Monday, January 7, 2019

When the poem writes back

Last week, something wonderful happened: My second full-length collection, Passing Through Humansville, published at the very end of 2018 by Sundress Publications, reached the hands of those readers who had pre-ordered it.

One by one, friends started writing me notes of congratulations and posting photos on social media of my book in their hands. It’s a beautiful thing to see the work that began in my notebook beautifully produced and present in places all over the country. My poems are, generally speaking, the best of me, and these poems are the best of the best of what I had to offer.

But is the best of me good? That’s the question, and it gives me pause when I see my loved ones holding my work. The question is not even a writerly one; any of us might take a moment to look around at the life and work we create and wonder if we’re reaching our potential or contributing something meaningful to the world. I hope we all do wonder this, just as I hope we all put forth some effort to make our one life mean something.

Poetry usually isn’t much fun. For me, the drafting begins with something like shame. I write out a word, a sentence, a set of connections, and then I can’t believe my foolishness. It’s my habit to obliterate those first words — just scribble-scribble-scribble over them until not a single letter can be picked out. That blacking-out (or bluing-out, more accurately — I have a thing for blue pens) seems to be part of my process. I approach what’s hard to approach, and then I back away from it in a very forceful way, and then I approach again by a more deliberate path.

After the drafting and its weird embarrassment, I begin revising, a process that is less shameful and more tedious. There’s not a lot of joy in sweating out each word and casting and recasting each line, and there is a fair amount of second-guessing in the process. Ultimately, I make a decision, and then I question that decision for a bit, and then I say the hell with it and call the issue settled.

Then comes submitting. I generally like this process — after all, I’m giving my poems a real, live audience, even if it’s just an audience of one harried editor. It’s kind of fun to see if they sink or swim on their own, and so much about the process is instructive. Editors always seem to go first for the poems I include as filler in a submission, for instance, and poems I love sometimes take longer than the others to find a home. I do not like sorting through submission guidelines and coughing up reading fees, but the human contact is nice, even when that human says no.

Putting together a book is another difficult task. Readers seem to like the relief that sections provide, so I spend a lot of time figuring out what goes where. (With my first book, I labored over this section issue pretty hard, but my editor, the brilliant Erin Elizabeth Smith, suggested I eliminate sections altogether, and that was the right decision — but wow, I spent a lot of time taping and retaping those pages around on a bare wall.) There are things in the editing process that we argue for and things that we let go of along the way, and that’s an invigorating set of exchanges, but again, it’s a lot of work.

One of the final parts of the writing process is that weird angst of having my actual book in the hands of actual readers, and I won’t go into that again. I notice, though, that I’ve not mentioned any real delight along the way, and a reader may well wonder — was there any?

In fact, there was. Writing poetry brings one distinct pleasure, and that is the satisfaction of having written. This is a feeling that only comes when the work is viable, as there is no pleasure in “having written” garbage. When we’ve written something we like, it feels very nice.

Beyond this satisfaction, though, is a feeling that’s downright exhilarating, and these are the moments when you’ve written the poem and the poem writes back. You scan the piece and, improbably, you discover something — some insight you didn’t plant there (or at least not intentionally). I’ve even found dense layers of imagery in a poem that I didn’t calculate; they just sort of showed themselves upon later inspection. My own poems kind of floor me sometimes, not because they’re amazing poems (although there are some I’m very proud of), but because they seem to operate independently of my consciousness. They have their own consciousness — and that’s a weird and breathtaking discovery on a printed page.

Sometimes we think we’re writing a question, and we’re actually writing the answer to that question. Sometimes we write out our fury or frustration and peace peeks through. Sometimes we’re just writing along the best we can when the poem says, “Let’s show her what we can do.” This is the thrill of it — when a poem is a horse that can take us into astonishing wilderness but then knows exactly how to bring itself home.


Tuesday, February 27, 2018

A toast to the NEA hopeful

I don’t know what’s going to poke up through the centers of the bright green bunches of leaves that line my front walkway. I know what’s there—hyacinths, crocuses, daffodils, tulips. Until they come to flower, I’m not sure what it is I’m looking at. I anticipate beauty.

