Monday, December 08, 2008

Two Links and a Protest


Ben Wilkinson has an interesting blog post on Mick Imlah's T.S. Eliot-shortlisted poetry collection The Lost Leader, with link to a Newsnight discussion of the book. Catch it while you can!

He also points towards new critical perspectives he's written on poets Leontia Flynn and Zoe Skoulding for the British Council site.

Now, call me cussed, but I find it difficult to come to terms with the fact that Leontia Flynn, a poet with only two collections to her name (the second published earlier this year), should be given a spot on the British Council site when there are so many other poets, well-established poets, who are not there and are unlikely to be there for some time, if ever. Yes, Flynn's first collection won the Forward Prize in 2004 for Best First Collection, and was shortlisted for the Whitbread, but one swallow does not a summer make. Her publisher is Cape, however, a mainstream publisher with a solid reputation and a reliable presence in high street bookshops, and perhaps we don't need to look much further than that.

Not that Leontia Flynn herself is in any way undeserving of praise. I've read both her books and I'm sure many people thoroughly enjoy her poetry. But some of the omissions on the British Council website are astonishing, and it's important to periodically stop and question why the work of some poets, both there and in other places, should be ignored or dismissed, while that of others - not necessarily any better, and often indeed mediocre or negligible in comparison - is trumpeted and held up as an example of good writing.

There are other oddnesses on the British Council site too; I'm not singling Flynn out in particular. The undoubtedly talented Daljit Nagra is also there, for instance - with only one published collection behind him. With a critical perspective, no less, already in place, also written by Ben Wilkinson. But Nagra's publisher is Faber & Faber. So that must be okay.

As far as these injustices are concerned, things are changing - though slowly, very gradually - for the better. The internet is behind the greatest changes, allowing people to disseminate information about poets more quickly and readily than ever before, and to challenge accepted orthodoxies with showcases of neglected or less glamorous, less well-publicised poets. But in book publishing terms, it is still too often the name of the publisher - the logo on the spine - rather than the name of the poet, which appears to determine which collections of poetry make the prize shortlists, or are reviewed in the nationals and featured on establishment poetry sites for general readers like the British Council.

Many disagree with me, I know. And there will always be useful exceptions to be held up against my argument. But I would suggest, politely, that a desire not to rock the poetry boat is behind most such protests. Not the truth.

3 comments:

Women Rule Writer said...

"...it is still too often the name of the publisher - the logo on the spine - rather than the name of the poet, which appears to determine which collections of poetry make the prize shortlists, or are reviewed in the nationals and featured on establishment poetry sites for general readers..."
The same is true in Ireland. Very small publishers, with little capacity for publicity, are largely ignored.

Ms Baroque said...

Jane, I've always assumed that the British Council site featured writers who have worked with the British Council. In fact, on their "about this site" page, it says this:

"We have a long list of authors who are being added to the site. They are authors that the British Council work with and holders of prizes and awards. It also includes critics."

Jane Holland said...

That's a curiously ambiguous statement: 'They are authors that the British Council work with and holders of prizes and awards.'

Does that mean only writers they work with are included, all of whom happen to have won prizes and awards?

Or does it mean only writers they work with are included PLUS other writers as well who have had prizes and awards? (Though which prizes and awards are not specified.)

I seem to recall a conversation about this on the POF forum where we were told there's a huge backlog of poets who need to be added, or have requested that they be added, but haven't been yet. Due to admin problems or something. Which means time and money, I imagine.

But if - please note, "IF!" - they include people with awards, who have not worked with them in some capacity - what exactly do poets do, by the way, when working with the BC? - it does rather underline what I said in my blog post about awards and prizes and who gets them and who doesn't, and the importance of all that. In poetry, you're either on the gravy-train or you're sucking dry bread in the sidings.

I have nothing against the British Council. I'm sure they do a fine job. But as I said, it's vital that at least a few people stop to question what's going on, regardless of the impact that may have on their own careers, when year after year the prize lists come out, and year after year it's the same publishing houses whose books are featured. Yes, there have been breakthroughs by smaller, independent presses. But they need to be repeated. Not forgotten about. Because the danger is that we begin to take for granted that books from those few publishers, that little magic circle of publishers, will be truly excellent and worthy of an award, and the rest ... well, not really worth bothering about.

The same situation extends to reviews. Where are books from the smaller independent presses reviewed except in the smaller magazines? Yet since poetry is a niche market anyway, why should people assume that smaller automatically equals unimportant or that independent indicates a lack of judgement on the part of the commissioning editor? When are Salt books reviewed in Poetry Review, for instance?

Let's look at that in more detail. You get the odd Salteeny there in a feature review, and maybe a few mentioned briefly under occasional small press Roundups, though I don't recall seeing one of those in PR in a while now. Yet you betcha any new books from Faber, Cape, Picador, Chatto etc. will be there in force, no questions asked.

So what does that mean in terms of our perception of non-mainstream poetry publishing? Does that mean, for instance, that Salt poets are not worth reviewing? What do you think it means?