Friday, March 29, 2013

Kindness, caring and criticism: the academic book review


The Kalamazoo 2012 Babel session in which a very different version of these thoughts was delivered concerned itself with “finally leaving, getting rid of, abandoning, refusing, and letting go of potentially toxic ‘love-objects,’ with ‘love-objects’ here denoting any possible object: ideological, methodological, disciplinary, textual, art historical,” and so on. My topic was the letting go of the objects/subjects of perfection and superiority. It was about embracing kindness in academia; practicing carefulness; encouraging a sense of self-worth in everyone.

Being an academic is, regardless of how we’re perceived, a difficult job, even though we are deeply privileged to be able to teach, to think our thoughts aloud, and to research what we’re passionate about. The difficulties come from many sources, including the constant pressure throughout a career to sit on an apparent cloud of cleverness, never mind the uncertainty of the profession in this age of cutbacks and cheapskate institutions. I recognize, too, that “difficulties” simply doesn’t cut it for those searching for a permanent position in a world of exploitation, faculty and staff retrenchment, and competition (and as for tenure, that’s another blog, and for what it’s worth, let’s remember that tenure was abolished in the UK in 1988). If it isn’t the RAE/REF that is hounding the British scholar—metering the minutes before the submission of the next article, calculating the merits of a book in unintelligible points (0-4*) before it’s been published—then it’s the tick-tock of the Tenure Timer, battering the Assistant Professor into submission to the system via the monograph—a form of writing that I’ve heard many say has had its day; yet, for most in Arts and Humanities, it lingers on as the measure of scholarly competency. (This obsession with “The Book” has to end, by the way. There should be room for many varied forms of scholarly output, each judged on its own merits.)

Writing a book is, frankly, tricky enough, without the clock, without the pressure from onlookers. For many, writing the first book is a truly stressful and fearful process, with long periods of self-doubt and, in some cases, doubt leading to an intellectual paralysis and the inability to finish the project. To all intents and purposes, finishing something that one can imagine needs to be perfect is almost impossible. Besides, when it’s “finished” it’s still not complete. When I finished my first book—submitted the manuscript, and went out to dinner with my husband to celebrate, he said, helpfully, “But it’s not really finished, is it?” reminding me of the copy-editing, proof-reading, and indexing remaining to be done. That put an damper on the evening. But, even when it is really finished…oh, there’s the reviews. Ah. The reviews.

Spitting Feathers, Splitting Hairs
What do these peer-esteem mechanisms reveal about our field and our profession? Academics, rightly or wrongly, are the arbiters, the authorities, on most “worthy” endeavors—cultural, social, historical, scientific. Indeed, from television and film requests to academics, to grant funding bodies’ requests for review, to tenure recommendations, others external to academic institutions clearly consider this scholarly authority to be credible. The role of arbiter and commentator, most obviously of all, extends to the reviewing of potential publications, too, where presses and journal editors choose reviewers cognizant of the importance of their seal of approval or disapprobation. And while I doubt that the puff on a book jacket would ever make or break a book, a bit of a blessing by a big name cannot go amiss. There are good books, there are bad books (see for some) and no one denies this, but in the academic world, more (or is it less?) is at stake than “good” or “bad”; scholars who are reviewing have a professional obligation to those whom they review. Thus, the guise of “arbitration” should not be used to provide thin cover for rudeness, sarcasm and personal attack. 

The Rhetoric  
From a wide choice of reviews, none of which I intend to publicize specifically, though I am happy to give reference details to anyone who wants them, I wonder what motivated the kinds of language used? Reviewers who dislike what they read have a number of interesting tactics (and I am sure there are hundreds more):
1. The rhetorical question, urging the discerning reader to agree with the implied criticism: “Is this really a novel insight?” “Does this author imagine himself to be adhering to scholarly standards?” 
2. The personification of the book, where it stands in for the person of the scholar him- or herself: i) “The book is flawed by a pervasive and reckless disregard for historical…facts and issues, and for much of the relevant scholarship in these disciplines”; ii) “[This book] would be highly welcome… if only it would meet moderate scholarly standards”
3. Sarcasm: “[X’s] monograph draws upon and enters into the recent discussions and gives a detailed overview—or as she calls it, ‘a critical study’—of the corpus”
4. Use of anti-intellectual lexis: “amateurish,” “mind-numbing,” “specious”
5. Meiosis (or some such term… what is it?) for diminishing substance yet incremental egregious error: “A few examples must suffice here for illustrating the editor’s pervasive failure to meet such standards. Most basically, there are serious deficiencies throughout in handling secondary literature. I restrict myself here, however, to technical deficiencies...”
6. Implied failure signaled by verbs and adverbs that undermine: “assumes,” “attempts,” “unfortunately”
7. The Critical Paradox: “Because of the outrageous and uncontrolled nature of the speculation which it contains [this book] in this reviewer’s opinion, is unlikely to have any impact whatsoever on the field.” [If it’s unlikely to have any impact, why bother to review it?]
8. Unhelpful ambivalence: “Sincerity is the politeness of the critic, and it is with sympathy (after all the criticism) that this reviewer welcomes the provocative nature and vision of this book, although it claims and concludes far too much from far too little convincing evidence”.

