Friday, 11 December 2009

A Reviewer’s Manifesto

The more I review, the more I feel like there’s got to be a reason for it. Time and again I hear the argument that reviewing doesn’t serve a purpose in terms of sales; only a few exalted locations provide a sales boost, or so I’ve heard – the right places perhaps being the London Review of Books, or the Times Literary Supplement, or perhaps the New Yorker and similar penthouse suites of today’s shiny ivory skyscrapers.

Still we persist. “Poetry is the opposite of money,” says David Morley (although I’m inclined to spell that statement, ‘Poh-tree iz tha oppozit of bling”), so there seems little point in jacking in reviewing if poetry doesn’t generate much in the way of sales in the first place. It must be about something else.

What ‘else’ is this? The 'debate'? A belief in the discussion of literature serving a purpose that supports the literary life, engages readers in further, (better, perhaps?) ways with the world of books than other, existing channels do? The chance to broaden someone’s horizons about what they’ve not yet read, and what reading a particular book might do?

Or is this simply a matter of intellectual display, a chance to show off one’s own knowledge? I’ve heard that said once or twice, I can’t remember where exactly, but probably in relation to, primarily, academic discussions of literature. Critical studies often tend to encourage comparative readings that, when negative, lead people to discredit a reviewer’s opinions on the grounds that they’re simply flexing their literary muscles for their own benefit. In other words, the reviewer is scene to be failing in some way, not the book, or the author.

You could say this about some of AA Gill’s restaurant reviews. They often meander endlessly on about the reviewer’s personal life, barely mentioning the restaurant at the end, especially when the meal and/or atmosphere haven't managed to impress him. Taken as a form of eating diary, that’s an acceptable response, to me, but reviews should have a certain degree of functionality, and justification, beyond interest in the reviewer’s life as validated by their exalted position in the mainstream press.

Arguably, I’d not say the same about Charlie Brooker’s television reviews. ‘Screen Burn’, while as stylised, in its own way, as Gill’s writing, always serves to offer solid justifications for the reviewer’s opinions, when (as they mostly are) the reactions are negative. And there are more jokes.

Taking further that idea of the functionality of a review, what is its purpose? As Jeremy Treglown put it at an event in May 2008, on the art of reviewing, “Honesty is important for the sake of readers.” Yes, but what’s the purpose of being honest, if the industry only likes a good review, and tries to make a bad review reflect, as much as possible, on the reputation of the reviewer, not the book? Is it for 'the readers'? And who are they?

Treglown went on to say that the review’s audience needs to be clear; they’re written for readers, not for publishers, or the author (as Lionel Shriver once argued as being the only person, apart from the reviewer, to whom any review mattered). They’re not written for publishers, for their publicity departments. They’re not written for people who aren’t interested in books either. Why would someone read a book review, unless they wanted to enrich their experience of reading literature in general (i.e. they read reviews of books they haven’t yet read themselves) or of a text they’ve particularly enjoyed (i.e. after they’ve read a book, as an act of building connections with other readers and widening their knowledge of a book)?

So this takes me a little closer to defining the purpose of reviewing. A review should be written for readers; it should inform the reader of the qualities of a text, according to that reviewer’s understanding of the book; the reviewer should, therefore be able to bring something to their particular reading of the text that isn’t facile, or obvious, that most readers of the review would have been able to say for themselves.

There are many types of review reader, but let's break them into two: a reader who has already read a book, and one that hasn't. In the case of readers who haven’t yet read the book, it's relatively easy to write a review in a way that provides something the reader can't do themselves: plot summaries, sweeping statements, limited analysis.

This explains why publishers send advance copies out as much as six months before publication to mainstream outlets. The mainstream tries to capture zeitgeist, be ahead on what’s hot in the current world of cultural output. The editors of these newspapers are second-guessing what the public might be interested in; going a step further you could say it reduces book selections to what the majority of target audiences are expected to be interested in.

