Sunday, November 15, 2009

Reviews Editor of Quill & Quire Steven W. Beattie Responds To My Question of Book Reviewing Ethics But Not To The Question Of Tribal Poet-Critics

Steven W. Beattie has responded to my questioning the ethics of reviewing over at Quill & Quire, the magazine he edits for, after a debate turned nasty in the comments section of Bookninja between myself and Q&Q book reviewer Zachariah Wells. The post "On Reviewing" was about a potentially serious conflict of interest between a reviewer George Packer who allowed his personal disagreement with an author Mark Danner to enter into his review of Danner’s new book Stripping Bare The Body: Politics Violence War which appeared in The New York Times Book Review.

I agreed with the blogger Moby’s original post that book reviewers as journalists must approach the books they review both critically and objectively. Mr. Wells then made the derisive comment that an objective review is plot summary. After pressed further, Mr. Wells responded to Packer’s review of Danner’s book by saying, “why is there this burden of neutrality placed upon the review as a work of journalism?”

I found this to be an incredible bald-faced statement.

When I suggested to Mr. Wells if he does not believe in objectivity or ethical standards for book reviewing, then I would certainly like to hear from those magazine editors (Steven W. Beattie, Anita Lahey, Dan Wells) he writes reviews for because I now have serious reservations about his abilities as a reviewer for those magazines, his response was typical: ”Well, I have serious doubts about your ability to write poetry in this or any other country, so I guess we’re square on this ‘important … topic,’ dude. Toodles.”

To Steven W. Beattie’s credit, he has not taken his response to the level of ad hominem or defamation, although I do believe he has misrepresented what I originally said in my post (which for the record, you may read here) for I am not in favour of critical relativism of any sort. In fact, I think negative reviewing does have its place. What I am against, however, is poet-critics writing negative reviews as a kind of ‘terra-forming’ process to acclimatize the Canadian poetry landscape to one more hospitable to the type of poetry they themselves write or to satisfy a personal vendetta. This smacks of opportunism and conflict of interest. Anyways, I am more than happy to grant Steven W. Beattie his right of reply. This, of course, being the ethical thing to do in these circumstances.


  1. Beattie's response was uncharitable, leaping on the term 'intention' as it did, without first reflecting just how STRONGLY he might have understood your point, i.e., he knocked down a straw man with his volleys of introductory literary criticism volumes...Such recalcitrance to enter into a dialogue is a major obstacle to making reviewing and criticism in this here country or continent worthwhile.

  2. Why is there a confusion between being "nasty" and being "negative"? Is it willful? Why is it, whenever someone says that reviewers should not be "nasty", someone will invariably interpret that as a screed against "negative" reviews? It's either ignorant or dishonest. As is the fallacy that nastiness is inherently honest and civility is inherently phony.

    And why the false dichotomies? Positive vs. negative? Relativism vs. absolutism? A good critic will engage with a text on multiple levels: they will discuss the strengths and weaknesses in terms that are appropriate to the kind of text that it is; they will discuss the context of its traditions, if any, and the approach(es) of its execution, etc. A good critic does not, ultimately, arrive at a Roger Ebert-style "thumbs up" or "thumbs down" conclusion.

  3. There is no confusion Paul. Just deliberate obfuscation on their part. Everybody knows what good criticism looks like and conversely what bad criticism smells like.