Thursday, December 16, 2010


Poor friend.

My friend's book got busted up in a review. I feel bad for my friend. I almost felt like the reviewer was busting up my book, the one I don't have yet.

Of course I never like it when friends of mine get bad reviews but it especially annoys me when reviewers come in with a pre-fab agenda of what a book should do and then are all disappointed when it doesn't do those things.

It irritates me even more when you get the sense that a reviewer has barely read the book, and they certainly didn't read anything else by or about that author nor did they do any thinking about how this author's writing relates to other writing that has been written or is being written today.

For instance, in the research-y section of the review, the reviewer quoted Wikipedia--to talk about a poetry movement that almost everybody agrees was never a movement--and therefore nobody can sufficiently describe or associate anyone with it.

It was like he was the drunken 17-year old-narrator in THE SAVAGE DETECTIVES, in a bar, talking about Visceral Realism and the Visceral Realists.

Get to a meeting.

I'm not perfect by such a long stretch. But I have a few things I do before I interview people, which I find helpful.

Interviews, I admit, aren't the same as reviews, but still, they share some common ground and so maybe some of this process applies:

a. Read other reviews of that work

b. Read interviews that the author has done about that work and his or her previous works
c. Read previous books by that author

d. Read several different author bios

e. Don't quote from Wikipedia (?)

BAM. You were thinking it.

And, most importantly,

f. Read the book.

If I am interviewing someone about poetry, I read the book once to myself, once outloud. I'm not saying everybody has to be crazy like that but it does seem like you should keep reading a book until you can complete this sentence:

1. It seems like the author of this book is attempting to [insert thoughts].

You'll note that I did not say you should read until you can complete these sentences:

2. You know what I hate? I really hate when people write poems and they [insert opinions].

3. God, you know what's the best? I love it when people write poems and they [insert opinions].


We don't care what you hate in poetry.

We don't care what you like in poetry.

We don't even care what you don't care about either way in poetry.

You aren't the boss of Poems.

Reviewer: Who's Your Daddy?

Poetry: Not you.

You are a reader of poems (hopefully). That is who you are. So be that person.


Review Readers

Once you have read the book and you feel like you can answer Question 1, I say to you: Rip that book down to its royal underwear. What do I care?

I actually do care. I hate writing negative reviews, it makes me feel bad, like I'm spitting on a bouquet of pansies because I just so happen to like Black-eyed Susans a little better.

Black-eyed Susan, also known as Rudbeckia hirta, Brown-eyed Susan, Blackiehead, Brown Betty, Brown Daisy (Rudbeckia triloba), Gloriosa Daisy, Golden Jerusalem, Poorland Daisy, Yellow Daisy, and Yellow Ox-eye Daisy.


I respect critical reviews--I really do.

But ask yourself this before you fire off a reveiw without necessary prework:


What I don't respect is a critical review that's rattled off half-cocked. Why the half-cockedness? Because the reviewer isn't getting paid? Secret number 1: Nobody is.

Or maybe because the reviewer is thinking, "Well, whatever, this ain't the NYTBR." Secret number 2: No kidding. Secret number 3: Thank god.

Or maybe the reviewer is thinking, "Oooh, goody [hand rubbing], another review of mine, written in three minutes. Published. Booyah!"

Not booyah. Just boo. Boo on review grubbers. Boo on mofo lazy.

Also boo on poor writing and no editing.

I want to understand exactly what a reviewer is criticizing, but I cannot do this when I do not understand what I am reading. I can only say to myself: "I consider myself a creative person, and yet, I can't think of any context in which these words in this order might make a kind of sense."

[reread sentence]

"l still don't get this. It seems like an interesting thought that I would like to think about in relation to Poet's poems. Could this thought be explained more clearly? I want to think yes."

In the nicer parts of the review, the reviewer kept using the word "banal" but not pejoratively. Except, as I understand it at least, the connotation of banal is pejorative.

Maybe he means "ordinary" or "everyday"? An editor could tell us this. Maybe he's writing "banal" but he means "anal"?

I am so confused.

I think the poet Issa explained it best in his last (and sadly most obscure) poem:


So banal--
force and
and what
is more,
devoid of

Happy holidays.

And thank you for listening and thank you Reviewers for your reviews, even the wobbly wonky ones that will surely improve in the coming new year.


  1. This is just a fantastic post, Liz. I hate when reviewers have weird, thinly veiled agendas. It detracts from the work. I think it's hard to review poetry. I rarely do it because I just don't know enough about poetry to review it appropriately. I repeat: This is fantastic.

  2. This is brilliant. It should be required reading for all reviewers.

  3. Thanks, R and K! I'm glad you like it. I'm almost certain this is my most preachy and school marm-y and self-congratulatory post yet, but I aim to please.

    Yes R, I seriously do not appreciate the "I am arriving at this review with an agenda rolled up and held in my armpit like the evening paper." It IS weird and distracting. Write a horoscope. I like horoscopes with agendas.

  4. I think I like this...on the other hand, I might agree with the reviewer of your friend's book, so it's hard to say! I tend to only be against poorly-written negative reviews when I happen to disagree with them. (I would make a lousy judge or umpire.)

  5. Matt,
    Do you feel like if a reviewer describes a work and its aims well enough (as he or she understands them), you can usually get a sense of whether you're going to like that book? I feel like I can. Sometimes I'm very wrong. I read a review of Dorothea Lasky's AWE and, god, it just sounded so terrible. It wasn't a critical review. It was a glowing one, but the way the reviewer described it. I thought, I cannot see ever liking this book. Then I read it and loved it. I've had the opposite experience too. Very disappointing.

  6. On the rare occasions I actually read reviews, it's usually after I've read the book. I don't think I've ever learned anything about what a poetry book is like from a review or blurb. Anything besides poetry is a little easier because you can at least describe the plot or whatever. And quoting a few lines from a poem just doesn't work at all. I keep wanting to write a review, just because I've never done it before and I feel like I'm missing out, but I don't know, it just seems pointless to me.

  7. When people quote just a few lines of poetry, I find it really frustrating, too. In my interviews, I tend to quote from the books AT LENGTH. Sometimes I think the publishers are going to get annoyed like--are you giving are book away for free or what? But I think the more you quote, the more likely people are to become interested and buy the book--not the opposite. You should do it! Write the review. I find reviews so helpful. Especially for things I tend not to understand, e.g., movies. Post it here. :)

  8. Ok, this is the closest thing to a review I've written:

  9. Matt, I meant to respond to this earlier. Wow, you really dislike Hoagland's poems a lot. :) I sort of like them. I like how he tries to talk about race and sex, and sometimes he fails and those particular poems fall flat or they have no staying power. But he tries. I give points for trying. I take away points for writing good poems that don't even try to turn over the rock to look at it.