Tuesday, June 22, 2004

Open Letter to The Danforth Review, re: Shane Neilson

Over the years, New Brunswick writer Shane Neilson has reviewed a number of my trade collections of poetry, very little of which he has liked. Until now, I have felt no need to comment on his reviews, or anything else he has said about me, whatever I might have thought about them, but recently reading further into your website, I think he has gone too far.

I am disturbed to read that his bio, as poetry editor for The Danforth Review, included this statement – “I dislike the lazy multitudinousness of rob mclennan and his legions. He’s the only Canadian poet I’ll bother citing as bad, mainly because he deserves it: a prodigious non-talent, his influence on young poets is inexplicably pernicious and therefore must be combated.” (www.danforthreview.com/poetryeditors.htm)

Now, Mr. Neilson is free to like or dislike anything he chooses. I’m not interested in questioning his critical credibility on poetry or poetics in Canada. It seems completely beside the point. But I find the venom (not to mention the pomposity) in such a piece included in his bio both unnecessary and completely unprofessional. The point of being a critic is to be critical in a considerate way, & not to merely throw about mud. He seems to spend a great deal of time dismissing what I do without any explanation. This to me reads as especially odd, considering that I am somehow the focus of what is wrong with literature (& how do I become the only example of what he doesn’t like? That seems interesting in itself). If he can’t be bothered to explain what it is he sees as the problem, then there seems little point in bringing it up.

It’s easy to attack things, & merely feeds into that lowest common denominator of readership. A good battle never hurt anyone, but if he were a journalist, he would be considered at a tabloid level. This kind of attack doesn’t make Mr. Neilson look clever, or create a strong defense of his stylistic position. Does Mr. Neilson consider his own position so weak as to attack mine? Wouldn’t it be a more effective use of his time to champion the kind of writing & writers he does admire? It requires more effort to do such a thing, I know. It seems very lazy to hate, especially with so little to back it up. He should try to find some of the literary essays written by Ottawa writer & editor John Metcalf. I might not agree with a number of Metcalf’s points or positions, but he knows how to back up every swipe that he makes. It might not necessarily change my mind, but it does make me respect his opinion; it’s something he’s thought about very carefully. & it usually gives me something interesting to think about.

No one has come to Mr. Neilson on the behalf of Canadian Literature asking that he save it from the likes of me. The role of a reviewer is not about their likes & dislikes, or about cruelty. Mr. Neilson’s reviews in The Danforth Review & other venues when writing on books he dislikes include a complete lack of respect for the author & their work. Simply because he disagrees with someone else’s opinion or style does not mean that Mr. Neilson can treat a writer any way he sees fit. Canadian Literature as a whole is no more about Shane Neilson than it is about me. It is a broad spectrum of ideas & styles that are as diverse as the people who create it. As a reader of reviews, I don’t care what the reviewer thinks. I care about intelligent & considered talk about the work itself. Considering that he has come after me with such regularity, if mine is not the kind of writing he likes (the procedural open-form), then I wonder why he feels the need to focus on it? A body has only so much energy to put into the work that he or she decides to do, & I am at a loss as to think of why Mr. Neilson is spending so much of his time being deliberately unpleasant, & with so little weight to hold it. It reads as childish, deliberately ill-informed & cowardly; it reads as an attention-grabbing attempt at bullying in review form, plain & simple. & it has no place in The Danforth Review. Or anywhere, for that matter. But that simply is my opinion.

rob mclennan, Ottawa
June 2004

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