Constructive Negativity (Shane Neilson)

Reviewed by Michael Northen

Shane Neilson may be Canada’s most fervent advocate for the need to establish disability literary work as a domain for serious critical consideration. In reading the introductory remarks in Constructive Negativity: Prize Culture, Evaluation, and Dis/ability in Prize Culture, I was tempted to simply tear out what he had and paste it in to this spot.  As someone who has edited a journal for disability-related poetry for thirteen years and been involved with disability poetry workshops considerably longer, so much of what Neilson had to say there echoes my own experience – though not necessarily to the same conclusions.  Because of that, I am not able to approach the collection with the same “constructive negativity” that energize many of Neilson’s pieces.  I’m looking instead at what is likely to contribute to the growth of disability poetry as a genre.

Constructive Negativity samples Neilson’s prose writing as a literary critic over the past twenty year tracing his evolution as a literary critic from “angry young man” lashing out at Prize Culture to his present day attempts at  bringing attention to the work of disabled writers.   The volume is split into two parts, with the first  essentially flowing into the second.  Part one looks at Canadian literature, principally poetry. The second part considers the state of Canadian disability poetry.

It is no secret that in the United States a few major publisher control what makes it on to the shelves of book stores and before the eyes of the casual reader. Neilson sees a similar, if more concentrated, phenomenon in Canada, what he calls Canadian Prize Culture.  It is this Prize Culture (which Neilson purposely puns PC) and its resulting effects that the essays in the first part of Constructive Negativity take aim at.  At the same time, and in an effort to counteract PC, Neilson defends the necessity of writing the negative review.

The book’s opening essay, “All of the Dirty Prizes Worth Having” sets the tone and provides the background for the essays that follow.  It details the way that the Griffin Prize, in particular, has grown from an opportunity for poets to achieve recognition for their work to the octopus that controls what Canadian poetry is and should be.  Neilson asserts that ironically “the poetry that brought poets to the podium where the prize is awarded is only validated upon the receipt of the prize.”  Moreover, “PC creates cultural and economic capital as end products.”  The result is that only those poets who toe the line in terms of valuing what the prize-givers value are going to find audiences of any size for their work. This is true even when the poetry may appear rebellious or cutting edge on the surface.  Of course, selection is a natural corollary of any journal that holds itself out has having certain values, but when that is extended to a culture in general, it can become totalitarian.

Prize culture affects not only the poets themselves but those who review books of poetry and write literary criticism.  As the author of over five hundred reviews, Neilson has a definite stake here, and his frustration at the rejection of pieces that did not align with the PC  mindset  has driven him to see himself as a paladin assaulting the literary castle from without. It is also what drives him to urge other poets to take the necessity of becoming reviewers and literary critics seriously.  He points out that while publication of poetry books has been on the rise in Canada, reviews of poetry books has dropped precipitously. In Neilson’s view, many of the reviews that are left are imbued with “toxic positivity,” that is they only praised what has been praised by the prize-givers, afraid to include anything that might be construed as negative – even when true.  It is in this context that he urges poets and prospective reviewers to adopt a constructive negativity in which they are unafraid to speak the truth as they see it about the work of a poet. 

The pieces included in the first section of the book, which have been culled down by the author from almost ten times the amount he had to draw from, include a varied range in format, content and tone from detailed analysis to being merely pissed off.  Almost all, though, are worth reading.   Two in particular that readers new to Neilson’s work might want to look at are “A Dummy Model: A Review of John Timpane and Maurreen Watt’s Poetry for Dummies: A Reference for the Rest of Us and Five Years of Tips”  and “Reviewing Book Reviewing” which – despite the Victorian title of the former –  are very readable  and should give poets and potential reviewers a good deal to think about.

As a physician, poet and person with a disability himself, Shane Neilson is uniquely qualified to compile the writings and interviews that make up the second part of Constructive Negativity, “Dis/Ability.”  His experiences allow him to  write from several  vantage points.  The work in this section is divided roughly into two parts, those that position him as a poet living with a disability and those consisting of “a selection of my reviews and essays on poets who have written on illness or who self-identify as living with dis/ability.”  Neilson forewarns readers, however,  that having a disability means that inherent in his viewpoint is the necessity of disavowing the norm.

One of the most informative entries is titled “Without Compromise: An Interview with Shane Neilson” which originally appeared in CV2.  Despite the interview’s title, Neilson has compromised in the sense that he has come to see the literary involvement in which he now works to surface, evaluate and promote the work of other disabled writers as preferable to simply taking pot shots at mainstream literature as he did when he was younger.  To me, this is a move that is a more productive use of energy and one that and is particularly needed in current disability literary studies which can become quite acrimonious.   The interview also reveals some of the facets of Neilson’s life that have helped to push  him to take the positions that he now holds and the projects he engages in.  Chief among this is his diagnosis of bipolar disorder.

Despite the limitations of medicine in categorizing bipolar disorder as “mental Illness,” Neilson acknowledges the very real difficulty of living with the condition.  In addition to the actual physical suffering is the stigma that a mental illness label comes with.  This last led Neilson to champion “invisible disabilities” including mental illness, pain and chronic disability. 

Among Neilson’s future projects is the plan to edit an anthology of Canadian disability poetry comparable to  Beauty is a Verb in American poetry. One of the differences, though will be the inclusion of  poems reflecting the experiences of invisible disabilities, an omission for which he criticizes Beauty is a Verb. It is a position that he expands upon in one of the book’s later essays, “Beauty is Invisible, Too.”

While  Neilson is a poet himself and currently focuses many of his efforts on Canadian disability poetry, one of the lessons that carries over from his experience as the literary critic in the essays  in the first half of Constructive Negativity is the importance of disabled poets writing book reviews and literary criticism of the work of other disabled poets.  It is a few with which as a journal editor myself, I concur. The rationale is twofold.  It helps the genre to grow by  promoting the work of disability literature generally and it creates an awareness in the poets themselves, informing their own work to teaching what they need to write. Neilson emphasizes that such participation in prose writing by poets is not just desirable but imperative.

It wouldn’t be fair to close this cursory glance at Constructive Negativity without acknowledging some reciprocity between it’s author and Wordgathering.   As a look in the “Acknowledgements” at the end of the book register, several of the pieces included in the collection were previously published in this journal. We have also reviewed  Neilson’s own book of poetry Dysphoria.  Perhaps most important, Wordgthering has tried to work with Neilson, Ally Flemming and Roxanna Bennet in the call for disability related writing that resulted in the recent  publication of Imaginary Safehouse (also reviewed in this issue). It is because of our experience with Neilson’s work that we can emphasize his importance to Canadian disability poetry and nowhere are readers, scholars and researchers likely to get a better look at what he has accomplished than in Constructive Negativity

Title: Constructive Negativity
Author: Shane Neilson
Publisher: Palimpsest Press
Date: 2019

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About the Reviewer

Michael Northen is the former editor of Wordgathering and an editor with Jennifer Bartlett and Sheila Black of the anthology Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability. He is also an editor of the recent anthology of disability short fiction, The Right Way to Be Crippled and Naked (Cinco Puntos Press).