Helen Guri on Poetry Reviewing

With the conversations of late surrounding the merits (or lack thereof) of positive and negative reviews in Canadian literary circles, it seems everyone is caught on one side or the other of the pro-con divide. Helen Guri, poet and essayist, has taken a different view of the nature of reviewing in this country. Guri takes on the “big picture” of criticism and states clearly that both positive and negative reviews have strengths and limitations, but the nature of the sex/gender divide in literary circles is a more pressing issue. In her post over at CWILA, Guri discusses the prevalent male structure of reviewing and uses a recent review of Alice Oswald’s Memorial to highlight examples of a different kind of negativity than the one everyone is talking about on Facebook and Twitter. Check it out.

Male reviewers, by the CWILA stats at least, are more likely to have their tastes taken care of—assuming, as I think is reasonable based on my experience studying friends’ bookshelves, that tastes often diverge by gender. And really there is no better illustration of this than the relative freedom many of these reviewers seem to feel, the leftover energy they seem to have, to express their dislikes too. Singling something out and saying “no, not this” is a gatekeeping behaviour. It presupposes an ample supply of the things you like and need—people don’t generally demand to have the peppers taken off their pizza if they aren’t regularly being fed.

So, no, I don’t have a problem with the negative review, except insofar as the strong association of a sexually and/or racially homogenous group with any one activity tends to make that activity and its relationship to the wider world problematic (see going on safari, NHL hockey, sandwich-making). The activity, through no particular fault of its own, becomes laced with the sorts of prejudices, privileges (or lack thereof), and blind spots that mark that group’s place in our still very stratified world. I believe that what most people who object to negative reviews really object to is the correlation of these with the dominance of white male viewpoints. Disdaining a poetry book while white and male is not by itself bad, but it is loaded.

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