The conversation about the pros and cons of negative poetry reviews is not a new one, in fact I’ve been reading lately some of the articles and posts that appeared in the flurry of interest in this around ten years ago. There are some great pieces here, and – even more so – some wise/intriguing comments below the line in many cases. I’m linking the sites I found in case anyone is interested in going over this still-relevant debate:
It all appears to have started in the US with Jason Guriel’s piece “Going Negative” for Poetry Foundation.
There was then a letter of general agreement from Kent Johnston in May Day Magazine, “Some Darker Bouquets”.
Then Magma got involved on the UK side, with a question from Rob MacKenzie: “What Kind of Poetry Reviews Do You Want?” which contains an excellent UK-based conversation thread in the comments and various links to the previous pieces and their below-the-line comments. There are links to three other blogs that continue the conversation (although not all of them work anymore).
Back in the US, Alfred Corn also joined in with some interesting comments in his blog post “Reviews and Objectivity”.
And then (chronologically whether it was ‘then’ I’m not sure but it’s the piece I came across last) was what I found to be the best all-round post on this, by Corey Van Landingham for West Branch: “Something To Talk About: A Case for Negative Poetry Reviews”.
It’s also worth including a few of the negative reviews referred to in the above pieces, which serve as interesting examples of the genre:
This by Michael Schiavo on Matthew Dickman.
This by John Tranter on Robert Gray and Geoffrey Lehmann’s The Young Australian Poets.
And of course now we also have this more recent one by Rebecca Watts on Holly McNish, “The Cult of the Noble Amateur”.
And I will add this 2015 review of Andrew McMillan’s Physical by Alan Dent for reasons that will become apparent below.
I’m sure there are many more, and if anyone knows of any useful additions, I’d be grateful if you posted them in the comments below.
The reason I started looking at these posts was a recent tweet in which Andrew McMillan reacted with pointed humour to a (very) negative review which his book Physical received a few years ago at the hands of reviewer/critic Alan Dent.
The poet was making light of something which had clearly hurt, and it made me think about whether Dent had been justified in writing so negatively (which I will come back to throughout what follows); and then I started to reflect on my own approach to reviewing, which has always been only to write positively about work I like.
Why have I done this? Well, I write poetry myself and I know how hard it is, so discussing what is good about the good seems kinder than pointing out the faults in the bad – even the writers of bad poetry (and we all fall into this category at least occasionally) are likely to have invested heavily one way or another in what they have published, do they need, and does the world need, another poet telling them where they went wrong? Also, there has always seemed to me a sort of arrogance, or at least a slightly blind self-importance, in an overly negative review, which reminds me of the Harry Enfield character who used to say “You don’t wanna do it like that, you wanna do it like this!” Is there anything wrong with writing glowingly about writing you admire? This has always been the point for me, a point that would be entirely defeated by laying into poems or poets I dislike.
“Kinder…? Do they need…? Are you a reviewer or a mouse?” I hear my inner-critic growl.
There are different positions on this and I don’t want to regurgitate the arguments that are well covered in the posts linked above, but there are a couple of points that I haven’t seen fully expressed that I’d like to give some rumination (with apologies for the doubling-up of cud metaphors).
The rest of this post, then, will be 13 ways of looking at negative reviews…
1) There seems to be an unquestioned assumption that if you put artistic work out into the shared cultural space, then that work must live or die on its own terms and on its own quality. The feelings of the artist should not play a part in a critic/reviewer’s commentary. I can see in academic criticism this is true, and I could be persuaded that in serious print/online journals this might also be true. But in a flourishing (mostly online and mostly amateur) artistic and critical community, does this necessarily need to be the case? I’m not sure it does.
2) Reviews are not always Criticism. They can also function as Celebration, and if they result in increased sales of the work under review, then that is a positive outcome of the review, not toadyism. It is not easy to separate either the word ‘review’ from (one of) it’s dictionary definition(s) as something implying criticism, or the word ‘criticism’ from (one of ) it’s definition(s) as something implying disapproval. But that is not to say it can’t be done.
3) As with competition judges, in the relatively small poetry world it is likely the reviewer/critic will have come across the poet personally in some context or another. This may colour the outlook they have of the work. This is just a fact we need to accept and move on. That there may have been prior contact should be assumed by the reader and it does not necessarily need flagging at the beginning of every review. Although having said that, why not?
