X marks the (black) spot: John McAuliffe’s problematic Irish Times review of Vona Groarke’s ‘X’

In his review of Vona Groarke’s X, published in last weekend’s edition of the Irish Times, poet, critic and full- time senior academic John McAuliffe acknowledges that both he and Ms. Groarke work together in Manchester. What Mr. McAuliffe fails to disclose, however, are the possible financial implications that writing such a glowing review could have for himself, his University of Manchester colleague and the academic department in which they both work.

In last week’s press, X
reviewed Y: One of the best
poets now writing.

In this week’s press, Y
reviews X: One of the best
poets writing now

        – Peter Reading

FRIENDS REVIEWING FRIENDS: it’s considered something of a no- no within the notoriously tight- knit literary circles of the arts community. Much as those in the medical profession consider  administering to a friend or family member as unethical, eyebrows are sometimes raised when practice of a similar nature occurs in both the arts and academia.

And so it is with Manchester- based Listowel native John McAuliffe, the Irish Times’ sole poetry critic, whose laudatory review of X– the latest collection of poems by his fellow Gallery Press poet and University of Manchester colleague Vona Groarke, which Ms. Groarke launched last month at their place of work in Manchester– appeared in last week’s weekend edition of the Irish Times.

Though I have yet to read Ms. Groarke’s latest collection of poems, I have followed Ms. Groarke’s immensely enjoyable work with interest since the 2006 publication of Juniper Street, which like 2009’s Spindrift, is a remarkable collection of poems.

Certainly, avid readers of contemporary poetry don’t need me to point out that Ms. Groarke is undoubtedly one of the leading Irish poets of her generation; a poet of genuine heart and originality and a poet who belongs to a group of mid- career Irish poets who are long overdue critical attention and critical revision; those poets born in the 60’s / early 70’s who arrived after Paul Muldoon, including Sinéad Morrissey, Leontia Flynn, Caitríona O’Reilly, Peter Sirr, Conor O’Callaghan, David Wheatley, Pat Boran, Patrick Chapman and, indeed, John McAuliffe, to name but a few.

All that said, Mr. McAuliffe’s Irish Times review of X, is problematic, highlighting some of the reasons why academics should never review nor assess the work or wares of their colleagues, particularly in the national and international press.

X marks the (black) spot

In the fifth paragraph of his glowing review of Ms. Groarke’s book, under the sub- heading Different note, Mr. McAuliffe appropriately declares a degree of interest, however slight, in acknowledging that both he and Ms. Groarke are colleagues in University of Manchester (“Groarke, with whom this reviewer works in Manchester, is much more occupied by time than by places in X.”) where both poets teach an MA course together.

However, Mr. McAuliffe, a full- time senior academic in University of Manchester and co- director of University of Manchester’s Centre for New Writing, fails to explore or disclose the possible financial implications for University of Manchester in publishing such a positive and favourable review of Ms. Groarke’s book in a national and international title such as the Irish Times.

Funding implications

Under the Research Excellence Framework (REF), 20% of UK government funding for academic departments depends on “impact”, the defined assessment criteria of which is outlined in an online document entitled Panel criteria and working methods. The document expands on “impact” in more detail on page 89 of Part 2D: Main Panel Criteria, available to read on-line here.  Panel D defines and assesses English Literature and Creative Writing: read here.

Termed as “indicative range of impacts” on page 89 of the above document, the “indicative range of impacts” include the following:

Civil society: Informing and influencing the form and content of associations between people or groups to
illuminate and challenge cultural values and social assumptions.

Cultural life: Creating and interpreting cultural capital in all of its forms to enrich and expand the lives, imaginations and sensibilities of individuals and groups.

Public discourse: Extending the range and improving the quality of evidence, argument and expression to
enhance public understanding of the major issues and challenges faced by individuals and

The Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), which the REF is replacing, will assess research that has taken place from 2008 – 2013 inclusive. An Irish Times review published in 2014, then, would contribute towards the next REF, which has a census date of November / December 2018.

The REF assess submissions according to the following criteria:

  • Four star: Quality that is world-leading in terms of originality, significance and rigour.
  • Three star: Quality that is internationally excellent in terms of originality, significance and rigour but which falls short of the highest standards of excellence.
  • Two star: Quality that is recognised internationally in terms of originality, significance and rigour.
  • One star: Quality that is recognised nationally in terms of originality, significance and rigour.
  • Unclassified: Quality that falls below the standard of nationally recognised work. Or work which does not meet the published definition of research for the purposes of this assessment.

