June 23, 2011
So You Think You Can Review This Book
Here is a second edition of a blog from the fall of 2007. DR
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 sloth:
“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 précis 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 (or racist or misogynist or _) 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.”
I will play with the author and write this review in such a way that the author’s terror advances by increments as the review progresses. But this will all be by intimation. In the end, I’ll say the book is just fine.
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.
I will blame the editor for your book’s shortcomings. This will keep our relationship civil. And besides, editors don’t talk back. Well, unless they are bloggers, in which case the editor might say, “You don’t know the half of it! You should have seen how it looked in drafts one, two and three before I gave up!” (Note: This does not apply to my authors!)
And then there’s the joke about the academic (he’s a German in the version I heard) who was known for his scathing reviews. But then he started attending academic conferences. And to his surprise, he found he actually liked the people whose work he had been reviewing… . So he quit going to conferences. (Warning: Don’t tell this joke to non-academics or non-publishing types. They will not think it’s funny. And they will wonder about the company you keep. Believe me.)