem, in his critical writing.

    Robert Peters: "Hunting the Snark: American poetry at centur's end: classifications and commentary" — of the three, this book can be the most painfully honest; but Peters has a high level of wit, so even when you wince you also laugh; this is an overview of poetry, poetry -isms and schools, and poetry criticism; Peters' summation of critical trends is invaluable.

  3. Thanks for the comments and insights.

    Art: I will check out these books. I appreciate the suggestions.

    Thanks for reading!

  4. I've enjoyed Robert Peters' books of criticism, too.