On reviewing reviewing books

Social media can be a constructive part of life, especially as a writer. I am constantly falling upon articles that illuminate aspects of the book that I am writing. Discovering new voices. Events. Books. Poems. However, like so many people, I loathe the way social media becomes a tawdry and superficial venue to slap anyone who offends.

Eleanor Catton has promoted kindness as a significant factor in a writer’s kit. I heard her discuss this with a bunch of students at The National Library once and I felt it was both daring and apt.

How does kindness work when you are a reviewer? When I posted my riposte to Iain Sharp a few days ago, I was most certainly lacking kindness. I lacked kindness in my appraisal of Nicholas Reid’s ability to review books. I was not motivated by anger, nor revenge on Ian because he delegated me to a train station with dear Graham Beattie (a tireless promoter and ardent fan of NZ books). I laughed out loud in fact. I love train stations. I was motivated by Iain’s blinkered approach to our book world. It felt unhelpful when people are working so hard on a shoe string to make things better. Not that a currency of love suggests we can’t critique book reviewers. I just want a wider view.

 

We should be able to build criticism that never lets go of the fact we are all human beings who think and feel. We should be able to communicate with respect. Anything less seems to be self-serving; promoting the ego of the attacker.

When I undertook my doctoral thesis, it felt like I was renegotiating a patriarchal paradigm. Century upon century of representing thought in models that were not negotiable.

We have been trained to close read texts and deconstruct. To think about what the text does not do as much as what it does do.

I am fascinated by this persistent attraction to the negative. Yet if you think about it, what a text does not do, is like surrogate grief on the part of the reader. I mourn the lack of detail. I long for more lyricism. I cannot see the link between the cat and the moon. Fair enough. Poems establish all manner of bridges that some of us are unable to cross.

As a reviewer on this blog I am not interested in what a poem does not do. I am not interested in hunting for what I might deem as its potential failings. This bores me. It is not part of my health regime.

Instead I am interested in plunging, head and heart together, into the unknown. Where will I be lead? What will I discover about what this poem does. I might sing out when a poem catches hold of me, but I don’t carry a subjective yardstick to measure quality.

I never forget that the person that wrote the poem might read what I wrote. I want to have the guts to write and be prepared to say it to someone’s face over a glass of wine. It is not what you say but how you say it. Perhaps this is why Bill Manhire has such a good reputation as a ‘teacher’ of creative writer. I just had my first first-hand experience of this recently.

As authors we all react to reviews differently. I read my first review of my first book in a supermarket and was shocked that it was so mean. As I walked past the cornflakes and the frozen peas I made a choice. Reviews would belong to the reviewers.  Not me. I decided I would not take personal attacks personally, I would be able to sit on a panel next to a mean reviewer with extreme comfort. And I do. When the review is erudite, when the reviewer is so clearly engaged with my book on a deep level, I  welcome critical points (Emma Neale a case in point, thank you!). Countless authors do.

However some authors get tipped into varying degrees of depression or inability to write. This matters to me. Yes, we choose to exist in a public arena and therefore must accept public engagement and debate. But I am not sure we have to accept assassinations, minor or major. Historically, and in recent times, there are some despicable examples of this.

 

 

What got me more than anything though about Iain’s new-old view on reviewing is the lack of generosity in terms of our wider book world.

In this context, it is a matter of focusing on reviewing platforms (not what publishers, booksellers, authors and readers are trying to achieve to keep things thriving). Against all odds some places are working hard to showcase NZ books.The first and most important aim is to bring books to our attention as readers. I am lucky in that most publishers send me NZ poetry books. How on earth would I know what was going on otherwise? Where does poetry get widespread attention?

I applaud those places that are refusing to sever the cord between reader and NZ books: The Listener (Three cheers), North & South (three cheers!), Metro (not doing what it used to do sadly, but still a tad), The Spin Off (yes!), NZ Books (three cheers), Landfall, Landfall-on-line (again thank you!). I have just agreed to review books for Fairfax  because it will include NZ books (and poetry). Other blogs and websites.

The second aim is to generate avenues into a book for a reader to pursue. To connect book to reader.

The third aim is to foster ideas and debate. Here criticism flourishes. A drive on this blog to explore what poetry is capable of doing.

Finally, my personal aim is to contribute to a vibrant NZ poetry landscape. To find ways to connect poetry, poets and readers. To celebrate what we do here. To be prepared to challenge writing that erodes rather than augments our relations within the world of books. To challenge views that exhibit sexism, racism, classism, regionalism and so on.

To use this blog to be an ambassador for NZ poetry no matter the risks.

 

5 thoughts on “On reviewing reviewing books

  1. el Santi

    I wonder how civilizated and fully polite seems the poetry ambient in NZ, including the reviewers. In Spain, it sucks the high level or mafia families and envy that exists inside the poets’ circuits. I am fed up of bear vain egoes on Social Media. Spanish poets love self-promotion, they wanna be as rock stars, handsome or pretty, cool, trendy, in the mood, simply stupid people. They make it hate the poetry, how can be so miserable something minor, not monetized in theory. Since the civil war between Quevedo and Góngora, or Cervantes and Lope de Vega, spaniards have never changed..

