Friday, October 30, 2009

Bad Reviews--Good Bad vs. Bad Bad

Yesterday, Craig Morgan Teicher, a reviewer for Publishers Weekly who this week is blogging for The Best American Poetry, posed the following question: I'm curious whether readers of this blog read many reviews, especially of poetry, and whether they write them, either on blogs or for print or online lit mags or newspapers or wherever. Why do you do it--reading or writing? I thought I'd respond here. Yes, I read reviews--lots of them, and not just poetry reviews but fiction and nonfiction reviews as well. While I don't write reviews, I frequently write jacket copy for the books I publish (if blurbs don't take up most of the room) and similar copy for press releases and such. I do it, of course, to promote Bear Stars and their books; it's my job. I read reviews to get a sense of what's out there and might be worth my dollar, or because I like the writing itself. In fact, I came by one of my most indispensable guides in editing, A Dictionary of Modern American Usage by Bryan A. Garner, after reading a long, humorous endorsement in Harper's many years ago by the late David Foster Wallace ("Tense Present" can be Googled if you're interested, and it's also contained in his wonderful collection of essays Consider the Lobster). I consult it almost as frequently as The Chicago Manual of Style.

So what about bad reviews? Do they have a place? I think they do, but can we please distinguish between good bad reviews and bad bad reviews? A good bad one will lay out a case for why a book is not worth your time, with examples, and will asperse* thoughtfully, in a clear manner. It won't misquote the author and it won't trash the book in order to show off the reviewer's superior IQ. The GBR can point out to an author how and where the text seems to be lacking, and what's so terrible about that? Nobody ever wants a bad review, but a GBR can at least lead to an author writing/thinking better the next time out, or to an editor being more careful. A bad bad review serves no one. The worst book review I ever read was in response to a book from this very press. Here are just a few reasons it so terribly sucked: 1) the reviewer misquoted a poem. Worse, she introduced a punctuation error where there had been none--it's for its. That made both the author and me look stupid; 2) it was filled with jargon the reviewer deployed clumsily. True, the journal was the organ of a graduate program in women's studies, but there's no excuse for crappy syntax AND incomprehensible arguments, though I suppose the first leads rather quickly to the second; 3) there was nothing to learn from it and the writing was joyless.

By the way, Mr. Teicher, if you would like to review Bear Star's latest offerings, there's no need to request copies. You already have them somewhere. Just dig into that pile.

*from Garner: "asperse (= to disparage; criticize harshly), a little-known but useful verb--e.g.: 'Fazio et al. should cast their barbs at ordained character assassins ... rather than aspersing the American majority that claims to be ...'"

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