Competitive curiosity. I've been writing and editing reviews for seven or eight years now. My guiding principle has always been not to give space to bad reviews of people readers don't know. The two stances of review I find useful to readers are “Let's have a critical look at someone familiar” and, alternatively, “Here's someone you haven't heard of — here's why her obscurity is unjust.” That doesn't mean that one should only write bad reviews of famous people or good reviews of unknown people. It just means that I'm not a fan of “Here's this person you've never heard of. Don't bother with them” because the act of review in that case is redundant.
The New Quarterly (105, Winter 08) has a long, fascinating panel discussion with Mark Callanan, Amanda Jernigan, George Murray and Carmine Starnino about poet-critics. Starnino and Murray seem to be talking a bit at cross purposes:
Part of the problem is you get certain poets, I won't name any names, who are writing these reviews and basically they're writing them as a note that's passed in class from one poet to another. There are not access points for the people who are outside poetry to get in. So what is the point of it? How many people are there who buy books of poetry? About five hundred. And what's being done to broaden that? (George Murray)
Well, I mean, writing criticism for a poet is predatory. It is an act of competitive curiosity. When I review a book by a poet what I do is dismantle the poem into its component choices and then I subject those choices to a kind of professional interrogation. (Carmine Starnino)
I think there's room for both Murray and Starnino. Murray writes reviews for The Globe & Mail, so of course he is concerned with non-poetry readers. Starnino writes more insider reviews (recently, a pan of Atwood's The Door in Arc) and he too knows his audience — dedicated literati.
I would hate for the writer-on-writer-for-writer review to shrivel up. I think it's an important part of the story of Canadian literature. It gives me food for thought as both a reader and a poet. And I think Starnino is one of the few writers today who's willing to be harsh. There are too few who are willing to give a bad review. And I think that where they serve their readers best is in the slightly occult world of literary journals like Arc.
But also, I remember one of my first access points to understanding poems and criticism was the Globe's How Poems Work: simple, direct, infectious critiques of both new and cannonical poems. So yeah, I think it's important that we have what Murray calls “access points” for people who haven't yet caught the poetry bug.
So I guess what I'm saying is both, not either/or.