Spring means flowers, but it also means the deadline to apply for a Creative Writing Fellowship through the National Endowment for the Arts. These applications happen on a rolling basis—every even year, poets can apply, and every odd year, prose writers (fiction or nonfiction) get their chance. I write in all of these genres, although I identify most readily as a poet, so I never miss a chance to be considered.

And why would it? The fellowships are for $25,000, and applying is free. A lot of writers complain about the multi-step application process, which includes verification of eligibility and a description of the project, among other odds and ends, and some throw up their hands partway through and opt out.

Not me. Maybe it’s because I’m an experienced grant-writer, but I see the NEA application as straightforward and simple—and $25,000 is totally worth an hour or two of effort. 

It’s like those bulbs that pop up where and when I’m not suspecting them. They wait underground, completely self-contained, until roots nose out from the basal plate, and deep within the tunic of the bulb, a lily makes ready to emerge and surprise me with its richness.

I wouldn’t mind being surprised with a little richness.

This past weekend, some of my poet friends had scheduled a toast to celebrate the completion of their grant applications. It was an idea of my friend Anna Leahy, who is a remarkable poet and thinker, well worth Endowment support. The toast was on my calendar, too—but as a part-time instructor and a freelancer, I’m constantly booked, and my personal projects, like applying for grants, often get put off until the very last minute. Because of this, I wasn’t ready to raise my glass, though I clinked for my friends in my imagination.

Writers are like that, I’ve found. There’s some competition, as anyone would expect, but there’s so much more. We help each other out. We inform each other of opportunities. We remind each other of deadlines (like the NEA fellowship application, due March 7, 11:59 p.m. Eastern time …). There’s sometimes a tinge, or more than a tinge, of envy when the grant recipients are announced in November—but for now, we toast. We’ve made the effort; we’ve put ourselves out there, planted our bulb, and now we wait.

Who knows what the current Congress and administration will do with the NEA? More than ever, sending off that application feels like shouting into a well. But I really believe in a nation that backs the arts—an investment that time and time again has proven to pay real dividends. The arts make up more than 4 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product ($704 billion in 2013, according to the NEA). And every practicing artist I know gives back in some way—through service, through mentorship, through meaning, and through beauty.

Artists are a good bet—no, a good investment. And all along the side of my lawn, I see green shoots, reminding me of how our hopes in one season sometimes manifest beautifully in another.


Me, with some of my spring flowers

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Making the most of pockets of time

I’m finding myself pressed for time these days—and “pressed” is a perfect word for it. When you press down hard on something, something has to give. Something goops out the side. When the hours of my day are packed full, what goops out for me is my writing.

Why writing? I think it may be because it’s something I’m not rewarded for, and no one is depending on it. There’s no paycheck linked to my completion of a sonnet. My short stories don’t need homework help. I’m not married to my essays.

And there’s another, bigger reason, too: Writing is hard. It has its technical challenges, obviously, but I’m talking about something a little different here. Good writing, even if it’s the wildest, most impersonal fiction, gets down into our messy inner places. If it’s good, it digs into us, and that’s uncomfortable—even painful at times.

It becomes easy to avoid our writing when our time is limited. We may continue to make time for social media or TV shows, but isn’t it true that writing well requires more time than that? We can passively poke around the digital world while doing other things, but writing requires our whole selves, and it’s not something we can easily hop in and out of.

In most days, I find that I have brief windows of time that no one has a claim on. I’m talking about the ten minutes in the school pickup line or the five minutes on hold with the cable company. As an instructor, maybe it’s the fifteen minutes of in-class writing time I assign my students, or five minutes in the parking lot after work.

These windows aren’t enough for me to write something. Even a small poem requires time for reflection; I’m not just putting down words. But they are useful for keeping the pump primed, the flow going. Lately, I’ve been trying to make the most of my pockets of time, so that when I do have an hour or more of writing time, I’m not empty. There’s something right there at the surface I can draw on to begin.

