What matters: what a piece of writing is about or how it’s written?
- Two teenaged lovers, kept apart by their rival families, tragically kill themselves
- Adopted boy is invited to a selective school, discovers his destiny
- Girl takes up the opportunity of a lifetime to write for a magazine based in New York isn’t what it’s cracked up to be and suffers a breakdown
- Poet wanders the circles of hell
- Poet goes for a solo stroll in the Lake District, notices the flowers
Any of the above ‘what it’s abouts’ grab you?
The first sounds like a well-worn plot. The second sounds like a semi-autobiographical ‘poor me’ dirge. The third provokes a “So what?” reaction. The fourth could be a depressing moralistic manifesto. The fifth sounds boring.
This is why reviews need to capture the how it’s written aspect and give an idea of the writer’s style. A badly written book can still make a compelling read if the plot is strong enough but a predictable plot can still make a compelling read if readers care about the characters and the writing is interesting enough.
Readers don’t always read books for an intellectual challenge. Sometimes the comfort of a well-worn plot – how many times has “Romeo and Juliet” been re-written in a different format? – is reassuring. Romances often fall back on the formula of two people meet, usually in very un-romantic circumstances, discover they’re in love, their love’s thwarted but the obstacles are overcome by the end of the novel. Whenever a reader picks up a thriller, they do so in the knowledge that the case will be solved. What keeps them reading is discovering who did it and how. Similarly sending the main character on a quest to find themselves is one of the oldest plots around, but “Harry Potter” founded a series of books and movies. Other topics require sensitive handling by a skilful writer. On the face of it, a teenage girl’s breakdown isn’t in itself interesting enough to sustain a novel, but, by bringing a poet’s sensitivity and keen observation to such a plot, Sylvia Plath created “The Bell Jar”.
Poems have a harder job to convince readers that what they’re about is worth reading. There’s less scope for a complex plot, but no one reads Dante’s “Inferno” for the plot. This apparent weakness is one of poetry’s strengths. A novel has to include subplots and tackle larger themes to hold a reader’s interest. A poet can write about a bank of daffodils to illustrate the restorative powers of nature, just as Wordsworth did and just as many would-be poets try to copy. Reducing a poem to what it’s about strips away a poem’s musicality, its rhythms, its sound patterns and probably the very thing that made it a poem in the first place.
So when reviewing poetry, the review has to tell readers how the poem was written, not just what it was about. A recent article in Hyperallergic rightly took a reviewer to task for focusing on what the poems were about rather than how they were written. Although I’d still recommend the article writer read the poet rather than dismissing the poet’s work on the basis of a review.
By Emma Lee