4) Objectivity is impossible and reviews which try to make themselves sound objective are fundamentally dishonest. They are opinions, and as such they say as much about the reviewer as the reviewee (and sometimes more so – I emerged from the Dent review, as with the Schiavo piece linked above, with more thoughts and questions about them than their victims). The reviewer may have strong political or aesthetic views that align with neither the poet nor the review reader. Again you would hope that this would be assumed by the reader of the review, and it can be fairly easily researched with a bit of online investigation but there is no harm in reviewers making their personal predilections clear from the outset in some kind of manifesto, then the reader can make a quick and informed choice about whether to carry on reading the review. This is really just an extension of the very good point made by V. Joshua Adams about the “distinction we should make as readers of criticism (being) between reviews that are willing to make arguments and reviews that are only willing to make assertions” because arguments and assertions will tend to be affected by our preconceptions.
5) Why would a reviewer who thinks, for example, that poetry should rhyme review a collection of poetry containing largely poems which don’t rhyme? The only answer I can think of is that they wish non-rhyming poetry to lose its standing in our shared cultural space, i.e. ‘That which I dislike there should be less of, that which I like there should be more of’. This is faulty logic surely – why should there be less of that which you dislike? You are one among many. Who died and made you arbiter of what should and should not be? I dislike this attitude towards poetry reviewing and there should be less of it.
6) Negative reviews are often, it seems to me, takedowns based on the above premise. This might actually be valid (faulty logic notwithstanding), and if so should be made explicit, as Rebecca Watts did in “The Cult of the Noble Amateur”. NB – Alan Dent’s McMillan takedown seems less valid to me as he does not always give reasons for his criticisms (again, assertions not arguments), Watts was very careful to explain the reasons for her negative reaction to McNish’s work and her concerns about the popularity of what she saw as unskilled workmanship.
7) Overly negative reviews can hide valid comments inside their invective. There is an example of this in Dent’s comments on the potentially problematic valorising of gay porn in work like McMillan’s. This important and well made debating point gets lost amongst what comes over as intemperate mud-slinging. Perhaps the lesson here is ‘choose your targets carefully, and if that means a shorter review, so be it’.
8) And where, we might ask (particularly in relation to point 5 above), does the authority of the reviewer/critic come from? It seems reasonable to appeal to experience here – Oxford professor Craig Raine enjoys eviscerating those, such as Don Paterson, he sees (I assume) as clogging up a limited cultural space. He doesn’t feel it necessary to point to his years of experience as a poet and academic as a source of authority but why should he, most people reading him will know who he is. But would I carry this kind of authority if I chose to skin alive some poet I didn’t like? No. Do other reviewers who negatively review working poets? Not always. So it seems that the validity of a review depends on who writes it. One response to this might be that if the reviewer makes arguments rather than assertions, as per V. Joshua Adams, then the authority is internal to the review just as the deductive reasoning of a syllogism is internal. The reasoning is the authority. This is persuasive but misleading because the arguments within reviews can throw a blanket over the fact that ultimately, again, what criticism deals in is opinion – they do not succeed or fail through internal logic. The critic can say ‘you were trying to do x and you failed because of y’, but they can never really be sure that x is actually what the poet was trying to achieve. Equally, they can state that a rhyme choice is clunky or a metaphor unconvincing, but these are opinion words with which the poet may not agree. This might show a lack of sensitivity to harmonics or semantics on the part of the poet, but equally on the part of the critic. Fair use of quotes from the work will help the review reader understand whether they agree with the reviewer’s opinion but what such arguments often come down to is the critic saying to the poem, misquoting Geoffrey Hill, “You are mine and you do not please me in my current mood”. The problem of authority remains, and the review becomes simply an appeal to the reader for agreement. This is valid in itself but the honest approach would be to make a neutral pitch to the reader and allow them to make their own mind up rather than couching the review in negative opinion lexis designed to sway reader opinion.
9) Perhaps its worth considering, on reflection, that many people don’t read reviews for the poem or the poet at all, but out of interest in the comments of an admired critic. The critic’s authority in this case simply comes from the principal of supply and demand, all other considerations therefore become null and void, and the critic can be as negative, rude etc. (within legal bounds) as they want in order to keep their customers satisfied. What lessons we might draw from this I’ll leave to you.
