It seems entirely possible that there are certain people out there reading this blog and noting the fact that I’m currently managing to post at least once a week on average, and also remarking on my occasional contributions to online book seminars* and other non-academic publications, and thinking to themselves: “Okay, Neville, so where the hell is that book review you should have submitted eighteen months ago?” I try not to think about this too much, as I am genuinely embarrassed and guilty about my large backlog of missed deadlines – not to mention the thought of other colleagues’ reactions when they realise that I’m the reason why their book hadn’t been reviewed – but I’m prompted to do so this morning by discussions on the Twitter in the light of the recent debacle at the American Historical Review (links via @helenrogers19c). Why haven’t I got these reviews written? Not because I’m lazy, and not just because I keep taking on too many things, but because writing a decent academic book review is hard, and boring, and fraught with problems.
The basic purpose of the conventional academic book review as currently constituted is evaluative; one’s task as reviewer is to provide a reasonable summary of contents and argument, set it in a wider scholarly context and offer some sort of judgement, however vague and equivocating (as there are all sorts of reasons why we might want to hold back from really serious criticism – junior colleague who deserves support, senior colleague who might retaliate, friend of friend or indeed friend, general principle of ‘if you can’t say anything nice…’ etc.). What one should not do: spend too much time talking about stuff other than the book under review, talk about the book one would have preferred to read or would have written oneself, offer anything that could be accused of focusing on only one aspect or theme rather than the whole.
Contrast the sort of thing I’ve written for book seminars or this blog: perfectly acceptable to focus on a particular theme rather than having to cover every aspect of the work; perfectly acceptable to use book as a starting-point for wider discussion and speculation; perfectly acceptable to talk about how I might have approached things differently. Put another way: freedom from the “yes, but what about..?” rejoinder; I can engage with the/a high-level argument without feeling the obligation to pre-empt a “yes, but what about the detailed handling of the evidence?” criticism; I can focus on something I find interesting and important without the need to cover everything else as well to fend off the “yes, but what about the rest of the argument?” complaint.
This doesn’t by any means preclude evaluation and criticism, and it doesn’t imply any less careful reading or engagement – but it avoids the requirement for a complete evaluation of everything, including bits that are less interesting, which is the time-consuming and tedious bit. I’ve actually read the majority of books on my ‘to review’ list, and could certainly write commentaries on most of them with only a limited amount of re-reading to check certain points – but this isn’t nearly enough of a basis for writing proper, all-encompassing academic reviews.
On reflection, all academic book reviewing suffers from the familiar issues with reviewing collections of papers: the need to say at least something about every one, within a limited space, works against the possibility of saying anything interesting. If you don’t mention every individual chapter, those authors will be resentful; if you don’t cover every aspect of a book, the author will think you’re being unfair; and in either case, readers who are looking to a review to summarise a publication and tell them whether or not they need to read it, rather than hoping for interesting ideas, will complain that you’re being partial and unhelpful.
So, book reviews remain boring and without any original or interesting content to speak of, and so are not valued as publications; so, there are always higher priorities for our time (and/or more stimulating things to do), so reviews are done late and hastily, hence even less likely to be interesting or significant, and so round we go again…
Of course, from the perspective of the book author (and of the discipline as a whole), my implied alternative of flexible commentaries rather than traditional reviews is also very problematic. Giving the commentator freedom to focus on a particular aspect and talk about things other than the book works best if there are several commentators, so different aspects of the book get discussed rather than a single narrow and partial commentary – but that involves more people writing on the same book (even if it’s more fun and less work than a normal review), and that implies that fewer books will be treated in this way than are reviewed under the current system – and any approach that selects certain books for consideration is likely to be biased towards established scholars, favouring dominant groups in the academy.
The solution? I don’t currently have one, beyond a resolution to try to get rid of the pile of ‘books to review’ on my desk and then refuse absolutely to take on any more, ever again. I did have thoughts at one time of trying to organise some ancient history online book seminars, on the Crooked Timber model – but so long as everyone else is bogged down with traditional reviews, this isn’t likely to get off the ground. In the meantime, I can only apologise to review editors (but I TOLD you that I was massively behind with things and not to be relied upon…) and still more to various colleagues (it’s not that I hate your book; it’s the need to compromise between the bits I found most interesting and the rest…).
*Series of excellent responses from Ada Palmer to discussions of her Terra Ignota books now up on Crooked Timber, everyone!