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? 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. 🙂