This strikes poetry off the map, in most cases, excepting all but a handful of household names whose positions are made so by recurrent features in newspapers; hence a self-fulfilling category. (And also explains why mainstream media tread and retread the same ground over and over, with barely a nod to the margins; a condescending presupposition that readers worth reaching are idiots who buy their reading lists wholesale from newspapers.)

I could take a little diversion here, down the route of poetry publishing: only a handful of UK poetry publishers send out advance copies. Sending review copies out after a book is published means readers who are already interested in a book can decide its qualities for themselves; reviewing a poetry book two years after its publication date means more work for the reviewer to justify their opinion. So poetry publishing generally tends to hamstring itself in the first instance by not allowing the mainstream media to treat it as part of a zeitgeist. A vicious circle of resource shortages could be blamed, but, then again, those that can, do, maintaining a status quo of very limited selective tastes at the forefront of the public consciousness. (Though the more I talk about this, the more I feel like I belong in a shack in the woods. Maybe Simon has a spare room in his hut.)

So, returning to the former point about readers who read reviews to enrich their understanding of a particular text; it assumes a degree of foreknowledge in the reader, a hunger for more information and therefore the review has to be a cut above the rest. It can’t simply trot out obvious ideas, reiterate a story’s plot points, key themes in the poetry. It has to make associations, contextualise the work, stylistically entertain.

In conservative outlets this manifests as enlisted ‘experts’ who dissect a book in the context of a writer’s oeuvre, relate it to the contemporary (mainstream) field and tradition, and make high-sounding, definitive statements about the work. Stylistic elements might include: practical criticisms; a generally impersonal voice - and what else? Name-dropping; the kind of syntactical structure designed to be quoted on future editions of the book jackets, or the cover of the author’s next title; anecdotes about the reviewer’s last encounter with the author at an awards ceremony.

Yes, I’m sneering. That kind of reviewing has failed poetry, and leads to alienation of the reader. The ‘expert’, or to go a step further into Edward Said’s ‘cult of the expert’ (shit, I’m name-dropping now, but it’s OK, this is an essay, not a review) is both a way of endorsing a review, but also a way of suggesting a reader is not up to the task of having a valid opinion themselves about a title. Leave ‘common readers’ to post their comments on Amazon. Name-dropping is the worst crime, designed to highlight the reviewer’s superior intellect for making the connections. More often than not, it establishes boundaries and cliques between readerships and poetry circles.

This is not to be anti-intellectual, or anti-academic. If anything, people who hold a somewhat primitive understanding of the term 'intellectual', or bandy the word 'elitism' around without a nod to the importance of specialism and expertise, are as guilty of exclusivity and clique-building as intellectual people who do the same. But enough digression.

I've had many a conversation with Simon about the notion of popular writing attempting to divorce itself from tradition, to appear the first in its trend. David Kennedy's recent review of Voice Recognition, at Stride Magazine puts it well (and is provides a good round up of the last fifty years of poetry anthology introductions): there's "a dismissal of the recent past and a hailing of the present as a site of changes, shifts, trends or emergent groupings". This implies that the poetry has emerged from nowhere, rather than, as Virginia Woolf once demonstrated, rejecting the recent past in favour of a slightly more distant past - a kind of cultural leap-frogging.

So name-dropping can be used well. Comparisons an author under review and literary forebears, or contemporary counterparts, which are both given depth and justified within the context of a review's functional purpose, have to be valid. By the quality of these associations you can create a measure for the value of a review.

Taking this point a step further, what I can’t see being a problem, is if reviews adopt the best qualities of reviews targeting both types of readers. There’s nothing more boring than a mainstream review of a fresh-off-the-printer book that simply tells you what you want to know in a dull, conventional style. Just as there’s nothing worse than a reviewer appraising a book from two years ago that tries to set off every intellectual firework in their repertoire, thus making the review more about the reviewer than the book.

Now a leap further: ultimately, what’s needed is a kind of anti-review, in the sense that it takes the traditional points of reference for mainstream reviewing and turns them on their heads, while assimilating all the best qualities behind those conventions. And there is a need for a manifesto to achieve these aims.

