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.