Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Forward judge: Too many poetry books published because "everyone's got a right to get a book out"

I was quite shocked last night to read in the Guardian's article about the Forward Prize for Poetry shortlist, these words by Hugo Williams, one of the judges ("himself an award-winning poet), about the 147 poetry collections he and fellow judges had to consider:
"The books were all laid out on a table and I looked at the covers and the titles and thought how carefully each had been chosen ... the ambition and the beauty and the sensitivity," he said. "But an awful lot of them seemed to be published just because they existed, really. That's too big a number of books in one year in one country to put out. I think it's something to do with the democratisation of everything – that everyone's got a right to get a book out ... I've got the feeling that sometimes it's more about desire than worth."
(Emphasis is my own. Full article here.)

I read this quite late last night and then lay in bed thinking about why it upset me so. Too many books? 147? Why did Williams have to put it like this? What point was he trying to make? He could have just said that he didn't rate the majority of the poetry collections very highly - his subjective opinion - but rather he took the chance to criticise the industry as a whole. What he seems to be saying is, Publishers, stop publishing so many poetry collections because not everyone should have a book. Not everyone has the right to have a book "just because it exists".

OK, so how do I feel about this "publishing it because it exists" and the word "right"? Does everyone have the right to be published, to be chosen by a publisher? No, I don't believe that. The word "right" doesn't seem to me to encapsulate what writing and publishing is all about. But... writing and publishing are two different things. Does everyone have the right to write? Sure, why not? Do it, if you want, must, need. Do it as a hobby, do it as a profession. What right does anyone else have to stop you? But just by writing, this doesn't mean that there is some entitlement inherent in the act that leads to publication. I never really expected to have a book. I dreamt about it, but never felt the world owed it to me just because of the time I'd put into writing the stories.

And of course everyone now has the option of doing it themselves, which is, I believe - at least in the short story world - seen as an increasingly respectable way to produce your book, given the current climate. I don't see anything wrong in it, anyway. I don't know if the Forward prize accepts self-published collections. I just looked it up - they don't. So Williams is criticising the publishers.

I would be delighted if I heard that 147 short story collections were published in the UK in one year. Thrilled! Of course, I wouldn't expect to enjoy them all, would expect standards (which of course I set myself, in my own head) to vary. But it would be a great sign of the health of the market, no? Why would I choose to say that too many were published? I am trying to put myself in Williams' shoes. Perhaps if I felt great writers weren't getting published because of something wrong here, then I might make this comment. Is this what he's saying? Is he saying funding that many poetry publishers receive is being diluted/wasted, in his opinion?

I really can't make my mind up here - or rather, I can't enter into his mind.147 poetry collections? Compared with the 1000s of novels that are published? It's nothing. Can anyone shed any light on this for us? 

In the meantime, congratulations to the shortlist for Best Poetry Collection:
  • Seamus Heaney - Human Chain
  • Lachlan Mackinnon - Small Hours
  • Sinead Morrissey - Through the Square Window
  • Robin Robertson - The Wrecking Light
  • Fiona Sampson - Rough Music
  • Jo Shapcott - Of Mutability 


    Tim Love said...

    See Magma blog for statistics and opinions.

    Don Paterson once said that there are only a few (12 or 30 - I can't remember) poetry books worth publishing each year. More recently, Robin Robertson (prizewinning poet and editor at Jonathan Cape) said “There’s too much bad poetry being published, polluting the pool. That would be acceptable if there were arbiters in place, like editors in publishing companies. Now, in many cases, ‘gatekeepers’ are waving people through.” Buyers can’t make the decisions on what books to buy, or they just don’t know where to start, he argues.

    Elisabeth said...

    I loathe statements like this, that there are too many poetry books.

    It implies there is some clear cut hierarchy of superiority.

    Why can't people have the opportunity and their work is good enough subjectively speaking for some publisher to decide to honour it as a book. Let them have their voice, even if there turn out to be thousands of such books.

    Thanks Tania. I'm not surprised you were annoyed when you first read this. I was, too.

    Tim Jones said...

    I know nothing whatsoever of Hugo Williams, but judged purely on these words, he sounds like an elitist trying to protect his own privilege. I am less than impressed.

    Sue Guiney said...

    Who's to say that a poetry collection should or should not be published? I think the only person who has a right to say that is the person who decides, for whatever reason, to actually publish it. If someone is moved by a body of work, and believes that others would react the same, and believes it strongly enough to want to put their time and effort into bringing that collection to the public, then - to me - that means the collection ought to be published. The elitism in poetry, as reflected in this article, is rampant and has always been. Everyone bemoans the fact that nobody reads (and therefore buys) poetry. If the poems themselves were more accessible or more varied or less fearful, than they would be read by a greater number. I could go on forever -- clearly, this sort of intellectual superiority drives me bonkers!

