Earl Gray

Earl Gray
"You can argue with me but, in the end, you'll have to face that fact that you're arguing with a squirrel." - Earl Gray

Monday, July 9, 2012

The Difference an Audience Makes - Part I

A Public Safety Officer sees a blind woman walking toward an open manhole. Should the PSO warn her?  Or say nothing?

You might expect that, barring a psychopath or two, everyone would say "Yes, warn her!" even if it were not the PSO's job. What ethical person would remain silent there?

Jan Zwicky
This is what reviewers do. They buoy works, boosting the profiles of great novels such as "Stone Diaries" while placing markers over "Howard the Duck" so we'll avoid it. In fact, it doesn't even have to be a full review; a rating on a "Best of..." list might suffice for the impatient web surfer. For this service we are all grateful.

Thus, when some ignore my advice to the contrary and read "The Ethics of the Negative Review" by Jan Zwicky they are gobsmacked. It's not merely the sloppy editing; much of the verbiage is an argument against bringing up various tangents in the first place. We can only guess Ms. Zwicky's DELete key is broken. No, what amazes many is the central thesis that reviewers, not to be confused with blurbers, are meanies. In addition to all of the objections raised by Michael Lista in "On Poetry: The good in bad reviews", there is the painfully obvious point that the "ethics" of bad reviews is the very same as the "ethics" of good ones: "Ya calls 'em as ya sees 'em."

End of story, right?

Michael Lista
People from outside the poetry worlds would certainly think so. Of what use would Rex Reed or Siskel and Hebert have been if they didn't pan clunkers? Ditto fiction critics.

Online poets certainly don't have a problem with negative feedback. (Feel free to test this with your own discussion thread:  blog, Facebook, newslist, etc.  Ask:  "How do you feel about negative reviews in poetry?"). By definition, online workshoppers regularly engage in constructive critique, based as it is on a negative premise: this poem isn't perfect yet. That is their focus:  poems, not poets.  As a group they discuss technique and originality, always with a view toward the existing poetry audience.

The problem with "the existing poetry audience" is that it doesn't actually exist, which makes any question about reviews--or poetry itself--all the more existential. If there is no audience--and there isn't--then there is no blind woman striding toward an open sewer. Indeed, there are no residents at all. What does it matter if there is a pitfall in a ghost town?  What purpose is served by pointing out this carelessness beyond gratuitously embarrassing the worker who forgot to replace the manhole cover?  Someone's job could be on the line here.

We need another analogy.

By definition, those in the careerist world endeavor to create an attractive CV and acquire a job teaching poetry. Get a book or two published in a local/university press and a few poems in high profile literary magazines, none of which are targeted beyond their academic contributors. Virtually any wan, allusive, intellectualized prose will suffice. Get a few well known friends to blurb it and you're good to go.

Seen in this light, negative reviewers become unwelcome interlopers. It is as if they are barging into a job interview to tell the prospector employer that the applicant is a poo-head.


No comments:

Post a Comment

Your comments and questions are welcome.