For those in the same position I am, here are a few five-minute jump-starts I’ve found useful:

Listing. Listing is such a powerful creative technique. A quickly generated list is weird and associative, and it’s practically self-propelling. One item flows into the next. When our inner censor is turned off, we can make surprising connections—the same kinds of connections I love to make in poetry. A journaling type of list is one possibility (“Ways to make more of my time”), but we can also go in a more creative direction (“Ten things I didn’t expect to find on Mars,” or “Reasons I choke on water”). The more fanciful, the more I like them.

Character sketches. This seems like a fiction exercise, but writers in any genre can stay limber by writing a character sketch, or even a description of a real person. I wrote a poem not long ago about my junior high government teacher, who sexually harassed me and treated me very cruelly (#MeToo). Before I wrote about him, I worked to remember him—the sheen of sweat on his upper lip, his nipple-high trousers. My character sketch didn’t end up in my poem, but the vivid memory of this man prepared me to tell my (tardy) truth.

Word associations. This is just what it sounds like. I start with a word, and then I write a new word that the first word calls to mind. I try to avoid forming any kind of narrative; writing in columns down the page instead of in paragraph form is a helpful strategy. I think it must be a characteristic of our minds that we try to make meaning and build associations. What looks like a list of words often tells a secret story, usually about ourselves.

Haiku. If we wanted to write a worthy haiku, we would need much more than a brief window of time in which to do it. This is far from a throwaway form, and I have a great deal of respect for it. But when we’ve pulled forward at the fast-food drive-thru to wait for our fries, we can bust out a quick three lines based on whatever is visible through our windshield. Not everything we write is for posterity, or even for publication, and a pocket-of-time haiku keeps our observational powers honed.

Create a prompt. This idea comes from fiction writer Michael Czyzniejewski, who says he often uses moments when he’s on the run, walking from here to there or standing in the grocery line, to think of a way he can be creative later. When writing time becomes available and we hit the page with a prompt in mind, we save some time that we might otherwise spend trying to decide what to write about.

Envision a revision. I suspect all writers have memories of good ideas that didn’t take off, or any number of failed drafts. Why not take five minutes to apply a new perspective to those pieces? I’ve always found time and distance useful to solving my composition problems.

Read. We can always benefit by sticking a book in our bag to provide inspiration. I also love reading short pieces online. A great place to read the best flash fiction around is SmokeLong Quarterly, and for nonfiction, I love the essays and brief craft pieces in Brevity. I also like to read a poem and noodle over it for a bit, just to see where it might transport me.

Give a lecture. This is embarrassing, OK, but I’m going to put it out there. Sometimes I like to give little lectures to imaginary classrooms about some aspect of writing. It’s just a thing I do when I’m by myself, maybe driving a long distance. The thing about lecturing is that the lecturer is forced to clarify her own thoughts before communicating them with others. The faux lecture, an apparent act of foolishness, can actually be very instructive.

Even the busiest person can eventually carve out an hour or two. These five-minute exercises can keep us limber enough to make the most of our time when our lives allow it.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Sometimes an exercise is just an exercise

I was reading submissions for a publication recently, and I came across a poem with a distinctive and unusual title. Below it, in the epigraph position, was the attribution line—something along the lines of “After Pablo Neruda,” only a different poet was named.

On a hunch, I looked up the poet and the title together, and what I suspected proved to be true: One word of the title had been replaced with another, and the poem itself enacted this Mad Libs substitution strategy throughout.

Imagine, as an example of this, if we were to start with a widely anthologized contemporary poem, maybe Li-Young Lee’s “Persimmons,” and change each persimmon to a kumquat. That poem is based on confusion between the words “persimmon” and “precision,” so I suppose we’d need a comparable word to stumble upon, like, I dunno, “ketchup.” 

