Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Sportsmanship and Reviews

Recently I have been perusing articles on review writing. There are those who think that if the reviewer can't say something nice, they shouldn't say anything at all, while there are those that think the reviewer's job is to call a spade a spade. On the cheerleaders side, there is the arguments that we want to encourage people to read and you don't do that by being negative about the written word. On the curmudgeon's side is the retort that there is no point wasting people's time with things that aren't worth their attention.

I love to read and I love to write. And Heinlein's rule applies to poetry. He said, "Ninety percent of science fiction is crap. But then, ninety percent of everything is crap." The reviewer's job is to tell the reader what's what, and to do so in an informed and informing way. If he has done his job well, the reader can tell whether the book is something he is interested in even if he doesn't agree with the reviewer.

Fair play is the rule here: The reviewer must be fair in his or her analysis of the merits and demerits of a particular work. He must engage it on its own terms and make a distinction between his personal taste and the accomplishments (or failures) of the writer. This is very difficult work, made even more difficult by the prevailing notion that a 'good' review is one which praises the work (deserved or not) and a 'bad' review is one which points out its shortcomings.

As reading has been losing ground to more exciting media like movies, television, the Internet, and videogames, a sort of desperation has developed among writers and editors and other literary professionals -- it seems we must praise everything in order to convince somebody that all this literary work is really worth something. But effusive and undeserved praise only persuades the reader that we can't tell the difference between toilet paper and poetry.

But there is something else: Fear of retalation. Reviewers -- some of them, at least -- are afraid that writers (and editors and readers) won't like when they write what they really think, and so they say only nice things. This fear is real and warranted -- I have personally been campaigned against by a writer who didn't like my review and who did her damnedest to persuade my editor to kill the review or change as she specified. He didn't, for which I am grateful.

I admit, I wasn't so sure. It was the same editor, who, when giving me a review copy, told me if that if I was going to pan the book, he wouldn't print it. Reviews are a marketing tool. While I totally endorse the notion of effective marketing for a book (and have been criticized for it), I don't agree that a book review is a marketing tool. It's a tool for the buyer, not the seller. That it is useful (or not) to the seller is merely a side effect and not the intended purpose.

I walk an exquisite tight rope. My own integrity requires me to report what it is that I see, both good in bad in a work, and to analyze what the writer was attempting and whether s/he succeeded, and discover things that perhaps the writer didn't realize were there. I have to present my reasons for my statements and support them with quotations from the work, placing it in context of other relevant work. In short, it is a devilish amount of very difficult work, for which I receive no pay at all, rarely any praise, and which exposes me to the ire of unhappy poets who behave like they must have spent most of their school time in the principal's office.

It's enough to make a man throw up his hands and say, "I don't need this." Or, if he is made of weaker stuff, to write only nice things so that people will like him and continue sending him free books. Frankly, I place 'respecting myself' higher on the list of things that make me feel good than 'being popular,' so I've made my decision.

I have to say, I don't particularly like reviewing books. Of all the things I do, it's the least fun, the most work, the least reward, and which most exposes me to the bad behavior of people who claim to be grown ups. I do it because it helps me with my research, which I love. And because I think it needs doing because there are a lot of poorly written reviews and a definite lack of critical rigor in evaluating English-language tanka. Donning my hair shirt, I say, "tanka will be better for this."

Which brings me to sportsmanship: If you can't behave at least as well as a Little League player, go home. The world is overloaded with insecure, egotistical prima donnas of marginal talent and bad manners. We don't need any more. If you submit your work for publication, then it is your duty to do so with grace, accepting that some people will like it and some people won't, and listening carefully when reviewers, readers, editors, or anyone else make comments on your work.

Some of them will be airheads with nothing useful to say and can be ignored, but some of them have valid points that will make you wince. Take what you can use and ignore the rest. Don't argue about it. If necessary you can correct a factual error, but recognize that it is the reviewer's prerogative to say what he thinks. If you think a particular reviewer is incompetent, don't submit your books to that reviewer. Better yet, write reviews yourself. Good reviews, not laudatory reviews.

On the other hand, given the disincentives that exist, I don't foresee many new reviewers in the field. Thus, I propose that book reviews should be eligible for prizes, along with other non-fiction writing about tanka. Unfortunately, as far as I know, there is no prize given for tanka non-fiction. Perhaps if members of the various organizations demanded it, it would be though. Certainly we ought to recognize and promote our non-fiction writers who write about tanka as well as tanka poets themselves.


1 comment:

  1. I review as part of my job for a number of publications (I'm a librarian). I have to admit, that you need to review something on its merits, what its purported goals are, and what it attempted to achieve..but the whole point of writing reviews is that people have limited time and money, and reviews are supposed to serve as a weeding tool for both individuals and institutions to make choices. if you're not willing to pan something that needs such treatment, you have no business being a reviewer.

    It would definitely be nice if there existed a system where good reviewers - those who were fair, concise and thorough - were recognized.