Reviewing the Culture

Kathryn Gray

The initial stage of Devolved Voices has been to conduct a literature survey. My specific task has been to survey reviews that have scrutinized the output of post-1997 poets from Wales writing in English.

I began by compiling a list of print journals I considered to be important in providing us with a narrative of the review culture for the poets under our focus. I selected those magazines I believed offered some of the finest and most lively reviewing and those that are viewed as especially credible and circulated within the community, and those that provide a narrative of what was happening both home and away – Poetry Review, Poetry Wales, New Welsh Review, Planet, the TLS, PN Review, The Wolf, the LRB, The North, Ambit, The London Magazine, Acumen, Poetry London, Agenda, Poetry Ireland Review, Magma, and The Warwick Review.  These were, crucially, magazines that were likely to be read and to be regarded as opinion-formers within the British poetry community for engaged readers and practitioners at both the gateway and the more specialist level. Alongside the magazines, I also researched reviews appearing in the broadsheet pages of the national newspapers – an especially coveted spotlight for any poet.

Reviews provide us with an obviously important resource for our research: they offer us a critical response to the output – and one that has reach outside of the scholarly community. But – and this is crucial – by the very nature of their existence, they also provide us with an indication of how the reviewing culture has chosen to engage with post-1997 Welsh poets writing in English.

For practitioners, reviews hold a dual importance, of course. While it is certainly true that poets require reviews in order to signal the arrival of a new collection and to promote that title to a small but engaged target market, we know that, with a few exceptions, poets unfortunately stand outside of truly commercial concerns. Indeed, the efficacy of positive reviews in contributing meaningfully to sales remains something of a moot point with many poets and publishers; in many cases it is good fortune in the prize culture that may lead to a welcome boost in sales. In other cases, sales of collections may increase over time, as accomplished poets produce several collections – slowly but surely heightening their visibility within the community and securing, in the process, a generally still relatively small but nevertheless increasing readership.

However, reviews obviously provide something much more than potential sales promotion – as they do for all literary practitioners, regardless of genre. Reviews inevitably signal importance. When a book is selected for review, irrespective of the subsequent content of that review, an editorial statement is made. This may reasonably be interpreted as either personal approval  (the editor views the title as a collection of some note) or as an expression of wider cultural approval (the community at large will likely view the title as a collection of some note) or as a harmonious combination of both personal and wider cultural approval. In certain cases, in smaller magazines, there may also be an element of redress – with some focus given to very small presses or to pamphlets, both of which are often overlooked or given very slight coverage by the major magazines. Editors function as cultural gatekeepers. Entry into the review pages therefore amounts to either signaling an auspicious arrival for a new poet or a further consolidation of importance for an already established poet. At its most basic level, review coverage promotes visibility; at its more sophisticated level, review coverage sends a message to a readership and a community about significance and contributes in itself to the creation of reputation.

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Pressure on pages – even for those magazines dedicated solely to poetry – revealed itself clearly during my survey, which was to be expected. Regular readers of literary magazines will be familiar with its management – as will practitioners. Editors will often review two or three titles in a single review or commission a review round-up – scrutinizing many more titles again. Such decision-making leads, of course, to a sense of refinement – and, with that, an inevitable hierarchy. ‘Major’ poets, for example, may be furnished with a single-title review of their work – or be paired with a peer. Within the hierarchy, those poets seen as less progressed on the scale of emergence (debutants, for example) or perhaps less aesthetically aligned to an editor’s particular taste – although still regarded as noteworthy within the community – may find they are reviewed in a round-up. This, of course, comes back to editorial judgment and does not necessarily equate to the actual quality of poet or title, although it does tell a story about perceived status.

Unsurprisingly, the Wales-based major magazines – Poetry Wales, New Welsh Review and Planet – served poets within our post-1997 focus very well indeed. Collectively, they accounted for more than half of all reviews recorded – 226 out of 441 (even though two out of the three magazines – New Welsh Review and Planet – do not simply focus on poetry). They also furnished titles with the most space within individual reviews (often around 500–700 words per title). And this is important. The literature survey not only revealed the breadth of reviews, but it also revealed the depth. Welsh or Wales-based poets can, therefore, not only be relatively confident of coverage within Welsh journals, they can also be confident of deeper coverage – in other words, they can expect to receive a relatively detailed review. In general, the magazines could lay claim to a fine roll call of poet-critics from both within Wales and, importantly, outside of Wales. The critical culture can therefore be regarded as highly credible.

Coverage for Welsh titles in the pages of these magazines is not, however, simply or necessarily an indication of personal editorial approval – although it is an indication of cultural approval. Poetry WalesNew Welsh Review and Planet receive funding from the Welsh Books Council (WBC) and are charged within their remit to provide significant coverage of titles produced by Welsh or Wales-based authors, or by writers with a strong connection to Wales. This is a key element of their function and their vision.  And they communicate quite explicitly, although not exclusively, to a Welsh or Wales-connected audience. The magazine culture within Wales has done much to promote Welsh writing in English; this is laudable. But we must naturally be conscious that what it reflects is also part of a pre-determined responsibility.

