On Reviewing Books: Iain Sharp gets lippy

Ha! Iain Sharp has just ranted about reviewing books with no holds barred (well perhaps some! I bet some!) on The Spin Off. It is very easy and such fun to take swipes at the world in such a bolshy manner.

And it is very fitting that as a reviewer I am ‘waving at passing trains’ along with Graham Beattie (does Graham actually review books or mostly post reviews BTW?) as I am just back from the Ruapehu Writers Festival. We all had to stop talking whenever trains went by.

 

Iain’s favourite reviewer in NZ: the ultra toxic Nicholas Reid. Toxic, not just in view of the personal hits he takes at local authors but in his unfailing ability to miss by a universe what the book is doing. You might get seduced by his smart-alec train of thought but if you dig deeper he so often misses the whole point of a book. Gets feet-tied on the small details.What matters is his ego-driven need to demolish and show off. I find his reviewing intellectually and emotionally lazy. I have stopped reading him.

Yes, some reviewers might prefer reviews that show off a smarty-pants wit and the sharp  blade of the reviewer. Engagement with what the book is actually trying to do seems less of a priority. Such reviews too often demonstrate downright lazy thinking, soporific thought.

The flip side of a reviewer’s personal attack is when authors take criticism of aspects of their book personally!

 

Poetry Shelf is my site for reviews these days after Canvas has almost shut down its book pages (although I have just started doing a few for Fairfax, including poetry). My main aim on my blog is to review poetry books I have loved to varying degrees. To refresh the whole business of writing poetry. To explore what a book is doing.

Poetry rarely gets its time in media spotlight these days. I am trying to remedy that. To pick up the big names and scour the shadows for the less known.

 

At the Ruapehu Festival I got to talk about reviewing books with a number of people.Yes we mourn the paucity of NZ book reviews. Yes we learn to duck the hits and keep them in perspective. And yes, most of us welcome a critical review that engages with what our books are doing.

I have an enormous folder of letters and emails from authors that have thanked me for ‘getting’ their book. Quite extraordinary. I am always quite surprised. It is not my role to ‘get‘ their book in terms of their aims, because I want to articulate my own version of what the book is doing. Authors have thanked me for critical points because I don’t swipe the carpet from beneath their writing feet. That said, this is a small place and at least one author has been deeply offended by a point I have made. It’s a risky business – it can affect friendships.

Like many reviewers I am not afraid to speak out when a book demands it. My Metro review of AUP’s doorstop of a book on NZ Literature reflected my deep misgivings with its content. It failed on so many levels in terms of its grandiose claim, I needed to speak out. I crossed a line with this review and it affected my place in the literary community. Hundreds of people agreed with what I said, but it was my name on the page attracting the toxic flack on social media. I switched off. Got back to what is important.

This was a case of me potentially hurting other editors. I am not proud of that but I wanted to start a significant debate on what NZ literature stands for. What it embraces. Was I a bully? I hope not. Because that is what reviewers like Nicholas slip into. Being a bully. Smart alecs hurt people. Tip some authors over the edge. I loathe this. Half the time these throw-away claims are based on puff and fluff.

Criticism can be astute. It can be negative or positive but it should not get personal.

David Eggleton is a reviewer I admire enormously. His level of engagement with a book is exemplary. I read his review, relish the ideas, and track the book down in some cases.

 

YES!  We need to critique our reviewing landscape because at the moment we are poorly served. Without Poetry Shelf, your visibility of new poetry books would be unbearably diminished. I don’t care that Iain Sharp thinks I get up each day and wave at the passing trains of poetry like some witless female trainspotter.

But I do care that he undermines what some people are doing to make a difference against all odds when publishers, authors, booksellers and media are doing their utmost best to keep our communities of books alive.

Harriet Allen’s approach to reviewing books in NZ was an altogether different kettle of fish.

