The Ethics of Academic Book Reviewing

Recently, a book reviewer for Fafnir approached me with a problem. His first draft was vague and meandering, but that isn't necessarily unusual, as most of our reviews need revision. Still, this fellow was a good academic, and it turns out his first draft was messy for a reason. Namely, he was floundering on the ethics of critically reviewing a book whose politics he so ardently supported. Although there were criticisms that he considered valid concerning the book's structure, he didn't feel right about expressing them.

I appreciated his reaching out to me. I'm a relatively chatty kind of editor, though of course many don't have the time. And the ethics of book reviewing is a real thing. My own viewpoint is slightly different from James Gifford's, who among other good advice nonetheless recommends
Books that fulfill career requirements simply cannot be read the same way as those that come after tenure and therefore without the same material demands on the author.
I diverge from that viewpoint. My own position is that one must read those kinds of books in the same way. At least academic books from university presses, which are meant to initiate critical conversations on their subject matters. Reviews, in my view, are as much as about current academic discourse as about the book under review. (Granted, I've made exceptions in my own reviews .... for instance, when reviewing a collection of fan conference papers from a non-academic press, I avoided too much direct critical commentary by falling back on pure description.)

Anyway, here's what I wrote to my reviewer for Fafnir, revised.

************************
Hi ___, 

So, my first reaction: a critical yet sympathetic review is always the best way to go. In my opinion, a review is the first step toward beginning a critical discourse on the issues being raised by the book ... while some journals would like reviewers to put on the kid gloves, pat the book on its head, and thank it for merely existing, I do not believe this actually advances the field or elucidates the field's key issues. For instance, how does the kid-gloves approach help graduate students, who often don't know the field well, approach or understand the subject?

When a grad student myself, I devoured book reviews. Sure, they helped me understand difficult academic arguments, but they also showed me what experts were both criticizing and complimenting. In a way, reviews -- not books or articles -- are the best indicators of the major controversies roiling a field. That's only a slight exaggeration. So your job, as I see things, isn't to treat the book as if it's perfect. (Hint: it's not.) Your job is to push the field forward. At the end of the day, I think that is more respectful to the author than anything else; their work is starting a critical conversation. It's not that "any review is a good review" .... it's that books want you to say something substantial about them. Vapid or polite praise is more disheartening than a fervent denunciation. Even to this day, when I read book reviews for fun, I mostly always skip over the reviewer's description of the argument. Instead, I read what the reviewer says about the argument.

So, in practical reviewing terms, how does this play out?

First, maybe imagine yourself as developmental editor commenting on a book manuscript. Whatever you'd say to make that unpublished manuscript better, that's pretty much fair game for the post-publication review. If this book isn't doing metacritical organizing, for example, it's perfectly okay to say so. The only catch is that a good review must provide concrete examples. If you say a book is flawed for not doing X, you must explain how doing X would have deepened the author's arguments and/or goals.

But also, DO NOT BE SHY about praising the book's strengths. This praise must be much more nuanced than, "This book is about Topic Z, and Topic Z is good/important/progressive, so this book is good." That sort of "Yay, this book exists!" approach does nothing. But honestly, if a given monograph hails from a respectable university press, you can safely assumes that there's something worthwhile about the volume. Acknowledge that freely. Not only do such acknowledgements help guide your readers, but they're useful to the author, too -- they can be quoted in a tenure file, for example, or convince a library to send out a purchase order.

Finally, if you're nervous about your own positionality, perhaps you can simply start off the review by acknowledging that? In sociology, for example, it's almost a cliché that researchers begin their papers with self-reflective statements over their own subject positions. Personally, I tend to roll my eyes at such things, since they sometimes seem more politically performative than intellectual useful, but others disagree, and that's fine. If your own positionality is genuinely bothering you, be up front about that. It will earn a lot of respect from certain kinds of readers.

Anyway, I don't know how much that helps, but that's what I got. Perhaps it's worth noting that our reviewer guidelines state that you should mention both strengths and weaknesses. No academic book is ever without either.

Sincerely,

DW

Comments

  1. Thanks very much for that. I think a lot of it applies to fiction reviewing as well, though of course fiction reviewing can be broader.

    A lot also depends on where the review is to appear. You are talking here of reviews that appear in academic journals broadly in the field of the book itself, so other academics will want to know whether the book will be useful to them in their own teaching, writing or research. Nowadays a lot of reviews also appear in other places -- like blogs. And such reviews can be, and often are more personal. I often write reviews, or perhaps I should rather say book reports, on my blogs that are about trains of thought that a particular book sparked off for me.

    But yes, when I read an academic review of an academic book, I want to see how it takes the conversation further. And when I've written academic books, that's what I want reviewers to do -- take the conversation further and give me some ideas for my next book on the subject. Otherwise reading a book review of one's own book is like marking student assignments that simply regurgitate material in the textbook -- boring.

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    1. Thanks for the reply, Steve (and the retweet!) And you're absolutely right about reviews in other places, such as blogs. In fact, I sometimes really like reading those kinds of reviews since they *are* places where the reviewer can be a little looser with what they'd like to discuss about the book.

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