Thursday, October 02, 2008

What Kind of Reviews Do We Need?

What kind of critical writing do we need, or want? Poetry is a small world and many poets, understandably, don’t want to risk upsetting other poets by reviewing their collections negatively – even in part. I suspect this is more true in the UK (which really is a tiny world) than bigger countries, but it applies everywhere to an extent. Few non-poets review poetry collections, with the result that, often, reviews read more like adverts than critical discourse. Paul Farley said something about how previous generations were given criticism but his generation has been offered marketing.

I was thinking about this while reading this review by William Logan. He covers five books. To say the review is acerbic is putting it mildly. Logan is well known for this, of course. He appears to dislike almost all contemporary poetry. He very rarely gives a positive review and his dismissal elsewhere of writers such as C.K. Williams and Derek Walcott only serves to undermine his credibility. I certainly have issues with some of what he says about Ashbery and Seidel here. I haven’t read the other writers (I’ve read Lowell, but not the particular book he discusses).

And yet… Sometimes, he hits the nail on the head. Other times, even when I disagree with him, his reviews are at least brilliantly written. They entertain and provoke and, when he gives a book a hammering, you have to think out why you agree or disagree. Many people think reviews are boring to read, but you could never say that about Logan’s. From the above link, on John Ashbery:

“Perhaps I’m not the only reader who thinks that, while scribbling down far too much poetry in the past fifteen years, Ashbery lost the cunning of his sentences, which sometimes dodder about as if they’ve forgotten their subject. Were he unfortunate enough to develop Alzheimer’s, the poems wouldn’t change a bit. Besides, he long ago created a world nonsense surplus—with a nonsense mountain somewhere in Belgium, like the EU butter mountains of old.”

And on Frieda Hughes:

“Hughes is a perfect example of what happens when a poet, though possessing none of the art necessary to turn a plain old messed-up life into literature, is the sun in her own Copernican system (she puts the Sol back in solipsism)… The poems don’t make you like Frieda Hughes. They make you afraid Robert Lowell’s children will take up poetry, too.”

Of course, no one would particularly care to be on the receiving end of a Logan review, and he has made many enemies. But is it better to have a Logan than the critical praise offered to many very ordinary collections? Or, perhaps, a Logan who has greater ability in discerning the best in contemporary poetry when it comes his way now and again? In the UK, I suspect only a poet who had given up writing poetry to devote him/her-self to reviewing could carry this off.

Is such Logan-esque candour necessary for a healthy critical environment? Some people say that they don’t want to read why a critic dislikes a book, but it seems to me that dislikes, when well argued for, are as important as likes. Most critics don’t choose the books they review – they are sent them by magazines and asked to review them – but speaking one’s mind is fraught with dangers. Many critics, if they don’t like a book sent for review, will simply return it or ignore it. I can understand why. I sometimes find myself trying to find positive things to say about books I haven’t really thought much of, but that’s more because I’m not sure enough in my opinions. I think I might be wrong about a book being crap and try to work out why other people might have considered it good enough to publish or buy. Usually I can find reasons and write them down, but those don’t often really make me like the book any more than I did in the first place. William Logan would have no such qualms.


Claire said...

Hi Rob,

This is really interesting, and I think I might continue the issue on my own blog at some point when I have a minute. I'll link back here if I may?

Sounds like you're really wanting input on this one, so here goes... I may be showing my youth and naivety here, but negative reviews irritate me. So one person didn't like a book - so what? Using their position of authority (as a critic, professional reviewer, blogger, tutor or whatever) to impose their negative (or hey, positive) opinion on others just seems... well, it gnaws at me. I was recently really nonplussed by The Time Traveler's Wife (I know, I know), which I only bought because it had got such good reviews. I found it a bit... sickly, to be honest, and it got me thinking about the reviewing process. I'm the kind of reader that gets netted by reviews - if I'd read that The Time Traveler's Wife was garbage, I wouldn't have bought it (why is that? Why do I trust some journalist's opinion?!) With readers like me, reviewers can really make or break the sale of a book. It's one bloke's opinion, at the end of the day, that's potentially damaging a reasonably deserving (they've been published after all) writer's chances, if they decide to give a negative review.

