sheenaghpugh: (Critics)
There's been a lot of debate recently in the literary world about whether women are under-represented in the field of reviewing, both in terms of reviewing books themselves and getting their work reviewed. And editor after editor, some of them female, have complained that "women don't put themselves forward". According to a writing friend of mine in a recent tweet, "she [editor] said "women don't contact her, but men send her lists of books they want to review, and why, and when".

This was all news to me, cos when I was reviewing, editors contacted reviewers, not the other way about. And I can't help feeling that though it may well make an editor's life easier to sit back and wait for reviewers to contact them, it's a bit of an abdication of responsibility. If I were an editor, and Joe Soap sent me a list of books he fancied reviewing, unless I knew him very well, alarm bells would ring; I would think, either these folk are his mates and he wants to puff them, or his enemies and he wants to shaft them, and neither is much use to the reader who just wants an unbiased opinion. I would also feel it was my job to decide what was reviewed and who reviewed it, and that he was being a trifle forward. If I liked his style, I would probably write back saying, none of these are available but you're welcome to review x, y and z if you like. If he refused that offer, I'd take it that I had been right about his having an agenda.

Editors are a kind of journalist, and as far as I know, journalists do not wait for news items to put themselves forward; they go out and look for them. If editors content themselves with those reviewers who put themselves forward (dear God, what an unBritish thing to do!) then we shall indeed hear from a narrow group of people. They may well be mainly male; they may also be disproportionately privately educated, because those schools, while in my view (and I'm speaking here as an ex-uni admissions tutor) offering no better an education than state schools, do tend to imbue their pupils with a self-confidence that sometimes amounts to an inflated sense of their own importance. If reviewers are mainly male, and choosing their own texts to review, then those texts too will be overwhelmingly male. I know this because more than one editor has noted a reluctance among male reviewers to assess women's writing - when I was reviewing for Poetry Review in the relatively happy days of Peter Forbes' editorship, I once asked him why he sent me so many women poets to review. He said he had to send women's books to women, because many of his male reviewers refused them. To his credit, he then sought out female reviewers who wouldn't say no; another editor, who was having trouble getting her regular reviewers to look at books from a certain part of the kingdom, simply jacked in the attempt. Me, I'd have concluded those reviewers came from too narrow an educational and geographical pool and that I needed to look elsewhere.

Editors have a hard and often thankless job, but I think it is part of that job to be proactive and independent. They, and no one else, should decide what is to be reviewed; if they go along with the suggestions of would-be reviewers they are opening the door to a great deal of intentional or unintentional nepotism, because many reviewers are also mentors of writing, and of course they think their own ex-pupils are the brightest and best; that's how teaching works. And there's nothing wrong with their promoting those whose talents they believe in as long as they do it in their own space; I use this blog to review and interview those I believe in and who might otherwise be overlooked. But part of what an editor is for is to counteract the influence of those with the loudest voices and widest connections and make sure quieter voices get heard as well.
sheenaghpugh: (Vogon poetry appreciation chair)
I've been thinking for a while about an email I got last year. I'd judged a poetry competition, the winners of which, with my comments on them, are online here. Soon afterwards, I got an email enquiry from a gentleman who was clearly well-read and highly educated, a retired medical specialist fluent in two languages (English was not his first language, but I don't think that actually made any odds in the context). He was fond of traditional, especially rhymed, poetry but said he had difficulty in understanding contemporary poems, and my comments hadn't helped him. He was hoping I could give him "short conclusions about the context of each poem and the message they wish to send to the public".

This, as I explained, I couldn't do, firstly because having judged them all anonymously I had no idea who had written them, or under what circumstances; nor did the context affect the quality of the poem. As for the message, again that wasn't for me to say, or rather it was for every different reader to decide what they said to him. I tried instead to outline the criteria I had used in judging: which poems seemed to me to be the best constructed, and to use language and the other tools of poetry - rhythm, imagery etc - most effectively to achieve an effect on the reader. But I suspect he'll have found this unhelpful too.

What worries me is that here is an intellectual, erudite person who thinks he needs guidance (from someone no more intelligent than himself and probably rather less highly educated) on how to read contemporary poems, and doesn't trust his own judgment to come to a conclusion even on what they're trying to do, let alone how well they succeed. The poems in question are by no means abstruse either, as you'll see if you read them on the linked site; we're not talking J H Prynne here and we never would be, because I wouldn't have chosen anything I couldn't understand. It looks more like the sort of automatic switch-off my mind performs when faced with mathematical or financial matters, which I simply assume I won't understand. That again would be understandable in a man of science whose mind had no holding place for the imaginative intelligence of poetry, but that's not the case; it is purely contemporary poetry that does this to him. And if that's the reaction of a person who would seem in many ways to be poetry's natural audience, it's hardly surprising most collections sell in dozens.