Can any academic really suggest of another that they might write a monograph, willfully abandoning “standards” and being deliberately “reckless”? A desire to show what the reviewer knows to be wrong, without any real attempt to engage with what is right, demonstrates that the review is only partly about the book itself. What creates this sense of indignation in a reviewer is curious: that an author makes mistakes? Give a list of corrigenda. That the author treads on ground that the reviewer knows so much better? The reviewer can write a kindly corrective article. That the reviewer wishes to shame the author? The shame pertains, surely, to the reviewer’s lack of careful collegiality. Moreover, of course, the reviewer proffers an opinion on the overall utility and academic value of the book. In a case above, where the author is accused of a “pervasive disregard” for all that is to be upheld, the very same book won a major prize and was deemed by another reviewer to be “an important book…offering richness for modern scholars.”
Real damage to people’s sense of professional worth can result from hard-worded reviews. This writer here ( talks about how hurt their feelings are by the review they’ve just read. While they take on board some of the criticisms proffered, it’s clear that damage is done at a personal level. This isn’t ok; it really isn’t. To be hurtful, to say something in a review that you would not say to that person in a friendly and constructive conversation, is not ok. Reviewers have a responsibility to make their criticisms known, but known kindly, for these same reviewers also have a responsibility to their colleagues and their profession to assist in nurturing and appreciating the work done by those colleagues, often in very trying circumstances. If there is something critical to be said, and reviewers cannot encourage, mentor and gently correct, they should not comment at all. For, as I have said before, having learned it from the great Greg Walker some dozen years ago, 

“It’s nice to be important; but it’s more important to be nice.” If we can’t extend that mantra to our colleagues in the field, then there is something wrong with the world in which we work (and it is, after all, just work, just a job).


  1. Thanks for posting this; while I think most of us recognize the value of, and also welcome, strong *engaged* critique of our work, the emphasis here should be on "engaged," where we work better to approach the work of others as a sincere contribution to the field--perhaps flawed in some respects, but never intentionally bogus, never researched/written with a conscious agenda to "do poorly," and therefore, we [hopefully] meet the work and author on their own ground, as equals who share an investment in the future and current health of the field. Our discipline is a *shared* endeavour, and we often don't recognize that fact well enough. This is a virtue industry, moreover, and all of our "goods" are gifts, freely given, yet purchased at a great cost, labor-wise.

    1. I just processed a peer-reviewed journal article, where the reviewer rejected the article but gave two full pages of detailed, compelling and kindly-worded criticism, all aimed at helping the scholar fine-tune their work for future publication. I applaud that effort and so did the author of the piece, even though the rejection on this occasion was disappointing. Respect, care, engagement--yes, indeed.

  2. This is a great reminder of the collegiality at the heart of academia. I've recently been contemplating the issue of critical reviews (as opposed to reviews of rhapsodic praise), since I am reading a collection of essays for review and have some critical comments to make. But I agree with you that there are inappropriate ways to go about this. I also hesitate before jumping right into a critical approach since I am not an established scholar, while some (though not all) of the authors of the contributions in the book are. Certainly this is a factor, too. Nevertheless, I very much appreciate your reminder that "Reviewers have a responsibility to make their criticisms known, but known kindly."

    1. Hi Brandon, I suppose the thing is to say only what you would be absolutely prepared to say to the person when you see them face-to-face. Imagine saying to a colleague what one of the reviewers in my blog said: 'This article/book/chapter you wrote is mind-numbing, specious', etc, when you could say 'I found the article rather difficult to interpret'. General condemnation is a terrible thing; surely each reviewer can only offer their own opinion?

    2. Yes, I agree. Why say anything so unproductive? I imagine reviews as just one part of the developing conversation.

  3. Thank you, Elaine, for this. Some journals seem to have become incubators of negativism when it comes to reviews. My pet peeve is the type of review that, essentially, says that what's wrong with the book is that it isn't the book that I would have written. But the most important thing is to be helpful and (within reason) generous in a review, and if you can't be generous, then don't review the book, just send it back -- to the journal. Not to a second-hand book store. And especially not to a journal whose book review editor does not send its books received back to the publisher, but rather to a second-hand book dealer for the proverbial thirty pieces.

  4. Thank you for this thoughtful post.

    My thoroughly minor pet peeve is, "this book reads like a dissertation," which perhaps sometimes books do. So what! If the comment is, "overly cautious," or "lacking clear argument," or something, then say that.

    My more important issue is the way this post points toward the broader questions of peer review and the monograph. Right now, I have a book out to reviewers. Those reviewers will almost certainly be R1 senior professors who published books before the current realities for junior academics came into being. Some senior people have paid attention and recognize the realities of the moment, but others boast about how few pieces they pass, how rarely they approve, and how strict their standards are.

    I don't have answers, but I'm glad smart people with more professional clout are raising these issues so articulately.

  5. Thank you for posting this. I'm at the stage of fighting intellectual paralysis on a first book (though I think I may be rounding the corner on at least the current bout of it), and my interest or willingness to remain in a profession that all too often seems to be based on always not measuring up is limited. It is reassuring to hear that there are some widely respected members of the field who are prepared to state openly that serious, rigorous criticism must be constructive.

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