Negative Reviews vs. Cultural Repression

Yeah! And while you’re thinking about it, think about this:
equality is unfair! – That’s right! What’s the point of a man
working hard all his life, trying to get some place, if all he’s
going to do is wind up equal?
                                                           —Archie Bunker

I’m staying with a friend for the weekend. He has a child who’s being potty trained and every time the kid successfully aims his butt at the miniature toilet, the whole house applauds in celebration. The child cannot fail. Any caca he makes is a glorious performance. I clap and turn to my buddy, smile broadly and say, “This is Canada’s poetry scene in a nutshell.”

Undeniably, there is a period in the acquisition of any skill or in the development of a work of art during which it would be destructive to apply negative criticism. As an English language teacher working with non-native speakers, I practice building confidence through encouragement, allowing a great number of errors to pass, and slowly attending to each area of trouble. In the environment of the poetry workshop, I also lean toward gradual skill-building whilst nurturing the delicate interest that keeps the workshop participants writing and sharing their work. Indeed it is the teacher’s moral imperative to stimulate what degree of confidence and creativity he can in these environments. During the potty stage, we must employ appreciative observation.

The principle of encouragement is true of the individual as well as of the group: the local community, the province and the nation. There is a period in the growth of a culture during which it is more useful to encourage any cultural production rather than stifle what little there is.

On the train ride home, I come across another one of these silly online bloggersations regarding the duty of the poetry critic. There are a number of poets in this country who would have us all abide in a Kumbaya garden of the appreciative intellect. To maintain this blissfully peaceful state however requires that no hooligan toss stones into the pond. We wouldn’t want a ripple to spoil the perfect heaven reflected in its surface. The problem with this approach is that it promotes censorship and sees no value in negative criticism. If you didn’t like it, they say, don’t review it. Live and let live.

Trouble is, this idyllic order is an entirely cerebral fabrication that does not account for the life of the heart—which admits dissatisfaction and failure. I remember reading an article provided by Professor Kerry McSweeney during my graduate studies at McGill. The tenor of the piece was the problem of PhD candidates not being able to answer the question of whether they liked a certain literary work or not. After all their years of training they could not engage in a conversation regarding taste and aesthetics. It didn’t matter if they liked it or not, it was by some mystery called art and was to be appreciated. McSweeney spent that whole term making sure to ask each and every one of us, one by one, at the start of each class whether we liked or disliked (not simply appreciated) our weekly reading assignments and WHY. Though incomprehensible and seemingly arbitrary to some, he was teaching us that poetry (like all art) is to be appreciated both mentally and viscerally: the former interrogating and informing the latter and vice versa.

On the train I notice how slowly the distance rolls by while the old telephone poles near the tracks flit past. Our situation as historical or biographical beings moving through time by the second, minute, hour, day, or by the teaspoon, the chore, the poem, the novel, whatever the measure, is subject to a similar optical limitation. The closer a subject is to you, the more difficult it is to apprehend. Keeping your eye on the foreground induces nausea and vertigo. To right yourself you gaze into the more stable distance. In terms of poetry, it’s the prizes, laureates, reputations and fads that fly by, while in the background the canon (or poetry conversation) ponderously shifts, grows, recedes, gets blurred by the foreground and returns to view.

I’m thinking about my visit with my buddy and I find myself lamenting how our childhood haunts in the nearby gorge have been closed off with fences set up by the local nature authority. As is often the case in such circumstances, local home owners end up locked out of public land they’ve been using all their lives. For others, it was precisely the proximity and access to nature that enticed them to move to the place. The authority has to put up fences because they have become legally responsible for the maintenance and preservation of the area, and, well, a gorge is a dangerous place into which people, usually teenagers, have a tendency to fall from time to time when they get drunk and stoned. I suppose the thinking is that with the fences up, if someone falls, it’s because they jumped a fence taking their lives in their own hands and the authority is off the hook. The experience put me in mind of William Blake’s “The Garden of Love,” about a garden the speaker remembers from his youth, now fenced off with “‘Thou Shalt Not’ writ over the door.” The poem ends as follows: “And Priests in black gowns were walking their rounds, / And binding with briars my joys & desires.” It would be a shame if a poetry priesthood or poetry authority were to succeed in a campaign to fence off passionate territory for our own good: what a diabolical utopia!