 

Fiona Farrell moved us at Ruapehu because she showed heart. Heart attached to life. To ideas. To writing. To books. Who didn’t weep?

Iain has handed us a fiery fun argumentative well-written challenging rant but ultimately we are short-changed.

Where is the heart?

The horizons of this rant are strait-jacked.

Where is the heart of NZ reviewing? The heart of NZ books? The ideas and reviewing terrain that sustain and move us.

 

I can no longer hear the trains, dear Ohakune.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

15 thoughts on “On Reviewing Books: Iain Sharp gets lippy

  1. dianeedithbrown

    Totally agree with your comments on reviewing Paula. Where would poetry be without your considered thoughtful comments? I must say when Nicholas Reid reviewed Taking My Mother To The Opera, I wondered if he’d transposed some of his own feelings re parents. That’s always a danger I know, but at the very least a reviewer should be paying attention to what’s actually in the book. One thing that may have changed for the better is the practice of reviewers writing under pseudonyms in order to demolish a fellow writer’s work. It happened twice to me with my first two books.

    Reply
    1. Nicholas Reid

      So you were so disgusted with my comments that you said on your blog “A big bouquet should be given to Nicholas Reid for caring enough to write about poetry”. Have I become a monster in the interim because Paula has had a hissy0fit?

      Reply
  2. ejneale

    Keep doing your sterling work, Paula. You’ve clearly stated on this site more than once that you only review books that you care about, that get under your skin, get cerebral muscles working, that you want to engage with critically – it’s an overarching policy. Longtime followers of the blog know that, respect it and really appreciate the time and work you put into covering NZ poetry. There is no waving at trains here.

    Reply
    1. Nicholas Reid

      I think you should be very careful if you are going to use such tantrum-revealing terms as “toxic”, “smart-alec” and “bully”, as well as claiming that I miss the point of books. Like the two replies you have already gained, this sounds very much like the hurt comments of somebody who wants only unqualified praise. I NEVER set out to wilfully hurt, belittle or annoy a writer – I am judging the work in front of me, not the character of the writer. You might spend some time reflecting on why the real reviewer David Eggleton (yep – he is one) is so happy to employ me (quite often) as a reviewer in both “Landfall” and “Landfall-Review-on-Line’. Is this an unaccountable lapse of judgment on his part? You might also reflect that on my blog I give more space to poetry that most print outletsd in New Zealand, apart from those that are solely dedicated to poetry. Now calm down and keep your language civil.

      Reply
      1. Amy Brown

        Dear Nicholas,

        I must admit to not having read many of your reviews; it may be that the majority of them reflect your description above – never wilfully hurtful, belittling, annoying; always judging the work rather than the “character of the writer”. However, I can think of one counter example: your review of my book, The Odour of Sanctity.

        In the final paragraph (about 2,000 words into 2,100), you write, “It occurs to me that in this notice, I have said nothing about the poetic qualities of The Odour of Sanctity”. Instead, you have critiqued the subject matter of book; this is, of course, a necessary component of a review. You have also provided an insight into your own faith, which in the context of this review is also entirely relevant (in fact, I found this aspect of the review fascinating and thank you for it). However, laced throughout the 2000-word prologue to a 100-word discussion of the poetic qualities of the book, were judgments not of the work in front of you, but of my character. You accuse me (not my writing, but me) of “envy”, “damned impertinence”, “mockery”, “hostility”.

        As a writer, I am gratified to have my work read and discussed, however it is received. Every other review of The Odour I encountered was robustly and civilly critical of the work – certainly not unqualified praise; for that I am grateful. But, as a writer, I do not expect a reviewer – especially one who has never met me – to castigate my character.

        As I mentioned above, I am not familiar with all of your reviews, so it is possible that your judgment of my character was an anomaly provoked by my book’s subject matter. However, if this is an element that seeps into your reviews generally, then I believe that might be what Paula is referring to when she uses the (indeed, vituperative) terms “toxic” and “bully”.

