Thursday, March 15, 2007

How nice is too nice/how mean is too mean?

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?


squadratomagico said...

My personal opinion on negative book reviews is that they are fine if they are truly substantive, but not if they are petty. For instance, I tend to think more poorly of the reviewer than the reviewee if (s)he suggests that a book lacks any merit whatsoever because of: (A) three typos, and then lists the pages; (B) the author failed to cite an obscure article in a defunct German journal from 1901; or (C) it is clear that the reviewer is planning to publish on the same topic and wants to trash the competition in advance.

I often, though not invariably, find it unfair when a reviewer complains about what a book did *not* do, rather than assessing what it did, or tried to, accomplish. This is sometimes fair game, as when the scholar has left out considerations that bear directly on her/his argument. I've reviewed books this way myself. But sometimes, reviewers focus on the absence of tangential issues. In such cases, it appears that they are trying to recast the book in terms more familiar to themselves, rather than engaging with the work itself.

Petty reviews rightly inspire resentment; incisive, relevant criticism garners respect; if the latter is presented in a gracious tone, then one gains warm collegial relationships across the profession.

medieval woman said...

I feel your quandry (and congrats on getting the review finished - is it the one for our common journal?) - I also agree with what Squadratomagico says - balanced, substantive criticism is always appropriate - and helpful to the potential reader/purchaser of the book. I looked closely at so many of them before writing this recent review (my first) and I always hated seeing a review that begins "As I am finishing my own monograph on X topic (that's similar to the one being reviewed) this book has some major issues..." - it makes you question them right off the bat. Having said that, there are I'm sure some people who will hold a ridiculous grudge about what they believe to be a shabby/unfavorable book review (one of my previous advisors, Prof. Prima-Donna was one).

But it sounds to me like your review was totally fair - didn't single anyone out for a dressing down. At the same time, you weren't being ridiculously praiseworthy either.

I think that the most important thing new, untenured professors can do is to establish a reputation for having intellectual integrity (and I know we're in the present talking about a book review, but I think the questions you were asking in your post were good and can also be applied to broader issues like, how do we position ourselves when we're being asked to evaluate something/someone's work intellectually and professionally). We've all wanted to trip the young prof who feels like s/he has to criticize everything in order to make their own reputation as a hard ass. We've also wanted to smack the bootlicker who thinks that everything is so wonderful and doesn't want to rock any boats.

The book review is just one of the fields on which these tensions get played out. It's a strange sort of thing - it doesn't give you a lot (CV-wise), but you do still feel in an eerie way like you're putting your neck out there!

SO sorry to hijack your comments! Now back to your regularly scheduled program...

Horace said...

I remember hearing a tenured scholar at my PhD institution dismissing a mediocre book review as simply the work of "a junior faculty trying to make a name," so I think that you're right in identifying that danger.

But medieval woman and Squadratomagico both identify the equal if not greater perils of being falsely kind: if you review a problematic book favorably, the books failings in execution become your failings in recognition.

And yet (and YET!) doing book reviews is important for the profession and the field, and so the whole philosophy that I'm developing is to rest my reputation not on a single book review, but on a body of work presented consistently and cogently. So if the books author comes to recognize your name in the context of many textual artifacts, it will be harder to place judgment on you for one or another particular critique.

anthony grafton said...

Great post and comments. In my youth, I felt free to be very sharp, especially when reviewing the good and the great. Over time, as I have received a fair number of knocks, I have been more impressed than I was in my twerpy youth by the amount of sweat and intelligence that goes into most of the books I review. Accordingly, I have tried to curb my pen, which now rarely rebels--though it still stabs the occasional victim. I have also tried to work harder to be fair when I found myself really disliking an author's perspective or argument. But when a book has real problems, when the enterprise is carried out without due reflection or due hard work on the sources, you gotta say so. You should certainly work hard, as squadraticmagico says, not to focus exclusively on how you would have done the enterprise, and what the author has left out that you'd have put in.

Sounds to me as if you're doing that. But you may indeed find that some of the authors aren't best pleased. Comes with our territory.

What Now? said...

It sounds like you hit a good proportion of negative-to-whole in the book review; one paragraph out of six on weaknesses sounds about right. After all, one wouldn't really believe a review that had only nice things to say, would one? And since you didn't single out any of the contributors' essays as flawed, those writers with strong egos will be able to assume that you're talking about the other contributors, not them. And those writers with overly sensitive egos would probably have felt wounded anyway, so there's only so much you can do to protect everyone's sense of self.

I love Medieval Woman's point about establishing one's intellectual integrity. A good goal, that.

Congrats on your incredibly productive spring break thus far. I hope you can spend some time kicking back as well!

Terminaldegree said...

I was recently asked to review for a journal, and I was sent a list of guidelines which included what to do about negative reviews. Generally speaking, the guidelines suggested that because there were so many GOOD materials to review (and the journal doesn't begin to have enough space for all of them anyhow), we should review favorably or not at all, although *minor* criticisms could be noted.

Unwritten, but I'm sure worthy of consideration, is the fact that so many music journals must rely heavily on print advertisements from the publishers of those materials.

Well, that's the "safe" answer. But then I was sent an entire BOX of materials to review, so I can take the coward's way out and just review the best of the bunch.

Now, here's a clueless question: How important ARE reviews, anyhow? Do you count them as publications? The rules for tenure/promotion are somewhat vague in music, so I'd be interested to know how reviews are viewed in other departments.

Tenured Radical said...

Greetings from the Atlanta Airport!

I htink all these folks are right to be supportive and let me add something else: some of us depend on book reviews to keep up in fields related to our own that we don't really have time to read in. Sometimes the review suggests that you need to read the book; a substantive criticism could be exactly that much of a motivator, particularly if the entire review itself is thoughtful.

And -- if you think you did a good job -- my guess is that you won't be the only person who is critical of the book.


The Constructivist said...

I always tell my students researching final projects that if you can find a good book review, or better, review essay, and even better, more than one, you have just saved yourself loads of researching time. Not that you have to trust the reviewer's judgments blindly, but you can get a quick sense of what constitutes the field, what the important classic work in the field is, and how the newest entry(ies) in it stack up--and the debates over these things.

With that in mind, I decided to try a blog review of a recent article here. In case you've ever wondered whether "Postcolonial Hawthorne" is an oxymoron....

Amy Palko said...

I am just about to start writing my first book reviews, so I really appreciate this post and the comments. Thanks so much for alerting me to some of the pitfalls!