The delicate balance of writing an academic review, or, how to potentially commit professional suicide whatever you say

Not the tidiest, huh?

Not the tidiest, huh?

Because let’s face it: for those of us lower down the academic ladder, reviewing books is scary.

There are pros and cons. Of course there is the free book. That said, I have reviewed a book for which I’d already forked out a considerable amount of money, because the review request just came too late for me. But I said yes anyway. Why? Well, it is actually satisfying to give back to the academic community. I don’t intend that to sound trite. And yes, putting your name alongside your review gets your name known.

And the cons? It’s hard work. A wholly positive review is rarely good, or even justified. There is (almost) always room for improvement in (virtually) every book. Therefore, in agreeing to write a review, you also agree to make fair criticisms. There is a difference between a fair criticism and an enraged response. While differences in opinion are reasonably easy to justify, it can be very difficult to respectfully state why you simply did not enjoy a piece of writing. We all know that not every reader will enjoy every writing style. We all know that the writing style should not mask the message of the text, even for a reader who does not enjoy it. But sometimes, the writing style can be so against what I find pleasurable to read that the message of the text is lost. How much that is to do with a text being poorly written or with me being a poor reader is difficult to judge, and even harder to write about. Finally, you cannot write a review without reading the book thoroughly, every word. That means that you can’t just skip a boring paragraph. You can’t decide that one essay out of collection is so bad by the third page that you need to give up and move on to the next. No, you have to stick it out. And, if you’re going to be a purist (which I am), you need to read it in order. So no reading the most relevant or interesting sections first (because, when I do that, I don’t always read the rest). Start to finish, just as nature – or the editor, or author – intended. For this reason, I would be unwilling to review a book that I did not already intend to read cover to cover.

The books I have reviewed I have done so for a similar reason that I review conferences, or live-tweet conferences: it helps distill my thoughts. My book reviews have three versions on my hard drive. The first is my raw thoughts, a record of what I thought in the moment, before knowing what comes next. Then there is the first review, which is more than a first draft. In that, I make a first distillation of the raw thoughts, yet still allow some emotion through, because that is what gives the review a personal voice, honesty. Yet that first review is not suitable for publication. No, the first review is for sharing with close colleagues, those who might actually want to know your untempered thoughts on the book, yet who deserve the structure of a polished review (i.e. without the drivel of the raw-thoughts version). These same colleagues, if willing, are very helpful for the second review, the review for publication. They can help tone down severe criticism or effusive praise, and, if they have also read the book, can offer viewpoints which may or may not be incorporated into the final published version, but which are nevertheless interesting and useful to know about. (Here I would like to thank Peter Davies and Anna Zayaruznaya who have both filled this role at various points.) The second review, then, is for the journal. It is metered in both criticism and praise, it covers all the major chapters in the book within the word limit (no mean feat), it situates the book in relation to past, present and future scholarship, and it should be understandable to readers outside of the field.

The structure of the review will vary as to its destination. If you have been asked to review for a publication which is dedicated to book reviews, that review will be longer, more detailed, and more thorough than a review for a publication in which reviews are the mint sauce to the meaty scholarly articles. Additionally, if the book you have been asked to review is entitled Intricacies of Baroque Parasol Craftmanship your piece will be different if it is for Historical Umbrella Quarterly than it would be for Perspectives on History. (Yes, I made up those names.) Indeed, when I read a book for review, I actually read it with the future review audience in mind, and their invisible presence shapes the review in all of its various stages, from raw thoughts to polished version.

Finally, I try not to forget the virtue of silence. My grandmother always used to say ‘if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all’. Following that to the letter might make for a very short book review. Putting it in a more scholarly perspective, the ‘feedback sandwich’ was drilled into me both in teacher training and in research training: whatever may need to be said in the middle, buffer it with two slices of good, positive bread. Here, dwell on the contribution the book makes for future scholarship – generating debate is a good thing, after all, even if that debate might be against the book (in the reviewer’s opinion). However piquant or pleasing your sandwich filling, the bread can cleanse the palate.

Two final nods. First, Pat Thomson’s blog post on writing a book review is a must-read: patter, 22 July 2011. Secondly, Elizabeth Eva Leach, professor of music at Oxford and winner of the 2013 Dent medal, recently tweeted (6 Aug 2013): ‘Really wish I were more often sent MSS before publication. I’d far rather be helpful than moan in post-publication reviews. #academiclife’ (@eeleach). Both of these got me thinking. One for being such a great tool (thanks Pat), the other about the (relative) finality of publication, and of the pre-publication process. Lengthy and stringent as it is, it is not infallible.

Reviewing a book is an opportunity to closely read a text, and to interact with it in a way not otherwise possible. It is not a competition; it is an engagement, a critique, a discourse (with all that entails). There is some room for creativity, and personality too. But you don’t have to accept every request. It is my opinion (and practice) that a few, well-thought-out reviews are better than a greater number with potentially lower quality thought and judgment, though I admit that there are doubtless many who are better – and faster – at reviewing books than I am. So feel the fear and have a go – and don’t knock it till you’ve tried it.

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3 comments
  1. Mark said:

    Hi. I really appreciated this post on writing reviews. I find that it is not always easy to separate disagreement about a writer’s conclusions from assessment of argument and style.

    These days I have been active more with peer reviewing for journals than with writing reviews for publication. Any chance of a follow-up post looking at the process of peer review?

  2. Hi Mark! Thanks for the comment, and my apologies for not replying sooner (last week was hectic, yeah, excuses excuses).
    Great idea about the peer review – but personally I don’t think I’ve got enough experience of it yet to write anything of use to the world. Pat Thomson does though – she has a piece on it here: http://patthomson.wordpress.com/2012/01/07/refereeing-a-journal-article-part-1-reading/
    And of course, I’d love to read something you wrote on the subject…

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