We at Gists & Piths aim to please, though I notice, perhaps for my own troubles with the art of reviewing, or perhaps simple lethargy (before Simon interjects with an editorial comment, I’ll do it myself: I’m a sloth) our last proper review came on August 30th and my own participation in a review here was on August 6th.

So, a Reviewer’s Manifesto, which I will try to live up to over the coming months, or as long as it holds relevance for me:

1. The audience for a review must be defined, according to readers past, present and future, of the book under review.

2. The review must be functional, once the reader is defined, in order to serve, honestly, the review’s readers. The ultimate aim is to allow the reader to decide for themselves whether the book might be of value to them, or increased value to them.

3. In order to decide the reviewer’s degree of honesty in holding their opinions, the reader must know the reviewer’s biases, past and present, and possibly even future, in relation to the book, the book’s author, and the writing of the review.

4. The review must avoid highbrowing the reader in a way that becomes exclusive. This does not mean second-guessing the reader’s intelligence in a condescending fashion. It means making sufficiently diverse and detailed comparative associations between the book’s qualities and metaphors, other books or authors, other art forms, social phenomena &c., that the reader will at least feel some of the review’s descriptions are engaging and comprehensible, even without knowledge of the subject being compared to.

5. To this end, metaphor, of the best poetic kind, is highly encouraged. Lists, or multiple descriptions of the same point also, though with the proviso of point 6.

6. The review must not waffle. There’s nothing worse than waffle in any kind of writing.

7. The review must incorporate elements from writing modes that are not adopted by traditional reviews in order to overcome the stagnating neutrality of mainstream reviewing and to attract readers with and without an existing awareness of a book to the review itself. These elements can include: stylistic adoptions, such as tabloid headlines, football chants, political speeches; genre adoptions, e.g poetics, detective novel, fairytale conventions; structural oddities, such as menus, flashback techniques; personal anecdote that makes the reader engage better with the text; declared effects which impact on the writing of the review, e.g. attempting to imitate the style of the book, writing while under the influence, typing blindfolded, reading during a storm; or any other mode of writing that enhances the reader’s experience of reading the review, without hampering the review’s functionality.

8. The reviewer’s reputation, and the value of their reviews, will be manifested solely upon their ability to meet the points in this manifesto.

9. The contents of this manifesto will be reviewed from time to time, according to the aims of the manifesto. Should reviews produced to this order fail to entertain, then the manifesto will be adjusted, or thrown out.



Emily Hasler said...

Hey George, interesting piece. I notice in the manifesto you promote "making sufficiently diverse and detailed comparative associations between ... other books or authors". Can you delineate the difference between this and namedropping please? Is it simply a stylistic thing, of the way the reviewer wields their range of reference?

I ask because I actively make a point of drawing out links between writers and/or individual works. I think this is one of the more helpful ways of describing poetry and helping to navigate an ever-growing and diverse poetry market.

Finally, can you assure me that Simon is alive and that this hut is not the place you have stashed his mortal remains?

Ems xx

Sophie Mayer said...

Not to highbrow it, but Edward Said's _The World and the Text_ is, I think, a pretty neat shorthand for what a good review can do: locate the world in the text and the text in the world. Not the Guardian formula fornon-fiction reviews of asking an expert to summarise the state of the field and their own expertise before offering a paragraph summary of the book's offences against the reviewer's sensibility, but an acuity that uses worldiness (not worldliness) to catch the reader's attention and to think about the text. If that makes any sense. I like the idea of a Campbellian or Proppian review that offers the reader both the heroic narrative and (quotations as) the talismanic objects of a folk tale...

Iguanodon said...

"If anything, people who hold a somewhat primitive understanding of the term 'intellectual', or bandy the word 'elitism' around without a nod to the importance of specialism and expertise, are as guilty of exclusivity and clique-building as intellectual people who do the same. But enough digression."