When the speaker is punished for confusing “kumquat” and “ketchup” by a teacher—not Mrs. Walker, of course, but Mrs. Stalker or Caulker or something—what we find is not a poem that grows more and more original with each substitution; instead, it’s a poem that is increasingly beholden to the original.

The important question is this: Whose poem is our new “Kumquat”? And the answer should be obvious: It is Lee’s.

Imitations provide important lessons for any artist, and not just literary ones. Whenever I visit a major art museum, I see students sketching important works into their notebooks with their pencils. There is much we can learn from our creative forebears.

In almost any creative writing classroom, the imitation poem or story is a standard exercise, and such a transformative one. I don’t recommend eliminating this exercise any time soon. 

But students do need to know the difference between an exercise and an original creative work. I wish more writers would embrace the notion that it’s OK to do exercises, and that not everything we commit to the page needs an expanded life in a literary magazine.

Musicians understand this idea. They might begin their practice session with scales and arpeggios, but these are intended as warm-ups. Mere finger exercises don’t merit a trip to the recording studio. They’re just a precursor for what comes next.

Likewise, visual artists and designers often start with sketches. These might go somewhere and they might not, but they serve as a way to keep the fingers limber and the ideas coming.

Playing around with scales might suggest a pleasing progression of notes, and sketches might suggest a viable work of art—that’s often the hope. The exercises are an important step in the process, but the actual artifacts—pages of initial sketches, perhaps—are not usually seen as work that requires saving.

We writers are a different story. When we put effort into a piece, we tend to want it to go somewhere. We’ve worked hard and made some discoveries—writing always seems to lead to insight; that’s just the nature of it. Sometimes there’s an idea, an image, a turn of phrase that isn’t easy to re-house in a new piece, so we’re left with scraps. Often, our scraps remain scraps; an occasion to use our discards may never arise, and we’re left holding the most brilliant unattached sentence or phrase the world has never seen.

That imitation poem I encountered in a submission file had some nice moves in it, and many of these were the poet’s own. While it had a copied structure—both formal and rhetorical—it had some original flourishes. I get why the writer wanted it to find an audience, and the attribution line shows an admirable desire to honor the original writer. (By the way, I do believe a poem can start as an imitation and rise to the level of original art, but it has to involve much more than substitution to do so.)

I just wish we writers were more willing to let exercises be exercises. It feels important to publish, but there have been many occasions when I’ve gone off half-cocked, publishing a poem before its time, or publishing a poem that, in a more sober mindset, would never have come into its time—a poem that was meant to start and end its life as an exercise.

In writing this, I may seem elitist or stodgy. What I’m really trying to do is to make a case for play. What would the state of poetry look like if we writers let ourselves goof off more? Taking off the pressure to publish—taking away those expectations and stakes—gives us freedom to have fun. 

There’s no reason an office can’t be a playroom from time to time.


Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Our scraps cannot sustain us

A friend has been accumulating snippets and scraps over the years—little bits of a book-length essay project she’d like to write when she clears her decks of some other pressing projects.

They’re like hors d’oeuvres, these scraps—pops of flavor, about as satisfying as a cocktail wiener on a pick. They’re good or even beautiful, but their job is not to fill us.

Most writers know what it’s like to have a dream project on the back burner. Sometimes these are things we pursue in pockets of time here and there, but other times we leave them to languish. I’m confident that my friend, also named Karen, will get to hers eventually—she’s the kind of person who does. The Karen who is writing to you now will likely never finish that draft of a romance novel she once began as an office-hours project, but she is likely to knock out the publishing textbook she’s been working on for a few years.

My friend’s project is a travel narrative, probably composed of discrete essays, about her relationship to a particular special place. When ideas occur to her, she writes them down, and sometimes her morning pages or other occasional writing includes observations about the topic that’s so close to her heart.

She suggested I tackle this topic in a post—what do we do with our scraps when we’re writing toward something larger?

My answer may be a little disappointing, because we like to think that the work we do is going somewhere, adding up to something—but most of the time, I don’t think we can paste in these segments and arrive at a satisfying whole. These bits and pieces have done their job by keeping our dream project front and center in our mind. The work itself—those words we once jotted on the gas bill—may not be entirely useful.

