Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Bias and the literary review

I got my professional start as a journalist—something that makes a daily blog a little easier to handle than it might otherwise be.

Part of a typical journalism curriculum is a class on review and criticism. In it, we begin to really internalize the bond between reader and writer, and to understand that readers trust us to bring them information that is not influenced by an outside agenda.

With news itself, the concept is easy, if a little tricky to navigate sometimes. Our obligation is to our reader. If someone asks for something to be off the record, honoring that request endangers our relationship to our reader and puts us in cahoots with the subject. Likewise, we (ideally) reject gifts. We don’t align ourselves with partisan organizations. We ask questions that make us unpopular, and we offer our best attempt at rendering the news faithfully and truly.

And even reviews, a very subjective type of writing, require some of this mindset. Whether we are offering our opinion on a movie or a local restaurant or a new piece of technology, we remain unbiased in our thinking; we enter the activity with an open mind. The critique a reader receives is an extension of the bond between us.

It’s like this. We choose to review the new gastropub in town. A lot of people are talking about it; the buzz is positive, but we need to experience it for ourselves. We devote some thought about time and day—Tuesdays are notoriously slow dining days; is that a good or bad day to dine for a review? Shall we go to an early or late dinner, or visit during the prime time for the dinner rush, or go at lunch and have a whole different experience? These factors will impact the experience.

Once there, we order off the menu, and we typically avoid special requests—instead, we experience the food as it is offered. We pay our own way. We don’t announce our reason for being there, because we want a typical experience. We pay close attention to all parts of the meal, salad to dessert, and we may take notes as we go along to help us in the writing later.

It is not like this: We tell our brother, the owner, that we’re doing a review, demand a free meal, and prepare to praise it, regardless of the experience.

Reviewing literary titles can be so very dissimilar to the restaurant review process I describe here. We often know the poet—possibly very well. If we were to avoid reviewing books by writers we know, we might quickly run very low on options. To avoid a conflict of interest, or its appearance, we avoid reviewing work by teachers or students or closest friends. Often, though, we know the editor or publisher; sometimes we try to publish our own work with these same people—it’s a remarkably small world. Conflict is everywhere, and hard to avoid.

Incidentally, poetry is not only a small world in that everyone knows everyone else; it is also small in that our reach seldom expands beyond our sphere. There just aren’t a lot of readers of poetry who are not themselves writers and would-be publishers of poetry. They allegedly exist, but they are so rare that I barely believe in them—sort of like that ivory-billed woodpecker photographed in the wilds of Arkansas a few years back, decades after being declared and regarded as extinct. Poetry readers who aren’t poets, or even closet poets, are similar—there is evidence of their presence, but the photos are fuzzy and can’t be fully trusted.

I am of the mindset that there is not much profit in tearing apart a terrible book of poetry in a review. If we think readers should ignore it, no worries—they will. A review, or several of them, can pluck a book from obscurity into mostly-obscurity. If the book stinks up the joint, it’s best ignored by the reviewer, and ignored, the de facto setting, by the reading world. I generally feel that the real poetry big-wigs are fair game for bad reviews, but the act strikes me as a little pointless. A poetry big-wig is generally a pretty small wig in the broad scheme of things.

And I am also of the opinion that poetry is a net good. Writing poetry centers and improves a person. It creates a contemplative spirit. It adds value to the world. Even bad poetry is, in a sense, good poetry.

Some journals, and my own blog, take a different approach to reviews of small press titles, and we set out not to present an objective assessment, but rather to introduce a title and offer a recommendation or appreciation. I find much to love in collections of poetry, and I am eager to share the good stuff with readers.

A movie review serves a purpose; it informs would-be viewers of whether their money is well spent on a particular release. It also serves as a point of debate and discussion for those who view the movie. The reviewer may be crazy, or she may be spot-on, or she may offer insight that the less-experienced moviegoer might have missed. Book reviews do some of this, too, but poetry (and movies, for that matter) really has to be experienced to be judged.

I’m not sure what the answer is when we bring up the issue of bias and insularity. It’s healthy, though, to acknowledge it, and to keep reading and talking about work. Ultimately, we might spill over into a larger reading public, and that would be a real service to literary writers, to readers, and, I would maintain, to the world.


  1. Spot on:
    Writing poetry centers and improves a person. It creates a contemplative spirit. It adds value to the world. Even bad poetry is, in a sense, good poetry.

  2. Works from issues devoted to writing in English have won awards and been reprinted in many collections. The Literary Review