        I hope that your judgment of my character in your review of my book was an anomaly – for the sake of readers, who are seeking an astute and critical assessment of a book they might want to buy; for the sake of writers, who deserve fair and thoughtful criticism of their work; and for the sake of yourself. As you say, you devote a great deal of space and many thousands of words to poetry books on your blog, but if this is mainly providing your personal judgment of the poets rather than considered criticism of the poetry, then its value seems limited.

        I am afraid this is a long message; it is intended not as an invitation to further correspondence, but as a piece of evidence to support Paula’s assessment of your reviewing style.

        Kind regards,
        Amy

      2. Nicholas Reid

        And so at last I get confirmation of what I suspected – that Paula’s unbalanced and somewhat hysterical rant, referring indiscriminately to everything I write, was provoked by a particular review concerning a book by someone she knew or had praised or had mentored. (I do not know her relationship with you, but did see her comments on your book). Sorry Amy, but I stand by my review. If you are going to write at length on a particular subject, then you had best be very certain of your ground. As I said in reply to somebody else (another alumna of Vic, of course) who took exception to that particular review “Would you expect a Jew to write a nice, neutral review of an antisemitic work?” Mockery and hostility were certainly in what you wrote. “Envy?” Possibly. I do not know you personally, and have never interacted with you in any way – but as a reviewer I am perfectly entitled to infer attitudes from what I see on the page, as I legitimately did in this case. ( Comparison – when I say that Paula’s rant was unbalanced and hysterical, I am judging her rant – not her character. It would be beyond my competence to judge whether she herself is habitually unbalanced and hysterical.) I do not regard discussion of a work’s content as “prologue”, and if that work is dealing with something on which I am well informed I will of course write corrective comments on what the work is promoting (or ridiculing). You now tell me that your letter “is intended not as an invitation to further correspondence, but as a piece of evidence to support Paula’s assessment of your reviewing style”. Not very convincing “evidence”, I’m afraid. “Evidence” based on one review as interpreted by an author who did not like how she was reviewed. I am sure diligent researchers (and a few other disappointed authors) will be able to dig out four or five other reviews of mine for which they will make similar claims – out of the many hundreds of reviews I have written. As “evidence”, they will be as unconvincing as your sally. I do not assume that my readership is huge, and you are under no compulsion to read what I write; but when you begin by stating “I must admit to not having read many of your reviews” then you disqualify yourself from commenting on how I generally operate. Paula’s rant did not say “I did not like this particular review by Nicholas Reid because….” It was a sustained personal attack on everything I do (and actionable, according to one lawyer who contacted me – but I’m not the sort of chap to sue over something which has given quite a number of literary bods the opportunity to send me messages of support.) Long may you continue to have strong and robust opinions and long may I continue to express them. As I will. Cheers.

    2. Nicholas Reid

      Emma, your most recent volume of poetry was great and I said so in no uncertain terms on my blog. And you were happy to link my review to your own site. So how come in giving Paula a nice little pat on the back you have failed to notice her vituperative tantrum about me?

      Reply
  3. Nicholas Reid

    The level of hostility here is extraordinary. What it boils down to the is annoyance some people feel at getting reviews that are not unqualifiedly favourable to their work. I read carefully whatever I review, and i would be interested in how Paula green can justify such a sweeping, tantrum-throwing term as “toxic”. Sorry Diane – I read your book cerefully and accurately reported what you wrote.

    Reply
  4. Alexandra Balm

    I listened to NR present once and he was charming. Hilarious. I laughed until he asked that I should be kicked out of the room. I wasn’t disrespectful, just amused. I had nodded in agreement when he said something to the effect that ‘I’ve been spilling my ego out.’ I couldn’t agree more. Highly entertaining. But he makes a few points some/often/ times, and his caustic tone is endearing if not addressed to a writer whose work I love.

