There's been a lot of talk in the blogosphere lately about writing book reviews--why they're appealing; why they can be such a pain; whether they're worth it--and I was thinking about all those things yesterday as I finished up that review that I've been putting off since Christmas (I'm happy to report that I did beat my deadline, although not by much).
For all my procrastination, it was actually a fairly easy review to write. However, it had one problem: the book just wasn't very good.
Now, it wasn't a terrible book, and I was able to make plenty of positive statements about it that were entirely sincere--as well as other less sincere statements that, while not lies, were what you might call the most charitable possible presentation of the facts. Nevertheless, I was also fairly frank about the book's weaknesses.
I've already sent the thing off, so there's no changing anything now. . . but I'm wondering, for future reference: just how negative can one actually be in a book review? Assuming that one is an untenured and unimportant scholar like myself? I know that I can't write anything scathing--and it's hard for me to imagine a book so bad that I would feel that a public dressing-down was called for, anyway; does the fate of nations hang on the latest monograph on George Herbert? Probably not.
Nevertheless, in this review I did devote a full paragraph of my six-paragraph review to the book's problems, and I referred to them again briefly in my concluding paragraph. I think that this is fair, and that my review still does a good job of selling the book to those who would be interested in its subject matter--but I admit that I feel a little uneasy about the possibility of making enemies through such frankness.
(And yes, that's enemies, plural: the book is an edited collection with a bazillion contributors, of whom I'm acquainted with or hope to be acquainted with quite a few. Now, I didn't single out any specific authors or essays for criticism--I just referred, in a general way, to the methodological problems that "some" essays had--but I also only singled out a few essays as particularly praiseworthy.)
At the same time, though, I'm impatient with myself for having these feelings of timidity, and with the fact that, as a genre, the academic book review so often is timid--the reviews of some knife-weilding Important Scholars excepted.
So I'm not sure that I'm any closer to knowing what is or isn't appropriate. Thoughts?