I may be oversimplifying this, but why do we DO this with books, films etc? You don't go up to strangers in the supermarket and say "don't buy X brand of washing powder because I personally don't like it." That would be ridiculous. So why is it acceptable with books? Why not just leave it to the PR men to make or break a book's sales? Why not let people make up their own minds?
I suspect I may indeed be oversimplifying, but it's just something that's been irritating me recently. I've read so much negativity on blogs (poor Sinead Morrissey's books got a beating all over the net after she won That Prize last year), and everytime I see that old "1/10" thing, I just think "who are you? Why should I listen to what you think? Would you be OK with a review like this on your own book? Why have we built our book-buying lives around this garbage?"

Andrew Shields said...

I'll respond at a different angle, Rob: not why does the reader need reviews, but how should the reviewer approach work he/she is not excited about.

To me, the key thing that makes a negative review (or a less-than-excited review) something that could be useful despite its negativity is this: has the reviewer tried to understand the work on its own terms? If you review a book and say you hate it, that's not very helpful (as Claire points out eloquently).

But if you address what the book is trying to do, you now have several options, all of which are more interesting than "I hate it": first, you could hate it because it tries to do things that you are not interested in. This is a matter of taste -- and this is where Claire's critique really hits home: if it's just that the reviewer doesn't like poems like that, then I can dismiss the negative review without further consideration -- unless the reviewer clearly HAS clearly presented "what the book is trying to do" in such a way that I can recognize that I might like it even though he/she doesn't.

Secondly, you might dislike the book because it fails to do what it sets out to do. Once the reviewer begins to articulate what a book's project is, then it becomes possible to say something like, "This book fails on its own terms" (and not on the reviewer's terms). I think that's quite a different type of negative review than the one that comes down to something like, "I don't like this kind of book."

Nuff for now.

Claire said...

Hehe, thanks Andrew - you paraphrased what I wanted to say most elegantly. If only I could resist the urge to rant...

Just a short PS: I've just read the Logan piece again, and I've decided, you really can't trust the review of anyone who, when trying to be venomous, can only manage to summon the word "tosh."

sdc said...

I agree with Andrew on this as well. Poetry reviews can be an explication on what the poet has set out to do, and whether s/he has achieved that. I don't like when reviewers write bad reviews simply because it makes good press. The poetry world is small anywhere, but poets are still liable for their work. If they've set out to do a certain thing and have not met the parameters they've set out for themselves, I think it's fine to point that out. That may be more difficult to do in a tactful way, however.

BarbaraS said...

Am I a bit sad for 'enjoying' these reviews and far from not wanting to read these books and poets, actually wanting to read them instead, to find out the truth? When it comes to poetry reviews, I tend to prefer reading things for myself and working out whether I agree or disagree. Usually disagree.

Some choice lines too. I almost envy the reviewer.

Daniel E. Pritchard said...

What Logan has that too many other reviewers lack is authority – not from anyone else, mind you; not bestowed – and a sharp eye for the cracks. Every work has cracks. He loves to point them out, and makes no excuses (see the new issue of Poetry).

Anonymous said...

What this did for me was to encourage further reading of Logan, as a prose writer of wit and style, and (confirming previous impressions of my own) to ignore F. Hughes as a poet without wit & style.

"has the reviewer tried to understand the work on its own terms?"

Where did this comes from, the need to address a work on 'its own terms'? This sounds to me like an offshoot of disability discrimination law, not literary criticism.

Are poets so backward as to plead special concessions and get away with it, when prose writers don't?


"Secondly, you might dislike the book because it fails to do what it sets out to do."

Yeah, we all want to write works of incandescent genius, and we all fail: the intentional fallacy is no basis for criticism. We can only go by the work itself.

So I absolutely disagree with Claire and Andrew and sdc, and have ordered three volumes of Logan criticism as a result of Rob's post -- if only for an entertaining read.


Roddy said...

I'm tending towards Andrew S, rather than Andrew J on this point of meeting a book on its own terms.

