Writing a mixed review of a senior scholar’s work

So the other day a review I wrote for an electronic review journal “went live.” It was a review of a new edition of a primary text, and its editor is a very senior scholar whom I have never met, but whose work I know and have often cited. Alas, the review I gave was a somewhat mixed one. Most of the criticism was related to the ways I didn’t think this edition worked as one aimed at students, which editions in this series are supposed to be, and that’s not such a terrible thing, since I essentially said that it’s very erudite and accomplished and scholarly, but it’s aimed a little high. But some of it regarded the strangely contentious approach the editor took in the intro and notes towards certain modes of criticism. I think in a student edition (or any edition, really), one should aim for summation and synthesis, not critique; the place for the latter is in original scholarly work, where you can really mount an argument. Dismissing or criticizing other schools of scholarship in passing in an edition just sounds like a pot-shot, and it closes off potential avenues of inquiry for students, particularly for the more easily-influenced ones. This happened more than once, too, enough that it kind of soured the edition for me, and I devoted some space in the review to this tendency.

Anyway, when I first set out to write this review, I was rather nervous about it, so I dropped an e-mail to a friend to ask his advice. What he said amounted to “What can this person do to you? And what real effect will it have on them?” Well, that was what I needed to hear, because it helped me remember that a bad review won’t have any real material effect on someone who is an established senior scholar, although it might bruise their ego. What’s more, I was in that good-girl, cautious, don’t rock the boat mode, especially as this would be a review that other people would read. I think what filled me with anxiety was this: would I look as contentious as the senior scholar did in the work itself? And would they think I was just taking it personally (because my work could definitely be categorized with the kinds of work the scholar was so critical of)? So I worked hard on that review, on getting it just right — making the fair points I thought I needed to make, balancing them with deserved praise, thinking of what my readers needed to know, and making sure it was all tonally right. I even had Bullock read it for tone and balance (and he made a few excellent suggestions). This wasn’t my first review, by any means, but it’s definitely the one that made me most nervous.

Btw, this level of anxiety about writing reviews is why I could never, ever be a full-time critic in the popular media sense. Gah! I’d have an ulcer within a month!

So what happened?Ā  What happened is that within 24 hours of the review going live, I received multiple e-mails from other scholars in the field praising the review for its usefulness and balance. OK, so one of then was from someone I’ve recently collaborated with and one was from my dissertation director, and I’ve met the others, as well. But still, I think that says I did something right. (Getting an e-mail from my former adviser was a nice bonus, too. It’s been too long since we caught up, and I hadn’t even told him that Bullock and I had gotten married!) And it reminded me of the place and use of reviews in general. It’s not about gate-keeping or territory marking or dismissing approaches we simply don’t like for no reason other than we don’t like them — although lord knows many people write reviews that way. It’s not even directed at the author(s) of whatever you’re reviewing (although you should keep them in mind, of course). It’s about saying to your readers, “Hey, here’s what you’ll get out of this book if you read it or use it in class, and here’s where you or your students might have issues with it, as I did. Use that to judge whether you’ll take the time to read it, whether it’s related to the work you’re doing, or whether you’ll assign it in class.”

That should be a no-brainer, but it’s worth reminding myself (or rather, being reminded) of the best function of reviews. That said, I think I’ll take a nice long break from writing them. Before this particular review, I wrote a double review for a print journal, so I reviewed three books this year. Given how much I angst over the final product, you can guess that that took a lot of my time.

So what about you? Have you written reviews? Do they cause you anxiety at all? What’s your approach to or philosophy of reviews? What do you think their function is? Do you worry about the repercussions of writing a critical or mixed review, for you or for the scholar whose work your reviewing?

Edited to add: I feel like this is a lamer post than I meant to write. There, now I’ve reviewed my own work. šŸ™‚

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4 thoughts on “Writing a mixed review of a senior scholar’s work

  1. How fabulous to get feedback (especially positive feedback!) so quickly! That immediate response is what tends to make blogging, for example, so much more appealing in some ways than academic writing, so how nice to get that “reward” so quickly.

    I think I’ve only ever reviewed one book, and it was a book I mostly really liked but had one quibble with, and when the review came out (in a religious rather than scholarly publication), I immediately got feedback from a couple of folks who thought I was off my rocker with my one quibble. Ah well. I still think I was right, but it did rather put me off the notion of writing reviews.

