Responding to Reviews

A writer’s job is to communicate. That communication is likely to be with a target market simply because writing a poem that will please everyone is impossible. Trying to accommodate everyone’s tastes and views on what a poem should be is likely to result in something rhyming and bland, that is something that looks like a poem but isn’t a poem. You may think you’re writing for the general poetry reader, someone reasonably intelligent, well-read and up to date on current affairs but then be surprised because someone who looks and behaves like a general poetry reader did not understand the metaphor you used in stanza three. Or took the opposite view to the one you intended. Or thought you were being patronising or an autodidact.

Sending a book out for review always carries the risk that the reviewer simply isn’t a member of your target market. A reviewer’s job is to give the review’s readers enough information to decide whether or not they want to buy the book under review. It is not a reviewer’s job to offer an in-depth critique of every poem in the book.

Whenever I comment on a poem, in a review or at a workshop or because I’ve agreed to do a critique, I don’t expect the poet to immediately and unquestioningly re-write their poem according to my comments. It’s not my poem. I do not have the right to re-write it the way I would have written it if it had been my poem. I do expect the poet to read my review or comments before deciding whether to consider them or not.

When someone comments on a review and I receive that comment via the editor before I’ve even seen my copy of the magazine where the review appeared, I’m suspicious of the amount of time the commenter spent reading my review.

The comment thanked me for my review, but made the point that I’d only commented on a small number of poems from the collection, expressed a regret that I’d come to the conclusion I did and hoped I’d found something in the poems I’d hadn’t commented on to like.

There are some classic mistakes here:

  • That regret is not a regret. It’s phrased in such a way as to imply I’m the one that should have regrets in my apparent failure to appreciate the poetic talent within the collection.
  • In a review, I don’t have space to comment on every poem individually so I select a representative sample. How I feel about the representative sample is how I feel about the collection as a whole. If I do like one poem in particular but dislike the rest, I will say so (although I’ve yet to read a collection where I only liked one individual poem). The reference to only commenting on a small number of poems suggests that either the commenter doesn’t understand how reviews work or is implying I haven’t read the other poems properly. Insulting your reviewer is not a good idea.
  • I have read the poems I didn’t comment on so sending me back to read them in hope I find something to like is guaranteed to put me off them altogether, and potentially put me off reviewing any subsequent collections.
  • The comment doesn’t ask for or give space for a response: it’s intended to be the final say on the matter and naturally the poet wants the final word.
  • The speed at which it was sent implies the commenter didn’t spend long reading my review, probably didn’t read any of the other reviews I’d written for that particular issue of the magazine and didn’t try to put my review in context of whether I was the target market or not.
  • I’m not the target market: that’s not my problem. That’s not necessarily the poet’s problem either: it depends on whom he was writing for.
  • The commenter should have pressed ‘delete’ rather than ‘send’.

What the comment does tell me is that if I’m sent another book by this particular author to review, I can write whatever I want as he won’t bother to take any notice of my comments anyway.

I don’t think that was his intention. But that’s the tricky thing with communication: what you meant to say may not be how the reader interprets your work. If you are not prepared for a reader to interpret your work in a different way from your intention, think very carefully about putting your work in the public arena and publishing it.


3 Responses to “Responding to Reviews”

  1. gerald Says:

    so glad i’m out of the reviewing game now – I quite often got responses as an editor along the lines of of why did send said book to reviewer A when A was (as you put it) not in the writers target audience – which assumes I’d had the time to read the book and select the appropriate reviewer.

  2. emmalee1 Says:

    Hi Gerald

    Thanks for commenting. Yes, sometimes poets in their desire for favourable reviews forget that reviewers are not obliged to be favourable. In this case, I wrote a balanced review. For every negative response I get at least two (often more) favourable ones, so I will continue to review.

  3. How not to approach book bloggers | Emma Lee's Blog Says:

    […] Social media is public, not private. If you complain on-line about my review or the fact I decided not to review your book, chances are I’ll find out and you’ll be the one who looks stupid. I’ve blogged about responding to reviews before. […]

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