Debates over negative reviewing aren’t unique to poetry. Every few years a fiction writer attacks reviewers or (more often) a reviewer attacks fiction writers, and an arm-flailing ruckus ensues in which many letters to the editor are dispatched and much Pabst Blue Ribbon is spilled in indignation. It’s a ritual as reliable as the start of football season, or spring. And the conclusions of the dust-up, while stated with varying degrees of elegance, are consistent. There is (1) an acknowledgment that negative reviews are necessary; and (2) a countervailing acknowledgement that there’s something a bit mean about them. For instance, here’s James Atlas writing “In Praise of Dispraise” in 1981: “Good manners are the sign of a dull literary era.” And: “Of course, there is something a little unseemly about this remorseless hunting down of others’ mistakes, an aggressiveness that verges on antisocial behavior.” Well, there you have it.
There are two distinctions that help explain our ambiguous response to harsh reviewing in disciplines like fiction and poetry. First, there’s the distinction we draw between arts that are collaborative, like film and theater, and arts that are seen as individual productions, like fiction and poetry. Negative remarks about the former will usually be more acceptable than negative remarks about the latter, because the insult is perceived as dispersed among actors, directors, gaffers, key grips and so forth. Second, there’s the distinction that troubles Atlas; that is, the divide between art-as-entertainment (that is, art as viewed outside the group that takes responsibility for it) and art-as-community-activity (that is, art as viewed within that group). Negative remarks about entertainment are expected; we all feel free to openly loathe The Da Vinci Code. Negative remarks about community doings, on the other hand, are rarely nice; they “verge on being antisocial.” Given that poetry is among the most individualistic arts, and that its tiny audience makes its status as entertainment questionable, we shouldn’t be surprised that people question harsh reviews. On the contrary, we probably should be amazed that the critics who write them, myself included, haven’t all been fed to alligators.
Of course, it’s hard to feed a critic to an alligator if you don’t know who he is, which is the logic undergirding Kent Johnson’s call for more anonymous reviewing. Johnson’s general critique of the poetry world is amusing and astute, but I have a couple of minor hesitations about the idea of anonymity, one of which is practical, the other … well, spiritual. As to the first, I wonder how many people actually can be persuaded to write anonymous reviews, given that they can expect almost nothing for doing so, other than the happy feeling of serving The Cause of Righteousness. After all, if critics base their choices on the capital they might accrue, as Johnson suggests, then what would be the point of working gratis?
My other reservation has to do with something Johnson acknowledges as a potential weakness in his proposal: that “anonymity could be a temptation to cronyism, or provide convenient safe haven to those driven by superficial, vindictive agendas.” I’ve always thought that harsh reviewing is necessary; it reminds us that poetry is worth reading by pointing out that some poetry is not, in fact, worth reading at all. And I’ve always favored harsh reviewing over its cousin, the practice of simply avoiding what one doesn’t like and praising what one does. In theory (and for a few talented critics, in practice) this latter approach is a way of sorting out the good from bad without resorting to deliberate unkindness. But it can have unfortunate consequences. It can overstate poetry’s weakness and criticism’s strength. It can also lead to a culture of condescending silence, in which writers aren’t challenged to their faces, but dismissed behind their backs. So I prefer harsh reviewing; it keeps us all reasonably honest. But – and this is my reservation – it’s not to be engaged in lightly. As Clive James once wrote, using “someone else’s mediocrity as an opportunity to be outstanding … is getting pretty close to malice, for all its glittering disguise as selfless duty.” It is, at least in my experience, a chastening and useful thing to know that your name will be attached to whatever you write. It’s possible that Johnson’s optimism is justified, and that anonymity would lead to bracing reviews from young writers freed at last from the need to behave like miniature versions of Austen’s Mr. Collins. But another, less pleasant outcome is possible as well.
Read more responses here.