Dust Up

by eatonhamilton

In Canada, we don’t dust-up in public very often, but lately, esteemed poet Jan Zwicky has been going head to head with National Post columnist and poet Michael Lista.  Jan was review editor at the litmag The Fiddlehead in the early 90s, and instituted a policy of publishing only favourable reviews.  Here is what she had to say in CWILA (Canadian Women in the Literary Arts), reprinted from The Malahat Review:


I have certainly had my fair share of negative and positive reviews, so I know the difference from an artist’s perspective.  I know which feels good, and which feels bad; which feels fair, and which feels unfair; and I know what the nasty-assed ones can do to one’s struggling creativity and its expression.  Once you put out a book, it’s more or less representative of ten years of sometimes-grinding labour, and to have it maligned, especially if you question the reviewer’s impartiality (are they coming up behind you?  Have they entered the same contests you’ve won?  Are they pissed off that the book got added to their review pile at the last minute?) can be very damaging. It’s a little like a bully throwing sand in your eyes.

But while I agree with many of Jan’s points, I don’t support her position.  A reviewer in a sparsely populated country like Canada already reviews with one hand tied behind her back–the poet or novelist she’s trashing is almost certainly going to be on her judging panel sometime in the future.  Telling her that she has to only say good things is telling her that she has to write with two hands tied behind her back.  Fair comment, it seems to me, is unimpeded comment.

Furthermore, as a reader, I don’t want to read only good reviews–I can’t imagine anything more boring, in fact.  I want to see sharp intelligence put to sharp use so that I can divine what is dreck and what’s not.  Reviews are not, I don’t think, supposed to serve the writer (though of course they often do), but rather to inform the reader.  I want to come to know, over time, that I mostly do, or mostly don’t, agree with reviewer X, so that I am safe basing my purchases, or non-purchases, on what she has to say.