Letters – Issue 124

Ignoring the book

I would like to respond to some of the criticisms of A Field Officer’s Notebook (AFON) made by Tom McLean in his review “Shivers of emotion” (NZB Spring 2018).  

I make it clear in AFON that I treated the unpublished poems as I would those of any living poet who had submitted them for publication. This was unequivocally declared to Dan Davin’s literary executor. We had no intention of producing a scholarly edition of Davin’s poems (a ludicrous idea in itself).    

I never suggested that Davin wrote his poems while engaged with the enemy; such an imputation would amount to slander. Davin was a diligent soldier: had he written poems during battle, he would have been in dereliction of duty and at risk of court martial. On the other hand, Davin entering a fair copy into his diary can’t be equated with writing the poem, which for most poets is a tentative exploratory process that takes god-only-knows how long.  But neither McLean nor I can trace the ephemera on which Davin likely began jotting what ended up neatly dated in his diary.

McLean is thanked in AFON for his “comments and suggestions on drafts of the introduction”. He was given a draft of the whole book, including the poems, to which he responded in some detail: initially with 800 words addressing 13 points, which did not include any raised in his review. There followed an exchange of emails between us, during which I gave considered responses to his concerns, eventually reaching what I took to be consensus between us on points of fact (of course, I take responsibility for any errors in AFON). 

But McLean found fresh objections. He troubles himself about the differences between the draft of “Morning Fatigue in the Canteen” in Davin’s wartime diaries and the version printed in AFON, positing either editorial fiat or an “untraced version” as explaining what he takes as discrepancies. In fact, neither of these hypotheticals provides the answer: I used a version from Davin’s 1980s notebooks; or, to put it pointedly, I traced a version that had been untraced by McLean. I could go on.

McLean busies himself with my editorial policy and introduction, almost completely ignoring the poems. Why? McLean’s piece is about McLean’s eminence in the niche field of Davin studies. I am perfectly comfortable with him not estimating Davin’s poems as highly as I do, but he hardly expends a word explaining why. The great bulk of the review is disengaged from the poems and engaged with marking out academic territory. Does he really think a misdated poem (which naturally gives me conniptions, too) warrants noting more than devoting precious words to quoting a poem or two, so readers could make up their own minds about their quality? And the bad faith of not declaring his consultation during the drafting of AFON is at best disreputable.

A bad review isn’t one that is negative; surely it is one that ignores the book in question. 

Robert McLean



I think there is a strong case for recognising Vincent O’Sullivan’s All This by Chance (reviewed in NZB Winter 2018) as the best novel to come out of New Zealand.

Simon Garrett

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