IVP - Addenda & Errata - Be Not a Slothful Reviewer

October 8, 2007

Be Not a Slothful Reviewer

One of the annoyances of being an editor is reading negative postpublication reviews of books that you’ve acquired and edited and think deserve better, or at least more serious, interaction. It’s not that we think our books are without fault (editors often know where the faults are better than the next person), it’s that we want them to be treated respectfully and fairly. But editors rarely find it appropriate to respond to a book reviewer, though we do vent in our offices and editorial hallways. In my quest for suitable blog material, I’ve been jotting down types of book reviewing sloth (“sloth” being inspired from my current reading of Barth’s discussion of sin as sloth in CD IV.2).

Since I’m a reference book editor, I’d hoped to produce a veritable encyclopedia (or at least an IVP pocket dictionary) of reviewing sloth. But at this point I’ll have to settle for a broadside. And I’m spurred by Ben Myers’s blog on Bultmann as a great reviewer. In the interest of renewing the neglected art of “great reviewing,” I point you toward “Rudolf Bultmann: Theologie als Kritik, which Myers laid out on Thursday, September 27, 2007. I’m not touting Bultmann’s reviews (maybe he indulges in some of my sloths!). I am calling for a renewal of the art of good reviewing.

And now for my catalog of reviewer slothfulness:

“The author failed to write a different sort of book, the sort of book that I prefer; and so I dislike this book.”

“The author is an evangelical (or liberal or feminist or . . .), and we all know what they are up to. So this book, which barely deserves my attention, is a very bad book indeed.”

The reviewer provides an outline or sort of prĂ©cis of the book, with a concluding comment that, “except for the typos we have noted, and the publisher’s disregard for the Oxford comma (which, as should be evident [snif], is superior to the Downers Grove comma), this is a fairly good book.” Okay, so it’s generally positive. But no interaction! Did the reviewer just want a free book?

“The author presumes to know quite a bit about her topic, and there is evidence that this is the case. However, I happen to know a lot about the topic brought up in the last paragraph of chapter six and virtually nothing about the content of the other chapters. So let me take this platform to talk about a narrow slice of the book and judge the whole on its basis.”

“The author takes no account of my work on this topic. This is regrettable, and I shall now condemn the book on the basis of my being slighted—but not before I take the opportunity to tell you all about my thesis.”

“I have never liked this author. In fact she blocked my bid for tenure. So this is pay-back time. Oh yeah.”

“I have a deep-seated need to show my superiority, not least in my area of expertise. And so I will point out certain small but unforgivable failings in this book that will subtly cast it in a bad light.”

“It is clear to me that anyone who holds the views represented in this book has questionable or possibly bad motives, so I shall ferret out and expose those motives and then attack them.”

Or a variation on the above: “I believe in reading for authorial intent, but that applies only to Scripture. In this review I shall employ a hermeneutic of suspicion and tell you what I think this book is saying despite the explicit protest of the living author to the contrary.”

“This book takes on a sacred cow of our discipline. It shakes the foundations of my academic cosmos. It quivers the posts of my sacred canopy. It shivers me timbers. It threatens to cause me to start again from the ground up. In this last decade of my academic life, I’m not about to let that happen. So here’s my fatwa.”

Bonus: The review boils down to, “Those who like this sort of thing will like this book very much indeed.” Something like this is attributed to Abraham Lincoln (to whom much has been attributed). This is not sloth so much as a clever evasion. The reviewer has a relational gun to his or her head.

As I said, this list is not exhaustive. It’s just a start. And some of them overlap. Care to nominate some more?

Posted by Dan Reid at October 8, 2007 1:42 PM Bookmark and Share


Great post!
And there is a shocking amount of truth here. I particularly liked the "pay-back time" one!
Another tendency I noticed when I started reviewing was to assume my points of critique were extremely profound, as if my short reading of a book could idly sweep away the authors however-many-years of research. Perhaps this is the cocky git syndrome! And for my part, I plead guilty - to my shame.
I suppose that bad reviews will multiply in blogdom.

Comment by: Chris Tilling at October 9, 2007 4:49 AM

I agree with you. I also think however that in our sound-bite age people are far less interested in the constructive synopsis and insightful discussion. Readers (and I include myself) need a reason to read something and often that reason involves something ego-stroking or fight provoking. That being the case, being ignored is the worst thing that can happen to a book. Truth be told the whole industry feels in danger in that regard. Thus we have book trailers on Youtube.

Comment by: Chris at October 10, 2007 3:19 PM

From the perspective of a reviewer, this is good stuff... but there are some minor annoyances on our side as well. Chief among these for anyone who does more than one or two in a year is the idea that a free book is fair compensation for a review... some authors or publishers will send a book *if* I promise to review it. I very rarely promise unless I would have bought and read it anyway.

When a book looks to be of interest to what I'm reading or writing, I just lay out my own practice for the publisher, with whom it's generally fine. One of these is close to a slothful practice you list though... I will take things the author says and riff on them in a direction of my choosing. I normally quote and will always cite the author, but I don't call it a review. The tradeoff is that a good book will get several such mentions as I go through it, which does meet the publisher's hope.

The other one I do — which you didn't mention — is that it sometimes takes me a while to get to a book... another reason I won't *promise* to review it without reservation.

Good post, and quite helpful to reviewers in learning how to write a good one.

Comment by: Brother Maynard at October 23, 2007 10:14 AM

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