There are several ways in which the negative review is useful. The most important is how it corroborates and articulates the feelings of certain readers. For those like myself, the moment of contact with a negative review with which one identifies can be at once a cathartic and inspiring aesthetic experience: it feels like one is no longer alone. This is especially positive for those who feel alienated from current writing trends and suspect that something mysterious and beyond their understanding is afoot, and who probably question their own sanity until they meet a kindred spirit in person or in print. The problem of trends, fashions and styles brings me to the next in order of the benefits provided by harsh, incisive reading. A well-executed and perceptive negative review can expose a trendy style dominating and hindering poetic culture. It can similarly challenge academic authority and the reputations it forges. For the poet as craftsman, the negative review is a method of purging from his own work the very qualities he despises in the work of others. For the acolyte, following such discourse helps him locate where he stands. One seeks and finds oneself in poetry after all. The poems we love and those that repel us tell us something about who we are. To censure and censor this activity is by no means a “live and let live” agenda. It is a “live our way or stifle” philosophy. It is parochial, prescriptive and destructive to the spirit and cultural action of poetry. And I can’t stress enough that it is anti-democratic in nature to do away with opposition. Unanimity is a sign of a repressive community.

By no means do I wish to suggest that negative reviews should be written thoughtlessly and out of moodiness. I despise lazy reviews that simply dismiss (or laud) a book without being clear about why, or if they are clear on this subject, do not quote to illustrate their meaning. There must be a reason to write a negative review, and the target should be worthy of the effort in the sense that the reviewer’s engagement with the text should be a fruitful act representing a genuine struggle with the poetry under review.

According to a Publisher’s Weekly article from March 29, 2010 by Craig Teicher entitled “What Poetry Reviews Are For (And Up Against),” Kevin Prufer, an editor, poet and reviewer in the US, upon conducting an informal poll, found that 92% of poetry reviews were positive with not a single negative remark. With that in mind, I’m led to speculate about what motivates attacks on negative reviews and their writers. With the Creative Writing Program producing as many critics as poets, there will always be someone to write a glowing review. Under such a regime, and I picture a carnival barker saying this, “E-e-everybody gets a book! And every book! gets a Sta-a-aggering review! No one can fail. Step right up!” This is potty culture. We need to collectively grow up and understand that we do not come to know ourselves exclusively through what pleases us. It is especially disturbing to consider whose talents such a drowsy climate might serve, for it must be those who have little talent and poor reading skills, and those who would see their name in print to satisfy their egotism. It certainly does not benefit the keen few who have dedicated their lives to poetry, have immersed themselves in a tradition for decades and work passionately at producing meaningful art. Whatever the potty party might believe, its adherents must understand that there is always a group of poets who need to know they can fail and who grow from perusing the occasional, well-wrought negative review. Moreover, the potty movement must consider the historical conversation, the record we leave for posterity. Surely it would be a disservice to hide our scepticism and present future readers with an unchallenged and unchallenging discourse of acceptance. It would represent an historical lie.

This topic touches on so many aspects of our society I feel like Stephen Dedalus from James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man trying to imagine eternity. I’m still on the train and all this brain-strain is making me sleepy. Luckily I’m in a window seat where I can, with the help of my folded jacket, find a comfortable position to nap. The guy behind me is playing a video game on his laptop. He’s wearing headphones but I can hear the sound effects. After a few minutes the noise grates on me and I ask him to turn down the volume. He politely obliges and I return to my nap position. I can still hear the sound effects though and I realise the guy has been doing this so long, he’s lost some hearing. Nevertheless, I ask once more if he might lower the volume. Raising his eyebrows, his response is, “Wow. You have really sensitive ears!” Perhaps I do. I also have a sensitive nose, and I smell bullshit. The basic orientation of a person is that they are normal and the “other” is somehow abnormal. Self-reflexive types, those who take a negative criticism to heart are few and far between. Instead people reverse the problem: it is not my deafness and the noise I’m making but your sensitive hearing. I note how closely this situation resembles my relationship with some of the most celebrated poetry today and settle my head back on my jacket.

