Sunday, June 17, 2007

"But it’s bad taste for a writer to write a response to a critic."

The title of this post is a verbatim quote from Christopher Wiseman's ill- advised response to Shane Neilson's review of his book. Once he wrote that sentence, he really should have thought about it and hit "cancel." It's not "bad taste," it's just dumb. Even if you have valid objections, which Wiseman does, it's hardly surprising to learn that you stand by your own poems and it's pretty hard not to look bitter and wounded in the process. (Also note the "Oh yeah, well other people like it" gambit employed by Wiseman, an airtight argument if ever there was one.) I was once invited to respond to an as-yet-unpublished review of my book and declined the invitation; it's not for the poet to gainsay a critic's verdict. That review remains, to the best of my knowledge, unpublished, but even if it had been published, it would be mostly forgotten. By posting his response months after the fact, all Wiseman's done is draw more attention to the reviews he so clearly despises.

Moreover, the poet is hardly in a position to see the content of the review clearly. In his response, Wiseman complains:

I wish he’d been more openly honest in his dislikes, more aware of my uses of form - from free verse, to nonces, to villanelles, to sonnets, etc. - as it seriously affects that fascinating line I like to walk between strongly expressed feeling and the pit of sentimentality. I’d loved, too, for him to have tried to fit me into a canon - whose work is like mine? Who are my influences? Etc. I give his review a B- and that’s slightly lower than I give ZW’s review, which he quotes, which likes my work less, but says why (wrongly IMHO), but which explains his reasons better.

This is a bit like a droning schoolteacher blaming his students for falling asleep in class and missing the best part of the lecture. How on earth could a critic be "wrong" in his dislikes? He might argue that I didn't adequately defend or explain my dislikes--he says the opposite--but dislikes are neither right nor wrong and I did say that 40% of a quite fat book merited reading. In a longer review (I was ltd. by the magazine to 500 words) I might have quoted more and gone into more depth and yes, spent a bit more time with the poems I did like, of which there are many, some of which I like a great deal (I'm including one in my sonnet anthology), but given the constraints of space and given the abuse of space in the book itself, I had no real choice but to give a great deal of weight to my dislikes. If I feel that over half of a book should've been left behind, I can hardly pretend otherwise and only write about the poems that were justly included. This is a book review, after all, not a work of literary criticism, and I was charged with reviewing the physical publication of Mr. Wiseman's Selected Poems, in which the quantity of second-rate content obscured the best work--and it is a poet's best work which a Selected Poems should preserve. Wiseman's less successful poetry is self-indulgent and he (and possibly his editor, though one never knows what kind of disagreements between author and editor precede publication) was self-indulgent in his selection, and self-indulgent again in responding publically to Shane's review. It appears to be the Achilles' Heel of an otherwise fine poet.

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