Possible and Impossible Truths About Reviewing

Snottiness, contempt, unfairness, mockery, drollery, cruel wit: These are signs of vigor. So is generosity.

Vigor in art creates vigor in criticism, not the other way around.

Of course there should be negative reviewing.

Anonymous reviews may be entertaining, but seem unlikely to be useful. We may enjoy seeing poems we loathe (or poets more successful than ourselves) savaged, but how many of us really take seriously the anonymous reviews at Amazon?

Kent says editors would need to be responsible for holding anonymous reviewers to certain fairness guidelines. When have editors ever been nobler, or fairer, than the rest of us?

When a certain film critic for a Philadelphia publication says a movie isn’t funny, I know I will find it hilarious. When she finds a movie poignant, I know I will find it revolting. If she and her fellow reviewers for this publication wrote anonymously, I could no longer rely on her unreliability.

Critics who are consistently wrong are the most useful critics.

I don’t mind other people writing anonymous reviews. But I think I wouldn’t do it myself.

Maybe I would. If you paid me enough. I review for money and to engage deeply with work that interests me. But if someone likes my reviewing, positive or negative, maybe they’ll look up my poems. Therefore, for selfish reasons, I’d rather put my name to my reviews.

The important thing is to quote enough of the work so the reader can figure out if she likes what she reads. One of the worst reviews I ever got, from someone who really hated my work, quoted a huge amount of my poetry, so I felt I had been done a favor.

Even a negative review is better than damning with inept praise.

Irrelevant aside: Any review that uses the words “well-honed,” “well-crafted,” “wordsmith” or (usually) “verse,” is not to be trusted.

Many negative reviews incorrectly identify a book’s weaknesses, just as many positive reviews incorrectly identify a book’s strengths. Most people have no idea why they really like or dislike a poem, and some of those people write reviews.

Negativity in reviewing is no guarantee of reliability. A negative review may be reverse puffery to get in good with the other school. Other ways negative reviews can be irresponsible:

            Blaming the poet for not writing the way the reviewer would have.

            Blaming the poet for not fitting in with the overarching theme the reviewer developed in desperation as her             deadline approached.

            Blaming the poet for his blurbs, connections, prizes, popularity or media attention.

            Nitpicking the poet on minor points of syntax or lineation when it’s clearly the poet’s politics that put the             reviewer off.

One-liners designed to show off the reviewer’s cleverness are welcome, provided the reviewer is truly clever.

Often the reviewer is not all that clever.

Would even clever one-liners be pleasurable if delivered anonymously? Consider initials in old-fashioned newspaper gossip columns. Would anyone have cared that X was sleeping with her chauffeur and Y was seen lurking out of an opium den if thy didn’t know exactly who X and Y were?

How often do you read negative reviews out of pure shadenfreude?

Me too.

Not being a poet does not prevent a reviewer from being wrong-headed, biased or just plain stupid about poetry. Neither does being a poet.

Excessive, continuous and repetitive lack of enthusiasm renders the reviewer unreliable.

Puffery kills the puffer’s, not the puffee’s, soul. Actually, maybe it kills the puffee’s too.

It’s probably best to be generous with, or else ignore, poets’ first books. There’s no point in telling people not to read what they weren’t going to read anyway.

Famous poets are fair game. As are critics who write poetry. And poets who write criticism.

Samuel Johnson: “No man rises to such a height as to become conspicuous, but he is on one side censure by undiscerning malice, which reproaches him for his best actions, and slanders his apparent and incontestable excellences; and idolized on the other by ignorant admiration, which exalts his faults and follies into virtues.”

The crimes of poets worth reviewing are generally the same things that make those poets worth reading. Few contemporary reviewers realize this.

Poets who receive negative reviews should toughen up. Either the reviewer is right, or she’s an idiot. Either way you learn something.

Friends of poets who receive negative reviews, who write in protesting the negative review, seldom do the poet any favors. Usually they end up repeating, unintentionally or not, the charges against the poet, without successfully refuting them.

We don’t need a lot of daring critics. We need daring critics.

Daring Critic: More or less of an oxymoron than Daring Poet?

Anything that gets people talking is good.

All assertions are to be met with suspicion, or why are you even in this game?

How often do you see a letter to the editor about a positive review?

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