    Reply
  2. Nicholas Reid

    This is so sweet. You yesterday “lacked kindness” in your appraisal of my ability to review books and you were “not motivated by revenge”. So why did you write your lengthy and childish rant in the first place? What WERE you motivated by? More to the point, if you discover within 24 hours that you “lacked kindness”, couldn’t you have just done a little more mature reflection before setting finger to key in the first place? You made the sweeping accusation that I was “ultra toxic” (always?), a “bully”, “ego-driven” by some desire to destroy people and incapable of seeing the real purpose of any book. Your special chosen field is poetry. In the course of the last year five poets have contacted me to thank me for noticing their work favourably. Two of your acolytes – who commented favourably on your post yesterday – were happy to link reviews on my blog of their work to their own websites for publicity purposes. Perhaps you would like to look at the blog I have scheduled for Easter Monday (written long before your rant) which deals with three newly published volumes of poetry and then tell me how “toxic” and point-missing they are. I will not descend to your level of rant and counter-attack the way you review things. I have no desire to do so anyway. But I have today forwarded, verbatim, the comments you made about me to various literary personages and asked for their reactions. The responses have been very interesting. Keep well and think before you rave, please.

    Reply
  3. ejneale

    Hi Nicholas. The order of appearance of the replies on the previous post on this blog is misleading. I wrote mine before seeing Diane Brown’s – it took a while for the replies to be approved. I can see it looks as if mine is in response to DB’s, but it was a general reaction in support of Paula’s ethos in deciding to review NZ poetry, and it was chiefly in reaction to the Spinoff phrase ‘waving at trains’. That phrase was meant as satirical mischief, but I think it’s wrong (probably knowingly wrong, yes), and that clearly more effort, thought and selection goes into Paula’s reviews than that – as it does on your blog. I wasn’t taking your own reviewing to task – nor condoning Paula’s comments about it. Next time I’ll ‘do social media’ better and directly quote the phrases I’m reacting to. Lesson learned. Also, a regular reader isn’t an acolyte – no more than a regular listener to a radio station is! There’s a mixture here; some of Paula’s critical opinions I share, some I don’t. Back to the original seed: there were parts of the Spinoff article that were funny, some that were accurate, some that were just pot-shots/ sneery raspberries for the hell of it – or rather, probably intended to start just this kind of quarrel, I expect; by people who like watching dog fights! So we’ve all fallen into the Spinoff spin cycle. May we feel cleansed of it all tomorrow. Maybe after reading a lie in, while reading a bloody good book.

    Reply
    1. Nicholas Reid

      Dear Emma, this is not a love letter and I am not now suddenly fabricating a response in order to win your spproval. As you should be aware, I loved your volume “Tender Machines”. The evening I finished reading it, I was at one of the open-mike events that Anita Arlov organises in Ponsonby where I read some of my own poems, but then introduced and read your poem about insomnia (a condition I sometimes suffer – I am writing this at 3:20 in the morning) “Sleep-talking” because I thought it was (a.) both funny and distressing; and (b.) so true to life and the condition. I hope this wasn’t violating copyright or something. About the same time I’d read, and been equally taken with, David Eggleton’s “The Conch Trumpet”. I identified very much with his satirical streak. When I read really good new poetry, I am absorbed in it. (I hope you have had a chance to see Claire Orchard’s excellent debut “Cold water cure”). I could add to the list. The point is, I DO give a shit about poetry, and I don’t spend my time sitting around devising ways to be gratuitously nasty to people, which was part of the burden of Paula’s rant. I am sure that I have also written reviews that have distressed or annoyed authors – but then I do not subscribe to Paula’s theory that everyone should be in a state of non-judgmental niceness and with-hold critical comment for the greater good of some non-specific and generic thing called poetry. I am a reviewer FFS. Praise and blame come with the territory and my first duty is to readers (“Is this book worth reading or is it not?”), not to massaging the egos of authors. In the last 36 hours, a number of people, while seeing the justice of my complaint, have told me that they like Paula Green because she has been so good at encouraging poets and promoting poetry. Fair enough – but “promotion” is not critical thinking. It is more in the nature of publicity (or advertising). There are other issues here. In her morning-after reflection, Paula says she was mainly angered by “Iain’s blinkered approach to our book world”. So how come she ends up taking her cudgel to me? Iain (who is a good personal friend of mine, BTW) has apologised to me as he thinks I’ve taken the blows she meant to aim at him. This whole exercise has taught me a lot about the nature of blogs and how they are written. Apparently Paula writers off the top of her head, posts in white-heat haste, and then re-thinks what she’s already made public. (And, in this case, perhaps asumed that I would never see.) I write what appears on my blog weeks before any readership sees it, and give myself time to amend or modify it, should I think that necessary, before anyone else reads it. The next three weeks of my postings are already scheduled and waiting to go live. This is called due consideration. For me, my blog is not a “Dear Diary” off-the-top-of-my-head knee-jerk thing. I hope I am producing weekly essays of some durable merit. I am, of course, still left wondering what specific review (or reviews) of mine set Paula off on her lengthy and sustained personal attack. Was it my negative comments about the stories of Bill Manhire (which I do not like, as I have openly said after due consideration – it’s called reviewing)? I really do not know, and would be glad to be enlightened. Anyway, thanks for your own sane and calm assessment of the situation and I’m sorry if I misread your earlier response.

      Reply

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