My friend and I have both fallen into the trap a busy life poses. With so much happening, there aren’t long days to spend at a desk and noodle, daydream, follow our thoughts to their termini; instead, we teach a few classes, grade a stack of papers, handle some correspondence, roll clay into snakes or build Lego spaceships, cobble together some kind of dinner .... People expect things from us, and nearly all of our time is spoken for.

It’s probably tempting to suggest that we don’t need to read someone a bedtime story, but just try telling that to the someone. We need to work; we need to cook and clean and do laundry; we need to make love and exercise and pray and call our mom. Some of this we can put off for a day, but it’s always a matter of shuffling for those of us who have no independent fortune, no patron.

And we’re left with our paltry scraps. For me, they’re usually indistinguishable from garbage, and in fact they’re often made of garbage. That McDonald’s receipt in the recesses of my purse is actually the start of a poem. Those notes on my church bulletin are loose associations that reflect some early thinking about an essay. They’re what I did with the time I had—the “pull forward while we wait for your fries” time; the lost-in-thought-during-the-sermon time.

As difficult as it seems (and, indeed, as difficult as it is), we owe it to ourselves and to our art to make more time for creating, and until we do, I’m not convinced the shortcuts work.

Imagine you’re my friend, and you’re finally at your desk, with time to sort through scraps—some physical, some digital; some overlapping earlier ideas, some going in a new direction; some exciting, some downright inscrutable, whether it’s the idea or the text that is messy.

Does she have a start? Maybe, somewhere in the mix. But it seems to me that she also has a potential distraction during her precious writing time. We like to preserve what we’ve already made—no one wants to re-do old work. But the act of preserving a snippet requires us to organize our thinking around old ideas. We’re always evolving, and the person who wrote a note, or even several pages, is not the person who is sorting scribbled-on receipts right now.

I’ll be honest; often I can look at the start of a poem and pull it from the fire. Poems are often very small. It’s not the same for me with elements of a larger, more ambitious piece of work. That river we slosh into for the second, third, fourth time is just a mimic of that estuary we remember. We dried off. We’re wet with new waters.

Let’s resolve to give ourselves what time we can cobble together—those weeks when we don’t have grading, those days when fast food will suffice, those nights when one bedtime story will do. Where possible, let’s string those spare moments together into an hour, or two, or five—a workday, a whole day, a weekend. And let’s not start with our own intellectual table scraps. Instead, let’s mix up something more sustaining from the creative pantry.

Aren’t you hungry?


Tuesday, January 23, 2018

When publishers close: Some ideas for protecting writers' rights

It seems to be happening more and more: A literary press opens, puts out a few good books, gets some buzz, grows … and then one day, with no warning, it disappears.

Recently, several small presses have dissolved. I had close connections to a couple of them. I was on the staff of one, ELJ Publications, and left a few months before it was shuttered. Another press, Hermeneutic Chaos, published my chapbook—a beautiful thing, lovingly designed—but then it seemingly closed down shop without a word.

Several other small presses have also closed recently—some so recently that the word is not yet out. What happens next is a typical set of scenarios, and a sad one.
Writer A is in production, and every day is spent waiting and watching for a box of hot-off-the-press copies that are never going to show.
Writer B’s book just came out—hooray! But when B tries to order a bunch for an upcoming reading, it’s no longer available, and in fact all of the press’s titles have disappeared.
Writer C has been reading and touring for a year now, and sales are brisk. Suddenly, though, the book is out of print—vaporized in its prime, as if it had never happened at all.
I used to think presses and journals closed because dilettante publishers misunderstood the scope of their job—maybe they didn’t know how hard running a press would be, or how much it would cost. I guess if I’m being honest, I still think that’s the chief reason publishing operations fold, but the publishers I know who went through a closure invested a lot of themselves into the often-thankless work of publishing, and closing down their operations broke their hearts.
The market is not easy for small-press publishers. It seems like every year there are more and more publishing houses releasing more and more titles. (It’s hard to tell exactly how many, since the count is pretty wiggly—they don’t all have Library of Congress numbers, they’re not all paper, and some of what they publish are quasi-books, chapbooks/small books, or hybridized publications.) That’s a lot of competition at every level—for quality manuscripts, for publicity/reviews, for readers and market share, for funding. 