    I think that poets are the most entitled to write about poetry, for they are the experts when it comes to judging fellow writers’ work. Why should we care about the opinion of a critic who doesn’t write, or doesn’t write well? What is s/he an expert in? Critique? I think we ascribe too much importance to an irrelevant craft – the critiquing craft. Critics, like many teachers and professors of literature, tend to be people whose love for literature has been misplaced. Some of them are could-have-been-writers who have forgotten about their first love.

    Indeed, it’s important to separate value and yet-to-become-value when it comes to texts, but we should do it cautiously, while considering the person whose work one judges. I quite like Michael King’s idea of compassionate truth, and Nel Noddings’ concept of ethics of care.

    But reviews written out of love/engagement with a work, reviews that become an art form in themselves, also become bridges between the original work and the world, avenues along which the mind and the heart can travel both ways, from the world to the work and from the work to the world, discovering truths and delighting in the beauty of expression. That’s why I love your blogs.

    Reply
    1. Nicholas Reid

      Alexandra, I am nonplussed. I cannot remember any occasion in my life when I have asked for somebody to be kicked out of a presentation. Please enlighten me about the circumstances. Or are you confusing me with somebody else? “Poets are the most entitled to write about poets”??? (a.) My first collection “The Little Enemy” was published in 2011, to good reviews in “Landfall”, “Poetry New Zealand” and “NZ Books”; my second collection “Mirror World” will be out in two months. (b.) However, isn’t your formula really an invitation to mutual back-scratching?

      Reply
  5. dianeedithbrown

    Oh dear, have been enjoying Easter with 3 visiting grandchildren, blissfully unaware of buzzing voices. Just to clarify, although I did not like or agree with everything Nicholas said re Taking My Mother To the Opera, I posted this on my website:
    Below is a link To Reid’s Reader, a roundup of poetry reviews and a review of Taking My Mother to the Opera. With such a personal book it feels a little uncomfortable to have one’s relationship with one’s parents analysed and discussed especially when you see things differently. Interpretation however, is always up to the reader. I should add I always intended this book to be strongly narrative based, albeit with the economy and comprehension of poetry. But a bouquet to Nicholas Reid for caring about poetry to pay attention.

    My objection was to the comment that my mother (who is still alive) comes across as too possessive and a bit puritanical’. Just for the record my mother is absolutely not possessive, as for puritanical only in the sense she (like most of her generation) did not like me revealing too much of my body or my inner self. As I stated readers are entitled to their own interpretation, however, I am not sure that I wrote anything that could lead one to an interpretation of possessive. In my workshop classes I emphasise that fair criticism should be based on the writer’s intent and content, what is actually there, not on what you think should be there.

    Reply
    1. Nicholas Reid

      A little beside the point, Diane. Even if you have some misgivings about my interpretation, in offering me a bouquet of any sort you were implicitly admitting that I do not write “ultra-toxic”, “ego-driven” bullying, all of which were terms that Paula used of me in her sustained and somewhat hysterical personal attack, which is the issue that have brought me to comment on this blog in the first place. Yes, you’re quite right. Interpretations will always vary. But if you are so delicate about how your parents will be seen from what you write about them, perhaps you should avoid writing about them. Please remember your (or any other writer’s) intention is not the same as the impact of what you write. You must know about the intentional fallacy. Please continue to have a happy Easter with your three grandchildren. Five of my grandchildren will be arriving for lunch shortly. Cheers.

      Reply
  6. dianeedithbrown

    I have no desire to enter into a protracted argument with you, Nicholas. My point was anyone offering reviews of NZ poetry should be applauded and acknowledged, especially if they are not getting paid. As I said, I do not think there is anything in the text I wrote that would lead most readers to the judgement you made about my mother being possessive.

    Reply
    1. Nicholas Reid

      Fair enough. I hope you’ve had a happy day. I will make no further comments on this blog, but I do think I have every right to reply to an ill-considered personal attack [on me, note – not on some work I have written]. Adieu.

      Reply

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