Friday, July 29, 2011

Thou Shalt Review Books Responsibly

Chris Beneke

Last week, Robert Pinsky, the former poet laureate, offered three exceedingly sensible “golden requirements for book reviews”:

1. The review must tell what the book is about.

2. The review must tell what the book's author says about that thing the book is about.

3. The review must tell what the reviewer thinks about what the book's author says about that thing the book is about.

Those who have mastered the art of reviewing books, writes Pinsky, can “then get quickly beyond them, in ways that are fun to read.” The problem is that too many reviewers fail to comply with all three. Some consider two—or even one—sufficient.

My sense is that historians are a little more solicitous than most when it comes to these matters. Maybe it’s because we’re a relatively small, incestuous community where you’re likely to run into the book’s author at the next major conference—or, heaven forbid, have your own book reviewed by the injured party three journal issues hence. Of course, most historical journals convey something along these lines in their reviewer guidelines; though they are seldom, if ever, stated with such crystalline precision.

It’s fairly obvious that historians follow one rule almost as piously as Pinsky’s Golden Three. It’s more tactic than principle, and goes something like this: In a favorable journal review, the review’s penultimate paragraph must identify the book’s minor flaws. Perhaps you object to this entrenched professional habit on aesthetic grounds, but it would be hard to make a strong ethical or professional case against it.

Anyway, to Pinsky’s Golden Requirements, we might add the following historically specific Decalogue:

1. Thou shalt not use the review to tell us about your own scholarship.

2. Thou shalt not tell readers that “the definitive history of such-and-such remains to be written” when you are the person who intends to write it.

3. Thou shalt not tell us too much—or really anything at all—about the supposed religious beliefs or political commitments of the author whose book is being reviewed.

4. Thou shalt not treat the omission of your own book from the endnotes as a personal affront, punishable by withering historiographical criticism.

5. Thou shalt not use the review to suck up to powerful and/or beloved members of the profession. (Corollary: Thou shalt honor thy dissertation advisor, but not in your review.)

6. Thou shalt not use the review as an occasion to advance a specific political agenda.

7. Thou shalt not tell readers—either explicitly or implicitly—that the book under review does not deserve serious consideration. That shalt be told to the editor, privately, before the review is written.

8. Thou shalt not submit the review six months after the due date, especially when the book was published three years ago.

9. Thou shalt not use the review to expose your utter ignorance of the topic.

10. In reviews of edited collections, thou shalt tell a little something about each contribution.

What am I missing?


Randall said...

Thou shalt try to find a better way to say: "Regardless of these minor errors, the book . . ."

Chris Beneke said...

"Irregardless ....

hcr said...

Thou shalt actually read all of the book you are reviewing (not just the introduction and conclusion)!

This is great, Chris! Thanks!

Chris Beneke said...

Thanks Heather. Amy Wood made the very same suggestion. It should have been first on the list!

Geoff Megargee said...

Questions I try to answer: What is the book's purpose? Does it achieve it? What is its audience? Does it take an approach appropriate to that audience? What is its thesis? Does it prove it? How well does the author: use evidence; organize the book; write? What is the work's significance to the field?

Chris Beneke said...

That seems spot on to me Geoff and more or less in line with Pinsky's Golden Requirements.

M.M. Bennetts said...

Gosh, there are so many things one should try to get in, and at the same time, leave out. (I reviewed professionally for 25 years...) I would have said, the review shall tell what the book's about and perhaps, if the subject's a little arcane give some context so that the reader can get a fix on whether they might be interested. The review shall place the book in context with other works on the subject. The review shall comment on the writing style--accessible, beautifully written, or arcane and full of jargon--and provide a sample of same, so that the reader can judge for themselves. The review shall judge whether the author has covered the subject adequately or have they left out the facts which did not support their thesis. The review shall say whether the author has brought anything new to light either in terms of findings or conclusions. The reviewer shall be able to back up every statement with an example from the text. The review shall not be written by a reviewer who has any conflict of interest--friendship, enemyship, competitionship, etc. And finally, the reviewer shall do all of the above in an engaging and interesting manner, because the goal of the reviewer is also to 'get read'.

M.M. Bennetts said...

I should also have said, the reviewer shall never ever make personal comments about the author. Not ever.

Chris Beneke said...

I think that I like your list better M.M. The points about context, novelty, qualifications, and conflicts of interest are especially well taken.

M.M. Bennetts said...

I've been thinking about this so much since I read it--the need for some sort of code for reviewers. So I just wanted to add in terms of reviewing fiction: never ever give away the ending. In fact, don't even allude to it. Yes, include a precis of the plot, up to about page 100 or even 150 of the novel, but do not EVER tell us whether it ends happily or unhappily (Oscar Wilde's comments on the subject notwithstanding). Do tell us whether the characters are believable and whether they grow and change. Do tell us whether the writing is good, excellent, indifferent or lumpy. But don't tell us the ending.

Also, we're not the only ones noticing these rules... Even the Daily Telegraph has flagged it up:

Lisa Clark Diller said...

oh dear. I just looked at my most recent (favorable) review and saw that I included minor flaws in the penultimate paragraph. Seriously, are we that predictable???

Millionaire’s Consultant said...

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