Thursday, January 6, 2011

Responding to Bad Reviews

What do you do, as a writer, if a reviewer gives you what your believe is an unwarrantedly bad,or ludicrously savage review?

Late last year, ths Sydney Morning Herald reported here that:
Hugh Lunn, an award-winning journalist and author, has collected Australia's ''lost language'' - the vernacular that is dying with our older generations - in his best-selling book Lost for Words and its sequel, Words Fail Me.

Now he is preparing to sue the magazine The Monthly for a savage review of the new book by Peter Conrad, an expat Australian writer who left Tasmania in 1968 and teaches at Oxford University....

Conrad wrote in last month's issue that Lunn, a Queenslander, ''has taken on the persona of a philologic Pauline Hanson'', ''fantasises about an Australia hunched inside its rabbit-proof fence'' and ''is leading a peasants' revolt against multiculturalism and its dilution of Australian integrity''.

He wrote: ''I realised that what delights his fans in the superannuated suburbs is [Lunn's] praise for a time that was blinkered and bigoted, impoverished both economically and linguistically, when Australians spoke their own idiosyncratic language because in their empty, distant continent they were unreachably isolated from the global conversation.'' Lunn and his publisher, ABC Books, wrote to Ben Naparstek, the editor of The Monthly, requesting an apology and removal of the review from the magazine's website. Naparstek refused but has published a letter from Lunn in the latest

Lunn told the Herald ''legal action is in train'' for Conrad's ''defamatory assault''...

It's not quite in this spirit that I announce that the first reviews for my 2010 poetry book Gil Scott Heron is on Parole have now been pubished over at Crikey and at Overland. At the risk of defending my work at all odds like this writer did against this blog review, and at the risk of 'reviewing the review', both reviewers might have mentioned that I am a young, black West Indian Australian woman writing political poetry in a culture of white Australian middle class male poets writing mostly personal poetry.

On the other hand, it is a rare and wonderful privilege to have my work reviewed in any way, shape or form in a country where any kind of poetry reviewing is rare and coveted - so thankyou to the Crikey LiteraryMinded blog, and to the Overland editorial team.

The best they said was:

"...her vernacular is powerful and funny: the sooner she is available on YouTube the better for her now-growing reputation...Clarke is one of the most compelling voices in Australian poetry this decade..." - Stephen Lawrence, Overland

"Opening the book is like turning on the radio to something quite funky. It sets you moving in its own time. The translation of rhythms from music into print; that’s the achievement, impressive, as the many who write poetry will know, the significance, of Clarke’s collection. Turn to any title. You’ll find its movement getsinto your own, into your foot against the chair leg, your fingers on the keypad. It gives you an idea of the strength to be found in Clarke’s live performances...Even not carrying the revolution under its arm, her book should certainly make the streets." -Greg Westenberg, Crikey.

The worst they said was:

"The downside is that when Clarke’s words are forced to lie flat on the page, you can see they have only two registers: sex and politics...when however, she strays from these topics or tries to build upon them, the poems grow weaker. The first page of ‘unmiracle’ is sassy and moving; page two isn’t. This may work perfectly well on stage but it may be excessive to load up two full pages when one would have done"-Stephen Lawrence, Overland.

"The negative? if: a rewrite does not add anything to the plays listed in a roll-call of notable characters. We know nothing new about Caliban from Clarke’s paintinghim in ghetto-wear, The Tempest will be no different. Particularly set as it is next to important poems like my people, if reads like a record industry caricature of afro-american culture. Perhaps I’m missing something, but Ice Cube’s A Gangsta Fairytale seems a better start for pointed reinterpretation. if had the taste of a posture, overcooked after the finely spiced dishes accompanying. we want poetry back is another poem that would not have been missed from the collection." -Greg Westenberg, Crikey.


  1. Yes, reviews are problematic but in the end they are someone's opinion, that's it. I think it's best never to respond to a review. They have the right to have an opinion and the author just looks petty in the process no matter how unfair the review might be.

  2. That definitely would be my first instinct Lauri - to zip the lip. Particularly since someone took the time to thoroughly read your work and voice their opinion. And you're right - a review could be ludicrously unfair and a writer would still look petty.

  3. "The downside is that when Clarke’s words are forced to lie flat on the page, you can see they have only two registers: sex and politics..."

    And Yeats? And Shakespeare? And Chaucer? And Ginsberg? And Whitman?

    This is why I don't publish. I prefer to be discovered dead in my great aunt's attic.

  4. Reviews must be good, even bad or ugly ones. You can take away positive from each and every one, if you do not let them constrain you as a poet, a writer. When you write because you have to, that is all you have control over, you put it out in the universe and stir up thought, discourse, and you are alive.

    Congrats Maxine.

  5. As a writer, it's imperative that you develop a second skin, a tougher skin, a skin that doesn't hyper-react too much to the elements around you, whether they be poz or neg.

    Writing ain't for sissies!

    If someone offers constructive criticism, accept in that spirit, but don't allow it to become your god.

    Instead, celebrate the fact that you're a published poet! Bask in the reality that others will read your words & be touched by them! Glorify in the knowledge that you are a Voice in the world.

    When it comes to YOUR work, let YOUR VOICE be the only voice that matters!

    Mad congrats to you!

    Snatch JOY!


  6. I think the best way to look at reviews is the way that you have ... in that it's wonderful to at least be critiqued at that level ... I suppose all writers can do is take a balanced view between the good and the bad.

  7. You're right Ted - in one way or another, ALL writing is probably sex or politics.

    Thanks moanerplicity - your enthusiasm is contagious!

    Mama Shujaa - you're right, I take more objection to a bad review (as in, badly written or ill thought out)than to a good review that is critical.

    And Tracey, yes, it's wonderful to be critiqued at any level.

  8. There is no bad publicity ;) Negative reviews are attention and should always be used by the artist as an opportunity to grow. The pen is a weapon and criticism should always be responded to on the writer's turf, their work. Reviews are fertile ground for satire and remember this: Those who can, do and those who can't carp about those who can.
    Two people matter here Maxine: You and the general reader you are trying to reach. Everyone else is background noise.

    Congratulations on all your success and just because I've been absent doesn't mean I'm unaware of what good things you are doing sister. It's all good and all in a life.

  9. Yeah, what Val said :)Was that the same Caliban poem that you posted on your blog ages ago?

  10. Hi Gabrielle, Yes it's the same poem ( from my blog which was dedicated to our late and dear friend Paul. Unfortunately Westenberg completely missed the point of the poem though - that Shakespeare's stereotype of Caliban as the 'black ethnic other' has simply been replaced with another, more modern stereotype is not an accident. Ah, but here I go, responding the the review again!

    Hi Val - thanks for your congrats!

  11. I thought it was - I remember Paul loved it (I did too).

  12. I thought of Paul, when I read that comment, and how fiercely he would be defending me right now. I've been trying to write a 'Vale Squires' poem for some time yet, but want to get it right. It's still so oddly quiet. not having him reply here, isn't it?

  13. It takes a lot of getting used to, him being gone - he was always there with a quick comment and ascerbic wit (and ready to beat up on the so called Aus Lit crowd - I can just imagine what he would have to say about the review - bwahahahaha). I hope you do write a 'Vale Squires' poem - did you read his poem Teardrop Tattoo published in the last Extempore (they had agreed to publish it before he died but it came out after his death) - I have written a memorial for him in it as well. He would have been chuffed - he loved jazz so much.