At a guess, I would wonder if it has to do with there being no obvious rules. I suppose when reading a sonnet, even if you are nervous as a critic, you can count to 14 and figure out if something has gone amiss with the rhyme scheme. In the same way, with a representative painting you can tell if the perspective's wonky or the horse's walk doesn't convince, whereas with a Jackson Pollock you have no such clear means of telling if it's any good or not and will be hesitant to express an opinion. Since that's exactly the position I am in with art, I can understand it in that context, but in poetry, rules or no rules, it still seems to me clear enough when imagery is fresh and surprising as opposed to stale and over-familiar, or when rhythms flow rather than halt, or language takes off and flies instead of plodding across the page. It just isn't as specialised as art; few of us can paint a convincing horse but we all hear and use language all the time. That doesn't mean we can all employ it as poets do, but I'd have thought it did mean we could all form a fairly confident opinion on what they were trying to do and how well they succeeded. Am I being, here, the poetic equivalent of my old maths master, standing baffled at the blackboard saying "But it's so easy! Why can't you all see it?"
sheenaghpugh: (Vogon poetry appreciation chair)
Exam time is icumen in, and many poor souls in schools up and down the country are wondering what to say to the examiners about poems, some of which are mine. This post is aimed at making sure they don't say some of the things I've recently heard people saying online.

I've blogged before about the perils of assuming that "the narrator" of a poem, especially one in the "I" voice, is the same person as "the poet", or that everything recorded in a work of art Actually Happened. A discussion I've lately been involved in on Facebook, though, makes it clear that some readers, even if they know it ain't necessarily so, think it should be; furthermore that they make a difference between novels and poems, at least lyric poems, in this regard. It's fine by these folk for novelists to make up a world; it may even be ok for writers of long narrative poems to do so, but there's a feeling that a lyric poem should come "from experience" (I have actually seen the phrase "from the heart" but am trying to forget it) and that if it's in the "I" voice the "I" should be the poet telling (heaven forbid) the truth about himself - whatever that is, and assuming he even knows it.

I don't know where this notion came from - the earliest real school of lyric poetry in Europe would surely have to be courtly love, which existed to celebrate purely imaginary love affairs - but it horrifies me quite a lot. For the record, when poets are minded to write about their personal experiences, they are very likely to distance the poem by putting it in the third person and making it happen to someone else, for the excellent reason that it avoids the danger of sentimentality. The most autobiographical poem Kipling ever wrote was the third-person "Merrow Down", which purports to be about a bereaved Neolithic father. By contrast The Changelings" (courtesy of Tim Kendall's blog "War Poets") is first-person and deals with experiences that weren't the poet's own at all; it's very much in persona.

I used to write poems in persona if I thought they might otherwise look too personal. These days I tend to third-person. But even if they do spring partly from my own experience, that is no reason to assume they won't also be adulterated with my reading, or other people's experiences, or, shocking as it may be to some, imagination... The fact is, poets are licensed liars; it's what we're good at and we can no more leave the facts of our own lives unembroidered and unimproved on than we can anything else. Nature is often a lousy writer; she gets details and endings wrong and frankly we can do better.

In a recent interview on this blog, my friend the poet Paul Henry described how he had excluded some of his best work from his Selected Poems because he was tired of seeing them read as autobiography. In the FB discussion I referred to earlier, someone said he felt "betrayed" on finding that a poem of Robin Robertson's in the "I" voice was not necessarily All True. Well, attend, O Best Beloveds in the AS-Level exam class, for I am about to utter a profundity: if you want The Truth, you go to the shelf in Waterstones marked Biography. (You still won't get it, but you will get something that aspires to it.) But if you're reading poems, and commenting on them in exams, remember that the "I" voice is correctly referred to as "the narrator". He/she is not, to your knowledge, "the poet", and there's no rule that says they should be.
sheenaghpugh: (Vogon poetry appreciation chair)
I've been corresponding via facebook recently with a lad who's currently having to study poems by both me and Carol Ann Duffy for AS-level. It's become clear that he and his mates have conceived a poisonous dislike for Duffy's poems, because, he says, the teachers have chosen such "depressing" ones to study. I seem to have escaped lightly, because, though I write at least as many depressing ones as she does, I'm the comparison object in the module and the students can, more or less, choose what poems of mine they want to look at, so they all chose the upbeat ones.

This kinda surprised me. We all think teenagers are a self-pitying, self-dramatising lot who like gloomy songs and poems. But he isn't the first I've come across who has expressed the opposite view. I'm beginning to wonder whether we are still haunted by the Romantic image of the poet as a seedy fellow with a death wish.

There's a 12th-century German lyric: here )
sheenaghpugh: (Critics)
Anon, the author of Hrolf Gautreksson's Saga, sends a message to his potential literary critics: "It seems to me that they are best fitted to criticise this story who are capable of improving on it. But be it true or not, may those enjoy it who can, and may the others find something more enjoyable to do. And so I end my story."
sheenaghpugh: (Critics)
The Lost Booker Prize is trying to rectify what happened in 1971 when because of a rule change a whole rainforest of novels was not considered.