It’s a field, too, where unanticipated costs can mount. Producing a physical copy of a book should include a line editor, a copyeditor, a designer, a proofreader, a publicist, and a distributor, if the job is to be done right—and most of these professionals will also be needed for electronic publication to be handled properly. Every step in the process costs money, and small presses very seldom recoup all of their costs through sales.

It has become clear to me that if a writer agrees to sign on with a small press publisher, it is urgently important to have a contract that anticipates possible closure. This is a good idea with any publisher, but it’s vital in an environment where new publishing houses pop up and disappear with such alarming frequency.

I’m no lawyer. My experience working with writers who have orphaned manuscripts has suggested a few necessary considerations, though, and I’d like to enumerate those here. These are some things to think about before your press closes—and let’s hope it never does:

  • Who has rights to the manuscript? A contract should specify in writing that rights to the work return to the author upon closure of a press. Rights typically do revert to the author in this sort of instance, but contract language can guarantee this, while also indicating when the rights revert back to the author.
  • Who owns the cover? The design of the book is the value added to the manuscript by a publisher—but when a publisher goes out of business, a book may be prominent enough that it is recognizable by its cover. It would be a wise move for a writer to negotiate a way to acquire the rights for the design, including the cover, in the contract.
  • May the writer retain copies of the digital files? I would suggest negotiating for a copy of the digital files of the cover and the interior. It would be a shame for a writer to maintain rights to the design without being able to replicate it.
  • What happens with the list? If a small press closes, everything it ever published is effectively dead, unless the publisher has established a plan for its titles. When a publisher I was involved with closed, several good literary citizen-presses stepped up to offer to carry the list and handle fulfillment of orders from it. The original publisher declined this offer, effectively orphaning all of the titles. Writers worked hard to find presses that would handle reprints, and many were successful. For others, their book is just a memory now.
  • What happens when a publisher goes AWOL? I think it is a very good idea for a writer to put into writing an opt-out trigger. If the publisher declines to reply to a prearranged form of correspondence—say, a registered letter or a set number of e-mails to an agreed-upon address—all rights could revert to the writer. Often, these publishers feel shame when they close their doors, and as a result, they simply disappear, never to be heard from again. It’s very hard to place a manuscript with a new publisher if it’s unclear that rights have reverted back.

It’s hard to fathom when the offer of publication is extended, but there may be a day when everything falls apart. It happened to me, and I’ve seen it happen to many writers I admire. It looks to me as though a few items added to a contract, and a few questions about plans to go into effect upon dissolution, can prevent a lot of heartache for writer and publisher alike.


Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Basic ethics of the literary book review

It’s a conundrum. We literary writers frequently publish on small presses, and it can be hard to catch the attention of major review outlets, like Publisher’s Weekly or Kirkus Reviews

Poets have it worse than writers of other genres. Kirkus, for instance, doesn’t even review poetry except for pay—currently starting at $425. But that doesn’t mean it’s an easy feat for a prose literary title on a small or university press to get traction.

But aside from the major outlets, it’s hard to find anyone to review our titles, even in more small-press-friendly litmags. Often it seems that the same small-press titles get all of the attention, and I’m not sure that the quality of the writing is the reason. A standout title or a timely theme can be just as big as factors.

Make no mistake: We want reviews because we want readers. Our hard work demands that we find an audience for the books we publish; sometime it seems as though the stories, poems, and essays themselves stand up and demand to be heard.

But our desire to find reviewers can lead us to what the journalist in me regards as missteps—practices I’d caution us away from.

