Use of blogging and other social media by writers seems to be under fire at the moment. Sir Peter Stothard, former editor of “The Times” newspaper and one of the judges of the Man Booker Prize has said, “as much as one would like to think that many bloggers’ opinions are as good as others… People will be encouraged to buy and read books that are no good, the good will be overwhelmed, and we’ll be worse off.”
Fiona Sampson, former editor of “Poetry Review”, has written in an article for the “New Statesman”, “The development of open-mike [sic] evenings, increasingly competitive in format, runs alongside the way emergent poets use Facebook and the blogosphere to broadcast poetry ‘achievements’.” I’ll leave aside the apparent confusion of open mic evenings with poetry slams, and the question of why the word achievements is in inverted commas.
What both seem to be complaining about is a perceived lack of quality control: that anyone can set up a blog or promote writing (theirs or someone else’s) via social media without years immersed in the experience of literary criticism or a stamp of approval from a literary editor or gatekeeper. Is this such a bad thing?
I’d argue not. What makes a good book or good literature isn’t an objective measure. You can create a tick box with values like good characterisation, shows knowledge of writing craft, keeps the reader hooked, but not every piece of writing that conforms to that criteria will be an enjoyable read. You can put a spirit level on a book, but not its contents.
Furthermore, setting criteria will favour certain types of writing over others. When did a genre novel win a literary prize? Why do readers need the Hugo Awards, the Edgars and the Man Booker Prize? Name a national newspaper that gives as much space to poetry as novels in its book pages. When VIDA’s statistics show that male writers are more frequently reviewed, are editors and literary critics selecting purely on the standards of writing or is some consideration of who the writer is creeping in?
In poetry most reviewers are also poets. There are many more people who want to write poetry than people who read poetry – poetry magazines struggle to get subscribers but are overwhelmed with submissions of new poems. Most of those readers are looking for outlets for their own poetry alongside reading to enjoy poetry. Consequently the available pool of readers who can also write about and review poetry, tends draw out poets.
This does have an impact on reviews. Poet-reviewers are aware that their reviews are read by editors and publishers so may affect their own chances of getting published in turn. Every poet-reviewer will eventually review a book from a poet they have met or are friends with. Poetry needs more reviews so one individual voice does not dominate the reception of a newly published collection.
Poetry publishers need poets to promote their own books and those of others. Most book stores do not stock poetry and most newspapers give poetry scant attention. It’s not unusual for poetry to be self-published, but few magazines and newspapers review the self-published. Therefore it is critical that poets do take to social media to promote not only their own poetry but that of others.
If I see a status update or tweet from a poet I like mentioning one of their poems has been published in a magazine or included in an anthology, I’ll follow it up. That publication has at least gained one extra reader.
By Emma Lee