Two would surely arouse some special fannish interest: Patrick O'Brian for Master And Commander and Mary Renault for Fire From Heaven. Neither of course will be seriously considered because of the ridiculous prejudice against genre fiction. I must admit I wouldn't give it to O'Brian myself,because though his world-building is great, his style, IMO, isn't. And of course I'd rather the Renault had been The Persian Boy, which would have been outstanding in any year, but all the same Fire from Heaven ought to be a strong contender for any unbiased judge. Would that the panel included Gore Vidal, who had the good sense and taste to be Renault's biggest fan. We shall see later today...
sheenaghpugh: (Bookworm)
Whenever a novel starts with the character of a writer sitting in a Hampstead kitchen. struggling to finish a novel, I throw the book straight in the bin

- Mark Ravenhill: The Guardian

Oh, me too, sir! I've been thinking lately about what hooks me, in a poem or a novel, for two reasons: (i) I've been judging a poetry competition and (2) when I left work, I left my colleagues a bunch of books to give as presents/prizes to students, and a lot were modern novels I had read once and simply knew I would never read again. And that wasn't necessarily related to writing quality. Julian Barnes' Arthur & George was well written; it certainly wasn't a waste of my time but it didn't hook me enough to make me re-read it either. Ditto Orhan Pamuk's Snow. Whereas Will Self's The Book of Dave, Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go and Pamuk's My Name is Red are no better written, in fact all three have factors that annoy me - Self's is Riddley Walker lite, Ishiguro's plotting is laughable even to me, the worst plotter in the universe, and if you're going to do futuristic science and politics it helps to have a basic understanding of both, and My Name is Red is marred for me by what seem inappropriate Americanisms in the translation. But all push some button or other that means I shall re-read them.

It may be partly the fact that I react better to historical or futuristic settings,and to places that are unfamiliar to me - I want literature to be a window, not a mirror, hence my aversion to anything set in a contemporary seat of learning - perhaps, now I no longer work in one, that'll change! But that doesn't always work. I am a sucker for Polar settings, which is probably why the only novel of Magnus Mills that I re-read is Explorers of the New Century. But Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow (Peter Hoeg) doesn't cut it for me, despite my Arctic obsession.

With the poetry competition, in fact, I could feel myself setting the bar higher for poems that looked as if they were about to push my buttons; there was a danger of expecting more of one with a form, theme or setting that was congenial and then being unreasonably disappointed. OTOH, button-pushing does get an entry noticed as you go through the pile. I honestly believe the winner I've chosen was the best poem in the comp, but it did have a title that, for all sorts of reasons the writer can't have known about, would appeal to me. (The comp was of course judged anonymously, but I know who the winners are now, and have never met them, that I know of. I only recalled having met one person on the shortlist, even.)

Apart from the Ravenhill quote, this one from George Eliot's story "Janet's Repentance" says a lot about what hooks me in a novel. Mrs Linnet likes biographies of famous preachers, but reads them quite selectively;

"Wherever there was a predominance of Zion, the River of Life, and notes of exclamation, she turned over to the next page; but any passage in which she saw such promising nouns as 'small-pox', 'pony', or 'boots and shoes', at once arrested her."
sheenaghpugh: (Do somethin' else!)
Bang on the nail, madam. Right on every count.


She gave me a stare, at first appraising, then bewildered, then accusing. "You're too young!" she cried. "You couldn't have written that book - you weren't there." It was true, I was not in Palestine in the last days of the British Mandate. "Then none of this happened to you?" she said. "Nothing. I made it all up. It's fiction."

One of the worst things about misery memoirs (apart from the fact that they're unreadable; so the writer had a lousy childhood, why should I give a damn?) is that they seem to have confused readers about what to expect from fiction, particularly when they encounter the "I" voice, which against their apparent expectations is almost always a lie. Not only that, there seems to be a feeling in some readers that fiction based on truth is intrinsically superior to invention, which has always seemed to me if anything the reverse of the case.

I sometimes get queries from A-level students along the lines of "in your poem about the sandman, who's the woman on the beach?" If I reply; well, she's the poem's protagonist, I get the comeback "no, I mean who is she in your life, is it you, your mother, a friend?" When, like Grant, I reply "she's someone I made up for the purposes of the poem", I sense disappointment, as I do if I explain that even when poems are partly based on truth, writers monkey around with the facts, change he to she, set it in a different place, write a better ending than real life did.

The poem I get the most queries about is this )

Kids invariably want to know who was who; was the grandmother yours (one asked if I was the grandmother!); was the boy your brother. I explain, patiently, that the whole point of the poem is that you can't ever know; the writer is a liar and you have to accept that, because the lie is the way into the kingdom of story. But I sense that they want desperately to pigeonhole things, perhaps because exam questions are slanted that way.

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December 2011

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