The Freelancer's Plight: On Book Reviewing
by Adam Tavel
I once spent an entire summer honing a book review for an editor who, inexplicably, stopped responding to my emails after a season of correspondence. Another publication once requested three re-writes for a piece they felt was too “exuberant” even though I disclosed that, as a matter of principle, I only write positive reviews. Several months and a dozen emails passed before they formally accepted my piece, and by the end it became clear their chief objection was that I didn’t write in short, declarative sentences. Roughly half of the emails I’ve sent in my career regarding book reviews—including those requesting review copies from presses as well as those querying editors about their potential interest in a finished project—met with silence.
While it is altogether reasonable to blame these experiences on the maddening pace of life, or the black hole that gobbles up emails, or my own meager talent as a writer, I have come to believe they are an accurate reflection of the freelance reviewer’s plight. Overtasked and rarely compensated, the freelancer is usually a poet herself who has volunteered time away from her own creative work—not to mention her career and family—to ponder the merits and aesthetic implications of another’s poems. If she is savvy, our reviewer is a close reader who examines the writing of others—as well as her own evaluations—with patience and care so her resultant review is accurate, fair, and thorough. Her charge is a delicate one. She cannot maintain her credibility if she dashes off a rote summary, or a catalog of sniping critiques, or a press-release-by-proxy endorsement. This serious work takes serious time, which can take weeks and often months to negotiate. For her sake and mine, I would like to offer several suggestions in the ecumenical spirit of poetry to help us improve the culture of freelance reviewing and thereby more evenly distribute its myriad burdens, since an honest look at current industry practices exposes their inadequacy.
Obtaining a diverse array of fresh titles is the first challenge all reviewers face, since no poetry press can afford to give books away willy-nilly. Similarly, no freelancer can be expected to purchase the entire “new releases” rack or to slog through a book that doesn’t resonate with her simply because it was the only complimentary copy at her disposal. (Of course, a staff reviewer or reviewer working on assignment must, alas, follow orders.) A brief survey of several prominent publishers’ websites exposes the root of this quandary, because potential reviewers are not making “media inquiries,” nor are they seeking to “contact us” with a complaint or compliment. If publishers showed greater receptivity—and perhaps even encouraged—queries from freelancers by providing an explicit statement of policy and a clear point of contact, this would eliminate confusion and streamline communication substantially. Certainly poetry presses are leery of a gift economy and most operate on shoestring budgets, which is why they don’t provide links that say CLICK HERE FOR FREE VERSE (see what I did there?), but there are simple ways to ensure that the right books find the right people: asking a freelancer to provide a CV, to share some recent writing samples, or to limit her selections to 2-3 recent titles are all easy ways to eliminate bogus requests and hold folks accountable. For presses that aren’t already tracking their review inquiries long-term, it’s a modest task ideally suited for an Excel spreadsheet.
Unfortunately, the problems don’t end when the right books finds the right people, since many literary journals and magazines regard unsolicited book reviews as their last priority. I recently encountered a prominent literary journal that offers no guidelines whatsoever for reviews, but lo and behold, their submission software had “book reviews” as an option. The description for this category was, of course, utterly blank. What message does this send? Even for journals that announce their review policy and desired word counts, questions linger. Should I format my piece in MLA Style or You Don’t Care? Do I need to disclose that I met Poet N. Question at a conference three years ago and we sat at the same crowded breakfast table? In the reviewing world, these aren’t minor concerns. What would also be a profound service and relief to reviewers would be a stronger commitment to professional response times. It’s not uncommon for a short story or a batch of poems to wait six months for an editorial decision. Good literature is evergreen. This same wait time for a review, however, significantly limits the number of venues that will now consider it, and in some cases, might as well be a death sentence. Simultaneous submission policies are lovely, but only alleviate this anxiety when publications state them outright.
So what can be done? For starters, literary journals that charge submission fees could waive them for reviewers. (Poet Les Kay recently penned a compelling critique of submission fees over at the Sundress Publications blog.) Additionally, journals could publicly affirm their response times—such as, say, a 1-2 week response to review queries and a 4-6 week response to submitted pieces—so freelancers aren’t held hostage by the slower, but mostly unrelated, processes of producing a quality magazine.
Of course, reviewers share the blame. While some trade publications such as Rain Taxi remain committed to the traditional 500-600 word review, these are now less common for poetry collections than for books of any other genre. Instead, the essay-review has become the default mode. Usually written by a mid-career poet and clocking in at 1,500-2,000 words, the essay-review has its merits, but its length is a liability. A tendency to ramble, excessive self-reflection (let me regale you with this long anecdote! look at my reading habits!), and theoretical discussions of craft invariably distract from the task at hand. Moreover, it’s a sad irony that some reviewers feel the need to catalog every last wonder and flaw of a book as a means to encourage others to read it. A tedious exploration makes for a poor invitation. Omnibus reviews have fewer pitfalls, but they present a daunting challenge. An omnibus reviewer must weigh several books simultaneously and avoid the urge to reduce her various insights to summary statements or flashes of opulent praise. Perhaps the literary community would be more receptive to pithy reviews if more freelancers wrote them, and wrote them with a keen eye for omission as well as for inclusion.
In a perfect world, poetry presses would have the resources to distribute more review copies, literary journals would have the funds to compensate reviewers, and reviewers would have more time to do their noble work. In the absence of such idyllic circumstances, though, there are many gentle reforms we can embrace to improve freelance reviewing. By thinking of reviewers as compatriots rather than peripheral figures crowding in on creative content, presses and periodicals alike might expedite correspondence and show a heightened willingness to collaborate. Similarly, by broadening their definition of “new” to include books from the previous calendar year, literary journals will demonstrate a commitment to good writing, even if the book in question is no longer at the front of its publisher’s catalog. Such changes might encourage more emerging poets and graduate students to assume the pleasure and responsibility of reviewing—and prevent seasoned reviewers from burning out—since they will know that their efforts will be met with gratitude and professionalism.
There has been much ado about the mercurial role of poetry reviews in the internet age. Digital publishing invariably hastens the media push behind Every New Thing. The old complaint that “the reviews these days” are full of bluster endures, grumpier and louder in some circles, but isn’t it marvelous that small, indie, and micro publishers can now spotlight their new releases, no longer doomed to obscurity? The advent of Goodreads and other social media platforms allow books to find audiences far beyond a poet’s own family and friends, and this fact alone seems to defeat the pervasive myth that poetry is inaccessible, irrelevant, and nearly extinct. I have long believed as a matter of personal conviction that bad books deserve silence and that good books deserve a megaphone. It’s about time we helped the freelancer reviewer project her voice above the crowd.
Adam Tavel won the Permafrost Book Prize for Plash & Levitation (University of Alaska Press, 2015). He is also the author of The Fawn Abyss (Salmon Poetry, forthcoming) and the chapbook Red Flag Up (Kattywompus, 2013). His recent reviews appear in The Georgia Review, CutBank Online, Rain Taxi, Pleiades, 32 Poems Online, and The Rumpus, among others.