Suffice to say, then, that positive and favourable reviews in the national and international press of a work published by a practicing academic might, conceivably, constitute as an “indicator of esteem” and may carry “impact” for an academic department, such as the English Language and Literature department in University of Manchester.

August Kleinzahler

In an excellent essay entitled ‘Blurbonic Plague’, featured in The Outnumbered Poet, published posthumously by The Gallery Press, the late Dennis O’Driscoll writes fearlessly of what he perceives as the “insider dealing” within the world of poetry; friends reviewing friends in a mutual appreciation society. The policy among peers, writes O’Driscoll, is “You blurb me, I’ll review you.”

In the Winter of 2013, the Irish Times published Mr. McAuliffe’s review of The Hotel Oneira by American poet August Kleinzahler. Suffice to say that Mr. McAuliffe laid the praise on thick. Here is an extract from Mr. McAuliffe’s review:

Kleinzahler is a one-off, and this new book is as good as ever, with spiky portraits (and self-portraits) alongside the American landscapes that have become his speciality, moving easily and mysteriously between domestic close-ups of the weather and noodling riffs on the state of the modern world.

Compare the above extract from Mr. McAuliffe’s Irish Times review of August Kleinzahler’s collection with the below extract:

John McAuliffe’s got the gift. Mark the name…This guy’s the total package, as we say over here about our young, star athletes.

The back cover of A Better Life, Mr. McAuliffe’s first collection of poems, features the above quote as a blurb. The author of the blurb? That’s right: August Kleinzahler.

Mr. McAuliffe, as Co- Director of the Centre for New Writing, has also hosted August Kleinzahler at least one reading in University of Manchester’s Martin Harris Centre.

Nowhere in his review of August Kleinzahler’s The Hotel Oneira, printed in the Irish Times, does Mr. McAuliffe declare his interest by stating explicitly that he has previously accepted a glowing endorsement of his own work from Mr. Kleinzahler, published as a blurb on back cover of his first collection, nor does he state that he has hosted a reading of Kleinzahler’s poetry in his place of work.

The honest critic

Vona Groarke’s X, which is a Poetry Book Society Recommendation.

In my honest opinion, Mr. McAuliffe- who is a fine poet and an incisive critic, neither of which yours truly needs to point out- should have refused to review Ms. Groarke’s book on the grounds that a review of Ms. Groarke’s book could, possibly, have financial implications for the academic department in which both he and Ms. Groarke teach on an MA course together. Instead of reviewing X himself, Mr. McAuliffe should have, in my opinion, acted in the interest of editorial transparency and impartiality by outsourcing the review to a critic who is not an academic colleague of Ms. Groarke’s.

Regrettably, Mr. McAuliffe’s review of X is an unfortunate reminder of the level of dishonest reviewing that is endemic in the arts, particularly in the small, cliquish circle of poetry.

Furthermore, Irish Times Arts & Books editor Fintan O’Toole, an outstanding journalist who has written fearlessly about cronyism in Irish society during his long and distinguished career as an Irish Times columnist, doesn’t seem to have any issue with Mr. McAuliffe’s review; like Mr. McAuliffe, Mr. O’Toole doesn’t seem to have considered the possible financial implications for University of Manchester’s Centre for New Writing in publishing such a favorable review of the work of an academic colleague of Mr. McAuliffe’s.

Indeed, Mr. O’Toole’s weak editorial decision to commission Mr. McAuliffe as the Irish Times’ sole poetry critic confirms my belief that commissioning a variety of freelance critics, as was the policy under the Irish Times’ late, great and much- missed literary editor Caroline Walsh, is the only way to ensure that those books reviewed in the Irish Times‘ Arts & Books pages are impartial and that the Arts & Books pages carry a broad spectrum of critical analysis.

Speaking to RTÉ Radio One some time before his passing, Dennis O’Driscoll wrote of the incestuous nature of Irish poetry and the lack of tough, cold, honest reviewing:

I think that unless people speak the truth about the books that they get for review and they’re not bearing in mind rows they’ve had with people or that the publisher who published the book [for review] rejected a book of theirs or whatever…I think there’s a tremendous amount of dishonest reviewing and it takes a lot of courage and, I think, a lot of integrity and support on behalf of the editor you’re writing for, as well, to do honest reviews. I think it’s a tremendously important activity, but it does cost you friends and a lot of things, really.

X, certainly, marks the spot for the ever- deepening graves of literary criticism and journalistic integrity.

Update: John McAuliffe responds via email:

An email from John McAuliffe, sent from his university email account, in response to my article.