I don't think you need to offer concessions, but basing your main comments around stylistic and contextual concerns ('these poems are too long / short', 'the syntax isn't what we learned at school', 'how dare the writer talk about her sex life?', 'so Picador have published this, eh?') isn't really reviewing, it's baring the chest of your prejudices.

Reviewing, like skateboarding and wearing trainers, ought to be given up at a reasonable age - certainly before anyone's second book. Most attempts thereafter are either attempts to sleep with or avenge the poet in question.

Rob said...

Thanks for such interesting comments, everyone. I can sympathise with all those arguemnts, even if they contradict one another!

Some of you (it seems to me) are arguing for reader-centred reviews. The idea of the review is to show you, the reader, whether a book is worth buying. It's not simply to offer the reviewer's opinions, however well-read and passionate the reviewer is, but should tell you whether you are likely to like the book if you like that kind of thing.

Others of you back the Logan-type review: one man's educated and passionate opinion. If it's well written, witty and intelligent, it doesn't matter whether you agree with it or leads you to pursue the poets who are reviewed. The review becomes a genre in itself. Logan is a great read, and that's enough. It also becomes part of a body of reviewing work - Logan and Bloom have rather differing views on John Ashbery, for example, and they both become part of that current battle of ideas that may help to form future canons.

Of course, as Barbara says, a reader might feel tempted to explore some of these books just to see if the cracks Logan has found are indeed as fatal as he makes them out to be.

Rachel Fox said...

Yes, a great selection of comments. I'll try not to spoil the run...

I'd never heard of Logan before but the article was a good read, that's for sure. Harsh? Cruel? Well, yes, that's obviously the style that suits him (and we all have our niche...). He certainly said things about Frieda Hughes that I'm sure others have thought before but not quite dared to make public. It did make me want to read some of his poems - in an 'OK then smartarse let's see what you've got...' kind of a way (very mature, I know). Anyone read any? Any comments on them? Would you dare?

I think if you are going to be a literary critic (as opposed to a book reviewer which is a much more limited role) then I guess you have to really go for it, as he does...jump in, no friends prisoners, no pishing about. Not everyone can (or should) attempt it - a lazy poem doesn't really hurt anyone but criticism (lazy or otherwise) really can. If you're going to attack people and their writing (as he does) then I think you need to feel very sure that it's what you really want to spend your time doing, that your convictions are strong and not just a few half-baked PhDs you never got round to doing. As the New Agers might say...that's, like, a lot of negativity to deal with, man...and some of it may come back to bite you hard so it's not a job to be undertaken lightly! On the other hand there can be a danger when a critic gets a name for being tough (and hilarious)...then it's very tempting to just be tough (and hilarious) about everything all the time. That can end up being dull too...and unnecessarily harmful. It is a tricky business.

As for book reviewing - the book reviews you get in the daily/weekend papers (and elsewhere) are often so bland and predictable that I must admit I read them less and less. I sometimes think the papers would do better to just print excerpts from novels and sample poems (as they sometimes do anyway) and let readers make up their own minds. But then how would some writers (who review) ever earn any money?. Another tricky one!

Rob said...

It has been said that Logan, confronted by his own lines, would give them a very harsh treatment if written in anyone else's poem!

I agree that newspaper reviews are usually bland and dull (with some exceptions). The answer is to find good reviewers who will examine books with real insight and intelligence. But reviewing is a difficult business.

Janice Harayda said...

Hi, Rob,
American poets are more reluctant to review other poets negatively -- not less -- than those in the U.K., in my experience as the former literary editor of a U.S. newspaper and someone who has lived briefly in Scotland.

It's hard to document the trend and even harder to explain why it exists without devolving into stereotypes. So I'll just toss out one of many possible reasons for it: Americans have a shorter and less rich poetic tradition than does the U.K., and this can foster a lack of intellectual confidence that makes critics hesitate to come out swinging when reviewing poetry.

William Logan has a strong following here partly because he's one of the few American poetry critics who rarely pulls punches. If a book is bad, he will say so, and do so in a way that is concise, erudite and often witty. In that sense, many of his reviews are more British than American.