Several of my social media circles are inhabited by authors, and every now and then, someone will chime in with the idea that members trade reviews—a you-do-me-and-I’ll-do-you kind of arrangement.

This is a very efficient plan; two books get reviewed where none before did. I find that it’s not so hard to publish a review. Many magazines that are too low-budget to pay reviewers are hungry for this kind of free content, and as long as their length and style guidelines are followed, they’ll provide a hungry yes to a review submission.

The problem is that a reader trusts a reviewer to be honest and candid about a book’s merits. Even if some journals publish only recommendations instead of reviews, the reader believes that a recommendation is based on literary merit, and not tit for tat.

In my undergraduate journalism education, a course on reviewing was a required part of the curriculum. Mostly we all went to a classroom at night and watched classic movies—All About Eve and Citizen Kane, for instance—and then wrote cheesy reviews of them. (Two thumbs up for Casablanca!) But in between installments from the Golden Age of Hollywood, my classmates and I actually did get a thorough grounding in this sort of criticism. What was drilled into us from start to finish was our ethical responsibility to our readers.

In short, a review is an opinion—ideally a very informed and educated opinion. I have no palate to speak of, so it would be ridiculous for me to write a review of the cuisine in a high-end restaurant. I just like to eat, and a lot of things taste really good to me. I’m simple like that.

A restaurant reviewer should know quite a bit about kitchen chemistry and processes, and about culinary history and trends. A nice meal costs a little more than this consumer can easily afford, so when I do go out, I’d like to know what I’m getting into, and whether Restaurant A is a better choice than Restaurant B. Reviews can make a difference in how I spend my (meager) resources.

Ditto with movie reviews. A reviewer who understands storytelling, cinematography, acting, and culture can help me to make a good choice when I finally pay a babysitter and venture out to one of the two or three non-animated, non-superhero movies I’m likely to see in a given year.

Let’s presume that literary reviewers haven’t already lost their credibility with readers through back-scratch-trading with writers and favor-currying with publishers. Don’t we sort of look to book reviews in the same way? Something like half a million books are published each year in the U.S., and a new release can run in the $20 range. Where do we put our cash? Attention from reviewers can alert us to and pique our interest in new releases, and they can also help us choose from among all of the books vying for our attention. When these writers abuse our trust, there’s a sense that they’re playing fast and loose with our money.

Another ethical concern reviewers must be impartial. Just because a fellow writer is a friend doesn’t mean that the person has written a top-notch memoir. The opposite—the polar opposite—may be true. But we don’t trash our friends—that’s a different sort of baseline ethics, one from universe that is larger than the literary world.

But we shouldn’t review our friends. Even if we have the sort of near-superhuman power to be impartial, we must avoid the appearance of impartiality. Readers trust that we’re not beholden to the people whose work we’re reviewing, whether by money or love or common interest.

Along similar lines, a reviewer is ethically bound to be honest. We shouldn’t downplay flaws in a book, just as we shouldn’t be more effusive in our praise than the work merits. We should aim for accuracy in description and honesty in assessment. 

Additionally, a reviewer should be educated and informed, so that the assessment of the reviewer matters. When an impartial, honest, well-read reviewer offers effusive praise, it means something.

I should mention that some magazines shy away from negative reviews. After all, a book of poetry from a small press is pretty much destined to be ignored by the larger culture; there’s no sense in a journal kicking it when it’s down. I don’t actually object to this practice; why not recommend good books instead of blasting bad ones? The danger is that a reviewer might adapt an assessment to score the publication, rather than choosing to review books that merit a strong review.

As the author of one full-length poetry collection, with another on the way, I can attest that a positive review feels incomparably good. I appreciated the handful of reviews that appeared in literary publications, but I also loved seeing what my friends thought when they posted customer reviews in places like Amazon and Goodreads. 

I wish we had a vibrant reviewing culture—one in which authors don’t have to form secret reviewing circles for their books to get a little attention. Maybe instead of making pledges to one another, we should make a promise to literature that we’ll pay attention and spread the word.