Over the border, of course, it is a different story. Those magazines based outside of Wales and outside of WBC funding do not have any such obligation to review work from Welsh poets or those writing out of Wales simply by virtue of their nationality or connection. Moreover, coverage in these publications, as we know, is coveted by all poets in the UK – regardless of provenance or location, both new and established. For Welsh poets, of course, there is an additional significance in terms of achievement; Irish and Scottish poets can likewise no doubt identify. The anxiety over regionalism exists. Can one be seen to have ‘made it’ without entry into reviews pages outside of Wales? Being seen within a UK-wide context is crucial, and this is still achieved through the England-based magazines.

But just how efficient is the reviewing culture for our post-1997 Welsh poets in these magazines?

Let’s look at four major platforms outside of Wales as a snapshot.

Poetry Review, for example, covered forty-two titles from Welsh poets or those with a strong Welsh connection in its pages over fifteen years. Reviews came with the necessary quality-impact – Poetry Review is widely considered to be the premier magazine within the establishment; a presence in the reviews pages of Poetry Review is therefore more than highly desirable. By virtue of its status, Poetry Review has a wide circulation and can command major figures of influence as reviewers. Visibility and the potential for significance come attached to any coverage for an individual poet. In the Autumn 2004 issue two Welsh poets were furnished with single-title reviews. Since then, only one Welsh poet has received a single-title review (in 2010). Typically, Welsh poets who have emerged since 1997 appeared in round-ups of four titles. Coverage of an individual title within such composite reviews tended to hover at around 250 words. But while space in the pages was relatively small, we must factor in the reach of Poetry Review – and the claim upon its pages.

PN Review presented a solid showing for Welsh poets. Eighteen collections were covered in the review pages, so far fewer than those published in Poetry Review. However, PN Review afforded a more generous level of space to each title (around 300–400 words per title in a round-up) and there were five instances of single-title reviews (1000 words) – PN Review’s poetry-publishing wing, Carcanet, has a demonstrable interest in Welsh poetry.

Poetry London was a generous outlet. Twenty-seven Wales-connected titles were reviewed, and although reviews were typically of three poets (a customary approach of the magazine towards new, established and major figures alike), space allotted to each title was strong (500–600 words). Poetry London was also impressively resistant to pigeonholing, with very little emphasis on grouping Welsh or Wales-based poets together (there are just two instances of such grouping – in both cases the titles sit in marked contrast to one another, and no efforts are made to connect them by virtue of their ‘Welshness’).

The Times Literary Supplement, like Poetry Review, is a much sought-after platform, although, as we know, it covers a wide range of literary and scholarly material in its reviews. It provided coverage to twenty-one titles authored by Welsh poets writing in English over the period. All of these were within single-title reviews, allowing for varying degrees of engagement according to whether they were ‘In Brief’ reviews (around 300–350 words) or more detailed analyses (around 700 words). Notably, the twenty-one reviews were shared between eleven poets in total, with certain poets receiving reviews for several titles over the years. By contrast, two debutants were reviewed in 2000 another in 2004, and another in 2009. In other words, securing an initial review tended to lead to further reviews in the future – suggesting that the TLS appears to work along a momentum model within its pages. The TLS also provided an interesting gender contrast. Twelve titles under review were authored by male poets, while nine were authored by female poets. This was not reflective of the survey as a whole, where women outweighed men for coverage in both individual magazines and overall.

Securing reviews in the broadsheets remains a goal for poets. Anecdotal evidence from poets suggests that this registers high on the scale of significance – which is to be expected. Space in the newspapers is difficult to achieve: pressure on pages coupled with poetry’s relatively marginal status in the wider literary culture means that opportunity is scant. Good fortune in the prize culture certainly seems to help. Several titles given coverage had already secured nominations for one of the two major UK poetry awards – the Forward and T S Eliot prizes. There was the impression that coverage tended to reflect, rather than inform, the culture.

Overall, the survey has been highly informative in terms of reception. It demonstrates a generally very positive critical response to the output with which we are concerned, suggesting that Welsh Anglophone poetry is in rude health; it demonstrates a responsiveness on the part of editors to the output in providing coverage, even if the degree of focus is variable. It confirms the belief in a poetic shift as regards Anglophone poetry from Wales: women are now at the centre of output and coverage. It also led me to consider the competing demands of individual poets alongside the demands of a renaissance in our national literature. While I was struck by the unexpected breadth of reviews recorded – their sheer number – I was also struck by the fact that very few poets seem to have secured deep focus in the pages of poetry magazines outside of Wales. Factored into this, of course, is the very nature of our study: post-1997 emergent voices. Many poets under our study have completed only one or perhaps two collections, and thus they will inevitably find it harder to secure major-focus scrutiny. It will be interesting to see how the years progress their fortunes. Poetry, after all, is the long game.