Totally agree. I also hate the label 'pretentious'. You can accuse someone of failing, that's the name of the game - but I don't think anyone has a right to accuse someone of pretending.

A.A Gill is the man who shot a monkey because he wanted the enriching experience of knowing what it is to be a murderer, apparently. So forget him.

Not sure that advertising the beauty spots of metaphor with another souped-up metaphor is the best idea. Though in the space of this paragraph I have unwittingly shown that it's kinda hard for me not to do! No. It's not bad. I'm just suspicious of it, even when I do it.

There's obviously a tidal wave of very competant writers in this era. Because now it is so easy for everyone to access literature, a scene, a style, raw information. I feel like I'm seeing this competence in every outlet, at every level. The effect that has on my personal relationship literary reviewing is that I often get fed up of this stylistic showboating and think, 'You want to be writing your novel instead, don't you?'

I rely on word of mouth. Actually I read by theme or chronology and I never know what's been recently published. Haha.

Art reviews justify themselves in at least one respect. A show happens within a time limit, then nobody else knows what it was like to be there.

Okay I've taken up enough space on the blogspot server now.

The Editors said...

Comment reposted from Facebook:

Zoe Brigley Thompson

Hi just read this and think you make some good points here. I think that a good review should serve the reader, but there is a particular problem with poetry in that poets are always reviewing other poets! In theatre, you have theatre critics not playwrights and producers reviewing themselves. Similarly in the world of art or even the sphere of eating and restaurants that you mention.You don't get Gordon Ramsay going round reviewing other chefs' restaurants!


The Editors said...

Comment reposted from Facebook:

Mairi Sharratt

I think that's a really interesting point. At my blog I have started a series where I have got a non-poet to go round some of out local poetry evenings/readings and review. I specifically wanted someone who wasn't "in the poetry scene" so there would be no biased towards anyone. This ends up meaning that I have got someone who doesn't really read poetry (although an avid reader - and I think she is slowly converting) so she doesn't review the poems as such - more the evenings. I think it is good to bring people from outside in, otherwise things can become to insular.


The Editors said...

Comment reposted from Facebook:

George Ttoouli

That's an interesting point - getting Gordon Ramsay to review other restaurants would probably invite legal suits. It might be seen as a form of negative advertising. I guess poetry's lack of commercial competition, the lack of money at stake - means only people with a passion for the subject get involved.

That said, I'm sure there are critics who review poetry, but don't write it. Literary critics like John Carey, or similar big hitters for the LRB, TLS, who do the full gamut, don't specialise. I can't think of the last time I read a review by one of them about poetry, though.

And thanks for the link, Mairi, a great idea, though I'd imagine it creates problems as well?


Jane Holland said...

The most important thing here is to admit one's tastes and prejudices upfront - particularly if they impact on the review in hand. Tiresome to do so, perhaps, but often necessary for complete honesty as a critic.

Time for my tea now.

The Editors said...

Ems - getting a bit more specific, as I think there's a fine line often crossed between name-dropping and fitting in a poet to a tradition.

I guess a more audience-driven reviewer might try to second-guess what their readership is aware of, make associations as analogies to give access to readers - a kind of 'if you liked this, you'll love that' approach. Where the associations are wide (e.g. "this poetry is like pistaccio flavoured-ice-cream") it's engaging, populist, entertaining.

Then there's the whole, "this poet is like that poet." Where both poets are contemporaries, probably with tiny readerships, it's not easy for people to be engaged. Then there's trying to fit a poet into a tradition, associating with dead poets, poetry movements, which is more accesible.

But both of these can be name-dropping. It's depth that rescues: where both references are contextualised, without alienating. E.g. "X's linebreaking is reminiscent of how Y broke lines in the middle of words, to create a sense of playful discord." It gives a sense of both poet's poetries, while positioning X historically.

Is that any clearer? I think it's all about depth.

Or as Sophie put it, so much more succinctly: aiming to "locate the world in the text and the text in the world" with care.

Thanks all for commenting - and Iguanadon: a great dismissal of AA Gill also.