  2. Here’s the thing: it’s tough to write an interesting post about review-writing because review-writing is more like “service to the profession” than anything else, and so it is, by definition, sort of lame as a topic šŸ™‚ In other words, you did the best job you could!

    I haven’t written very many reviews, mainly because I made the decision when I got my 4/4 teaching load job that my time not teaching would be better spent writing about and publishing my own research than on writing about other people’s published research. So I’ve only ever written three reviews in my entire career, all of which I was solicited to write (as opposed to volunteering to write reviews). In two of the three cases, I got feedback similar to the feedback that you got, about how helpful my reviews were.

    That said, my philosophy on book reviews is exactly your philosophy: that you’re trying to communicate to the audience about what they might get out of the book and how they might use it for themselves – that, ultimately, a good book review engages with the book on its own terms and *isn’t* really about the reviewer. And this is where it is, in some ways, quite a difficult genre, because at least for me, my first reaction is always about ME ME ME – whether positive or negative – and I always have to spend a good amount of time between the initial reading getting out of my own perspective and engaging with the book and its potential audience in a more generous (and less self-centered) way. And, as you note, lots of people who write reviews do not do so in this spirit. They write about the book that they themselves would have written, or they write about the book that they wish were out there, which isn’t terribly helpful to anybody.

    My most fraught review-writing experience was one for a top journal in my field, known for its reviews, for a book that cited an article I wrote in a very dismissive way (but hey – any press is good press, right?), but where the author got a very crucial plot-point in the novel (on which my article focused) totally and completely wrong. The challenge was noting the error without it seeming like I was carrying out some sort of weird vendetta. And I couldn’t overlook the error because of my own status/reputation in relation to that novel, and in relation to that author’s body of work. That was the hardest two sentences I’ve probably ever written.

    I have to say, I don’t enjoy writing reviews. I think too much about how I’d feel if I were the author reading that review, and I think too much about how people will perceive the verdict that I produce, I worry that people will think I’m “mean.” Which actually probably means that I’m a good writer of reviews, in that I do tend to err on the side of balance and helpfulness rather than on the side of promoting my own agenda. But really? I think that it would be fine if I never write another one. In spite of the fact that this means forgoing free books and that my name isn’t out there as frequently as it would be if I were reviewing all over the place.

  3. Crazy, did you just review my post? LOL!

    And yeah, I, too, spend a *lot* of time worrying about how I’d feel if I were the author reading the review I just wrote, and that takes a crapload of energy! I’ve never written a review that wasn’t solicited from me — lordy, I would *never* seek them out! The problem is, I get solicited a *lot*, because in the smallish areas of my immediate expertise, there are only so many of us, and once you do one, your name is in the pool. I do turn down a lot, too, so I’ve written only about 5 reviews since I’ve been a prof (plus 2 when I was a grad student), so it goes in waves. But never again will I agree to do three in a year (or essentially three).

    And I know what you mean about those two hard sentences. This review was a little like that, too, because the whole mode of interpretation this editor was dismissing could be said to include my work. So while it didn’t as directly involved me as your example involved you, it still was something to negotiate.

    What Now? — I guess your one critical comment was like the one stinker student eval: it’s the one thing everyone remembered/focused on!

  4. I’ve just this day planned out what will be my, er, sixth review I think, and I have written some nasty ones, though some nice ones too. The nastiest one I regret, since I have come to see the book in question as useful (though still dreadful in a range of ways) and I only made that point very sideways in the review. I would feel bad if I met the author, but on the other hand it was the wrong journal to send it to. This one I now have to review places me in much more difficulty, as it contains chapters by several people whose work i revere and who have been very helpful to me, one who writes me references, and, well, it doesn’t really do what its editor wants it to do and several of the contributors are phoning in work of which they already have other versions. The trick will be to say what’s in it, and then make its failure to deliver look like one of those reviews-about-a-book-I-wanted-instead, I guess. There is one thing, though, when you say this:

    I, too, spend a *lot* of time worrying about how Iā€™d feel if I were the author reading the review I just wrote

    I get this with every single blogpost. Reviews are, I think, less dangerous, because with the exception of TMR, they largely won’t come out of a websearch…

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