10) A healthy critical culture is surely going to contain some negative reviews, maybe even a lot of them. But a distinction should be made, I think, between negative-negative and positive-negative. Or is that heading too far towards the Rumsfeldian? Maybe we could say neutral-negative (Watts) and angry-negative (Dent, Raine). I imagine that a neutral-negative mindset would be more likely to yield a positive contribution to ongoing conversations about poetry, while an angry-negative mindset risks shutting the conversation down (the only dignified response being something along the lines of McMillan’s tweet). There is also of course a balance to be struck between positive and negative comments, even in a relatively damning review. Bidisha got it right in her Autumn Poetry Review piece on Jay Bernard’s Surge. She was generally complimentary but selected one area, Bernard’s overly heavy similies, which she felt didn’t work, and she backed this up with examples. This is not too far off the pedagogical approach sometimes called Two Stars and a Wish, where students are encouraged to think of two good things and one area for improvement when giving feedback on each other’s work. A harsher critic might choose to go for Two Wishes and a Star… This may infantilise the process somewhat but, on one level, feedback is exactly what a poetry review amounts to.
11) The two previous points lead to a thought on the right of reply. The critic replies to the poet’s work in negative terms but, as pointed out by Sheenagh Pugh in the below-the-line Magma comments, most poets “feel it’s a terrible mistake to reply to a review” and so the poet does not (by the present accepted convention anyway) have a means to speak back, explain, point out faulty reasoning etc. The conversation, in other words, stops with the critic. Ten years ago, Jack Underwood, again in the Magma comments, suggested a review of reviews, in which presumably the critics work is subject to scrutiny by other critics and poets. This is a great idea, and perhaps in today’s wider, more inclusive online poetry culture there is a place for some corralling of reviews of reviews and critiques of criticism, so that the conversation can continue and more people be involved. Could Poetry Review, PN Review and others include sections on review reviews, I wonder? I’d read them.
12) There is also the question of whether you approach poetry (or let’s say a particular poem) in order to learn something or to teach someone something about the world. Poetry, by its very nature of playing, studying and intervening in language, has a unique status amongst the arts as a tool which we might see as a concave lens on philosophy, both widening and warping what language is capable of revealing. As such it is also a tool which allows both writer and reader to engage in a process of newly understanding the world (‘seeing afresh’ is the rather worn expression but it is essentially learning – unlearning, relearning). Critics and reviewers, it often seems, abandon their role as learner for that of teacher. They feel it is their job to explain to others their own parameters for reading a poem rather than searching for new parameters, or even considering that alternative parameters exist (Jason Guriel exhibited this in his recent review of Jeremy Noel-Tod’s prose poem anthology in The Walrus, which I commented on here). As I said above, this is entirely appropriate in some contexts; but what I’m getting at is that we might still learn something from a poem we consider to be awful.
13) I see this in terms of two different kinds of person. Someone who has already made their mind up about the world will find negative reviewing comes very easily because anything which does not fit into their already-formed outlook will likely require some kind of negating, and the more successful commercially or critically the work is, the more it will be perceived to require such negation. On the other hand, someone who is still on a journey of discovery in life, who hasn’t turned off all the taps and stoppered all the holes in their certainties, may choose a different approach to reviewing, one which may not be particularly critical or even celebratory, but just one of simple enquiry.
What this blogpost has not done, as it is already too long, is look at negative reviewing in relation to race and gender. This is a whole other area, two other areas, which I might pause before throwing myself into, but it was pointed out by Corey Van Landingham ten years ago that the majority – if not all – of the extreme negative reviews are written by middle-aged-plus white males. There are exceptions to this (Rebecca Watts being an honourable one, whose negativity anyway was well-argued; and see also Patricia Lockwood’s hilarious but withering John Updike takedown in the LRB “Malfunctioning Sex Robot”), but it is not an outrageous falsehood; the more bad-tempered reviews do seem pretty much a white male enclave. There are men, in academia particularly but not exclusively, who send out signals in their prose style and debating tone that they find something bordering on macho in the intellectual fist-fight. This does not make them wrong in what they say, but it is interesting to consider how far negative reviewing might on some occasions represent a kind of metaphorical muscle-flex or organ-comparison, which may in turn come from somewhere unacknowledged, a place of perceived threat, of fear and weakness.