An email from John McAuliffe, sent from his university email account, in response to my article.

Publishing News: Books Ireland to be given a new lease of life by Wordwell Books

Back on the ladder: Books Ireland, recently acquired by Wordwell Books, has been given a new lease of life.

Back on the ladder: Books Ireland, recently acquired by Wordwell Books, has been given a new lease of life.

IMPASSIONED RESPONSES to the recent closure of Books Ireland flooded the letters pages of the Irish Timesas well as triggering an online campaign through social media, all of which was done in a spirited attempt to save the long- running Irish title from ceasing publication.

Since then, Wordwell Books Ltd have taken up the reins at Books Ireland. Wordwell, which also publishes History Ireland and Archaeology Ireland, as well as specialist books, have been trading for over 25 years.

In 2015, Books Ireland will celebrate its 40th year in print. Speaking ahead of the magazine’s landmark anniversary, Una MacConville, Publishing Manager at Wordwell Books, is optimistic about Wordwell’s recent acquisition of Books Ireland. 

“Wordwell are proud to follow in the footsteps of Jeremy Addis, one of those (largely invisible) people who, through his long-standing commitment to Books Ireland, have contributed significantly to Irish culture for more than 30 years. We have been attempting to do this with History Ireland and Archaeology Ireland and now we look forward to doing it with Books Ireland.”

Books Ireland Mk II

MacConville has confirmed that Books Ireland Mk II will “reflect the ‘world of books’ in Ireland, encompassing a wide coverage of this medium, including reading, writing, making, printing and selling books.”

The material changes to Books Ireland will include:

  1. An increase in the number of pages from 24 to 36, and
  2. Trading as a bi-monthly magazine, which will published in during March/April, May/June, July/August, September/October and November /December of 2014.

Under the editorship of Tony Canavan, who has worked with Jeremy Addis on Books Ireland for many years, MacConville believes that the newly rebranded Books Ireland will provide good- quality thought and rigorous critical analysis from authoritative reviewers in a wide range of genres and modes. MacConville, however, hopes that Books Ireland will be inclusive towards new readers and that the magazine will appeal to a broader audience beyond the niche audience for which it previously catered.

“Books Ireland will aim to be an authoritative vehicle for all matters relating to books—recruiting reviewers and writers who know their subject and have a standing in the area. We will be encouraging our writers to be honest, thoughtful and measured. Our reviews and articles will be substantial enough to be taken seriously, as they should be, but not too wordy or academic.”

One wonders how previous readers and contributors to Books Ireland feel about the acquisition by Wordwell. Leading the charge both in the letters pages of the Irish Times and through an online, social media campaign was Hugh McFadden, former Irish Press journalist and Books Ireland reviewer.

“I’m happy that Books Ireland has been saved and I am quite hopeful, now, about its future. I believe that the new owners, Nick Maxwell and Una MacConville, are very suitable and that their experience in running History Ireland and Archaeology Ireland equips them well to run Books Ireland. And Tony Canavan is a good choice to edit the magazine, as he has been working with Jeremy Addis for some years as an assistant publisher and as a contributor/ reviewer. So, overall, things are looking up for the magazine.”

Print And Be Damned

It is difficult, of course, for print publishers to stay afloat during the current economic climate. Print publishing, especially for niche publishers such as poetry publishers or trade magazine publishers, have struggled to keep printing, with 2013 claiming casualties such as Noel King’s Doghouse and Chris Hamilton- Emery’s Salt, the latter of which announced, earlier this year, that it was to cease publishing single- author collections of poetry and instead focus on poetry anthologies and fiction.

MacConville is no doubt about the challenges ahead for print publishers and sees it as a time for those in publishing and in the arts to stand united and support each other’s endeavours. “We are going to need the support of book readers and writers, makers and sellers. So if anybody wants to be a subscriber, take out an advert, write reviews or grant-aid this important magazine we will be only too pleased. Book publishers will benefit enormously from this initiative.”

All enquiries to Una MacConville (una@wordwellbooks.com),

Publishing Manager, Books Ireland, Wordwell Ltd,
Unit 9, 78 Furze Road, Sandyford Industrial Estate, Dublin 18.

T: 00353 86 8175530;  E: una@wordwellbooks.com

Editorial matters will be dealt with by Tony Canavan, the new editor.

E: booksireland@wordwellbooks.com

Books for review can be sent immediately to: 

Tony Canavan, Editor, Books Ireland, Unit 9, 78 Furze Road, Sandyford Industrial Estate, Dublin 18.