Wednesday, February 03, 2010

On Reviewing and Lying

Just reviewed ten books all at once, which was quite an epic undertaking, trying to be fair to each within a narrow word allowance, plus flag up weaknesses and strengths. Only one collection really made me want to throw it across the room, and I hope I've made that dislike clear in my review.

You know, I read these puffs on the backs of poetry books and my god, some of them are just jaw-droppingly untrue. You read them as a kind of introduction to the work, and you think 'Aha, okay, sounds good ...' and then you open the book, and it's like they were describing another book entirely. Another poet, in fact. Probably on another planet in a completely different solar system. And not even a poet, but a yellow-striped geologist-cum-lugworm, with three heads and a tendency to spit when conversing.

I know it's hard when a friend, or the friend of a friend, or someone you owe money to, or who's having a nervous breakdown and needs all the help they can get, or who simply gives good head, comes along and says 'Can you write a few words about my new book?'

But do you really have to lie? That much? Like, Tony Blair proportions ...

I didn't lie in my review. That may cost me in some instances. But what the hell. It's not like I've ever been popular! And I was at least circumspect. I didn't say 'Wow, this is shite' - though I wanted to at times. I tried to be kind, which runs contrary to my nature. I also tried to give credit where it was due, for books which were, at least, not actively offensive. I had a strong urge to write 'Mostly harmless' next to some titles, it's true. But I'm being paid to give my expert opinion (stifle your sniggers please, I have been doing this for well over a decade now) so I bore that in mind and wrote accordingly.

8 comments:

Poetry Pleases! said...

Dear Jane

In my experience most poetry reviews are so sycophantic that they simply aren't worth reading. Poets are terrified of upsetting each other in case it interferes with their own ascent up the greasy pole. Where are yours being published? By being honest you might have started a whole new trend - but frankly I doubt it!

Best wishes from Simon

Jane Holland said...

It's too late for me re the greasy pole. I failed to ascend years ago and now dance round the bottom, yelling abuse.

Most of my reviews appear in Poetry Review these days, though I do write for other publications occasionally.

Sorlil said...

I almost considered subscribing to Poetry Review just to read your reviews but having checked out the price, I don't think so!

Jane Holland said...

Pretty steep, huh? That's the good thing about being in almost every issue for the past three or four years ... free copies!

I do these things for a reason, you know. ;)

WOMEN RULE WRITER said...

I know the feeling. I try to get at the intention of the writer and then praise the best bits, while pointing out what I don't think works. If I really HATE a book, I refuse to review it.

BarbaraS said...

Reading your (honest) post reminds me why, when I do get a book that I really like, it's hard not to rave about it. Restraint, in all things, I was once told - pity I never remember that until I'm halfway down the bottle...

Michelle said...

A yellow-striped geologist-cum-lugworm! :)

ndredux said...

You're highlighting why mere value judgements are irrelevant—being an expert isn't enough legitimacy because there are no facts when discussing aesthetics. (This is even more the case with poetry reviews)

The task of the critic is to first describe what the author/film-maker/chef is doing and then to somehow argue why that may have any value.