Recent reviewing

“Throughout bandit country, Patterson notates what the blurb describes as a ‘hybrid dialect of Newry-streets and Scots and Irish-inflected English’. For most readers the dialect will be the first thing they notice. For many it will represent a barrier to entry, but it is the kind of barrier I am grateful for. It makes you pay attention…” My review of James Conor Patterson’s debut collection bandit country went up on The Friday Poem (which is doing a great line in prose as well as the weekly poem) a few Fridays ago – you can read the whole piece below.

Whenever I review new poetry – which I used to do quite a bit and now don’t do as much as I’d like – I always look to see what other people have been saying about the book in question. And I always wonder. Am I… cheating? Whatever I’m doing it’s a world away from the close reading practised in univerisities after the war, where English students were asked to respond to poems without knowing anything about them. But it is also just how I think. Or at least, how I write. I find my own responses hard to articulate without someone else’s to bounce off.

This is a long winded-way of thanking Graeme Richardson, whose brief remarks in the Sunday Times gave me a leg up. (If they are going to have a poetry critic, perhaps they could let him write more full length reviews.) But it is also to make a self-interested complaint – though one which I think may have wider ramifications. Because, beyond this review by Cheryl Mcgregor, Richardons’s were among the only un-blurby remarks I could find. And this is a book from Picador, a commercial imprint. One that’s been shortlisted for several prizes.

It’s possible that editors and reviewers haven’t felt confident talking about Patterson’s use of dialect, so on that note it might be worth being up front: neither did I. More than that, I was forever circling back to the fact that I didn’t know enough about the real ‘bandit country’ to properly address some aspects of the book (or even understand some of the poems).

I am never sure how far I should trust that ‘know enough’ feeling. It is important to have a sense of what you don’t know, though this isn’t the straightforward proposition it is sometimes made out to be, and to show it where possible (in retropsect I might have said some of this in the review). Mcgregor’s review gets into some of the issues I didn’t: simply knowing that it existed took some of the pressure off. In an ideal world there would simply be more reviews.

At the same time, a lot of this pressure to ‘know enough’ is self-imposed – an internalised fear of getting it wrong which isn’t as humble as it sounds because it implies that it might be possible to get it right – as if a review was a piece of homework, an academic essay or a final judgement. I worry about encouraging the notion – which I sense lurking at the back (sometimes at the front) of a lot of discussion about ‘reviewing culture’ – that a review can or should be comprehensive. Reviews are personal responses, necessarily limited. Far from being a flaw, this is often the only thing that makes them worth reading.

One response to “Recent reviewing”

  1. […] Jeremy Wikeley, Recent reviewing: bandit country […]


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