    Vanessa Gebbie said...

    A very important post, and thank you for bring it to our attention, T.

    I wonder what he means, whether it was intended to start a debate, which it will.

    And why on earth shouldn't poetry have 'layers' of product like prose is allowed prose, pot boilers of all sorts help to finance the more rarified stuff with less general appeal.

    Or is he saying 'we must all just publish the stuff with less general appeal, to keep it elitist, and incomprehensible?

    Its interesting to see that Salt has nothing in the Forward list this year, so some of the comment might be aimed at publishers like Salt, who bring a lot of poets to the attention of readers, each year. BUT set that alongside the new Seamus Heaney Prize, and the shortlist just announced today, in Ireland, where Salt has three of the five shortlisted collections...(and many congrats to all of them)

    makes this judge sound a little out of kilter. Or airing overly subjective views, at least.

    Tim Love said...

    As I suggested in my comment, Venessa, it's not a new opinion, and debates have already raged. The poetry editors of Cape and Picador are if anything more extreme than Hugo Williams (who doesn't write incomprehensible poetry - far from it).

    And why on earth shouldn't poetry have 'layers' of product like prose is allowed to - Perhaps because the pool Robin Robertson mentions is too small to contain many layers. Or perhaps they feel that though there shouldn't be many single-author books, there should be more multi-author collections. Or perhaps they're worried about places like ("Forward Press is the largest publisher of new poetry in the world; we've published in excess of a million original poems since 1989 earning us the moniker: 'The People's Publisher'")

    in prose, pot boilers of all sorts help to finance the more rarified stuff with less general appeal - ditto in poetry: the Bloodaxe anthologies have financed their other stuff. Heaney's books keep the rest of the range going.

    Bob Jacobs said...

    I think Hugo Williams is right to say that 147 is too many. I thought it was common knowledge that the number of poetry books that one country should put out in one year is 42.

    For the remaining 105 the situation is unclear. Were they published because they existed, or do they exist because they were published?


    Rachel Fenton said...

    I went to a very depressing publishing talk on Monday but even that seems, in hindsight, less pessimistic. People aren't buying enough books and publishers are suffering. When the economy crumples books are the first objects to fall off the shopping list. Not enough buyers is one thing - "too many books"....

    Tania Hershman said...

    Hi all, sorry to turn up late to this, was finishing The Short Review. Thanks to Bob for adding some humour to the situation!

    As V says, it makes the poetry market sound extremely elitist and rarified, trying to keep people "out", which surely is not the point. Wouldn't poets want their work read? These comments create a very bad impression, in my opinion, of what poetry publishing is all about. Elitist. Definitely. Why not have the poetry equivalent of the "celebrity memoir" or the "bodice ripper"? Or is poetry just too good for that.

    EllenG said...

    As a student of creative writing (namely poetry) it is dispiriting to hear that 147 collections is deemed a lot! I am constantly on the look out for new poets to read, but never seem to find very many. In this 'climate' why would anyone complain about books being published?

    Group 8 said...

    And the shortlist is full of well knowns. What a bore. Surely among the 147 there was a n exciting lesser known poet?
    I am bored with the high profile lit comps - the same old same old always win anyway. How does that help literature?

    Tania Hershman said...

    Ellen, your comment is spot on. It makes very little sense! If you're looking for some exciting new poetry, you could try Andrew Philip, Nuala Ni Chonchuir and Shaindel Beers, to name three of my favourites. And Wislawa Szymborska, not a new name of course, but just wonderful!

    WRW - yes, that too. It really is boring. What is the point of it all?!

    Ossian said...

    It doesn't sound a large number of books anyway, does it? - considering in the year 2005-6 there were 206,000 new titles published in the UK. (Ref. UNESCO according to Wikipedia -


    Andrew Philip said...

    As Tim L said, Williams's poetry is hardly "inaccessible", so I certainly don't think he's saying poetry must be difficult. When he was interviewed by the Guardian Review (last year?) he said he sees poetry as an arm of the entertainment industry. But it's a lazy and unhelpful comment for all sorts of reasons.

    And thanks for recommending me, Tania!

    Julia Bohanna said...

    There are not enough poetry books - words to make us feel, think, care. But there are too many critics. Too many cynics. Do they criticise because they have a right?