I can’t sleep. Perhaps even more upsetting is that with all the time spent trying to quash negative criticism, no one seems to be reviewing the critics harshly enough. In a climate of poor reviewing, negative critiques are generally as poorly conceived as appreciative reviews. What irks a poet like me isn’t the so-called “bad” review but the poorly conceived, poorly written, incoherent, over-opinionated or opinionless, incompetent review. There seems to be no discourse on that topic. To my mind the most hideous thing that a reviewer can do is fail to quote enough of a book to allow readers to make up their own minds. Not to quote, or to quote too little (or too strategically) is a dereliction of the reviewer’s responsibility. If there is little room for an in-depth crit, then one must still work to make certain he does not turn the piece into an opportunity to have his name in print. Especially when poets are the ones writing the reviews, the review should be artful in its own right because each time a poet writes something, it becomes part of his oeuvre of thought. I’d rather be torn apart by an incisive, thoughtful and skilled poet than be appreciated by any number of Creative Writing students, graduates and teachers who are for the most part ignorant of the basic principles of close reading, have no sense of history, demonstrate no familiarity with the tradition with which a poet might be in conversation, and, as a result, resort to theory-driven, author-is-dead approaches, showing zero interest in the poet and what his work means to communicate. This kind of reading is ego-centric: Approaching a text as though it were theirs to largely invent, they read-into it rather than exercise their empathy, which is a worrisome trend and a real problem facing our culture.

I fish out a magazine in the mesh pocket fastened to the back of the seat in front of me. The feature article is about Karl Wallenda’s highwire crossing of Niagara Falls. There was some controversy over the idea of him wearing a safety harness. At first Wallenda rejected the notion but the TV network covering the event did not want to be in a position to film a death and refused to have it any other way. Wallenda conceded. I, at first, felt that the stakes were at once lowered. It was no longer a death-defying act. It was dare-devil lite. It was a video game with endless lives. I am reasonable, however, and I did come around. The feat was still enormous, and had he fallen, he’d have to face the humiliation and no doubt suffer the inevitable self-castigation that would ensue from failure. But he’d be alive to try again or become a motivational speaker, or open a restaurant as he pleased. Removing the sensationalism emphasises at once the extraordinary discipline of the funambulist and the human potential to achieve impossible aspirations. I can live with these values. And I feel that perhaps if I question my position vis a vis the negative review using the Wallenda case for mental leverage, I’ll have a better chance of dislodging the issue from my mind. The biggest difference of course is that poetry reviews are not a life and death situation, so the possibility of receiving a negative review is not at all like falling to one’s death. A negative review does not kill a book. In fact it can sell books, and history presents us with many ill-received poets who were later met with great recognition. Tennyson, for instance, was mocked for his florid language and Arthurian subject matter. And William Blake was relatively unheard of until W. B. Yeats popularised his work toward the end of the nineteenth century. But what the existence of negative reviewing does provide is some semblance of the possibility of a book of poetry failing. If you can’t fail there are no stakes. An issue that comes up time and again in poetry circles is how low the stakes are. It’s a statement that needles me because I don’t identify with it. In fact I think the stakes couldn’t be higher. Either your work is recurrently appealing or it’s not. Either it’s part of the conversation or it’s not. Among other things, poets try to span the chasm of historical and social relevance and the abyss of communication and translation. Plenty of poets don’t see the issue from an historical perspective and they are welcome to disagree, but they’re trading high stakes for potty culture.

I admit I understand the conundrum. It’s socially awkward for poets to walk around entertaining inflated ideas of their place in the poetry conversation. As a psychological defense, and keeping in mind the fact that the probabilities of recurrent admiration are very low, we tell ourselves, a sane person looking at this situation would say, “The stakes are low.” But there are three things wrong with this approach: (1) poets still do walk around with inflated notions of their place in the world, so, for these folk at least, the stakes-are-low attitude proves to be but a social façade; (2) it’s not so much that the stakes are low as that the chances of success are low, which means the opposite: I mean, think of the Bunker quotation I used as an epigraph to this essay, if you invest your whole life in poetry and your work never finds currency or never proves itself superior to all the other poetry being produced, you’ve lost your life’s work (them’s pretty high stakes in my books); and (3) it’s not a desirable perspective because it leads to a complacent and mediocre apprehension of poetry and what it means to be a poet, reducing it to something along the lines of social work.

Once a child outgrows the potty stage, he learns that the poop he makes will meet with a gurgle of plumbing instead of cries of aplomb. With the increased popularity of Creative Writing programs and the introduction of a PhD in Creative Writing, a greater number of poets enter the market each year. According to the Association of Writers & Creative Writing Programs Guide, since 2004, there has been a 22.5% increase in the number of CW programs in North America. Between 2006 and 2010, the number of students graduating from CW programs in the US increased by 19%.  Assuming a similar increase in Canada, surely our poetry culture can afford some healthy and honest critical engagement.

Asa Boxer