Faint Praise: The Plight of Book Reviewing in America
by Gail Pool
University of Missouri Press
Too Many Reviews of Scholarly Books
Are Puffy, Nasty, or Poorly Written
This article was published in the Chronicle of Higher Education as a Point of View essay.
In a book review attacking a structuralist treatment of Pope published several years back, the reviewer proclaimed: “I challenge anyone to produce an instance of a new and valid insight into 18th-century literature produced by the ever-multiplying zealous practitioners of la nouvelle critique.” Swelling to a crescendo, he went on: “It is time for those of us continuing to practice historically sound scholarship and rhetorically informed close reading to declare that the emperors of the new methodologies have no clothes.”
As a reader, I enjoyed the image of naked scholars, but I dismissed the review. Given his theoretical position, the reviewer was unable to discuss the book on its own terms and could not possibly have given it a fair reading.
In more than 10 years as a book-review editor and reviewer, I have become increasingly aware of how often editors and reviewers fail to treat books fairly. Matching books with reviewers is a sensitive issue in the academic world, where so many people have turf to protect and axes to grind, but other issues are also troubling.
For example, while writers rarely seethe over a review so boring that only a few will ever finish it, a dull review fails to do its book justice no less than a hostile one—which may at least arouse interest. Many reviews, even in scholarly journals, are puffy, nasty, or poorly written, and many reviewers neglect to evaluate or even describe the books they review, often choosing to ignore them altogether and discuss issues that interest them more.
Only an innocent would deny that many academic reviewers use reviews to help friends, demolish enemies, and further their own careers. Nevertheless, my impression is that most editors and reviewers do not deliberately treat books unfairly. Rather, in an undertaking where conflicts abound and neither standards nor moral guidelines are defined, the question of fairness is seldom foremost when decisions are made about which books to review, who should review them, and how they should be treated.
“Being underreviewed is the worst thing that can happen to a writer’s sales,” wrote Thomas Fleming a few years ago in the New York Times Book Review. Perhaps, but for academics, whose books are unlikely to become best sellers, being underreviewed has other repercussions, which are sometimes equally material. Professors have been known to complain that their books did not earn them a promotion, for example, because they failed to garner enough reviews. (One wonders, however, if a dozen drubbings would have helped their careers.)
Scholarly books and other serious non-fiction compete for review space in professional journals and library periodicals and, if they are not too specialized, in the intellectual magazines, quarterlies, and newspapers. The various types of publication address different audiences (though with considerable overlap) and the editors try to select for review the books they think will interest their readers.
In selecting books, no editor can possible read all the eligible titles. Most tend to look first at the prominence of the author and the importance of the subject. Other criteria include the editor’s own interests, the recommendations of friends and colleagues, and—often decisive—the availability of a reviewer capable of both evaluating the book and writing a good article.
Another and by no means trivial factor is whether a review copy can be obtained. Unlike popular books, whose publishers distribute advance copies for review, scholarly titles are usually sent to reviewers only at the authors’ or editors’ request. While most publishers try to respond to such requests, many either forget to do so or send books out too late for the magazines that review books only within a year of publication. Often I have had a book reviewed simply because it was on hand when my first choice failed to arrive.
Individually, the selection practices are understandable, but their overall effects are often unfair. Not only do some books receive many reviews while others receive almost none; the number of reviews may have little correlation with the quality of the book. Emphasis on an author’s prestige puts unknowns (whose books might actually be better) at a disadvantage and fosters the celebrity culture already prevalent in academe. Moreover, what appears to be a decision not to review a title may in fact be happenstance.
While publishers often say a negative review is better than none, authors are understandably ambivalent. They want their books to be treated well—preferably praised; if their work s criticized, then at least it should be understood and certainly not abused. How a book fares depends largely on the choice of reviewer—often a difficult problem in specialized fields.
When choosing a reviewer for a scholarly book, journal editors rely on experts in the field who, as supporters or opponents of the author’s point of view, are likely to be biased. They may even know the author as a colleague or student, or see him or her as a potential reviewer of their books, grant proposals,, or applications for tenure. In some cases, an editor who wants an even-handed review of a book in a close-knit field will be unable to find a disinterested critic. In others, the editor might not seek such a reviewer, for a variety of reasons.
For one thing, editors are themselves members of the scholarly community, with interests to protect. What if the author to be reviewed is, say, a powerful figure in the editor’s field, a good friend up for tenure, or the chairman of the editor’s department? In such cases, it is easy to find oneself compromised.
For another, editors, too, have views they would like to see promulgated. When they have strong opinions about issues raised in a book, they may choose a reviewer who will support them—an exercise of power that is one of the rewards of being an editor, a difficult, often thankless task.
Sometimes editors may look for a biased reviewer in the hope of acquiring a provocative article rather than the bland commentary so common in academic reviewing. At other times, they may end up publishing reviews they suspect are unfair or even know to be so, although they would rather reject them. The reviewer who submitted an ugly exercise in one-upmanship, for example, may be too powerful to oppose. Or they, like most editors, may be reluctant to question a reviewer’s judgment, especially when they themselves have not read the book, or feel uncomfortable rejecting or asking for revisions in unpaid work. Editors are harried, need copy, and may simply be grateful finally to receive a review that is already two years overdue.
Biased reviewing is not unique to scholarly journals: perhaps the nastiest examples can be found in the intellectual magazines. Nevertheless, a hostile journal review can sometimes do an author more harm than one in, say Commentary or the New York Review of Books. Books reviewed in such magazines are likely to receive many reviews (pro as well as con), whereas a scholarly book may receive only one, in a specialized journal. If that one review is unfairly negative, there will be no others to offset the reviewer’s judgment or its effect on the author’s career.
Reviews by experts may sometimes be used more to build careers or settle scores than to evaluate scholarship. But reviews by generalists can prove equally inadequate. Recently, an academic librarian remarked to me that she had acquired a book praised as history by generalist reviewers, which the American Historical Review had just branded as mostly fiction. Curious, I looked at some of the reviews. The Times Literary Supplement had also denounced the book, saying it was spurious history. However, Publishers Weekly had praised its “solid but unobtrusive scholarship”; Library Journal had recommended it “to non-specialists as well as to historians”; and the New York Times Book Review’s critic, a linguistics professor, had ignored scholarship (and the book) and given his approval.
One thing brought home by those reviews is the degree to which readers take reviewers’ words on trust. Unless reviewers lose that trust—because of overt bias, as in the review of the book about Pope that I mentioned above, or because of obvious inaccuracy—readers have no way of knowing if a reviewer has misrepresented a book, reflected unrecognized biases, or omitted something important.
Writing reviews, said the poet and critic L. E. Sissman, in his essay “Reviewer’s Dues,” is “a vocation, a craft, a difficult discipline, with its own rules and customs, with a set of commandments and a rigid protocol.” Reviewing is not usually so esteemed, however—either in the literary world, where it is often viewed as hackwork (even by reviewers), or in the academic world, where, in the words of an English professor I know, “it isn’t taken seriously as writing.”
I believe that reviewing should be taken more seriously in academe—as a professional responsibility and as challenging and valuable work that will “count” for tenure—but doing so will not necessarily solve all the problems. For example, if reviews were given more weight in tenure decisions, they might well become even more careerist and self-serving—more unfair—than they currently are. If the quality of reviews is to improve, editors and reviewers will have to define more clearly the ethics of their tasks and address more directly the complex question of fairness that is at the heart of their work.