The artist as critic (or how to be sucked into a literary feedback loop)

lanyard fever (1)For readers coming from those lovely occupations outside the literary world where it is accepted that your salary should feasibly feed and shelter a human being, it may surprise you to know that writers don’t pop out to the post box each day to open envelopes stuffed with royalties and embossed invitations to international literary festivals. In fact, a recent Macquarie University study on Australian authors’ earnings found that the average gross income for Australian authors in 2013-14 was a measly $12,900.[1] That figure represents income derived solely from their creative work.

Looking more closely at this pool of authors, the best-remunerated field is education books ($16,300 a year), followed by genre fiction ($15,200), children’s books ($14,700) and literary fiction ($13,400). It will come as little surprise that right at the bottom of the scale is poetry at just $4000 a year.  I imagine short fiction writers find the income pool equally shallow. But this bears repeating – $4000 a year. On average. Which means a) there are significant numbers of us earning far less than $4000 from our art each year and b) writers across every genre need significant income from supplementary sources before they can even consider living above the poverty line.

Which brings me, finally, to the point of this piece – writing freelance reviews. I write the occasional arts review for my local, independent news outlet, InDaily. When I asked to be included on their list of reviewers several years ago, my intention was to practice the art and build a portfolio so that I could move on to more in-depth and (hopefully) paid critical work. As a poet and a reader of poetry I aimed to eventually find work writing poetry reviews. The naiveté of this makes me chuckle a little now. Little did I know back then what a fraught world I sought to join.

The poetry feedback loop

You know why poets only earn on average $4000 per year? Because generally the only people reading and occasionally buying poetry collections are other poets. (Or if, like me, you are so mortified by the thought of taking money from your friends you just give your books away and so make significantly less than $4000/year).

Some poets complain that sales are poor because so few journals or media outlets publish poetry reviews. And here we have the feedback loop in action. Fewer people buy poetry than novels so journals publish more fiction than poetry reviews, so fewer people hear about excellent poetry collections so fewer people buy poetry, so fewer poetry reviews are published and so on in a vortex of ever diminishing poetry sales.

Then we have the feedback loop that operates within the tiny pool of poetry reviewers. Since I’m in the mode of making generalisations – I’m going to go out on a limb and say that while it seems only poets read poetry, it also seems that only poets with tertiary qualifications in literature venture into the world of poetry reviewing. This greatly restricts the field of potential poetry reviewers. It also means that the reviews produced are pitched at a quite an academic level for an audience fluent in the language of literary criticism. For those wanting to try their hand at poetry reviewing this can be quite intimidating. If you summon your courage and wade into the waters of poetry reviewing you may discover them to quite tempestuous. We have quite a forthright culture of critiquing the critique. Or in the worst cases critiquing the critic, which is hardly welcoming for those attempting to try their hand at a highly challenging form of writing. This is how the poetry reviewing feedback loop operates in an ever-diminishing spiral of reviewers – the highbrow language intimidates newcomers and the zeal with which reviews are in turn critiqued keeps the faint-hearted reviewer off the playing field.

The fact that poets are reviewing the work of their contemporaries within such a small arena exacerbates the awkwardness of the situation. You can guarantee that you either already know the person whose work you are reviewing or you will find yourself sitting next to them at a reading or on a literary panel in the near future.

Why am I writing this, you might ask? Good question. After many years of being intimidated by the culture and language of poetry reviewing I’ve just been asked to write my first review for an academic journal. To be honest, I’m terrified to the point of dire procrastination. Which is frankly ridiculous. I’m widely read in contemporary Australian poetry. I have a post-graduate degree in a literary field. I regularly review literary fiction and film. I work in a bookshop and talk about literature for a living. Yet still, I’m anxious that my critical ability will be inadequate to the task. My temerity is evidence of the feedback loop at work. Plus, the review is unpaid so I’m doing it for the experience and exposure. Good grief. All this, and I’ll still be no closer to cracking that magical $4000 ceiling.

Grytviken, South Georgia

[1] Stephen Romei, “Australian authors prove Mark Twain right: it doesn’t pay to write” The Australian, 31.10.2015

2 thoughts on “The artist as critic (or how to be sucked into a literary feedback loop)

  1. Oh dear. Better you than me! I fall into that category of “faint-hearted reviewer”. But good luck, though you don’t need it – you’ll be brilliant (and certainly well considered!)

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