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).

Thursday, March 21, 2013

That was 'This is Not the End of the Book'

Umberto Eco and Jean-Claude Carriere have co-conversed This is Not the End of the Book, curated by Jean-Phillipe de Tonnac (NorthwesternUP, 2011 [translated by Polly McLean]). At 336 pages, it's a long and wide-ranging chat about books--their role in mostly western culture, their significance to the discussants, and the manifold ways in which the book contributes to lives. It isn't, as one might think from the declarative title, a foot-stamping manifesto in support of the, apparently, fading light of the physical book, but it does remind us of the ubiquity of the book; its flexibility of form; readers' relationships with their books; and the technology's dogged persistence in the face of multiple persecutions through the centuries.

For Eco, quite simply, books (or scrolls) are 'the emblem of civilisation' (26) and the containers of collective memory (63). For Carriere, the rapid obsolescence of modern media makes the digital pale in comparison with the longevity and robustness of books (31). With books, through archives and libraries (the library as 'an assurance of learning') (284), information can be filtered, sorted and retrieved (67ff.). Moreover, and significantly, this retrievability means that '[o]ur not set in stone. Nothing is more alive than the past' (85). Carriere regrets the loss of the rough draft, the many visible steps en route to the text's completion--the (paradoxical) emergence of the 'phantom version' in the digital era (117).

And for both Eco and Carriere, it is the dynamism and quickness of the book that registers most strongly: 'A great book is always alive; it grows and ages alongside us without ever dying' (158); each reading of a book is different; each experience with an old favourite changes from the last, as we ourselves change. But some readers, it seems, never change or evolve intellectually. Eco and Carriere admit to a fascination with the idiotic and the false, with the bookburners (245ff) and the censors (207ff). 'Studying stupidity', comments Carriere (216), 'challenges the sanctification of the book, [and] reminds us that we're all constantly in danger of spouting similar nonsense'.

There's no nonsense here. This is a delightful book, replete with fascinating, eclectic, learned and trite facts, experiences and musings. Carriere remembers the impressive missals of childhood church services, where 'Truth came out of a book singing' (294); while Eco, decrying the use of toxic chemicals in removing active bookworms, advises keeping 'an alarm clock in your library. The kind our grandmothers used to have. Apparently the regular tick-tock, and the vibrations it sends through the wood, keep the worms in their hidey-holes' (310).

And if that doesn't make a reader want to read this book--knowing that once it's read it, it will be the End of the Book--I don't know what would.