The Long and Short of It and That: Some Thoughts on Book Reviews

14 July 2014

This post is in reply to John Dale’s recent piece in The Conversation, Here they are: the rules for book reviewing, and Peter Rose’s evisceration of it In defence of book reviewers in Australia, also in The Conversation.

Dale airs many grievances about current flora and fauna in the environment of Australian book reviewing, but there is one critter he un-cages that informs the entirety of his semi-light-hearted invective; his insistence that ‘It is generally acknowledged, however, that the standard of book reviewing in Australia is poor.’ It’s hard to know how to respond to such an incomplete observation, but as Managing Editor of Cordite Poetry Review, I do feel it is my duty (of sorts) to attempt one. Our primary criteria for reviews, long or short, are that writers must critically engage with the reviewed text, its operation of language, what the intent of that was, what the results actually are in their extrapolation, and cite passages from the text to support assertions. Clifford Geertz’s ‘thick description’ doesn’t cut it.

Cordite does all it can to avoid publishing what are ostensibly florid book reports (all too common in our Internet age and the unending spaces for ‘content’ it begets). It’s imperative to expand and, at times where we’re able, step beyond the proven coterie of poetry criticism in Australia. We also have reached out nationally and internationally for new critical voices over the past three years.

So how do we match a title up with a reviewer? Three primary concerns: reviewer interest, reviewer impartiality, and sympathy for the poetry being reviewed. By ‘sympathy’ I mean that a reviewer should have at least some interest in the aesthetic a collection purports / embodies, or has kindred knowledge of the tone invoked or the subjects covered. We’re Cordite Poetry Review: we do a lot of them. The function of our reviews isn’t solely for your entertainment, as Dale claims should be the primary purpose of a ‘good review’. Rather, we provide as steady and as critical a look into our literature as we can, all inputs considered. Squinting up your eye and peering into a microscope isn’t the comfiest of operations, but it’s worth it.

Dale does have a valid point via his ‘local problem’. In our occasional hunt for new reviewers, invariably a smattering of reviews from our endeavour just scrape by, even after extensive but negotiable edits, and we publish them in the interest of diversity. Some we have to reject. But the sizeable majority of reviews we publish articulate what we seek … and would pass Updike’s five rules that Dale mentions as well (though I don’t fully agree with his first one).

If you’ve launched a book, then we won’t be retrofitting the speech into a review. We also won’t allow authors to review themselves, which we get asked more often than you might imagine. And not by a kilometre’s worth of mile are we able to review every new poetry collection noted on this list. We maintain this page to let people know what’s coming up in general. It’s not exhaustive, but it is extensive.

Critics like Lucy Van, Bonny Cassidy, Rosalind McFarlane, Maria Takolander, Andrew Carruthers, and Kate Middleton are excellent … and they are so precisely because they consider and deliver exactly this sort of literary engagement. Every time. And there are another 30-40 critics who deliver equal quality in their own voice for Cordite Poetry Review. This list grows each year. To say ‘the standard of book reviewing in Australia is poor’ makes sense only with a myopic read of our literary criticism.

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